IFComp 2016: Detectiveland

Spoilers follow the break.

This is a private-eye pastiche, and a goofy one at that, a tongue-in-cheek period piece with occasional vintage pulp illustrations, all based on stereotype and broad slapstick. For example, at one point, you lay a trap for a heavily-accented Italian chef by tying a strand of spaghetti between two chairs to trip him. In your office, you can find a detective manual with advice like “make sure your office has tobacco-stained walls, a door with a glass panel with your name on so it reads backwards from the inside, and ideally a faint smell of bad liquor.” In tone, it makes me think of a slightly less sanitized version of live-action Saturday morning kid’s fare, the sort that satirizes things more familiar from other satires than from their original forms.

There are three cases you can take, either sequentially or simultaneously — although, by letting only one client in your office at a time and giving you no control over when they leave, the game encourages you to at least get out and start solving each case before taking on another. One involves a blatantly apocryphal origin of the fast-food business, one involves speakeasies and hillbilly moonshine, and the remaining one is a sort of Lovecraft-cum-Addams-Family haunted house hoax. Complete them all and you get a short epilogue that ties them all together in a very silly way. Every one uses two or three different locations in a smallish grid of city streets, just large enough to make paying for a cab easier than figuring out where things are in relation to each other. (Money is limited, but taxis are cheap enough, and there are few enough other things to spend it on, that running out is never a serious issue.) But there’s at least one puzzle that requires going on foot, and possibly more — the hints tell me that there’s an optional subplot about a hidden treasure that I completely missed. At any rate, the lay of the land is worked and systematic enough to make its emphasis in the title appropriate.

The UI here is odd enough to be worth describing in detail. For starters, it’s in two panes laid side by side, one containing a summary of your current location and its interactable objects, your inventory, and, when appropriate, available conversation topics. The other holds the story’s text, including the reactions to your actions. It’s a little reminiscent of the old Scott-Adams-era interfaces with the room description constantly at the top of the screen, but putting the panes side-by-side on a modern monitor lets them both hold a lot more information. It did feel a little weird shifting my attention left and right to see the full consequences of every move, but I’d probably habituate to it if the game were much longer.

Weirder is the way that, despite the game clearly having the underlying model of a traditional text adventure, with rooms and droppable inventory items and everything, the interaction is done entirely by pressing buttons. Not inline hyperlinks, but text buttons with rounded corners, which exist entirely in the summary pane. Every exit is a button, every inventory item is a button, every interactable object in the room has one or more buttons next to it with verbs, some of them context-dependent. And the game takes advantage of this interface in a clever way. At any given moment, you have exactly one object that you’re holding in your hands — the rest of your inventory presumably being in the voluminous pockets of your standard-issue detective’s trenchcoat. Of all your inventory, only the item in your hands has verb buttons. Anything else just has a button to swap it into the “holding” slot. This lets the game give multiple appropriate verbs to each object without cluttering the interface, but it also lets it provide contextual actions without giving anything away: you’ll only see the “apply turpentine” action on the flagpole when you’re actually holding the turpentine, which you probably won’t be doing if you didn’t already think of applying the turpentine to the flagpole. This is a technique worth keeping in mind.

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