IFComp 2020: Ghostfinder: Shift

The title is a little misleading: you’re not hunting ghosts, but a serial killer. The “Ghosthunter” is because you’re a member of a sort of occult police force — the killings aren’t occult in nature, but a significant amount of the information you have to go on comes from a “shifter”. That’s a person who occasionally has seizures that cause her to temporarily experience another person’s senses, seeing through their eyes and hearing through their ears, without being able to control their actions, as if reading a long text passage between choices in a choice-based IF like this one.

The shifter in question has kept meticulous records of when she’s shifted and what she’s seen, which proves very handy when it suddenly turns out that she’s been shifting into the killer. The middle chapter of the story, where the bulk of the interactivity lies, is a whodunit, where you try to spot commonalities from the shift diary and various police records, newspaper accounts, and conversations with witnesses. There’s even a Her Story-style keyword prompt, to make sure that you’re actually paying attention rather than just clicking through all the links.

The keyword prompt demands that you type in lower case, which is a bit of a UI fail — why not just convert it to lower case in script? The rest of the investigation UI, on the other hand, really pleases me. You have a notebook that fills in with important names and details automatically, which is crucial, because the story has an unwieldy number of characters otherwise — fully 24, including all the victims. The shift diary menu, which starts off displaying just the date of each entry, automatically appends a one-line summary to any you’ve already read, both marking your progress and providing easier access to information. This is the sort of system I’d want for any mystery that revolves mainly around reading and rereading documents, like if you made an interactive version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or something. (It also has the consequence that you can re-play the bits where you interview persons of interest directly, with exactly the same text and the same choices each time through. This is anti-mimetic, but it’s probably a good thing all the same.)

In fact, the automatic collection and summarizing of information is so good, it may be harmful. This is a game with a lot of text to read, much of it about rape and murder and other cruelty. I found that after I had read through lengthy accounts of a couple of the killings, I didn’t really want to read any more. So, I just click through the rest and let the magic notebook pull out the pertinent details! Which presumably contributed to the feeling that I didn’t fully understand the reasoning I was supposed to be following and that I was just taking a guess at the end. But then, I feel like this feeling is also a result of the detective work here mainly being an accumulation of hunches and coincidences, rather than deductive certainty. Obra Dinn it ain’t.

Anyway, the investigative core of the story is sandwiched between chapters of serial-killer-hunting thriller action, and about all I have to say about those parts is that they’re longer than I would have liked. I’m mainly filing this one under “Well-crafted, but not to my taste”.

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