IFComp 2020: A Murder in Fairyland

This one’s hard to describe succinctly. Set in the same techno-magical world as Open Sorcery, but tangential to it, this piece sends us to a fairyland that’s in some way accessible via the internet — not that it’s a fantasy MMO or anything like that, but that code and magic intertwine. You have a ship that’s powered by emotions and spells that need to be compiled before they’re cast, but which are also linked to memories. There are multiple mini-games in the environment, including a tarot-card-combo-based one reminiscent of the card games in The Fool’s Errand and its sequel. There’s a goblin market to browse, where you use magical essences as currency. There’s heartfelt poetical bits, connected to the player character’s past. There’s enough going on that it took me most of the way to the Comp’s two-hour limit to even reach the murder.

The murder is an unusual one, in that it’s ordinary and expected. Fairy nobles murder each other all the time, apparently, and don’t think much of it. But this time, there are political stakes: Titania herself, the Summer Queen, in seek of amusement, has pledged support for whoever committed the murder if they put in a bid to claim to the Fall Throne. Consequently, everyone’s falling over themselves to prove they did it. So it’s a murder mystery in reverse, interrogating suspects to find alibis for them and the like. None of this is really our protagonist’s concern, as you’re just passing through, but you need a blockade taken down before your ship can continue on, and apparently that can’t happen until the throne is resolved. Which means you don’t strictly have to solve the murder correctly — indeed, some of the suspects offer deals or bribes or threats to pick them regardless of what the evidence says. But that’s hardly satisfying, is it? The best ending results in not just clearing the blockade, but doing some real good for those who helped you along the way. The fairies are a childish supercilious lot, with just a few exceptions, and those few, the serious and sincere, are the real heart of the story.

Or is it the bureaucracy? That’s really where I spent the plurality of my time with this game. There’s a whole puzzle-system of forms with complicated rules that you have to go through again and again, going back to the Hall of Edicts for more illogical logic. (Fortunately, running back and forth is handled in a very elegant way for a choice-based work: via north/south/east/west links at the edges of the screen, greatly reducing the stress of visual feedback in finding them.)

So you get a substantial portrait of fairy society, its wonders and its foibles. The player character, on the other hand, is a little bit of an enigma. She’s the most human-feeling person we meet, which makes her feel out of place among all these archetypes and caricatures. She wears a headscarf for non-religious reasons and uses a wheelchair and uses magic as an accessibility device. She knows how fairyland works, and is cagey about accepting gifts or revealing her true name. She has a past that this story isn’t about. You get to know her just enough to know that there’s a lot you don’t know, including where she’s going and why. I sometimes complain in these reviews about games that feel incomplete, presenting only part of a story. This story feels partial, but it doesn’t feel unfinished. It feels like you’re being told all that the author cares to tell you right now.

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