ParserComp 2023: Cheree: Remembering My Murder

I should start off by documenting my prejudices: I have never been a fan of the “visual novel” format. This sometimes surprises people who know me as a big IF fan, but your typical VN UI seems to me to just add a lot of pointless friction to the act of reading. Cheree presents itself as a VN, but its UI is less offensive than most: there’s tons of available scrollback, and it provides a welcome helping of agency through freeform text input after every line of output. It does, however, still cram the text of the story into one smallish corner of the screen while the bulk is reserved for illustration — the illustration being a 3D model of an anime-esque gothic lolita (presumably obtained from the Unity Asset Store) running mood-specific idle animations in front of various stock photographs.

This girl is Charity, aka Cheree, the ghost of a talented young Victorian spiritualist medium who died in mysterious circumstances. Now she’s on the opposite end of her own schtick, communicating with you from beyond, because she somehow has spiritual link with you and you alone. Much like in certain other VNs where you’re a long-dead girl’s sole contact with the world, this eventually leads to her asking if you consider her a friend… or more than a friend? To which my immediate reaction was “Ew, no, you are a child!” It strikes me now that I’m being a little hypocritical here: Charity canonically died and stopped aging at 16, and Analogue‘s *Hyun-ae must have been around the same age when she was digitized. But I eagerly accepted *Hyun-ae’s protestations of love! I think this is mostly due to the visuals: *Hyun-ae chooses to appear to you as her idealized adult self throughout her game, while Charity, despite saying she’s 16, looks like she’s three or four years younger than that. Also, *Hyun-ae is a lot more forceful about it, declaring her affection directly instead of hesitantly probing — which reflects their differences in upbringing, really, the modern girl vs the proper Victorian lady. (Eventually, Cheree brings in a second ghost, a modern 15-year-old girl named Mel, to provide a viewpoint that Charity cannot, although Mel can’t speak to you directly and her irreverence is filtered through Charity’s narration.) But there’s one other subtler factor at work, I think: Analogue put the player in the role of a space detective. That’s clearly a character I’m playing, not a representation of myself. Cheree goes to some length to erase that distinction, largely by having Charity ask you a lot of get-to-know-you questions.

But enough about Analogue; I’m supposed to be writing about Cheree here. The backbone of the story is of course the mystery of Charity’s death, a mystery that turns out to involve the psychic investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders. (By the time Jack is mentioned, though, it’s clear that he didn’t kill Charity. The MO is all wrong.) But your only means of investigating Charity’s death is by probing her memories. She can teleport all around the globe, but her ability to interact with physical objects is severely limited, and besides, the events in question happened more than a hundred years ago. So what you wind up doing instead is: you visit a pertinent location, Charity chats about it for a bit, maybe you feed her some prompts, and then she starts to remember something. If you’re lucky, it’s a Clue, which takes the form of a cryptogram. Solving it jogs her memory and advances the plot.

Except a lot of the places you visit aren’t pertinent. Charity wants to solve her murder, but she also wants to just show you a bunch of exotic and photogenic locations and quiz you on trivia about them. In one case (that I noticed), one of these vacation spots turns out to advance the investigation anyway: going to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming can prompt some exposition about Devils, what they really are and what they can do, that becomes relevant later. I can kind of see justifying the other such scenes as supporting the Devil’s Tower, making it less out-of-place by turning it into an instance of a pattern, but there’s just too much of this stuff for it to be anything other than self-justifying. I got impatient with it pretty quickly, seeing it as just obstacles that I had to get through to get back to the interesting part, solving the mystery. I guess I’m just not the reader this work was meant for. It was meant for a reader who wants to date an underage dead Victorian girl. If the mystery is the game’s backbone, that’s the meat.

(It’s probably worth mentioning that Charity sometimes randomly walks towards the camera and through the near clipping plane, briefly showing the panties under her poofy black Victorian dress. Is this deliberate? Surely it has to be?)

Interaction in this game is conversation. You type words, it presumably does some pattern matching on them, and if it finds a match, it affects the direction of the conversation. If it doesn’t understand you, it tries to pretend it did. The author cites Starship Titanic as a precedent for this style of interaction, but similar things can be found as far back as 1980. Most of the time, though, I found it best to let Charity drive the conversation and just repeatedly enter a nonsensical command like “z” until she ran out of steam, unless she asked me a question or brought up a topic I wanted more details about. So functionally it’s topic-based dialogue, like Infocom’s ASK/TELL. But the game doesn’t give the player a lot of guidance about how to use it or what sort of input it expects, so it’s entirely possible that I missed out on a lot of content because I drifted towards ASK/TELL out of habit.

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