IFComp 2023: Death on the Stormrider

Here we have an adventure-game-cum-murder-mystery, the sort where your attention is less on figuring out whodunnit and more on the physical problem of getting access to places and not getting caught with things you shouldn’t have. The whole thing is set up to constrain you, but not absolutely. You’re not the main suspect, but neither are you above suspicion. It’s set on a sort of fantastical flying steamship, a smallish and isolated environment where it’s hard to avoid the rest of the crew. Your ability to cooperate with the investigation is hampered by a language barrier: the only people on the ship who speak your language are the chief suspect, locked away in a brig you never get to see, and the victim.

The really notable thing about it is the NPC behavior. There are seven characters you can encounter, each autonomously going about their routine, whether that means patrolling the hallways or rushing off to any part of the ship that needs emergency repairs. And I feel like there’s a bit of a misstep here. The first two NPCs encounters are all about avoidance, the puzzle of one being “don’t get caught where you’re not supposed to be” and the other being “don’t get caught with things you’re not supposed to have”. That’s enough to set expectations, to put the player into a mindset of “NPCs are obstacles”. But then, to progress, you have to shift into a mindset of instead exploiting NPC behavior to overcome obstacles. Mercifully, the story can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion (several different satisfactory conclusions, in fact) without solving all the puzzles or figuring out absolutely everything that’s going on. But you can’t get much of anywhere without this fundamental shift of attitude. I personally needed hints to get that far. I was using the hints a lot by the end.

At least the hints are really good! In fact, the best part of the hints isn’t even in the hints per se (which are external to the game proper, part of its website), but in an in-game tablet, where you can review notes about the ship, the people, and the investigation, and which, most importantly, contains a tasks list. Just being told what the author thinks you should be working on is often a great help. Ideally, it shouldn’t be necessary — the game content itself should be enough to communicate your goals. But when that fails, it’s good to have an explicit quest log to fall back on.

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