IFComp 2023: Antony & Cleopatra: Case IV: The Murder of Marlon Brando

Once again, we have a game for two players, but very different from the last such recorded here. It’s networked this time, with one player hosting the game. More significantly, the two players aren’t playing their parts of the game independently, but experiencing it in tandem, going to the same places and reading the same text. The two players control two different characters, which results in some variation in the dialogue options they’re given, but the differences don’t seem very substantial. Major decisions are not acted on until both players agree on them.

In format, it’s basically a variation on the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective gamebooks. You have a murder to solve, and you have a number of people and places relevant to the case, and investigating them turns up additional leads that may or may not go anywhere useful. On top of that, you have a deadline, and can’t afford to waste too much time on red herrings. When time is up, you answer some questions about whodunit and why and so forth. In short, it’s close enough to the SHCD formula to share most of its problems. The gameplay is basically guesswork, the intended deductions obscure, and the player’s ability to look for corroborating evidence about theories is severely limited. It does take some advantage of the true interactivity that SHCD lacks, varying the available dialogue options on the basis of what you’ve discovered, but I felt like it didn’t do this nearly enough. Sometimes I’d discover the same information twice, in different passages. I even encountered some minor sequence-breaking, references to information I hadn’t learned yet. This stuff was more or less inevitable in SHCD‘s static printed text, but here?

In fact, now that I think about it, the specific details of the case are a close match to the first case in SHCD, “The Munitions Magnate”, down to things like finding an expensive and exclusive cigarette at the crime scene and getting a list of clients from the manufacturer. I wish I had noticed this while playing the game — I might have been able to solve it then! Perhaps the author intended for the story to be recognized, although it is disguised a bit. This version is set in a variant of the present day, and all the characters’ names are changed, and changed whimsically at that: everyone is either a historical figure or a movie star. As the title indicates, the two player characters are detectives Marc Antony and Cleopatra, and the victim is Marlon Brando, a defense contractor whose employees include James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and Vitruvius Pollio. It’s all rather silly, but I appreciated the way it helped me remember the characters. I’m bad with names, and tend to have difficulty remembering who all the characters are in mystery games. Giving everyone strong pre-existing associations helps.

The big question to me is: What does this piece gain from requiring two players? Mechanically, it’s effectively a single-player game. At first glance, I had thought that the two player characters could go their separate ways and investigate different scenes independently, but this turned out not to be the case. The one thing I can think of that it gains is that it forces discussion. Two players have to agree on where to go and who to talk to, and ultimately who to accuse, and that makes you put a little more thought into it than you might if you were just clicking your way through the story. On the downside, though, it adds various little anxieties to the experience: Am I reading too slowly and making my partner wait? If I click on a dialogue option, does my partner feel like I’m rushing them? Single-player experiences do not have this factor.

Ultimately, I feel like the author’s main reason for making it two-player wasn’t that they had an idea for a game that could take advantage of being two-player, but simply because they wanted to show off some new two-player IF tech. And as tech demos go, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen in the Comp.

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