IF Comp 2014: Missive

Missive (Joey Fu) is a Twine game about reconstructing someone else’s torrid affair through old letters.

Man, after so many customised games it’s kind of odd seeing the white-and-blue-on-black of default Sugarcane.

The protagonist of this story is a mess, depressed and drunken and not doing an awesome job of holding shit together.

The sky is gray and broody, and you slouch into your office chair, making a playlist of ’90s songs about depression.

Skunk Anansie, Belle & Sebastian, Blur, Hyperballad, Manic Street Preachers DAMMIT THIS IS CHEATING, GAME, AND YOU KNOW IT

They have, nonetheless, people who care about them: specifically Emily, an ex still on good terms. Emily offers a present, a typewriter that comes in a box with a collection of old love-letters – mostly written to a Henry Astor by his mistress (and ward, just in case there were any doubts that Henry is a moustache-twirling cad) Lily Clarke. Henry was murdered, and you need to piece together clues hidden in the letters in order to figure out by whom.

The puzzles are quite unlike the kind of puzzle usual in IF, where you manipulate things within the game to find out what works; rather, you have to pick up on clues and figure out codes, which indicate which letter to read next (which doesn’t necessarily look like a puzzle-type question at all, and doesn’t let you know if you’ve succeeded or failed). Rather than solving the puzzle through guiding the player-character to try things in the game, the proper way to play this is largely exterior to the course of the narrative. The first obviously puzzly thing I came across seemed very much like a substitution cipher – but it wasn’t a straight Caesar cipher, and my tentative attempts to do frequency-analysis on it were not encouraging. As it turns out, that’s one of the later puzzles; many of them are of the crossword variety, key words buried in the text. I played again with the hints on, got 4/6; no further. (An important element of a Good IF Puzzle: you should not be able to solve it without understanding why – either the puzzle should be near-impossible to solve by blind luck, or solving it should result in information that clarifies why that solution worked. As Emily Short’s categorisation points out, this is significant both for fairness and for narrative integration. It’s also a crucial element in accretive-PC games – learning from failure is one thing, but learning nothing from failure requires… a very special kind of player.)

I remember playing a handful of gamebooks, as a kid, which were set up very much like riddles: ostensibly you were walking around through a fantastic maze, but then you’d be confronted with a monster who presented you with… something that wasn’t even a complete riddle, but a choice that felt as though it was an element of some greater riddle, all of which would have to be understood if you were to thread the right path. (I never figured out what was really going on.) Missive feels as though it’s from an alternate universe in which that model of gamebook became as influential as those laid out by Fighting Fantasy and Choose Your Own Adventure.

Outside the puzzle, the writing in Missive is strong. I wasn’t perfectly convinced by the period tone of the letters, but there is a great deal of well-observed human feeling in this. The character still carries a flame for Emily, and we can see why. Lily, too, is a compelling voice, although the fragments we get of the relationship – particularly since you only see a subset of them on any given playthrough – didn’t feel quite enough for a full story. The writing’s good enough that I got something out of this despite really not clicking with the puzzle element at all, but it did leave me wistfully hoping for similar content with a mechanic that I grokked.

Score: 6

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One Response to IF Comp 2014: Missive

  1. Reiko says:

    I was able to solve the cipher (although that was one of the ones I just guessed correctly on my first playthrough, ironically). It is a straight substitution cipher except for the set of letters marked with capital E’s which must be unscrambled to form the final clue pointing clearly to one of the three answers.

    Now if anyone knows what’s up with the sixth puzzle, that’d be great…

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