Toby’s Nose (Chandler Groover) is a main-festival entry in Spring Thing. You play Toby, the dog of Sherlock Holmes, who helps solve crimes through his powerful sense of smell. (I’ve thought for years that a scent-detective/forensic-investigation IF, influenced by Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, would be a good idea; Porpentine’s Nostrils of Flesh and Clay begins in that direction but quickly becomes something quite different.) The game opens on the final scene of the mystery, as the suspects gather in the drawing-room – thus offering Toby an opportunity to give them all a good sniff.
The game has an acknowledged influence from Lime Ergot, a surreal, telescoping game by Caleb Wilson. Toby’s sense of smell doesn’t just give him detailed information – which is an obvious approach – but seems to transport him into the places whence the scents originated. Picking out individual elements within such scenes can zoom in on them, or even make the mind’s nose travel from place to place. This sneaks around the usual scope mechanics of parser IF, since Toby can smell everything at once; and this gives the setting a lurid and dreamlike quality, a sense of drifting through ephemeral space rather than inhabiting a solid world.
Sometimes this means that the game is unrealistically specific about some details – how would you know that that chalk odour was used to draw too-perfect pentagrams? – while being overly coy, for the sake of the mystery, about certain information that a dog would immediately pick up on (mostly to do with who exactly performed an act inferred from smell.)
The sense of smell has strong associations of disgust, guilt, sickness and contamination, social inclusion and exclusion, class. (“Must be a king.” “Why?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him.”) Perfume starts low and climbs upwards: the monstrous Grenouille is born into squalor, filth and desperate poverty, and uses his preternatural talents to climb both to higher social status and to ever more rarefied aromas, and ultimately to a very Dionysian kind of apotheosis. Toby’s Nose goes in the other direction, beginning in the upper-class security (and comfortable genre expectations) of a great house’s drawing-room; and proceeding from there to Gothic churchyards, filth-swamped slums, opium-dens. Toby is obviously a Tobermory, an animal uncoverer of hidden sins and hypocrisy, an uncoverer of socially inconvenient truths.
One of the big impressions that I got from this game is of teeming clutter; it is common to open up a detail and discover a half-dozen or so more details crowded into it, often in lists. The Victorian UK was a world unprecedentedly glutted with consumer goods; one of the big ways that the UK feels different from the US is how bloody much of the stuff is still in circulation. When I first learned about the Victorians at school, the big difference about how that was taught (off-putting to me at the time) was its heavier focus on social history, generally through the lens of everyday artefacts. (Connie Willis gives a similar impression of interior decor in To Say Nothing of the Dog, of homes crowded to the brim with bric-a-brac and ornate furniture).
And this means that your challenge is a panopticon problem: it’s not that there are too few clues, it’s that there are too many. Everybody is up to something, for sure, but which of their secret crimes were related to the murder? The big problems of mystery IF are all to do with how the player figures things out: do they have enough information? can they pull it all together, and how do they indicate to the game what they know? can the plot advance without them knowing what happened (bad) or does it get stuck indefinitely if they miss a crucial connection (worse)?
In my playthrough, I was able to gather up a great deal of suggestive detail, and to make some very strong guesses, but not quite draw it all together into a conclusion. Probably I had missed some important detail – but if so, I didn’t know what to do except keep combing back over existing content. Or else I hadn’t mentally connected some of the details that I already had. The only way to show what you know is by barking at a suspect, but on a meta-game level, I wasn’t quite sure about the assumptions at work here. If I misidentify a subject, does that mean that I got it wrong (since Holmes is infallible) or that I just don’t have enough evidence yet (in which case, how does Holmes know that I do?) I felt that, perhaps, it would have been useful to produce an occasional summary of how bits of information connected to one another – “these two letters used the same ink, which might suggest the same author,” that kind of thing – if only to suggest how strongly we should read certain linkages.
Regardless, this is an appealing, evocative game and I enjoyed it considerably, for all that I couldn’t solve the damn thing.
One small disambiguation issue, in the singular/plural category:
Which do you mean, the prostitute or the whores?