IF Comp 2018: Erstwhile

erstwhileErstwhile is a choice-based murder mystery in which the deal is that you’re a ghost trying to solve your own murder; your memory is patchy, at least in part because there are things you don’t want to think about, but you can poke your snoot into other people’s memories. The victim, Mort, was a resident’s association president who thinks rather a lot of himself, and the suspects are all members of his dull suburban neighbourhood. So this is a story about lifting up an innocuous rock and seeing what kinds of gross scuttery bugs come crawling out.

It relies on a well-trodden mystery mechanic: combining two clues to produce some kind of deduction or intuition. (In this case, it gives you memories of stuff that happened, including other people’s memories.) And I’ve never really seen this mechanic working well. Item-combination is a hit-or-miss trick, and it’s a lot harder to predict what might come out of combining two ideas rather than two physical objects. There are always vastly more plausible-seeming combinations than there are plot-relevant ones, it’s hard to make bad guesses offer useful feedback, and after my intuition has been found wanting a few times it tends to shut off entirely. At that point I end up randomly mashing at combinations. Intuitive leaps are just a really difficult thing to represent mechanically; this is a long-standing problem in mystery IF.

Considering the mechanic’s drawbacks, this does a pretty decent job with it; the way I tended to miss connections in this case was often because they seemed too obvious, because they came from the same memory or because they were already so clearly conceptually linked that combining them seemed beyond the point. That’s a lot better than its converse.

It’s supported by a player-guidance feature: you can pare down the mystery to its bare bones by removing all the clues that no longer lead directly to solving your murder. But this kind of undermines itself in how it’s presented in-fiction: it’s clearly Mort‘s voice saying that they’re not important. There are a lot of things that Mort really wants to avoid thinking about, and those are clearly going to constitute the real meat of the story, so for quite a while I pushed back against this and was reluctant to dismiss any clues. It’s risky to link your in-game hinting to the motives of an unreliable narrator! And when you’re trying to dig up optional content, the clue-dismissal thing seems to make it more complex, because you have to judge whether a clue should go back under consideration at all.

When I eventually caved and dismissed lots of clues, it turned out that you can quite handily identify the murderer and end the game without nailing down their motive. In fact, I did quite a lot of digging after I’d got the basic ending and still wasn’t really able to get more than suggestive fragments. (I spent a while focusing on the clues that Mort really didn’t want to talk about, but this didn’t seem to lead anywhere.)

I think the other thing I wanted out of this was sharper character writing. This is a game that’s entirely about observing people, so I’d have liked the characters to feel a little more living and breathing. This isn’t a matter of basic writing flaws, I think – this is capable writing, and it does have some good lines.

He looks even sweatier than he normally is, eyes darting back and forth, giving the distinct impression of a trapped rabbit.

But in general I felt as though I was learning more facts about these characters without getting much of a stronger sense of them as people, somehow. These aren’t characters with hidden depths, just hidden acts. To some extent it’s that Mort is basically a jerk who isn’t a very good observer of character because he’s fundamentally not very interested in his supposed friends. Possibly it’s because, I think, it’s trying for a tone of realism rather than larger-than-life characters.

There were a few elements that felt a little forced for the sake of the mystery plot, but which could have been sold with the right character writing – the sequence that led to nuts in everything, for instance, requires sceptical Justin to buy into a health fad on the strength of one article recommended by Terry, which convinces him so strongly that he in turn persuades Annie, an experienced cook who doesn’t like being told what to do, to put nuts in every dish; and for this to work Annie has to have never heard of nut allergies. I can imagine how this might have worked if it was written as a comedy sequence; I’m sure there are other ways it could have been rendered convincing.

I think this is in the 6-7 range. It has some good ideas and it’s solidly made and I enjoyed myself overall, but it also has some difficult design elements that it didn’t fully overcome, and there isn’t any one aspect that I can point to and say ‘man this is amazing.‘ Maybe I’d have higher opinions of it if I’d managed to crack into those deep uncomfortable secrets?

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