IF Comp 2022: The Thirty Nine Steps

It’s once again IF Comp season; I’ll be doing some reviews. (Disclosure: I’m married to the lead organiser of the competition.)

This is Graham Walmsey’s adaptation of Buchan’s much-adapted novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, a mystery thriller of a man accidentally caught up in murder and espionage on the cusp of World War One. (I’m in the odd position having read the book and seen the original Corble & Dimon version of the comic stage play, but not the vastly more popular Hitchcock and Patrick Barlow versions.) cover art for The 39 Steps: view of a Highland valley

The adaptation preserves a lot of the original but adds additional material; I didn’t notice any major added scenes, but it’s been a while since I read the book; it is certainly possible to skip past many incidents of the original. (To its credit, the distinction between original and supplementary prose didn’t jump out to me.) It has snippets of original music, which… is very nice as far as it goes, but technical limitations make the audio cut in and out rather too abruptly to work in support of the drama all that much.

The game is designed to a principle of Everything Advances the Plot: you can screw up and the story will keep on happening, rather than terminating in a Bad Ending. I like this approach in general, but it’s an odd fit for this specific kind of story. The 39 Steps is a mystery thriller: the action turns heavily on the resourcefulness of the protagonist and the high stakes of the threat. You have to believe, in a thriller, that if the hero is not quite clever or quick or tough enough, they’ll die — or at least incur massive consequences. That suspended disbelief is harder when the game keeps reinforcing the idea that, while you can fuck up — fuck up quite a lot, be made unambiguously aware of your fuck-ups — the core plot will keep trundling along and the same basic finale will result.

In many ways this is a game that’s very good at reminding you about the immediate consequences of your choices – very modern, in fact, about the density of cues it gives you to acknowledge the impact of fairly minor choices you’ve made. If you don’t eat breakfast or shave before fleeing your flat, the game will make a point of letting you know that it remembers (and, by implication, that it’s keeping close tabs on everything else as well). But the most obvious consequence presented at the very outset of the story — that Hannay is in acute mortal danger, pursued by killers — is conspicuously not among them. The threat of the titular puzzle is also not real: you can fail to understand the meaning of the thirty-nine steps, yet still end up at the appointed place and time and avert disaster.

In linear media it’s easier to accept that the danger is real despite the hero always escaping it; it’s because the hero was brave, or lucky, or prepared, or clever enough. When you show the hero repeatedly not being those things but getting away with it anyway, that’s no longer a thriller; it’s a farce, an unlikely-hero action-comedy. The hero of a thriller can fail and be saved by deus ex machina, but not too often. And when the heroism involves solving a puzzle, the puzzle has to be actually solved, not blundered through.

In other words, this is a narrative that’s a difficult fit for a game structure that’s about failing forwards, about the story not ending just because some objective has been missed — at least, not without much broader variation in the story than is attempted here.

And this is more at issue because this medium makes the story much more centrally about Hannay’s capabilities. In the original story Hannay is a capable fellow, but the story isn’t centrally focused on that; he is not a Sherlock Holmes, where every story has to loudly reinforce the character of Holmes as brilliant; he’s understated. Here, the vaguely Choice of Games-ish mechanics unavoidably centre Hannay’s abilities, require you to be constantly focused on them. Choices are marked as Clever, Bold or Open, and using a skill improves it; so later in the game a Bold option might not succeed unless you’ve been working on your Bold. So you’re encouraged to focus on particular approaches — but also to view choices mostly in terms of your character’s skills. It makes it a story about what a cool guy Hannay is — or what a hapless failure — where the original is more interested in the sense of mystery and danger and ineffable sinister forces. But the no-losing-endings design makes this focus weird, because you can’t help noticing that the hero’s success or failure — the thing you’re told to care about most – doesn’t really matter all that much. And this shift of focus doesn’t make the story more interesting; it’d be fine to do a version of the story that undermined the original’s strengths if it was doing so in service of something that was more fun, but this direction isn’t really developed enough to be compelling.

To be clear, this is a work that’s technically proficient at a lot of different things, and that’s obviously conversant in a fair amount of design theory. Where it falls down is at the higher-level design questions: does this mechanical approach actually serve this narrative? is this story actually going to work in this medium, or does it have to become something else in order to fit? what do I want to preserve, to convey, to illuminate, and what can go by the wayside?

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