For the first time since I can remember, the annual IF Comp has relaxed the rules that prohibit judges from discussing games during the competition period. That being the case, I will post some of my reactions here as I go along, but I will try to protect the innocent by hiding all substantive comment, including whether I liked or did not like the piece, behind a *more* tag.
I’ve also settled on a (possibly awkward — we’ll see) two-part format for this. The first part will be a description of the game in a non-spoilery mode, the kind of thing you write for people who are deciding whether to play; then there will be spoiler space; then there will be comments intended for people who already have played. The post-space bits will be more like my usual comp game reports — some stuff about my play experience, together with gripes, spoilers, etc., but above all, specificity.
Okay. First up: Act of Murder, by “Hugh Dunnett”.
As one might expect from the title and pseudonym, this is a detection game of a fairly classic limited-suspects-in-isolated-house variety. It pays its respects to Infocom, incorporating the Inspector Duffy character who is your sidekick throughout Deadline. (And possibly in the other Infocom mysteries as well; I never got into Witness or Suspect, really.) The game play is all about wandering around, finding clues, and drawing conclusions. What’s more, the scenario is partly randomized, so you can play again and get an entirely fresh mystery.
I have a lot of respect for this game, for a couple of reasons. One is the puzzle design. I played the thing through five different scenarios, and each of them was reasonable and fair; but the deductions didn’t take the same form in every case, so it wasn’t wholly repetitive, either. In most mystery IF I’ve played, the idea has been cooler than the execution, and I’ve found myself floundering: missing important detail objects that were hidden under the linens in the back of a housekeeping closet, say; or failing to get the significance of clues the author plainly thought were brilliant but which I, in my own person, thought were pretty stretched; or missing critical timed events that you can only see if you’re in the right place at the right time; or not thinking of the right keywords to ask characters about; or… well, the list goes on. Act of Murder avoids almost all of these flaws almost all of the time. There are mechanisms — the notebook you carry, the Inspector Duffy sidekick — to help you focus on the things that are important, but which aren’t overt spoilery hints. (If you want overt spoilery hints, those are also provided, in a sweet little menu that automatically adjusts itself to whichever randomized scenario you happen to be playing. I never caught it out in any bugs.) There are a handful of red herrings, but not too many.
Second, the author did a great job of designing the randomizer so that every time you play, the whole thing feels organic and natural, even though lots of things have in fact been swapped out.
Besides all that, it’s just fun. I played five times before going on to the next comp game, and I did that only because I felt like I should give some attention to the others as well. There are lots of slightly unexpected details in the setting; the writing is spare but highly competent; there are some in-jokes about IF and adventure games, but they’re subtle enough not to annoy.
Overall: very much recommended, especially for people with a taste for well-constructed set puzzles.
After the space, the comp-game-style review:
It’s mostly luck that I started with this game. It’s a fun and compelling mystery; it started out feeling too difficult for me, but I soon found that I could put the pieces together into a very fair and satisfying puzzle. There was one semi-obvious fact that I missed, but the hints helped with that; otherwise, I never quite got stuck, though I often felt like I was *about* to run out of leads.
I also very much liked the notebook, which was so efficient about collating information, and the opportunity to talk over the evidence with Duffy. Being able to confirm my conjectures before making an arrest was a nifty touch. (I won Deadline at one point, but quite a long time ago; I don’t recall it featuring anything like this, though.)
There are a few problems. Some scenery items are inexplicably missing or undescribed. Some of the disambiguations could have been more elegantly handled (most glaringly, when we ask Duffy to arrest someone and he has disambiguation problems between that person and the person’s alibi, we know there are problems). Every here and there the spacing is a bit off, too. The conversation topics are reasonably thorough, but I could have gone for even more (or, in some cases, just more synonyms for existing things). And I never did find a playthrough in which there was anything interesting to do with the secret room, though it just begs to be a Clue. I assume I just wasn’t lucky enough to hit one of those versions of the mystery.
The characters and their motivations felt a bit by-the-book, but to some extent that was a necessary outcome of the form; all the same they do double back and change their stories when confronted with new evidence, and otherwise behave in a way that rewarded a bit of interrogation.
I did wind up arresting Deborah a disproportionate number of the times I played. I wonder if she’s more guilty than all the others, somehow.