The premise of Toby’s Nose is that you are Toby, a dog belonging to Sherlock Holmes, and your task is to sniff out a murderer from a roomful of suspects. There are quite a few possible suspects to choose from, so while you could solve this by a process of elimination, it is more satisfying to try to work out the clues for yourself.
There are no intermediate puzzles per se: the entirety of gameplay consists of examining and smelling things until you’re satisfied that you’ve pieced together a backstory that makes sense of the whole. Playing the game well is about being very thorough; and though “explore a conceptual space via parser” is a relatively recent design trend, it reminds me of the exploratory aspects of old-school IF. It used to be — back ca. Curses or so — that authors considered it totally fair to hide things under beds and behind paintings without providing the player with any clue that they should look there. Thorough and relentless examining was just one of the things that a IF player was supposed to do.
Chandler Groover cites Castle of the Red Prince and Lime Ergot as inspirations, and indeed the influence of both is very clear. As Toby, you can not only smell things that are in the room, but you can dig deeper into the remembered and trace scents from other places; so, without moving, you can smell (and thus get descriptions of) other rooms of the house and indeed parts of the countryside and of London that turn out to be relevant to the mystery. The traditional locational model of interactive fiction melts away and is replaced by conceptual movement — just as, in Lime Ergot, it’s possible to zoom in on a particular remembered image, or in Castle of the Red Prince it’s possible to interact with far-off things and bring them instantly into scope.
The idea of exploring conceptual rather than physical space feels rather Twine-like — Twine games very frequently invite us to explore a feeling or a set of memories — but at the same time the parser keeps the game grounded in the language of physical objects. You only ever smell concrete things, wafts of perfume and clouds of smog perhaps included, but not abstracts such as lust or ambition.
I also found Toby’s Nose reminiscent of Simon Deimel’s Enigma, in which you must think about a series of nouns in the description in order to piece together what has happened and what is now going on. As with Enigma, I found that it was possible to miss things in Toby’s Nose because I hadn’t been quite thorough enough about sniffing every concrete noun in a given description. (There was one vital piece of information that I missed until I’d already mis-accused a couple of suspects and had to UNDO, because it hadn’t occurred to me that a particular phrase referred to something that I could sniff.)
Unlike in Enigma, though, I never got completely stuck with Toby’s Nose. Partly that’s because the explorable space was so huge that I could revisit previous areas and usually wound up shaking loose a new concept; partly it’s because there was always a way to end the game if I wanted to. Falsely accusing someone was of course a loss, but it was typically a loss that gave me some new information about whether I was on the right track in my thinking.
Because the player’s major task is to thoroughly search a tree of nouns and because no form of history or in-game record-keeping is provided, the effect can be a little overwhelming. You sniff something and get a description containing ten more nouns to sniff; sniff one of those and get another five nouns… being thorough about searching this tree can be pretty demanding on memory. There’s an inventory that lists important things you’ve found so far, but that doesn’t really come close to mapping the concept-maze space.
Occasionally overwhelmed or not, though, I really enjoyed this game, finding it more substantial, more narratively engaging, and fairer than Groover’s previous game Down, the Serpent and Sun. The writing is sometimes period-appropriate and sometimes indulges in anachronistic idiom, but it’s consistently interesting and enjoyable. The detection process reveals a lot about the personalities of the characters involved, and there are several sub-plots you can put together that aren’t part of the main reveal but are still interesting. The implementation is robust, and there are footnotes if you want to know where the various references come from. I welcomed the freedom to jump from one part of the game world to another in order to pursue a suspected lead — for instance, reviewing one character’s possessions after finding what seemed to be a link in another character’s story: if this had been a more conventionally structured game, I would have had to traverse a lot of in-game space in order to check up on those suspicions.
I’d welcome more games like this. I also suspect that there are things I could do as a player to make it easier on myself (note-taking?) or that the game could do to make it easier on players (auto-note-taking?).