IFComp Reviews: Lord Bellwater’s Secret, An Act of Murder

A review of two mystery games from this year’s IFComp. Spoilers behind the link.

I’m bad at interactive mysteries. Detective, Witness, and Suspect were my least favorite Infocom games. They made me feel stupid. I’d like to think that, if for some reason–insanity, probably–someone wanted me to investigate a real mystery I’d be able to keep my mind on it. But for some reason when I play one of these games, by the time I’m examining the window to determine whether the victim was dead when he fell I’ve already forgotten he grabbed a branch on the way down.

This year’s IFComp included two mysteries that left me feeling surprisingly competent.

Lord Bellwater’s Secret is a solid, modest one-room game. You’ve broken into your employer’s office to investigate a couple of mysterious deaths. It looks like he’s been burning papers, but he missed a whole pile of incriminating documents, which a careful search will uncover.

It’s very well-crafted and carefully written. I didn’t find any bugs, so it must have been thoroughly tested. The writing is just as careful. It’s clear from the notes that the author did his research. Any historical inaccuracies are deliberate, thoughtful decisions, not sloppiness.

The problem: this one is too easy. It felt like an unseen hand leading me through a carefully arranged display of evidence; like I hadn’t achieved the victory myself.

An Act of Murder, though… damn. I have no idea how the pseudonymous author did this. It’s nearly perfect: just easy enough to solve, but just hard enough to feel you’ve done something clever. Enough suspects to challenge the player, but not so many that they’re hard to keep track of. A wide range of clues, from physical evidence to documents to dialogue, and to avoid tedious record-keeping an in-game notebook that automatically keeps track of everything.

It must have been insanely hard to strike this balance. The amazing thing is that the author had to strike it multiple times: the game is completely randomized, and picks a different solution every time you start. There are some expert game-design skills behind An Act of Murder. I’ll be interested to see who the author is and how it places in the competition.

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