De Novo by cyb3rmen

(Game online at https://ifcomp.org/2179/content/DeNovo.html)

This is a game that is generally competent, and that’s also one of its biggest problems: it is neither good enough, nor bad enough, to distract from the fundamental absurdities in its premise.

Mechanically, it’s solid enough. There were a couple of times I had to scroll down for the continue option, once or twice that the image size of the window seemed to change, and I think I may have gotten a duplicate page of a case file once in the last review. But with the ridiculous variety of screen sizes and resolutions these days, I’m not complaining about the interface. Additionally, it’s notable that one conversation with your wife seems to have happened ‘the previous day’ every single month. But it is generally solid and well-done. There are no puzzles and fairly limited branching, but I am not the sort of player who cares about that. The graphics are definitely solid. The writing isn’t spectacular, but it’s generally error-free and, again, competent.

The thing is… this is a historical game, and there’s several things that really interfered with my suspension of disbelief. To begin with, our protagonist is a black man, who is a judge being considered for appointment to the High Court, in 1955. I generally wouldn’t argue that any story featuring a minority has to harp on racism/social injustice/etc, but considering that, as best as I can tell, the actual first black judge on the High Court of England and Wales was 4 years old in 1955, I really feel like this is an issue that would have come up at some point. It’s never mentioned, never glanced at, and has no impact on anything whatsoever. Which is frustrating, because it would actually add much more weight to the game if it were, as well as explaining many of the other absurdities. If you went along with this farce because you really DIDN’T have a choice-- if you had reason to fear for your future, career, even life if you protested too hard or pardoned the wrong people-- if the increasingly absurd hoops and shifted goalposts were intentional efforts to sabotage you or make you prove yourself to some absurd standard– it wouldn’t fix the other problems I’ll mention, but it would certainly help matters immensely.

Then there is… well, the premise. You must review cases to determine which are worthy of… not being dismissed, or retried, but seemingly even being allowed to file an appeal. You get exactly three options; you can pick exactly one to submit for reconsideration, and the other two die, possibly immediately. Now, I am an ignorant American, but I really don’t think that’s how appeals work. You’re not trying to spot factual inconsistencies or legal issues or poke holes in testimony. The criteria you use are basically up to you, I suppose, but it feels like you’re picking who has the best sob story. Especially when public protests about particular cases start coming up. It gives the impression that politics and public opinion are, could be, or should be a factor in these decisions. They are not. This is the sort of thing that feels like it should have an impact-- on the plot, on the vote, on your career-- but does not appear to.

Now, of course, this is a game, a fictional narrative; it’s going to be simplified and gamified, it’s not going to be some sort of realistic legal simulator. But it starts by testing the limits of credulity and it only goes downhill. By the end, you are informed that the people you… allowed to appeal?.. are actually still in legal limbo, and you can actually only pick one to be… allowed to appeal? You’re clearly not straight-out setting them free, nor do you seem to be granting an appeal. You’re just deciding whether or not they can attempt to appeal, on the basis of… reasons. The other two are toast, at any rate. Why only one? We really have quotas on this? Our character doesn’t see fit to press. Anyway, you get to interview each one personally, and by ‘interview’ we mean ‘ask exactly one question before they’re shuffled out the door’, and by ‘exactly one question’ we mean either ‘what’s your biggest regret’ or ‘so, why shouldn’t we kill you’. And we need your decision by the end of the month. I mean, tonight. There’s barely even an attempt to handwave any justification for the last deadline shift. It’s just there to-- well, that’s my next point. At any rate, the strictures don’t really match reality, become increasingly absurd, and it’s really distracting.

To be honest, it feels like this is a game built to grind an axe. It isn’t too obvious about it, at least at first, but it’s increasingly clear that the game has picked a side. Which isn’t inherently bad. It’s just that the story, the structure, the characters all feel twisted to be the mouthpiece of this idea. Your wife’s anti-death-penalty speech (she seems to be Asian, incidentally. This also has no impact on anything whatsoever). The bureaucratic rules that start with patently absurd quotas on appeals allowed per month and go downhill from there. The boss’s insistence that anyone who was convicted is guilty and deserves no consideration, because this one time, he judged a guy guilty, and after his sentence was completed, he went out and did more crime and killed people. So clearly no one who is convicted of any crime should ever be released. Neither of the people in the room who have completed a course of legal study can point out any flaw in this argument. The protagonist expresses no clear opinion on the matter but vague unease, but the general leaning is pretty clear. This game allows you choices (more on that next), but it would be very difficult to say this is not an anti-death-penalty game. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I am against the death penalty myself. But it ends up reading like propaganda, and it’s frustrating. Because it’s not even doing that as effectively as it could have! Show the impact on the main character! Mention the impact on the condemned (it’s literally ‘lives have ended’-- passive much? The protagonist is generally exceptionally passive about the whole situation), on the families, on the public.

Which leads into the last issue. These choices, which ought to be weighty, are undercut-- not just because of the limited information, or the absurd hoops, but because they don’t matter. You won’t impact the public protests by pardoning or condemning the person they’re protesting over. You’ll get to ask the people you pardoned exactly one question in the end before un-pardoning them. You’re not in any danger of losing your promotion. Exactly one decision you make has an appreciable impact, and that’s how you vote. Your one vote, and nothing else that I can tell, determines whether the death penalty will be upheld or repealed. Which changes a few sentences of the ending. The game doesn’t pretend to understand very well why you’d choose to be for the death penalty. I don’t think that choices in games have to matter. But in a game literally about making life-or-death decisions-- yes, yes they probably should. It kind of undercuts the point if they don’t!

The fact that I’m writing all this about a 30-minute game at 2 in the morning speaks to the fact that there’s something to the premise, to the game. But this could have been so much more, and its shortfalls were so frustrating. It’s trying to say something big, but it’s thinking too small.

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I’ve also posted a review of the game on my blog. My experience with the game was similar: It wanted to be a game about the morality of capital punishment, but it doesn’t actually ask any questions, let alone answer them.