EJ's 2023 IFComp Reviews

Antony and Cleopatra Case IV: The Murder of Marlon Brando

The Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective gamebooks have spawned a whole genre of multiplayer games where the players take the role of detectives provided with a number of leads; limited to a certain number of actions per day, they must decide what to follow up on and hope they manage to get enough information to solve the case. These games generally end with a quiz asking not just about who the culprit is, but about a number of other particulars surrounding the case, to see how much the players have discovered or deduced. Antony and Cleopatra is an attempt to bring this genre into the realm of multiplayer IF; it’s an ambitious and interesting attempt, but not, I think, an entirely successful one.

Rather than emulating Sherlock Holmes, Antony and Cleopatra take their cues from Nick and Nora Charles, but the chemistry and charm that have made the Thin Man movies enduring classics are largely absent; the influence is obvious mainly in the staggering amount of drinking on the job that the characters can do. Characterizations for the protagonists are fairly thin and their interactions with each other are minimal. This seems like a missed opportunity—Antony and Cleopatra are colorful figures with well-established pop-cultural personas that seem ripe for some engaging repartee in the interstitial scenes between investigative activities. But the only moment in the game where this comes through is the bit in which Antony has to explain to Cleopatra why a jewelry store being named “Blood Diamonds” might be off-putting, as Cleopatra thinks it’s only natural that diamonds should be paid for in blood. I would have liked to see more moments like this one—more character interaction, more dry humor wrung from the absurdity of these two larger-than-life figures investigating a murder.

Antony and Cleopatra’s innovation with regards to the genre’s traditional gameplay is to add investigation sequences where both players are offered dialogue options to question people connected to the case, but the lack of distinction between the two characters here is disappointing—sometimes you can get the same question worded slightly differently, but only slightly. In combination with the lack of focus on developing the characters and their relationship, the lack of any game-mechanical difference makes the two-protagonist conceit feel somewhat pointless. In fact, since you always have time to ask all possible questions and it makes no difference who asks them, the interactivity isn’t doing much for the investigation scenes in general.

There are a number of different approaches one could take here, any of which I think could have been effective:

  1. Dispense with the two-PC conceit entirely and make the whole experience more like playing Consulting Detective with your friends, where you’re not really controlling multiple distinct characters, just trying to hash out among yourselves where you should focus your investigative energies. As in SHCD, make the investigation scenes static passages; have the planning sessions be the bulk of the actual gameplay and rely on discussion between players to keep them engaged otherwise.
  2. Conversely, take inspiration from some of Consulting Detective’s successors that were actually designed as multiplayer games (unlike the original) and make the characters mechanically distinct. Give them unique investigative abilities (with limitations on when and how often they can use them); give them actually distinct conversation options; have them notice different things. In IF, this is an opportunity to work in characterization in a way a board game can’t, but honestly, in my experience, if you give players the mechanical distinctions, their imaginations will often fill in the rest.
  3. Go the IF sleight-of-hand route and keep the two characters mechanically identical, but give them very distinct personalities. The player may always get the exact same information in the end, but the initial formulation of the questions is so different that it seems like it matters which PC is asking what. The illusion would fall apart on replay, of course, but SHCD-likes (if you will) usually aren’t replayable anyway.

The mystery itself also didn’t work quite as well for me; maybe there was something I didn’t find, but as far as I can tell, you’re meant to solve it by noticing a single discrepancy that you can’t in any way follow up on and extrapolating the whole situation from there, and that didn’t quite come together for me. I understand SHCD cases usually did require some leaps of logic (which I presume is part of the reason that it turned into a multiplayer event when it wasn’t designed as one—more likely that someone in your group will make the right connection), and my preferences here are probably shaped by having spent much more time with recent games like Detective: Modern Crime than with the original. But I would argue that what’s fitting for a game based on the controversial deductive style of Sherlock Holmes doesn’t feel so natural elsewhere, and in an interactive mystery I do prefer having firmer grounds for my conclusions.

I will admit that part of the problem here may be that I played this game with @Encorm—we tend to be pretty much on the same page, so we didn’t spend a lot of time debating what to do, which is clearly meant to be a significant aspect of the gameplay experience. But she and I have enjoyed working through games like Detective together, and I think it could be fun to have that kind of experience in IF form, especially if, again, it managed to lean into some of the things IF can do that board games can’t. Antony and Cleopatra, meanwhile, feels to me like it makes just enough changes to the formula to introduce new problems without fully committing to the strengths of the new medium.