As a brief heads up, this game and likely all remaining Ectocomp parser games were played in conjunction with @EJoyce, who is much better at them than I am. That said, this review is solely my review, not hers - the only impact should be that you are all freed from more complaining about my lack of parser skills.
I always struggle with writing good reviews. Not writing well-written reviews (I hope!), but writing reviews of genuinely good games. It’s easy to write a wall of text about what I think a game did wrong or could do better. I personally find it much harder to go on at length about what I like about games and what they do well beyond “This was great! 10/10 would recommend.” In light of this, the reason I took so long to review The Spectators is simple: I really, really, REALLY like this game.
The Spectators is a game set in 16th-century Italy, and stars a cast of characters (mostly servants) going about their duties while observing the decline of the relationship between the jealous Duke and his new naive bride the Duchess. Each character’s chapter follows roughly the same arc: they need to do a task as part of their job, but they have something else that they desperately want to do. The puzzles all revolve around trying to fit said task in without detection by other staff (and therefore avoiding the harsh punishment that would come with it). While going about these tasks, each character gets another look at the Duchess’s life and the Duke’s controlling relationship with her, all the way to its inevitable end. This description falls short as it makes things sound much more repetitive than they are - the characters are rich and varied, as are the puzzles they need to solve, and I never felt bored. Even though we spent only a little time with each character I felt invested in each of them and their desires (even, in the case of one particular character, that investment is shown by disliking her intensely).
The player character writing here, I have to point out, is good but not too good. What I mean by this, of course, is that while I was fascinated with all of the PCs, none of them overshadow the story of the Duke and the Duchess. The Duchess is the center of the game and is the axis about which the plot spins around - catering to her and interacting with her shapes most of the servants’ days, and form the tasks that conflict with their own desires. While we never get to see the world through her eyes, we get an idea of the kind of woman (or girl, really) she is, and the shape of the Duke’s conflict with her. He’s not seen as much but his presence looms large over the entire castle. Whenever he makes an appearance on screen the story tension goes up a notch. The pacing of the story is superb as well, with the rising tension lasting exactly as long as it needs to before coming to a horrifying climax.
There’s a number of other touches to this game that I loved as well, particularly the attention to detail. The author has clearly done her research about the setting, both about the poem the game is adapted from and the real history behind the poem itself. I love all the little details, especially all the ones that turn out to be true (I had no idea dial locks were invented that early!). This extra effort made the whole game a delight from start to finish.
Finally, some spoiler discussion: I was not previously aware of the poem My Last Duchess, which this game is an adaptation of. I am fascinated by the general idea of IF adaptations of works, and in particular by the way this work pulled it off. It’s almost entirely written from whole cloth, but it follows the beats of the poem faithfully and is, in my opinion, an excellent adaptation.
I could keep going for a while, but I’ll conclude with this: Thank you, Amanda, for making this game. I had a great time playing it, and a great time challenging myself writing this review. I can’t wait for whatever you’ve got in the pipeline!