Cheree: Remembering My Murder, by Robert Goodwin
Having seen me heap 1,500 words of scorn on The Fortuna for the various crimes arising from its use of AI tools, the reader with a vicious streak has perhaps been waiting for me to arrive at Cheree, in anticipation of another evisceration. This is another game that’s built around AI tools, though in a quite different way: instead of being structured like a traditional text adventure, instead it’s built as an extended chatbot session – the conceit is that you’re conversing with the ghost of a young woman who was murdered in Victorian times, and helping her to recover her lost memories. It’s by far the longest game I’ve seen in this format – my playthrough took maybe two or three hours? – and while there are a few traditional puzzles mixed in, the gameplay goes pretty much as you’d think: you’re just talking to a chatbot. Yet despite that, and my by now well-established anti-AI bona fides, I think it’s actually rather good?
(The reader with a vicious streak will be disappointed, but at least the game tangentially touches on the Whitechapel murders, so perhaps that will provide a measure of appeasement).
Explaining why requires talking through the game’s structure and plot in some detail, so let’s dig into that: as mentioned, the eponymous Cheree is dead, doesn’t fully remember the circumstances that led to it, and has come to the player character – turns out you’re a powerful medium, don’t you know – for help. This involves a methodical investigation of locations significant to her, which fortunately she can whisk you to via the powers of astral projection. Sometimes familiarity will spark a memory and she’ll share a few sentences of reminiscence. Then by asking probing questions you can help her remember more and more, which sometimes triggers a cryptogram puzzle. These puzzles are blatantly there for pacing reasons – they aren’t especially difficult and lack any in-game explanation – but they are successful at breaking up all that talking, and don’t outlast their welcome. Anyway, once solved, each will give you a clue; collect all nine clues and you reach the endgame.
The story that unfolds is pure pulp, but it’s well-made pulp; as mentioned, it feints in the direction of the Ripper killings, but doesn’t go too far in that direction and generally treats the subject tastefully. Instead, the story is more of a domestic gothic, featuring a gloomy, religion-obsessed patriarch, a pushy mother, a jealous sister, and her dangerous ex-military fiancé. The present-day section of the story also gets more complex with the introduction of one of Cheree’s still-living relatives who astral-projects her way into your little tete-a-tete. There are lots of twists and turns, and while it perhaps goes a bit over the top in the ending, it succeeded in keeping my interest throughout, and even surprised me once or twice.
Of course, rendering a plot like this as a chatbot rather than a more traditional form of IF is a very risky maneuver, since chatbots can be fragile beasts. The author has been very canny about this, however, disarming some of the most obvious traps through clever narrative and systems design. Like, one of the ways things can go wrong is if the player references something that the character could plausibly know about – often, the bot will either not understand, or err on the other side and start spouting Wikipedia summaries. This came up for me when Cheree made some comment about how it’s better to be better off, rather than better off than others; I told her that Thorstein Veblen would disagree. She responded by saying oh, she’d heard of him and his most famous book. From a systems perspective, this hits the sweet spot – it’s identifying the reference without going into too much detail – and it makes sense diegetically too, because as a ghost who’s been hanging around for more than a century but who can’t physically open up books to read them, she should be familiar with a bunch of stuff but not able to discuss them in depth. Sure, this isn’t infallible – at one point I asked her to go to a lighthouse, which she interpreted as reference to the Woolf novel – but it’s really quite well done.
Another common flaw is the way dialogue can sometimes become one-sided, leading the player to mechanically type in one thing after another in hopes of progressing. Here, Cheree has some agency, doing things like suggesting the player move on if the conversation isn’t progressing, and occasionally quizzing the player on some piece of trivia if they’re quiet for a while. There aren’t any consequences to guessing right or wrong, and yes, it’s clear that this is a game mechanic to sustain engagement, but it’s still fairly successful at accomplishing those goals while once again making sense in the world: if you were a bored ghost with a century to kill, you also would accumulate a ton of random knowledge and be bad at making small talk!
Voice can also break down in AI-driven conversation systems, as chopping a bunch of training text up and putting it into a blender can either lead to pure oatmeal or a wild swing between different tones. There’s a little of that here – Cheree’s set-piece narration of her memories is written in a faux 19th Century novel style, while she gets more informal in conversational back and forth with the player. Once more, though, her unique biography provides a plausible excuse: she’d presumably revert to the language of her living years when recalling them, while outside of that context she’d be more likely to use the colloquial language she’s picked over the decades since.
The final guardrail is the relationship system – progress in some places is gated by Cheree’s level of affection for you, which I assume means that players intentionally trying to mess with the game will hit a wall and have to behave in a way more appropriate to the narrative conceit in order to move the story forward. This seems like another smart, plausible safeguard, though I confess I can’t comment on the execution since I didn’t try to test the edges of the simulation.
Cheree is not without blemish, though. One clear misstep is that there’s far too much empty space. I can see how limiting the potential locations just to those where clues may be found could have made the game feel too mechanical, but the author overcorrected by providing lots of places that are just there to establish Cheree’s love of sightseeing – the graphics of some of these scenic overlooks are nice, sure, but in a game that’s already fairly long, I got bored of the filler. And actually, while we’re on the subject of the graphics, I was not a fan of the 3D models used for Cheree and her relative – they’re relatively low-poly, but what’s worse, Cheree is depicted in full loligoth style and often walks straight into the screen, meaning the camera clips into her crotch, while the relative is dressed in her underwear and spends a lot of time gyrating around in the corner regardless of what’s happening in the plot. Look, I’m not averse to a bit of sex appeal, but if that’s the remit, for me personally seeing a nubile young woman cavorting in her underthings while her friend talks about finding where her murderer dumped her body does not achieve the goal.
This rather cringey aspect of the visuals also combines poorly with a much cringier aspect of the narrative, which is the romance plot. Yes, as you’re building a positive relationship with Cheree, she starts to develop a crush on you, and the other girl isn’t averse to some light flirting either. On a certain level, I can understand her being a bit of a horndog – girl’s been dead a century! – but like many video-game romances, this one suffers from feeling like it goes way too fast. It also creeped me out because the chatbot format made me default to playing the game as myself: Cheree sometimes asks the player personal questions, I’m guessing as another way to keep up engagement, and I tended to respond on my own behalf rather than making stuff up. This means the whole time she was coming on to me, she knew I was married, which again, super awkward! The game does flag that it has a romance element, in fairness, but I think it would have been helpful to provide a little more instruction up front about how the player could engage with this aspect – as well as tuning Cheree to make it easier to put her in the friendzone, because she was persistent.
For all that these are real issues, though, they don’t have anything to do with the game’s fundamentals – another game using similar development tools and approaches could easily avoid them. As such, I think Cheree works on its own merits, but also as a positive example of why the IF community might want to engage with AI tools – this game would look radically different if the author had attempted to make it with traditional techniques. Notably, the author’s note indicates that it doesn’t use one of the existing LLMs or a firehose of scraped training data. Cheree is clearly hand-tuned, with human creativity creating strict boundaries for the AI sandbox; add in the smart design and narrative choices that mean the game plays to AI’s strengths rather than its weaknesses and you’ve got a recipe for success.