Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

Doctor Jeangille’s Letters, by manonamora

I can’t think of a piece of IF that’s made me feel dumber than Doctor Jeangille’s Letters. That’s not because it’s got fiendish brainteasers or elevated-but-gnomic prose, I should say – on those scores, this epistolary mystery is accessible to a fault. No, it’s because the game’s eponymous letters are written in a script-handwriting font that after ten minutes started bothering my aging eyes, and only after I’d given myself a headache by persevering to the end did I realize 1) there’s a settings menu in the corner that allows you to shift to something more readable; and 2) I’d actually noticed this menu when I started playing, jotted down a note about the cunning way it rotates in and out of view when summoned, then promptly forgot about it. So yeah, if the game gave me eyestrain, I have only myself to blame – although, now that I think about it, if it hadn’t been so compelling it would have been easier for me to stop, close my eyes for a bit, and consider changing the font, so maybe we should just say the fault is 50/50?

The idea of telling a story entirely through letters goes back almost to the beginning of the history of the novel – partially because in a time of widespread letter-writing, the format added a touch of immediacy and verisimilitude, much as today’s works of fiction (static or interactive) may incorporate emails or social media posts as gestures towards realism, but also because making each chapter its own letter provides a clean structure that wraps up each segment of the tale while inviting the reader to flip another page and see what happens next. So it is with Doctor Jeangille’s Letters, each of which ends on some note that points towards the next exciting development to come. At first, this is simply a matter of wanting to see how the eponymous heroine gets on after she returns to her small French hometown; she’s coming back with a medical degree and a mandate to minister to the health of her former neighbors, but she’s also fleeing a scandal in the capital, one that seems to be wrapped up with the lovely Olympia, to whom her overheated missives are directed. She attempts to push pass the farmers’ wariness of a female doctor; she weathers her parents’ misguided attempts at matchmaking; she meets a charming noblewoman who’s taken up temporary residence in the town, and tries to keep Olympia from feeling jealous. Soon matters escalate beyond this domestic melodrama, however; first livestock goes missing, then one of the village’s children…

The irony powering the game’s engine is that it’s able to go big even as it’s staying small. The prose is all overheated Romantic gushing. Here’s the good doctor on her parting from Olympia:

The breeze danced with your chestnut curls, untangling and entangling your so lovely locks. Your flushed cheeks, on which I had laid my kisses only moments earlier, were now beaded with tears. Your hand, which had refused to let me go, trembled.

Her inamorata’s eyes are “emeralds”; when she considers her grievances, “rage consumed my body inside out, for at that moment, I was only flame.” It’s gloriously over the top, and if it’s occasionally a little silly and marred by the occasional maladroit word choice, it nonetheless is deeply enjoyable, and clearly establishes the doctor’s passionate but often-ingenuous personality.

The writing nonetheless is capable of subtlety, too. Olympia’s replies to the doctor, for example, are never visible, but reading between the lines it’s possible to get glimpses of what she’s like – and my sense was that she’s decidedly more pragmatic, and observant, than her lover realizes. The choice mechanics are also understated. For most of the game, interaction involves clicking on a key sentence or two in each letter to cycle it between various options, before choosing which one to include in the letter’s final draft. These options don’t generally lead to significantly different decisions, but rather give the player a chance to add slight shading to the doctor’s impressions of someone they’ve newly met, or express either certainty or qualms about a particular course of action. This does mean that every once in a while, I was surprised by the way an obliquely-phrased choice wound up being interpreted, but on the whole that’s in keeping with the doctor’s impulsive nature.

So long as I’m listing flaws, I should say that the game’s mystery plot is not exactly a head-scratcher, and the doctor’s inability to put two and two together occasionally risks drifting across the line separating a laudable desire to think well of people from simple thick-headedness. And the ending I got was exciting and wrapped up the story well, but I was also surprised that my choices didn’t put the doctor in substantially more peril than she wound up experiencing (on the other hand, in an epistolary piece it’s a little hard to sustain suspense about the fate of the protagonist – “Dear Olympia, then I was horribly murdered” is a letter that’s not going to make it into the post – so there’s an argument for just embracing the plot-protection that comes with the format). But this is an endearing, engaging game, with likeable characters and an enjoyable interaction mechanic, so much so that I can’t even hold the eyestrain headache it gave me against it.