(Note from Alexis: This is a review written by both me, Alexis, and Haley, my gf, although since Haley originally transcribed it, it’s from her perspective. Please note that none of this is meant to be an attack on the work’s author or his writing prowess, and I deeply admire and appreciate the work and dedication that goes into a game like this, whether I ended up liking it or not.)
Over the last two weeks (though its felt more like a month) my partner and I have been playing this game together. We’re casual IF players so perhaps our little experience with these types of puzzles has something to do with our negative experiences, but besides that we’ve found finishing the story difficult due to flaws in the writing and game design.
Our first issue is with the bluntness and amount of exposition. John Croft’s house was the first investigation of the game, but the papers in his house explained so much backstory and implied events so clearly that the mystery was dashed from the first scene of the game. Had the notes been more cryptic or sparse, we could have formed theories and made predictions. George, the pub guy, has a memory so good it eliminates intrigue by dumping so much exposition. It robs the player of the chance to investigate Barker ourselves by, for example, noticing him in the pub when we visit and then asking George about him, and perhaps trying to talk to Barker. Even better, had Moore not been in the asylum yet we could have listened to the two interact, but instead much of the story seems to have already happened. The investigations are fun when the information is garnered from a number of sources, but when it isn’t worked for the gameplay is unsatisfactory.
The knowledge system also discourages exploration and validation of hunches. Rather than being free to explore the city and conclude for ourselves after firsthand examination which areas aren’t relevant to the task at hand and which are, getting to discover locations that make us wonder what will happen there when they do become relevant, we are simply told up front by the game (in a meta narrative way that breaks immersion) what places are relevant. Moreover, through these knowledge flags we are forced to go through every motion the author planned in the order that he planned them. Again, when that linearity is unavoidable, without even getting to discover for ourselves that’s the order they have to happen in. An example of where such linearity is purely unnecessary would be when we find out that Lucy has left her house. We left the Henry’s and went to Barker’s, and we were unable to enter, we instinctively tried to go to St. James Palace because it was nearby. The game prevented this because we had not found Lucy’s burned note in the fireplace, so our instinct was worthless given the way the game was programmed.
The sleep system is egregious and heavily restricts freedom in a number of ways, including by even more rigidly forcing us to do things in certain orders via the time of day mechanism even when they don’t have to be done in that order necessarily, and also limiting what we can do. Its worst use is after Barker tries to kill us and kidnaps Lucy. Being forced to go directly to sleep after her abduction and being frozen as Barker absconds with her is patently absurd storytelling. If we weren’t supposed to find her yet, we could have tried to give chase, gotten lost in the city, and then decided with a heavy heart to go home /for ourselves/. Instead the game forces us go home, which since that we believe she’s going to be tortured to death, is infuriating.
The writing itself brought particular irritation to my partner. Besides the historical fiction kitsch of interacting with famous people from the past, the use of cliches and poor imagery became annoying and made immersion difficult. Maher only describes the main character’s feelings explicitly and directly, telling you how to feel, or gives objective descriptions of locations, never anything in the middle. He prefers to tell everything rather than using atmospheric description to convey emotion indirectly through superfluous set dressing, metaphors, similes, and deft emphasis.
The topics list hurt immersion as well as making conversation feel boring. If you are told explicitly what a character knows, all the player must do is loop through that list rather than think about what information you might be able to collect from them. This gives a lawnmowering effect to the conversations and feels less like a game. The conversation system also makes you repeat ‘ask ___ about ___’ until you’ve exhausted the character’s knowledge and returns a summary, which is again a meta narrative break in immersion.
In sum, the game feels railroaded even though a lot of IF is linear, because it is constricting to play. It doesn’t let you find things out first hand, directly experiencing the story; instead, it tells you about things that have already happened. Similarly, it gives too many answers and too little choice. Goals and their means are given cheaply. There should have been some balance between knowing exactly what to do next and having no idea, but this balance is only rarely struck (the very clever gun puzzle, for example). It was a fascinating and large game made with obvious dedication, but it felt like wake up, get infodump, sleep, repeat.