Eerie Estate Agent is a newish piece from Choice of Games, created by writer Gavin Inglis. The premise is that you’re an estate agent (or realtor, in American terms) and you’re responsible for getting 57 Crowther Terrace rented out. Your unpleasant boss is just looking for an excuse to fire you and the other employees around the office don’t exactly have your back, so the stakes are high. The problem is that no one seems to want to stick around the place for long, possibly because of all the spooky stuff that happens there.
Inglis identifies as a writer more than a game designer, and that shows, in ways both good and bad. I’ve often thought that the actual prose quality was a bit of a weak spot in many Choice of Games offerings: the text in Choice of the Dragon, for instance, is typically utilitarian, and though some of the later works become more ambitious, the results are not universally happy.
Eerie Estate Agent has a much more distinctive and engaging voice than these: breezy but well-controlled, lightly humorous, sometimes casting the protagonist as a not entirely nice person. There’s a good sense of the Edinburgh setting (not perhaps surprising, as Inglis seems to know the place well). In the eerie happenings, he tends to hit a good middle ground between the creepy and the funny, going for paranormal indications that are amusing but that would probably be distinctly unnerving if they happened a lot in real life. (Rooms that periodically fill up with the scent of tea? Indications that seem to resemble the scurrying of a dozen ghostly rodents?)
A down side is that Eerie Estate Agent doesn’t deliver very strongly on Choice of Games’ traditional strength: lots and lots of agency.
Choice of Dragons, Choice of Broadsides and Choice of Romance all give the player tremendous latitude to define the protagonist’s character and behavior. Sometimes that comes at the expense of pacing and narrative coherency; but if you want to play as ambitious or cruel or generous or kind, you can. Eerie Estate Agent makes some gestures in that direction by sometimes giving you options that allow you to choose how you’ll relate to your boss, coworkers and clients, and ruthlessness is one of the stats visibly tracked in the sidebar. And yet there are several occasions when you’re not offered a particular flavor of option at all (as for instance in the late game where you’re forced to choose among ways to sabotage a coworker’s efforts, with no chance to try to be friendlier). At other times, an attempt to take the course of kindness or generosity or simple responsibility is thwarted by the storyline, forcing the player back into the linear arc that will lead to the narratively required conflicts.
Being able to change the plot isn’t the only good thing that interactive story can do, and I would have been content to trade in some of that character-and-world-shaping power for other benefits, such as the ability to interactively explore a more pre-set narrative arc, or play a game system to optimize the outcome. But Eerie Estate Agent thwarts those agendas as well, to a large degree.
First, you might think that the satisfying narrative outcome would be the one where you finally find out what is really going on at 57 Crowther. But in only one of the seven or eight playthroughs I tried did I feel I had come remotely close to this — when a seance scene ran longer than usual — and even then, I didn’t really feel that I’d plumbed the mystery.
And exactly what mystery it is changes from game to game! It appears to be the case that the story is selecting randomly from a number of possible backstories to the haunting, and presents a different one each time; which means that, even if you manage to get some extra clues in one playthrough, the next playthrough isn’t necessarily going to be giving you information that matches up with those. This decision creates some variability in the player’s experience without, in my view, substantially improving the replay value. All the same significant events occur each time, so the cosmetic dressing of the exact details of the house’s possession doesn’t matter all that much, and simply thwarts any player attempt to form a coherent view of What Really Happened.
As an optimizable game, Eerie Estate Agent is a bit peculiar as well. It is possible to achieve something resembling a win state, and possible also to lose in a way that is probably good for your character. But there are a number of story elements that appear to depend on states that aren’t explicitly tracked in the stats, and some options that succeed or fail silently depending on what your stats are: for instance, some late-stage negotiations (as far as I can tell) succeed only if you’ve previously demonstrated sufficient ruthlessness, but the failure text doesn’t give you a lot of information about why things went wrong, if you happen not to have your stats in the right place. This combination of features makes it fairly hard to play with the intention of optimizing for a particular outcome; there just isn’t enough transparency about the underlying mechanism.
This combination of features means that Eerie Estate Agent falls into a somewhat unsatisfying middle territory. (At least, I found it unsatisfying.) You can’t play expressively, picking the choices that outline a particular character concept of your own devising, because the choices are sometimes too constrained, forcing you to be unkind or selfish even if you weren’t trying to play that way. But it’s also hard to play to win, or play to optimize outcomes for the character you’re inhabiting, because so many of the important switches are hidden.
Despite all these caveats, I should say that I did enjoy playing Eerie Estate Agent, as the writing is perky and the overall arc is fun. But the design trade-offs are such that it’s more coherent on a first playing than a lot of choicescript pieces while yielding less satisfaction on replaying. And I came away not feeling that I had a strong answer to the question of why this story needed to be interactive in the first place.