IF Comp 2013: Bell Park, Youth Detective (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)

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Bell Park, Youth Detective is a choice-based YA-style mystery game from this year’s IF Comp. It is playable online, and will likely take less than half an hour to complete. Review after the jump, and there will be spoiler space before any significant discussion of spoilers.

The premise here (and the game doesn’t try to hide its silliness) is that you’re a seasoned twelve-year-old detective with a successful history of helping your friends out with things, in the style of Encyclopedia Brown or Cam Jansen. We don’t actually get told what the bulk of your previous cases have been, but it seems fair to assume that they were along the lines of discovering who took your friend’s lunch money. During the first few scenes, Bell speaks with the earnestness of a smart kid who has figured out what adults want to hear and has no greater desire than to conform to those expectations. “Reading is the key to good detectiving,” you chirp on the first screen, explaining why a successful detective is likely to be found in the library.

Then, one morning, you get called in by a guy running a tech conference to help him figure out who committed murder in one of his speaker prep rooms. The body is still on the floor.

This, it strikes me, is the kind of thing that would have sent Cam or Encyclopedia running for their mothers in traumatized horror, but Bell Park more or less takes it in stride. After a bit of sputtering about how this isn’t really the sort of mystery you solve, you then spend a while interviewing suspects and looking around the place, and eventually — more by accident than by design — you wind up working it out. This isn’t a challenge. As far as I can tell it’s not possible to lose, regardless of what you do. The murder investigation framework allows you to dole out bits of plot and backstory to yourself, but you’re going to get to an answer in the end.

The writing level also does this odd child-to-adult switch: it starts out fairly cheerful and simple, but as the story goes on, the vocabulary gets more complex, the jokes are clearly pitched at adults, and eventually some non-G-rated swearing appears.

The story is delivered at a fair pace and is written well, with some entertaining side characters; I especially enjoyed the female hacker who insisted that her name can only properly be expressed in a monospaced font. The interactive aspect makes it slightly more interesting than it would have been as a straight story — directing an investigation yourself is a bit more compelling than watching someone else do so — but the player’s choices otherwise appear to have fairly little impact on how things play out.

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The solution turns out to be that the speaker, a notorious Luddite, was in fact strangled by an AI that had just that morning come to life inside the LAN of the conference.

This is a ridiculous outcome, and it inverts the assumptions of the sorts of stories “Bell Park” is spoofing. At least, with Encyclopedia Brown — and from what I recall Cam Jansen is similar — the idea is to engage kids’ critical thinking skills by describing a little scenario to them, then seeing if they can work out what’s unusual about it. And “Bell Park” sort of encourages the player to think it’s going to go that way too, with the hacker giving Bell an encouraging little speech about noticing what’s “weirdly weird” in the scenario. But then the solution turns out to be something wildly outside the realm of common sense or physical possibility, and you figure it out not by accurately solving the case, but by making wrong accusations until the truth comes out sideways.

On top of all that, even if we imagined a world where spontaneous AI generation were a possibility (and our hacker character does her best to emphasize that it isn’t), the AI also has the ability to wave its cables around like tentacles. I have no idea how this is supposed to work physically, unless the deal is that the LAN has actually been inhabited by Cthulhu.

Even so, the implausibility of the solution is less disturbing than the implausibility of the human behavior. It’s hard to imagine what sort of person would ever invite some kid to investigate a murder scene. I mean, just let that sink in for a second. The adult is worried about his conference being canceled, so his response is to traumatize and endanger a child and to contaminate the crime scene of a murder case.

So the initial events of the story require so massive a breach of common sense and ethics that everything afterwards feels a little off anyway. I’m not really sure what to take from this. I enjoyed the story, but at some deeper level I didn’t find it coherent — not in the sense that the events were unlikely (which they were), but in the sense that I’m not quite sure what message or feeling the author was intending to induce.

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