LudoNarraCon 2021: Song of Farca

Song of Farca first hit my radar during a previous Steam Game Festival. It was a demo I was keen to try out, being a detective game featuring a female protagonist, but unfortunately time got the better of me and I missed my chance before the end of the event.

Fortunately, Wooden Monkeys project made a reappearance at last month’s LudoNarraCon and so it was added to my priority list. And after completing the prologue around an hour later, it was added to my wishlist too. Although it felt more like a visual novel and less lifelike than the other detective title I’d checked out, Murder Mystery Machine, there was still enough investigation in the gameplay and intrigue in the narrative to make me sit up and pay attention.

The story takes place in the city of Farca, during a time where technology isn’t just a part of everyday life but has made some things impossible without it. IT corporations gradually gain more influence and have become a modern aristocracy which couldn’t care less about the law or mere mortals. The corrupt government and criminal organisations are still trying to resist the powerful corporations, but they know that their golden age is over and Farca entering a cyberpunk future.

Residents are left with no choice but to turn to private investigators to solve their problems. As detective Isabella Song, you must uncover the crimes that the police have turned a blind eye to due to pressure from the mafia. You’ll have the help of gadgets, a small army of drones and your intellect; and even being under house-arrest for becoming involved in a bar fight won’t stop you from doing your job. After all, it’s no problem for a hacker to get online and find what they need.

A client is already calling you with your first case at the start of the prologue. A prototype eTerrier was stolen from the CTO of ApportPlastik while it was being taken for a walk in a local park and his young daughter is now heartbroken. After finding out where the dog was last seen, you digitally head over to the location and do what you do best: hack into the security cameras to start your investigation, download as much information as you can and track down the criminals.

Several useful abilities are at your disposal. Accessing a camera allows you to interact with the objects within its view and jumping between them all will give you a complete top-down overview of an area. You might come across a drone or a cargo bot which will enable some movement within the location. There may also be computers or tablets to unlock, but you’ll need to first figure out a distraction if these items are being guarded by an employee or security guard.

For example: there’s a drone in the park but it’s blocked by two children who are misbehaving. Using the available cameras, you come across a fountain switch – what better way to attract the kids by turning on the water? This means the drone is then free to scan the area and turn on an alarm, alerting the guard and causing them to be drawn away from their office. Hacking into their computer there lets you access the CCTV footage and download the video so your investigation can continue.

This footage can be digitally enhanced through a simple visual puzzle to give you the face of a person, who can then be searched for on the internet and a profile created from the details uncovered. You can also see the plates of the van used to take the eTerrier, which can be analysed by your artificial intelligence (AI) Maurice to give you its current location. All of this information is added to your digital investigation board and it’s here that you can see all the links between the evidence.

Unlike the mind-map board in Murder Mystery Machine where it’s up to the player to make the connections, they’re automatically displayed for you. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any detective work involved though; sometimes you’ll need to call the people for whom you’ve gained contact numbers and see what you can get out of them. You might have to prove that they’re lying by showing them a particular item or make a conclusion based on what you already know to back them into a corner.

Your assumptions won’t always be correct however, and wrong answers could have consequences. You can only talk to people for as long as they wish to tolerate your presence and jumping to a wrong conclusion could result in them ending the conversation. Players will need to use their detective skills to rely on the facts and avoid falling for any lies told by the suspects, because your decisions will affect the course of the story and you’ll need to live with the outcome of your actions.

I’m not sure I sure much of this mechanic during the prologue but the Steam page advises that Isabella’s situation will become more complicated as the narrative progresses: “The stakes get higher, and the various plot strands come together to form a single story. The choices you make in investigations have important consequences to the plot. Do you convict the suspect that all the evidence is pointing to or dig deeper? What collateral damage will you leave behind you?”

While Murder Mystery Machine is a game based in reality, Song of Farca feels a little more story-based and futuristic; and where Isabella’s methods are reliant on technology rather than old-fashioned detective work, the gameplay feels more focused on the conversations you have with other characters. It’s still up to the player to lead the investigation though and find the evidence that will lead them to the correct suspect. It’s pleasing when you succeed in making a correct logical leap between clues or solve a visual puzzle.

Song of Farca is due to release this summer, so hopefully we won’t have long to wait to find out what Isabella has gotten herself involved in. Until then, give Wooden Monkeys a follow on Twitter to stay up-to-date on their progress.

LudoNarraCon 2021: Murder Mystery Machine

Regular Later Levels’ visitors will know I have a thing for detective games. Give me a storyline featuring a hardboiled investigator, hidden clues and devious crooks, along with gameplay where it’s up to the player to solve the crime and I’m there.

It’s therefore no surprise that Murder Mystery Machine was added to my wishlist immediately after coming across Blazing Griffin’s project on Steam in December 2019. Teasing a series of murders, disappearances and conspiracies, the trailer showed two protagonists trying to link them together. I’ve now had the opportunity to try a demo of the game for myself during LudoNarraCon at the end of April – and I can’t wait to get my sleuthing on during the full release.

Players join fresh-faced rookie Cassandra Clarke on her first day with the District Crime Agency (DCA) where she’s teamed with a reluctant burnt-out detective named Nate Huston. They’re sent to investigate the murder of a prominent politician which at first seems to be a botched robbery; but the evidence soon entwines them in a complex, interconnected series of crimes which are anything but an open-and-shut case. Will you be up to the challenge to discover the truth?

Justin Alae-Carew and Neil McPhillips from Blazing Griffin gave some insight into their game’s design during a livestream for LudoNarraCon. Because the company spans video game, film and television development and production, they wanted to combine these areas and create an interesting title which felt like a police drama you’d see on TV. The result is a ‘detective mystery puzzle game which combines a few genres in one’ and takes place across eight episodes made up of several scenes.

The demo features three scenes for a case and each of these follows a similar format. You start by speaking to the witnesses or suspects if any are present then comb the environment for clues, sometimes having to turn or zoom into the isometric view to get a better look from a different angle. Every piece of evidence found is placed on a mind-map board where it can be linked together, and connections made can give the detectives new ideas and dialogue options.

For example: you discover that the politician has a political rival so could a hit have been arranged? Talking to the secretary reveals she was told not to answer questions from the press and didn’t tell anyone else of his whereabouts. Linking these two pieces of information on the mind-map causes Cassandra to realise that this theory isn’t possible so it rules out the rival as a suspect; and a further conversation with the secretary as a result uncovers some useful information.

Murder Mystery Machine, video game, office, secretary, detectives, sofa, Cassandra, Nate

During their livestream, Alae-Carew and McPhillips shared that the game started out as a ‘procedural crime scene generator’ and then evolved into something else. They wanted to create a freeform title where players were given a lot of freedom to investigate, as many current detective releases streamline the gameplay too much or include puzzles not related to the investigation. Focusing on a detective’s skills including powers of logic and deduction, and a desire to include a narrative led to what is now Murder Mystery Machine.

The biggest challenge the development team faced from day one was working with people who were used to creating linear narratives for television: how do you emulate a TV or film approach to a story but give the player some control over it at the same time? The writers were trained to understand that you can never be entirely sure what the person in charge of the controls is going to do, and that you therefore need to write for all the different possibilities.

With a television show, it’s usually the case that the characters know more than the viewer or vice-versa; but with a video game, you somehow need to marry these two together so the player knows just as much as the protagonist. Scenes therefore had to be constructed in a way where information is uncovered in a careful fashion and too much isn’t revealed at once. You should never be able to solve a case before the game has given you, Cassandra and Nate all of the necessary pieces to do so.

Using the clues gathered and linked together on your mind-map board, you’re asked to answer questions about the who, what, why, where, when and how at the end of each scene. You can submit your evidence once you’re happy with your conclusions but be warned: you only get three attempts to get it right and missing any links reduces your detective score. I made a guess during the final scene without getting all of the deductions and had my grade decreased as a result.

Based on what was shared by Alae-Carew and McPhillips, it sounds as though there’s going to be an overarching story rather than just individual cases during Murder Mystery Machine. Some will be personal stories, such as how the protagonists progress and build their relationship, while something much larger is teased and will be revealed at the end of the season. The point out that they wanted to add a lot of depth: ‘Nobody is a straight-up criminal, but nobody is a saint either.’

Murder Mystery Machine is already available on Apple Arcade, and PC and console players will be able to get their hands on the game very soon to find out whether they have what it takes to be a detective. Check out Blazing Griffin on Twitter for further announcements.

Murder on the Nile: not so much a mystery

Although video games are my preferred form of entertainment, I’ve found myself branching out during lockdown. Escape-rooms-in-boxes and choose-your-own-detective-adventures have provided a nice break away from the screen after working from home all day.

Jigsaws have also featured since completing the Space Observatory version of Ravensburger’s Exit Puzzles last April. The twist with these is that the game doesn’t end when you’ve managed to fit the 759-pieces together: the picture you’re trying to create is slightly different to the one on the box and contains symbols and numbers. Figure out the answer to the clues and you’ll come up with a way to ‘escape’ the situation depicted in the puzzle, such as meteor hurtling towards the planet.

When my other-half and I chose to stream The Witch’s Kitchen version in February, we soon discovered that our cat Zelda wanted to get involved. This made for several relaxed evenings on Twitch because we were able to sit back and talk to our friends in chat while she rolled around on camera. It therefore seemed like a good idea to line up a few more jigsaws for our 90-days of streaming for GameBlast21, and we’re currently hosting a weekly Cat & Chat segment every Friday.

Unfortunately, my decision to start with Murder on the Nile from the Classic Mystery range by University Games wasn’t the best one. I made the silly mistake of not checking whether the jigsaw would fit out our puzzle-board before the stream and it turned out to be too big. We had to move the 1000-pieces to our dining-room table the following day where I continued to work on them over the next couple of weeks, so I could finally complete the picture and solving the murder-mystery.

Like the Exit Puzzles series, these aren’t your standard jigsaws and the three-stage premise will appeal to anyone who likes detective narratives. The first stage is to read the booklet that comes in the box to find out about the case and the villain you’re trying to catch. You next put together the puzzle, which is harder than it sounds because you aren’t provided with an image. Then you can unleash your inner private investigator (PI) and discover the clues within the picture to piece together the evidence and solve the crime.

The story for Murder on the Nile is written by Bruce Whitehall and features Hercule Poirot, the fictional Belgian detective created by author Agatha Christie. After being hired to investigate the disappearance of silver cutlery at the home of Lady Nancy Stuart in Stratford-Upon-Avon, he is invited on a trip to Egypt to celebrate her 60th birthday. Disaster strikes when her body is found on the floor of a steamboat saloon. It’s up to you to piece together the puzzle (pun intended) and figure out whodunnit.

Murder on the Nile, jigsaw puzzle

This is probably one of the most difficult and, despite the added narrative element, most boring jigsaws I’ve ever attempted. The setting means that two-thirds of the image is taken up by wood-panelled walls so there are plenty of straight lines and many shades of brown. Although most of the pieces are unique in shape unlike the Exit Puzzles range, it took longer to fit them together because there’s very little in the image other than a few objects mentioned in the story.

This is unfortunately where Murder on the Nile’s biggest problem lies. I remember having one of these murder-mystery puzzles when I was a lot younger and not being able to figure out who the killer was, because I couldn’t connect the clues in the image. That kind of challenge was what I was expecting to have now and with all the knowledge I’ve gained from playing various detective games over the past year, I was looking forward to putting my newfound PI skills to the test.

But the jigsaw only contained one real clue and this pretty much names the criminal for you immediately – and that’s if you can’t figure out who it is from reading the story alone, because it’s far too apparent. I was hoping there was something I’d overlooked or that I’d fallen into the classic trap of finding a red-herring because the evidence was so obvious it felt like a trick. But no: as I held the back pages of the booklet up to a mirror to read the reversed conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

It’s highly unlikely I’ll bother picking up another entry in the Classic Mystery series. The image created and clues revealed just weren’t good enough to make the length of time it took to complete the puzzle worthwhile. If you’re a person who likes difficult jigsaws and isn’t so interested in there being a narrative, you might find some enjoyment in it; but if it’s the detective angle which interests you, there are better experiences out there.

If anyone has any suggestions for better puzzle ranges we could use for our Cat & Chat streams, please do let me know!

Calling card: hunting the killer on Kickstarter

I’ve always loved video games with a detective spin. There’s just something about going up against an unknown villain and putting your wits to the test: will you be able to piece together the clues and use your intelligence to foil their evil plan?

The 2020 lockdown here in the UK was difficult but if you tried to stay positive, there were a few silver-linings to be thankful for. One was having the time to try some new experiences and I found myself branching out from the digital and into physical games. My other-half and I completed jigsaw puzzles with hidden challenges; played escape-rooms-in-boxes during power-cuts; and even got to star in our very own noir-themed choose-your-own-adventure thanks to a lovely Christmas gift.

One thing we haven’t done yet though is start Hack Forward. This was a product I backed on Kickstarter in February 2020 after being intrigued by its promise to provide a challenging experience that would be ‘so carefully designed that it may be impossible to distinguish reality from fiction’. Despite receiving the box late last year, it still remains unopened on our bookcase – for no other reason than that we’ve had plenty of other games to play and just haven’t got around to it yet.

We’ll need to hurry up and get around to it though because the Key Enigma team launched their next campaign for new game Calling Card this week. And this time around, instead of going after a hacker who has stolen data, video recordings and information about some very important people, players will be hunting down a killer. It can be hard to know what to expect if you’ve never tried an escape-room-in-a-box before, but the demo available through the official website will give you a good idea.

I gave it a go myself earlier this month after an email from the developers to previous backers and although I won’t say too much so as not to spoil it, you start by reading a news website article about a missing person named Roy Mirlo. Here you find a link which enables you to get in touch with his father and the investigation commences. The first step is to figure out how to get in touch with a certain company and if you do it correctly, you’ll receive an email containing further details from a member of their staff.

You can then use the information gathered so far to track down another website where you’re presented with a several cryptic puzzles. The answers to these form a series of passwords which then need to be provided to someone via an online telephone: call the number, choose which character you want to speak as and enter the words in the correct order. The demo ends on after what appears to be a live-stream where players are left with a cliff-hanger; I guess we’ll just have to wait for the full release of Calling Card to find out more.

Calling Card, escape room in a box, game, papers, documents

I’ve played similar games in the past and their sticking point always seems to be chatbot quality. You usually end up having to talk to a character via some sort of messenger and it doesn’t go particularly well; the bot has difficulty understanding your responses or sends a reply completely unrelated to the question you asked. This completely takes away the immersion built up and in the worst-case scenario, can ruin the experience entirely if you’re given a detail you shouldn’t have yet uncovered.

I’m pleased to say I didn’t experience any issues like this while conversing with Roy’s father and a journalist during Calling Card and the conversation appeared to flow naturally. And although I didn’t need it because the puzzles were all logical (even though one of them required a paper and pen), they’re happy to provide you with support if you ask for a hint in the chatbox. It’s easy to see how quickly players will become immersed in the story of Roy if the rest of the game runs as well as the demo.

The official Kickstarter page is now live so I’d highly recommend heading over there to find out more. Backers will have to review clues and find inconsistencies in interrogations, emails and calls to suspects, while investigating through old documents and recordings. Can you find the necessary evidence to solve the crimes committed and prevent the villain from putting anyone else in danger?

As mentioned above, I really enjoy detective games and Calling Card looks like it’s going to be fun interactive experience. I’ve made my pledge and am looking forward to the release in October 2021 – but before then, I should really get around to trying Hack Forward. With a long weekend coming up for Easter soon and nothing to do except play games and eat chocolate eggs thanks to lockdown, it seems like the perfect time for Pete and I see how intelligent we are when compared to a hacker.

Check out the Kickstarter campaign for all the details, and the Key Enigma website for information about their previous games. You can also give them a follow on Twitter to stay up-to-date with their project’s progress.

A puzzling situation

This Friday is National Puzzle Day: an event established to celebrate puzzles and encourage everyone to participate in more of them. Not only are they enjoyable, but they can also help with concentration, brain function and stress-relief.

I’ve loved puzzles in all their forms for as long as I can remember. It began with jigsaws, newspaper crosswords and the number rounds in Countdown with my grandmother after school when I was small; then moved on to video games and the adventure genre after finding The Secret of Monkey Island as a nine-year old. I’ve continued to play all sorts of puzzle games throughout my adult life and it’s likely I’ll still have a controller in my hand for as long as I can.

Extra time off over the Christmas period in December meant my other-half and I were able to get stuck into more video games, and Röki was probably my favourite from the holidays. Inventory puzzles in the classics can be confusing – take the monkey wrench from Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge or the cat-hair moustache from Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned as examples – but modern titles like this have put a new spin on them so they feel much more intuitive.

We also played Call of the Sea, a beautiful-looking game which laid out its puzzles like a series of escape rooms. Last year’s COVID lockdowns meant we were unable to take part in any real-life experiences but releases like this have meant we’re still able to participate in digital format. The Escaper is well worth a look if you’re a fan of escape rooms; our friends in chat joined in with figuring out the solutions when we streamed it in April, so it turned into a fun social evening.

You could also try an escape-room-in-a-box such as the Exit The Game series by Thames & Kosmos. When a power-cut meant having to spend a Friday evening in darkness recently, we finally got around to opening The Mysterious Museum edition after purchasing it over a year ago. It turned out to be an interactive story with physical objects, with some great puzzles taking place outside the box, and being huddled around the table by candlelight just made the experience even more fitting.

How about a jigsaw instead if that doesn’t float your boat? The Escape Puzzle series from Ravensburger is an interesting take on them that gives it a twist. It’s not as simple as putting the pieces together: they can fit in multiple places, allowing you to form items that will assist in your ‘escape’ from the scenario. We completed the Space Observatory version last year and found it to be a nice escape from our laptops after spending so much time in front of a screen during the lockdown.

If a detective story is more your thing, I’d highly recommend the Post Mortem Los Angeles series by The Mysterious Package Company. We really enjoyed the Death in La-La Land version after it was sent to us as a gift by Kevin from The Lawful Geek. Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure complete with physical items that come hidden away in evidence bags, where you must direct the investigation and figure out whodunnit before submitting your final report to the Global Detective Agency.

This was an awesome gift because I love detective games. The Painscreek Killings was my favourite from last year (even though it was published in 2017) because it gives the player plenty of independence in gathering the clues and putting them together. January got off to a good start with Blacksad: Under the Skin thanks to a Christmas present from friend-of-the-blog Phil as it was a grown-up adventure with a smooth noir vibe and great protagonist – I really hope a sequel is released one day.

Detectives don’t only have to be hard-boiled private investigators or enthusiastic journalists though. For a technology-based take on the genre, give Greyhat: A Digital Detective Adventure a go and become a hacker searching for their missing daughter. I’d also recommend picking up Interrogation Files: Port Landsend if you’re a fan of full-motion video (FMV) and the search mechanic used in Her Story, a good 2020 release where you must choose who you want to arrest for the crime and see the outcome unfold in court.

Some people prefer their puzzles to be without a strong narrative and if that’s you, maybe The Witness will be just the thing to entertain you for numerous hours. The challenges get progressively harder the further you make it through the game but still manage to retain a relaxing quality thanks to the lovely visuals. It’s nice to turn on the game and complete a couple of puzzles whenever you have some spare time, then step away from the screen to mull over the one that’s stumping you before returning to it the following day.

As mentioned above, I appreciate puzzles of all kinds – but there’s one exception. I’ve never been able to get my head around chess challenges despite being taught how to play as a kid because my brain seems to switch off as soon as I see them. The 7th Guest is a classic horror game from the 1993 with a creepy horror theme but it contained too many chess-based puzzles for my liking! Hopefully I’ll be able to get through them if this title is voted for as part of our GameBlast21 marathon stream schedule.

So which puzzle games are you going to be playing for National Puzzle Day on Friday? If you have any recommendations, please leave them in the comments below!

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

Death in La-La Land: choose-your-own-detective

My love for detective games has grown over the past couple of years, and in 2020 particularly. They’ve provided a way to socialise with friends remotely while at home during the lockdown and many evenings have been spent trying to figure out whodunnit.

There’s just something about a private-investigator-protagonist which draws me in. I enjoy storylines which feature hardboiled detectives, hidden clues and devious crooks, along with gameplay mechanics where it’s up to the player to piece together the evidence and solve the case. Streaming such titles has added a new element to the fun: friends have been able to watch while we’ve been on Twitch, sharing their suggestions and theories in chat so it has felt as though we’re all playing together.

My favourite experience last year was The Painscreek Killings, where village residents reveal their secrets through diaries and letters and you must figure out who the murderer is. Contradiction: Spot the Liar! was also a good one because I’m a full-motion video (FMV) fan and actor Rupert Booth is awesome. Recently though, we branched out from video games and tried something a little different thanks to a great Christmas present from Kevin from The Lawful Geek.

The Mysterious Package Company is based in Canada and ‘delivers adventure by mail in the form of puzzles, stories and collectibles’. Kevin very kindly sent us two games from their Post Mortem Los Angeles trilogy: a series of murder mysteries where you take on the role of a ‘probationary cautionary auxiliary investigator’ for the Global Detective Agency. They seemed perfect for a stream, so we gathered our friends online during an afternoon at the end of the December for the investigation.

The case we chose first was Death in La-La Land and this was set in 1940s America – so think noir detectives, shady mobsters and femme fatales. After an accident at an amusement park, the new mayoral candidate has been thrown off a rollercoaster and straight into Pirate Poppy’s Popcorn stand so chaos has now arrived at the carnival. There are conniving forces at work at this seemingly-innocent location so can you figure out who’s behind it all before you yourself become La-La Land’s next high-flying victim?

Opening the box revealed a number of items: a letter from the Global Detective Agency, documents and leaflets, a map of the amusement park and several sealed brown bags containing evidence. All of these were extremely well made, with a one-page newspaper feeling realistic and the business directory being full of adverts and telephone numbers. The object tying them all together was the pulp novel and it was here where our murder mystery began.

The first step is to read the short introduction to the case and then decide what you’re going to investigate. Each location on the map, informant in your notepad and entry in the business directory is marked with a three-digit number which corresponds to a section of the novel. Choose what you want to dig into, go the appropriate section, read about the outcome and then take an action if necessary. It’s almost like a choose-your-own adventure but with physical objects to enhance the experience.

Sometimes we had to crack a code. At others, we had to make a choice: would we go with the carnival director to the medical facility or continuing working our way through the Maze of Mirrors, for example. And then there were our favourite moments when we uncovered something in the story and had to open an evidence bag. The unwrapped items provided additional clues and at several points, we found ourselves changing direction and rushing towards a new lead.

It felt as though the story flowed smoothly and we didn’t feel overly stuck. This was despite me accidentally looking up the wrong number in the pulp novel at a certain point and us not realising that one of the evidence bags should have been opened at the start of the case. I’m going to put this down to good writing and planning by The Mysterious Package Company; I went through the pulp novel afterwards to see what would happen if different choices were made, and the same information was cleverly given in a different way.

To make it easier for our friends in Twitch chat to join in with the fun, we took photographs of the items in the box and uploaded these to a shared folder before the stream. This meant they were able to look at the documents more closely and work on the investigation with us. We obviously couldn’t scan the entire pulp novel though – so they had to rely on some pretty bad voice-acting from Pete and myself as we read out the various sections (I can only apologise).

Death in La-La Land took us around six hours to complete and it was a really fun evening. I’m pleased to say we managed to correctly figure out who the culprit was and almost all the details surrounding the rollercoaster accident and death of the mayoral candidate so perhaps we’re better PIs than we thought. A big thank you to everyone who joined us to help with the investigation, particularly the_Ghost_Owl who I know loves a good detective game as much as I do.

I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries in either book or game format. It actually feels as though you’re in the middle of a noir story and, as you’re not spoon-fed any of the answers, the satisfaction that comes with solving the case feels deserved. We’ve repackaged all of the evidence (hopefully in the right bags) and will be passing the box on to a family member because it’s a great way to spend an afternoon if you’ve got extra time on your hands during the lockdown.

As mentioned above, Kevin kindly sent us two games so next up will be Lucha Muerte. Will we be able to figure out what the shooting at El Santo Niño church is all about? We’ll find out soon.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)