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Hide-and-seek for your brother's life!, December 3, 2023
I had a dream: The Doors were performing a sweaty, breathtaking drawn-out version of Riders on the Storm when David Suchet’s finely mustachioed Poirot appeared onstage and pointed accusingly at Jim Morrison. Jim jumped off the stage, right into the arms of the waiting Hastings.
It’s safe to say this title intrigued me, while at the same time expert-fingeredly tickling my funny-bone.
In reality, Death on the Stormrider has more in common with Poirot than with The Doors.
Your brother has found passage on the cargo-airship “Stormrider” for the both of you, provided that you make yourself useful onboard. The ship’s cook is found murdered and your brother is the only one who had the keys to the mess at the time. He’s locked in the brig until the ship boards at the next harbour.
It’s up to you to find evidence of your brother’s innocence.
Since your brother’s locked up for murder, you yourself are eyed with some suspicion. Nevertheless, you remain free to roam most parts of the ship. A number of passageways and rooms are off-limits, and you are severely limited in what you are allowed to carry around with you. (Or so the game keeps insisting. You are limited to items small enough that they could conceivably be concealed in your hand or clothing. However, given the amount of small stuff I was carrying by the end of the game, I suspect there’s a limitless hammerspace somewhere under your character’s suspenders of disbelief…)
The ship left the harbour in a hurry , running on a skeleton crew (which was also the reason for your hasty recruitment). Even then, with the cramped spaces between the cargo and the crew all having their own rounds and routines, having to do several duties at once, it’s hard to conduct a thorough investigation.
You do need to get into the off-limits spaces and carry around pieces of evidence, so you have to find ways to get past and around blocked off entrances and working crewmembers unnoticed.
The objective of the game is finding evidence. The core of the gameplay is hide-and-seek. Get to know the crew’s routines, find hiding spots on their routes or hidden passages around their locations. Time your actions so you can slip through the gaps between the other crew members. It gets even more complicated and exciting once you try to manipulate the others’ circulations through the ship to create your own opportunities for espionage and investigation…
The many independently moving NPCs, the different consequences of open/closed containers, the machinery of the ship having sometimes far-off effects,… These things are dependent on a great number of moving cogs and chains and toggles under the hood. I found some hiccups, but mostly the gears interlocked as needed and turned smoothly. The bugs I did encounter were minor, and the suspense of the game was good enough that I could overlook them.
This gameplay of hide-and-seek had the effect that the considerable suspense I felt was aimed at my own (the player’s) success, rather than being directed at the protagonist’s troubles or the fate of his brother. While sneaking around, I felt tension about finding a hiding place in time. I wasn’t very concerned about or emotionally engaged with the characters though.
The mechanics of the gameplay have their consequences for the writing too. It’s important that the player has a good idea where the NPCs are relative to the PC’s location at all times to be able to avoid them or hide in time. In the desfriptions, the bottom few lines are reserved for a list of distinctive footsteps the PC can hear. A single line of text has information about which character’s steps they are, how far that character is away, and which direction the character is going.
“Just forward, you can hear sharp, measured footsteps approaching.”
These lines are actually very well-written, condensing a lot of information into smooth prose. They are repetitive though, and when there are several characters within earshot, there are also several lines of this in the location descriptions. For a while, this can be a bit annoying. Soon however, my brain just started glancing over this text while filtering out the necessary information.
For an unavoidable trade-off between pleasant prose and indispensable game information, I think this solution found a good balance.
I absolutely loved finding my way around Death on the Stormrider's map. The (beautifully drawn) map in the feelies already gives an impression of how much rooms have to be crammed in a small space on an airship. It was only by exploring the decks myself during play, drawing the map room by room, with all the barriers and hindrances in full effect, that I became aware of the whole complexity of the game world.
The author employs a simple yet effective tactic for avoiding conversations with the other people on the ship: they speak another language and can’t understand you. Also, they’re busy working and wave you away if you interrupt them. Talking to them is not necessary to get a good impression of their character though. Everyone has distinct mannerisms (evident in the way they walk), their attitude toward you is quite obvious through a mixture of body-language and unintelligible-but-clear-in-context speech.
For each character, the X command also prints a beautiful drawing, which together with the text-description gives a good picture of their personality.
All these drawings, with the accompanying text, can be reviewed at leisure in the wonderful tablet you find in the very first room of the game. It serves as a notebook for clues, a reminder of tasks to do and places to visit, and a recapitulation of your investigation so far and the people you encountered.
Great addition, and well worth taking a number of turns near the end of the game to look back over all you’ve learned.
The endings (yes, there’s more than one!) felt a bit luck-of-the-draw to me. It’s not clear (ar least not to me) what the consequences were of showing this or that piece of evidence to one of the various crew members. Their behaviour toward the PC, dismissive, neutral, or halfway friendly, didn’t offer enough (any) clues as to how they would react to my revealing of the evidence.
An exciting investigation, with some unexpected complications and a bunch of different endings, depending on how meticulous your search is. Good game!