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Funny Wodehouse-y game, shame about the crimes against humanity, September 22, 2023
I am a sucker for a good Wodehouse pastiche. So when Murder Most Foul introduced its English country house murder plot with prose that was more focused on cracking wise than anything so vulgar as establishing a mood of suspense Ė seriously, you start the game across from a lordling wearing ďmoustache which looks like a big, fat slug curled up on his top lip and died some time agoĒ Ė I was excited to dig in to what was sure to be a jape-filled caper. Some four hours later, I finally came up for air and took stock: the game wound up trying my patience, my wits, my sense of direction, and my sense of the absurd, all quite sorely. I was quite frequently giggling, I had to admit, but I still wish the author had imitated Wodehouse a bit more closely, especially in terms of pacing and (especially especially) tonal consistency Ė this is a big, impressive game, but it makes some big, impressive missteps.
From the off, the setup is a bit more cynical than your classic Blandings or Jeeves romp, but not irredeemably so: the player character is a woman on the make, rocking a stolen dress to sneak into an upper-crust party and find a prospective husband with pockets as deep as his mind is shallow. Sadly, these mercenary plans are disrupted by the quite inconvenient bumping off of the host, Lord Montrose Ė and since death has a way of ruining the romantic mood, you take it upon yourself to solve the crime (the fact that the coppers are likely to finger you for the killing once they realize youíre an imposter provides a further motivation).
You do this by Ė well, solving adventure-game puzzles. Murder Most Foul isnít set up like a conventional Infocom mystery, where thereís a timer and suspects are flitting around up to various bits of suspicious business and you need to play multiple times to work out a timeline. Instead everybody sticks around, but has a fetch quest of some flavor or other you need to work through in order to get their aid, or get rid of them, or hook them up with the love of their life in order to get rid of themÖ Theyíre generally amusing, but the game does suffer from ADRIFTís weak parser; I ran into more than a few guess the verb issues, some of which felt like issues where the author hadnít sufficiently clued the needed action (FOLDing up a painting to sneak it past some guards didnít seem physically possible, for example), but others of which were just weaknesses of implementation (thereís a bit where you need to steal a suit, and while GET SUIT will succeed, TAKE SUIT ends in failure).
The gameís size and length wind up magnifying these foibles; while few individual puzzles are especially unintuitive, the large number of rooms and NPCs made it harder to narrow down the areas where itís possible to make progress. Itíd be one thing if the plot needed a cast this size, but despite most of the characters making a strong first impression, in the event most of them play only incidental roles in the narrative, with a fair bit of redundancy (there are two different pairs of characters who got in two different fistfights right before the game opens, which feels less like a comment on the pugnaciousness of the aristocracy and more like padding). Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that the core characters are just the victimís wife, the manorís Jeeves-analogue Joves, his son Satan, the omnicompetent handyman Micawber, and the feckless policeman investigating the crime, with the all the others fading into a uniform sort of background wash.
The perspicacious reader will have noticed a certain thematic drift in the naming conventions here; isnít Micawber Dickens, and Satan (er) Milton? Thereís something jarring about these details, and repeatedly as I played I got the sense that the game was growing unmoored from its notional inspiration and introducing plot elements that didnít cleanly fit with what came before.
Iíll just mention one in detail, but itís a doozy: midway through the game, you find out that the horde of servants staffing the manor were not always servants, but in fact were originally held as slaves by Lord Montrose. This is elaborated on in one conversation Ė apparently he was running out of money so this was a way of running the place on the cheap, but then he started sleeping with one of them and he was worried about the secret getting out, so he ultimately freed them and started paying them wages.
I have questions:
1) This is set in the modern day, not the Antebellum South or anything, so where exactly did he get these slaves?
2) Seriously, all the servants have typical English names (well, except Satan) and arenít described as being identifiably from any particular country or ethnicity of origin, so are we meant to assume there are just roving slave gangs in this world rounding up stray people and selling them to the local grandees?
3) If thatís the case, what was keeping them from escaping to freedom? There are a few guards in the mansion, but as servants presumably theyíd have been enslaved too and anyway there are too few of them to credibly act as overseers.
4) Isnít it kind of creepy that Montrose was sleeping with a ďslave girlĒ, with the game even saying he ďfell in love with herĒ, without any character or the narration even hinting at acknowledging that thatís rape?
5) Why is none of this ever mentioned again after the conversation where itís initially brought up, like ho hum, guess the dead guy was a massive enslaver and half the NPCs are dealing with the trauma of having been reduced to chattels, weíll just file that fun factoid away?
6) What the absolute fucking fuck am I doing asking these questions about a Wodehouse pastiche?
I am harping on this, but really, it deserves to be harped on Ė this is probably the single most ill-advised subplot I have ever experienced in a work of IF. I donít get the sense that itís meant to be taken seriously, but thatís a problem, because itís slavery; if you include slavery in your game, it isnít a game that happens to have some slavery in it, youíve now made it a game about slavery.
The thing is, I donít think that was at all the authorís intention; this seems like a passing idea that was incorporated into the gameís structure without significantly impacting anything that came before (thereís no buildup) or after (again, thereís no follow up either). And there are several elements like this Ė none as morally jarring, thankfully Ė but similarly out of place, feeling like they were grafted onto the core without much thinking about how well they meshed with the pre-existing narrative or themes. The game indicates it was written over the course of five years, and I think this is one that got away from the author, growing organically in ways that undermined its cohesion and its pacing. And rather than pruning this unruly profusion back under control, the author just ran with these tendencies.
Thatís a real shame, because while Murder Most Foul is a bit of a mess at four hours, thereís probably a tight, two-hour version of the game that chucks much of the padding, winnows the cast down to the narratively-significant characters, sharpens the puzzles so they donít feel like busywork, and maintains a consistent and amusing writing style, while saying good riddance to the moral enormity thatís currently squashing the plot. Itís possible to get glimpses of that other, quite good game sometimes when playing the current incarnation, but sadly thatís not whatís available to us here.