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(based on 24 ratings)
About the Story
February 1938, Los Angeles. FDR's New Deal is finally rolling. Hitler's rolling, too; this time through Austria. But as Chief Detective for a quiet burgh on the outskirts of L.A., you've got other fish to fry.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: May 24, 1983
Current Version: Unknown
Development System: ZIL
Referenced in Sergeant Guffy's Day, by TheDefiant
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Number of Reviews: 5
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This was one of Infocom's early games, following in the footsteps of Zork and the earlier mystery Deadline. Given Deadline's reputation for being quite difficult, some might find Witness too easy. I thought it was a good game with quite a few interesting twists. It's your basic murder mystery with several suspects, some interesting clues and a few red herrings. There are a few things that need to be pieced together and sometimes you have to wait for someone or something to happen. Still, I admit I was tempted by the InvisiClues! In case it's not clear, the inspiration for the title is that you're the witness to a murder that you then need to solve.
Given the relatively primitive state of computers back in 1983 when Witness was written, it's an impressive game. Maybe by modern standards, it's a little sparse. Back then, infocom games clocked in at an impressive 128k, so there isn't a lot of verbose writing. As a result the number of rooms, people and objects is limited. Still, Stu Galley does a good job of capturing the "hard-boiled" detective feel of '30s pulp-era fiction even if it's more of a novella than a full blown novel. Still, Witness and Stu Galley's later games defined the golden age of Interactive Fiction that inspired many more authors to come.
This game is available as part of the Lost Treasures of Infocom series. If you like mysteries, you should seek this one out. The feelies in the original game are quite cool including a telegram, suicide note "Detective Gazette" and more. You can also find versions of the InvisiClues for download at http://www.waitingforgo.com/invisiclues/main.html
Stu Galley was, perhaps, Infocom's chief internal evangelist. He was the author of the idealistic "Implementor's Creed" and deeply believed in the potential of interactive fiction. To him, making IF was more than a job; it was a calling. Beyond Galley's significant technical contributions--he performed a late-Infocom rewrite of their parser--he was an important contributor to Infocom's culture, a needed source of aspirational seriousness that leavened the company's wisecracking Zorkiness. I feel both admiration and gratitude for Galley's contributions to the history of interactive fiction.
The opening of Stu Galley's first game, The Witness, is marvelously atmospheric. Take, for instance, this initial description of the victim's daughter: "Monica stops talking and looks at you sharply. She is a woman in her mid-twenties. Her grey eyes flash, emphasizing her dark waved hair and light but effective make-up. She wears a navy Rayon blouse, tan slacks, and tan pumps with Cuban heels. She acts as though you were a masher who just gave her a whistle." The feelies include a VERY authentic newspaper--game specific articles share pages with actual articles culled from the 30's. An included matchbook with a phone number written on it is another nice touch.
Between the feelies and the opening, it really seems that we players are in for a deliciously noir story. But when we find ourselves sitting in a chair, attempting to speak with a character who has little to say about a small number of topics and nothing to say about everything else, it is clear that something is wrong. With nothing else to say or do, the player is obliged to idle in a room with a person who invited them over to have a serious, life and death conversation while repeatedly typing "z," waiting for something to happen.
I take no pleasure in saying so, but there's nothing else for it. The Witness is a bad piece of interactive fiction. There are only four characters to talk to, and nearly all of their responses to your questions are one or two sentences long. They hardly react when caught lying. In fact, the murderer hardly reacts to being caught. Anyone who enjoyed Infocom's previous mystery, Deadline, will be baffled and disappointed by the complete lack of complex character interaction here. There are few clues to find and many empty locations that you will never have a reason to visit. The wonderful opening is like a rainbow lying atop a greasy puddle--there is little worthwhile underneath.
That certain Infocom polish, working in concert with excellent feelies, earns The Witness two stars. I can only recommend it for Infocom and/or mystery completionists.
The Witness has a reputation for disappointing customers. Having waited for a new Infocom release and plunked down dozens of early-1980s dollars, they expected a bigger and more challenging game. One that would keep them up late at night for days on end, playing and replaying key sequences trying to build up a godlike understanding of a clockwork world, much as Deadline had offered them.
Instead, what they got was something players would stridently demand just a decade or so later: a game that was compact enough, and fair enough, to be solved without feeling like one should have earned college credit while doing so.
Although derivative, the feelies lean in deep and hard to the 1930s detective potboiler and pulp mystery markets. The character roster is indeed shallow but at least it's easy to keep track of who-means-what-to-whom. Galley's tweaks to standard parser responses mostly work to build the illusion. The variations in results for accusing and arresting suspects give enough teases and nudges to encourage playing again if you didn't reach the optimum solution.
So, at commercial release? This game definitely rates one star lower. The criticism from contemporary players and press was totally deserved. Without the big-ticket investment and pressure for this game and this game alone to offer several dozen hours of digital engagement? It's quite good. (The gaming market was tiny compared to the virtually limitless choice of the 21st century.)
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