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Anything but form-ulaic, December 9, 2020
All through the Comp, Iíve been waiting for a specific kind of game to show up in my queue: a choice-based game that incorporates elements typically found in parser games (object-based puzzles, an inventory, compass navigation, etc.) and focuses on puzzles. I like this sort of thing Ė Chuk and the Arena from last yearís Comp is a great example Ė so I was disappointed that it looked like I was going to get through 2020 without seeing one. Lo and behold, A Murder in Fairyland showed up three quarters of the way through my queue, and now that itch is well and truly scratched.
It looks like AMiF is set in the same world as the authorís previous games, but I havenít played them, and I have to confess I found one element the setting off-putting at first: with the blurb and cover art leading me up to expect a jaunt to a classical conception of Faerie, running into a joke about ďSteam-powered enginesĒ that riffs on the video-game platform drew me up short. There are also bits of code embedded in the spells you gather, which at first I thought were bugs, and everyone speaks with an @ before their name like theyíre tweeting at you rather than having a normal conversation. Iím not sure why these things rubbed me the wrong way, since I wound up really enjoying some aspects of the fae-world-meets-modernity setting, like the bureaucracy and social justice organizing (more on those below) Ė it might have just been mis-set expectations, or just that Internet culture parodies donít have much personal appeal for me. Folks who have played the previous games, or who are more drawn to this sort of comedic approach, probably wouldnít face the same barrier to entry, and itís a pretty modest one at any rate.
While weíre on the subject of potentially misleading stuff in the blurb: admitting that Iím not very good at puzzles sometimes, and I also tried to wait out a specific timing puzzle rather than expend resources to get around it, this is more like two hours to get to an unsatisfying ending and three to actually solve the mystery. I donít think I learned about the eponymous murder until after the one-hour mark, in fact! AMiF has a relatively small map, but boasts lots of multi-part puzzles, an expandable roster of spells, several distinct minigames, and more. There are often ways to bypass challenges by expending a set of resources that seem finite but ultimately are renewable once you solve a specific puzzle, but that puzzle is a reasonably hard one, and buying your way through the plot probably isnít the most fun way to engage with the game anyway. Thereís a lot here to play around with, and I think itís better to go in with the expectation that this is a game to settle into rather than blaze through.
Leading with these somewhat negative comments I think accurately conveys my initial impressions of the game, but to be clear, once I had a better sense of what was going on here I very much enjoyed it, because the worldbuilding is ultimately quite fun and the puzzles are clever and very satisfying to work through. First, on the world, it effectively recasts old-school fairy-tale tropes (a focus on seasonality and bargains, eating anything is dangerous) using a modern lens (there are voting rules and politicking around the seasonal courts, the bargains have turned into contracts that are part of a hidebound bureaucracy, and the faerie courtís indifference to issues of civil rights and social justice is a meaningful sub-theme Ė the player character is in a wheel chair, and while theyíre quite capable, itís also clear that this world does not take their needs into account).
This isnít just a fresh coat of paint slapped on the same hoary skeleton Ė thereís clearly a lot of thought that went into how this societyís institutions would function. As someone who works in advocacy, I was impressed by the protest organized by gnomes and other smaller creatures to push for better accessibility. Itís a bit silly to hear a magical being talking about how theyíre trying to ensure the optics of the event line up with the broader message of the campaign, or how theyíre trying to open up opportunities for solidarity without risking the movement being co-opted, but actually this is smart, respectful stuff!
And it isnít just idle worldbuilding, either, because thereís also a lot of care to link the setting with the gameplay, meaning the core puzzles feel well-integrated into this specific story. Iím using some wiggle words here because there are some puzzles that are functionally standalone minigames Ė there are word-searches which even in retrospect feel a little out-of-place, as well as a Foolís-Errand-referencing card game that doesnít feel especially connected to anything. But for the most part these are tied to the resource-management layer of the game, rather than the puzzles that gate progression or impact the plot.
Most of the latter have to do with the bureaucracy of Fairyland, and specifically finding and filling out forms, having to do with everything from lodging complaints to accessing records to requesting permission to do or know a particular thing. These puzzles are great! Thereís a complicated instruction manual on how the various forms are indexed, which is incredibly satisfying to work through, and then the filling-out process feels appropriately fiddly while usually offering sufficient opportunities to get help or in the worst case just brute-force your way to the solution. And while the gameís structure is maybe a bit too linear during the opening act (thereís a three-part puzzle that can be worked on in any order, admittedly, but two of the steps were much easier than the third so it felt like there was really only one plausible sequence), it opens up quite a lot once the murder investigation proper begins, with many different strands of evidence and potential motives to track down.
The investigation itself boasts a couple of fun twists: one thatís revealed quite early (Spoiler - click to show)(there are a bunch of suspects all claiming to have done the deed, since it improves their reputations for ruthlessness), and another that unfolds midway through (Spoiler - click to show)(turns out the real puzzle isnít so much solving the murder as it is engineering a specific political outcome). This is all really fun to experience, and while the broad strokes of whatís going on donít take too long to figure out, putting together all the steps needed to get to a good result gives you the pleasant feeling of having a plan, then working to accomplish it by making a series of logical deductions and taking well-motivated actions. I wasnít able to fully solve AMiF (Spoiler - click to show)(debunking Nyxís claim to be the murderer eluded me Ė I thought it might have something to do with photographing the stab wounds, or bribing him with the goblin-made horn, but neither of those worked) but you donít need to check all the boxes to get a near-ideal ending.
Ultimately, despite some initial incorrect assumptions about what AMiF was going to be about, I really had a fun time with what winds up being a satisfying game that checks just about all the boxes. Once the Comp wraps up, Iím definitely checking out some of the authorís other work!