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Area Detective Kind Of A Dick, May 22, 2013
A missing-person case draws a detective into a cultic mystery. The genre is Chaosium's familiar twinning of 1920s noir-flavoured detectives and the Cthulhu mythos; indeed, the author acknowledges that the game is based on a particular Chaosium scenario, The Secret of Castronegro. Rather than the standard Lovecraft New England, the action here takes place in small-town New Mexico.
Small-town New Mexico in the 1920s seems like a strikingly non-standard setting with a lot of potential, but Castronegro Blues is not very focused on descriptive writing, or character writing, or on prose in general. Some people have complained about the profanity in this series; while I generally don't give a fuck about that kind of thing, I kind of sympathise. It's not that there's a lot of swearing, really; it's that the rest of the writing is so utilitarian, so placeholderish, that the crassness really sticks out. Similarly, the protagonist is kind of an asshole: he's uninterested in and contemptuous of his surroundings in general and the people in particular (there are lots of NPCs, almost all of whom are one-line stereotypes). Now, asshole protagonists can absolutely work, if they're interestingly complex or have redeeming qualities or are just entertaining; but the nameless detective here is a blank, except for when he occasionally, suddenly comes up with something curt and mean-spirited - the entire description of a desk sergeant is "He looks like an idiot." So while I'm generally a big fan of asshole PCs, it was uncomfortable to spend time around this protagonist, and I didn't feel as if this discomfort was in service of anything.
(It's possible that he wasn't even intended as an asshole. Maybe he was intended as a gruff, laconic Marlowe type, and the author didn't manage to capture all the elements thereof. But what's left is pretty much just asshole.)
Player interaction is not a focus, either. The process of detective work is conspicuously just a framing device, and this is true of the game's approach to interaction generally. For much of the time, solutions spring into your hands in a great hurry; on the other hand, UNDO is forbidden, the game puts you in situations where death is hard to avoid, and there are no warnings about keeping saves.
What this game is focused on is story, the unfolding of a Lovecraftian horror mystery. But in its enthusiasm, it hurries: police and witnesses pour detailed accounts on you, helpful library books spring into your hand. Both mystery and horror are genres that are reliant on pacing, on the slow build, on taking care with the delivery of crucial information to the player, on the power of the unknown. It's more difficult to pull off when, as Castronegro does, it includes a lot of stock subgenre elements (creepy Indian tribes, old local families with human-breeding plans, secret cults); the result is that this game tips its hand way too early, before there's time to develop a sense of threat.
There's enthusiasm here, but that enthusiasm has yet to get translated into a labour of love. This section, from early on, tells you pretty much what you need to know:
There is a knock at the door but the knocker doesn't wait for an answer. The door opens and a beautiful woman walks in. "Thank you for seeing me, detective." You invite her to sit and she does.
That's skipping over a lot of annoying little steps - opening the door, greeting the woman, offering her a chair - that the author thinks are boring. And a lot of them are boring! But the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater: the character herself motivates the protagonist and thus the whole story, so she very much needs to not be boring. What we get really amounts to just a statement of her narrative role - 'you know how this kind of story goes, fill in the details yourself.' That's really boring.
(On the plus side, the titles are getting a lot better. The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons is pretty feeble as titles go. Castronegro Blues could be a Tom Waits song. Ill Wind is just great.)