The Corsham Witch Trial

by JC Blair

2021

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A grounds-eye view of a bureaucracy failing a child, January 3, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

You don’t hear much about the uncanny valley these days – we all remember the term for the creepy middle-ground between CGI characters that are too real to scan as cartoonish but too plastic to scan as real? Despite being everywhere around the turn of the millennium, I haven’t heard anyone sling the phrase in quite a while, whether because CGI’s gotten sufficiently good, or – more sinister – we’ve all just become inured to hyperreal hyperpolygonated faces.

I bring this up not to critique the graphics in Corsham Witch Trial – it doesn’t have any, natch – but to explain the trap my brain got stuck in when playing it, due to an awkward mismatch between me and the game. The premise has a young paralegal tasked by their boss with reviewing documents from an unsuccessful case from a couple of years previous. Despite the title, there’s nothing supernatural going on: the eponymous witch hunt is a question-begging label for the suit, which involved bringing an English child protective services staffer to court on charges of criminal negligence after they failed to act to prevent the death of a child. It’s presented largely through primary sources, with IM messages between the paralegal and a colleague (this is where the game’s few choices are made) framing a collection of documents like trial transcripts, incident reports, email threads, and so on. There’s a lot of verisimilitude here, with links in the main narrative often going to Google Drive files that are impressively mocked up, featuring convincingly-deployed acronyms and reasonable-sounding invocations of procedural rules.

This is where things went awry with my expectations, though. I’ve got a law degree (albeit from the U.S., and the only times I’ve been in a courtroom were for jury duty - I know just enough to get myself in trouble), so I ate all this up. But very quickly, my outside knowledge started taking me out of the story – it’s sufficiently grounded that I couldn’t put on Phoenix-Wright goggles and ignore departures from plausibility, but it also has some plot points I found ridiculous. This happens all the time when I try to watch shows like Law and Order – readers of my reviews will be unsurprised to learn I can get nitpicky – but I was able to put many of the niggles I noticed aside and chalk them up to differences with the U.K. legal system. But unfortunately one of the issues I couldn’t get over had to do with the conflict driving the game’s plot.

We know pretty much from the off that the case fails, but its publicity contributes to the government launching some child-protective reforms that are framed as positive things. This seems like a fine outcome, but the case had collateral damage: one of the main witnesses is the child’s school teacher, who brought repeated complaints raising her suspicions that her student was being abused at home. In the course of representing the civil servant in the dock, though, the defense attorney wages a vicious campaign to undermine the teacher’s credibility, and dredges up her own history of abuse. Much of the framing conversation in the last part of the game consists of a dialogue over whether this damage was worth the middling-positive outcome.

The mechanics of this had me jotting down incredulous exclamation points in my notes – again, I know the UK legal system is different from what we have in the US, but I sure hope the idea that you can subpoena the confidential notes of a witness’s therapist on a fishing expedition, and then introduce them into evidence with no notice to opposing counsel, is as bonkers on that side of the Atlantic as it is here. But beyond these details, it’s not at all clear why the defense counsel is allowed to pursue this line of argument at all. There’s no suggestion that any of the reports the teacher filed included false information, so whether or not the conclusions she drew from the evidence she saw were credible seems completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not the civil servant satisfied a reasonable duty of care towards the child when the evidence came to his attention. In other words, it’s his subjective decision-making process that matters; the teacher’s views have nothing to do with anything.

I can totally see the argument that this is law-nerd stuff and most readers wouldn’t notice or care. But at the same time, it felt like a failure to clearly establish the stakes and terms of the conflict that I feel like a lay reader would at least intuit. While I admire the work that’s gone into creating the story and presenting it in a fresh, engaging way, this blankness at the center really undermined its effectiveness for me. The other downside is the lack of a denouement – throughout the framing instant-message conversation, it’s made clear that the boss wants to discuss the case with the paralegal main character after you finish your review. But the game peters out before that happens. On the one hand, I can see why, since you’ve already had the chance to make your views of the case clear through the choices you make in the IM conversations, so the talk with the boss would likely feel like a retread. But pointing towards a climax, then not putting that climax on-screen, seems like an oversight.

Speaking of choices, I’ve seen other reviews ding the game for not being especially interactive, but I that didn’t bother me much. Digging through the various documents felt engaging to me, and the couple times I could weigh in with my take on the trial felt satisfying. I think this is a perfectly valid way to present IF, and in fact kind of exciting – I’d definitely play something else by this author, even if I’d still be gnashing my teeth over perceived legal weirdness.

Highlight: The incident reports the teacher fills out are spot-on, capturing the bureaucratic language these things have to be couched in while still conveying the desperation and impotence behind the teacher’s repeated complaints.

Lowlight: I was disappointed that the game seemed to unproblematically endorse the idea that more activist child protective services are an unmitigated good, and the only reason not to have them is budget cuts. Maybe things are different in the UK context, but in the US this is a vexed question that runs into snarled issues of racism and the criminalization of poverty and mental health and substance abuse disorders. You can squint at the title’s implications, I suppose – maybe this trial is like a witch hunt because society is looking to the civil servant as a scapegoat for broader ills? – but that reading feels strained to me.

How I failed the author: This entire review probably counts as the “how I failed the author” blurb.