The Corsham Witch Trial

by JC Blair

2021

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
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.


1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Nothing supernatural but still thoughtfully unnerving, November 29, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I was worried this was going to be about supernatural stuff, so I put it to the side. Too heavy for me, can't think about that, and so forth, even at a half-hour per playthrough. Might disturb me enough I have to think of other things before getting back to business. Well, there's no supernatural stuff (perhaps I saw the author's last name and Witch and thought Blair Witch, too,) but I needed to have a good think and clear my head after it. It was emotionally effective for me. But the "witch trial" is figurative.

You are a new investigator with a firm, and the boss has given you a case of his that got away. How you react to it will indicate whether you're a good long-term fit for the firm, though any discussions of that are outside the scope of this entry.

The case is one of alleged child abuse and whether an administrator showed criminal negligence in deeming it NFA (no further action.) Sarah Teller, a teacher, sees there's clearly something wrong with a student, Emma-Mai Morgan. The obvious signs are there (bruises and so forth) along with some creative writing that seems above Emma-Mai's level, and it's pretty dark stuff. It gets even darker: something serious happens, and Foster-Clyde, the case worker, is on trial for criminal negligence for ignoring her warnings.

Through the story, you click to open emails tangent to the case and exhibits offered in court. It's quickly obvious that, as the main characters say, Foster-Clyde is a bit of a prick (okay, maybe I'm biased against the name,) and Mr. Morgan, the father, is far worse. Andy Etteridge, the boss of the firm and prosecutor on the years-past case, sends emails to Sarah Teller to say, keep strong. Foster-Clyde seems to say the right things about not being too hasty and only so much that can be done legally, and yet he doesn't cc: Sarah Teller when explaining his NFA. He throws in a token "this may be important to you, but we're overwhelmed." He does tell Mr. Morgan to cool it, in person, but he doesn't do much more–like, for instance, noting Morgan's behavior is pretty classic DARVO (though that acronym might not have been so widely-known back whenever this trial occurred--we're not told.) And, of course, he has a very expensive, observant, biting lawyer who finds a flaw in Sarah Teller's personal history. It's saved for last. She's discredited before the jury but not in the court of popular opinion. I can't comment on whether this would be acceptable in court, in he UK or US, but putting myself in Sarah Teller's shoes and fearing a blindside like this can be crippling even if it doesn't happen.

This is tough for me. I've had times when things were far less critical than in the Morgan household and I heard "we can't do anything" or "there are more important things for you/society to worry about." Sometimes even with flowery words and a quick smile. Sometimes it was people who could've taken time to say something nice but didn't. But there was one time where, legitimately, someone said there was not enough actionable evidence. In this case, it was about an abusive schoolteacher ("but he made people laugh!") and four years later, that schoolteacher was pushed out the door. So it gives me some hope the form letters I receive are more than that, but it's also awful that the Foster-Clydes of the world hide behind them. One wonders why Foster-Clyde took the job he did, and one suspects there are many Foster-Clydes who just had the good fortune never to have a case they turned down blow up so spectacularly.

I also kind of froze for a while considering that the weakness the prosecutor found in Sarah Teller might be the reason why she saw something in Emma-Mai. Sarah Teller, too, knew unhappiness and family disappointment (her reaction to her father's death has a lot of anger, and it's unclear whether (Spoiler - click to show)her drinking was a suicide attempt) and despite being smart enough to be a teacher, acted in ways she didn't understand and hid certain things and wound up looking bad for it. Perhaps someone without that experience would've asked Emma-Mai "are you okay" and tried to help and that would be it, but what else can they do? They would not have pressed.

Perhaps you-the-character's opinion on the case is too much of a litmus test for whether you're right for the job, too, and that's meant to reflect on Andy Etteridge. I mean, yes, Morgan was a bad man, and Foster-Clyde slipped badly. I was a bit unnerved by how the boss wound up marrying the teacher who was subjected to cross-examination, so it wasn't just a case near to his heart. At the beginning, your coworker Cerys tells you "some people read it and decide it's not for them" and gives a general "oh yeah, THAT case" vibe. But it also feels weird and roundabout that you got the file on the anniversary of the court date and not, say, a few months after being hired. It suggests that Andy's frustration is more about him wanting good-fit employees who'll stay in line if he himself gets shouty than employees seeing if they are a good fit. Which, okay, you could Google him and find out his case, but something sat wrong with me.

It's minor compared to Morgan and Foster-Clyde, of course, but it's there. And it puts "Andy just wants to do right" in perspective. Sure, you want subordinates you're on the same page with. But this feels underhanded, and it's disappointing that a crusader against child abuse–especially one who got changes brought–would use his power in this way. And I can't quite shake it, and I suspect the author meant that. Certainly I've had experience seeing Political Crusaders being revealed as abusive jerks, usually ones who originally left me feeling I didn't have the passion they did, before their passion was shown as ... not for the best. Andy felt potentially that way to me.

This is a very tough piece to read for being so short. Certainly there are times I wanted to ask others if things were okay, or I wanted to be asked. But it's chilling to think that doing the right thing and asking may result in even worse, and the people who push for doing right are, in fact, motivated more by narcissism and not general altruism. Perhaps Sarah Teller even felt guilt for maybe escalating Morgan's anger.

All this also brings up the question: who is the witch? I assumed Mr. Morgan at first, as falsely accused, but of course, Sarah Teller gets her own witch-trial in the course of public opinion.

And one other thing that seems like a detail: the comp version skipped from exhibit H to J. There was plenty of interesting stuff to look through. But I'm still hoping to find exhibit I to maybe put one more piece in place. This speaks to how involved I was in the story even though it unsettled me.


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Heartbreaking tale about protecting children and the failures of bureaucracy, November 9, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: About 1 hour

In this work you play a junior lawyer, at the office late going over an old case file, while chatting online with a co-worker. As a rite of passage in the law firm, you have read through the notes and testimony of one of the cases most dear to your boss, one he lost, and give him your opinion of it. That's just the set-up though, the entirety of the gameplay is reading the case and chatting with your co-worker about it.

The story definitely pokes you in the feels, breaking your heart before applying a little bit of salve. The writing is very good and the story interesting to follow along with. There is almost no choice involved, and the few choices presented to you I think only change a bit of the dialogue with your co-worker, they don't affect the story itself. Instead, most of the links you find in the story open up the exhibits from the trial in Google Drive. I thought this was a very cool way to relive the trial, as though you are the judge or a member of the jury. I also appreciated the shades of grey present in the story; there is definitely right and wrong presented, but it isn't shining knight against evil villain. You can are able to relate to multiple perspectives. I also appreciated the message about the failures and absurdities of bureaucracy and the need for reform and to not forget the primary mission.

I think it is well worth your time, didn't quite get to the four-star level for me though. Clicking links to pull up documents was something I hadn't seen in IFComp before, but I'm not sure it counts for me as true interactivity.


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A Harrowing Tale, November 6, 2021

I thought the writing in this entry was very engrossing. It leans towards the legal thriller/true crime genre, which I don't usually gravitate to. However, I found this story to be very tense, keeping me in a state of anxiety for an extended period as I gathered more and more details. You play as a lawyer, in which your character looks over the records of a case. You get to discuss it somewhat with an NPC, but you don't seem to really have many choices. (Spoiler - click to show)Also, the game alludes to a meeting with a supervisor who will be eager to hear your impression of the case. It was presented in such a way that it really built up my expectations for a moment in which to utilize what I had learned and make a choice that will affect my character significantly. This made the ending feel abrupt and jarring at a moment when a different reveal seemed to be the focus instead. I played through twice more to see if any of the choices affected the story, but it only alters some of your character’s dialogue slightly. However, I still give it a high recommendation because of the emotional impact the game had on me. I am very curious to know if the details had any real-world connections, and if the way the procedures are depicted were accurate to the area and time period the story is set in.


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An account of a trial with extensive fake documentation, but few choices, October 23, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

This is a pretty long game content-wise but pretty short choice-wise.

You are a new legal expert at a firm (I think?) and you're asked to look through evidence in an old case.

The case is described from beginning to end, primarily through PDF documentation that opens in another window. Your character can react to what they find, but opening and reading the documents is the main form of interaction, kind of like the more involved SCPs on the SCP wiki.

The game does touch an several important points in law like he said/she said and the balance between punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent.

I found the writing overall strong (with one caveat: I don't think the (Spoiler - click to show)child's writing is accurate. Children tend to use correct rules in the wrong places (like 'I goed to the store') instead of just having random misspellings (like 'I like stiks)). Characters were highly dramatized but were differentiated from each other.

The interaction style isn't what I usually go for in games, but it is what I like in SCPs and other collaborative static fiction sites. However, since I'm reviewing for an IF site, I'll stick with my usual rubric, for which I'd give this a 3.



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