Ghostfinder: Shift

by Han-Joo Kim

Episode 2 of Ghostfinder series
Mystery
2020

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
More ghoulish than ghostly, December 7, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Ghostfinder offers a strong hook: modern urban horror crossed with procedural-show sexmurder. I can see a significant audience for this sort of thing, but let me confess up front that I felt like it leaned much harder on the sexmurder part, which is not something I particularly enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve watched enough Brits seen off to depopulate a small county – whimsically in a village, ecclesiastically in a church, intellectually in a college, snootily in a manor, &c. – but forensically-described sexual assault and murder, of which there’s a lot on offer here (six victims), has a pretty different vibe. On the one hand, this is a personal preference, twelve billion CSI fans obviously have different tastes, and kudos to the author for offering a clear content warning that communicates exactly what’s in store. On the other – oh, this is probably spoilery: (Spoiler - click to show)part of what made Ghostfinder so squicky to me is that the serial killer’s modus operandi is very very closely based on the real-world Golden State Killer, who was responsible for at least 13 murders and dozens of rapes, and who was arrested last year and just sentenced a few weeks ago as of this writing. True, the crimes were several decades ago, and the author clarified that the game was started before the killer was arrested, but it felt maybe a little extra ghoulish given the circumstances.

Getting back to the game, however! Ghostfinder has an interesting structure, where more conventional adventure-game sequences of going places, talking to people, playing cat-and-mouse with the killer, etc., bookend a large middle section that’s all about reviewing case files and Googling the secret database of your psychic investigation society. The adventure-y bits work but aren’t anything too out of the ordinary – you interview suspects, run down leads, and interact with fellow members of the Ghostfinders who are fairly well characterized. The database is a fun conceit, though – you get to dig through files on each of the serial killer’s previous murders, then search for particular names or places or things that you think warrant further investigation, which usually just gives you another document but sometimes opens up the possibility of visiting a new location or interviewing a new witness or suspect.

Investigation-via-Google is a fun structure – I quite dug Her Story from a couple years back, which took a related approach – and it does make one feel appropriately like a detective. There’s also a twist because beyond the case file, one of the detectives also has been having psychic visions that put her in the heads of various characters, one of whom is the killer, so in theory you can cross-reference her journal with the conventional investigation to rule out and rule in various suspects. In practice, however, I didn’t go too far down that path because I’d pretty much already solved the case by the time I worked through all of the case files, so was basically just nodding “yup, that fits” while reading through the journal.

Anyway the database is an effective central mechanic for the game, but I think it does throw off the pacing. There are a LOT of case files to go through – all very similarly bleak in describing horrible crimes of rape and murder – so that’s a lot to digest all at once, and after reading each, you’ll probably spend five or ten minutes inputting different options into the search bar. The writing style for these parts is fairly dense and procedural, which makes sense, but again sometimes made the game feel like a slog. All told it probably took me an hour to work through them all, during which time my engagement with the characters had pretty much fallen away, since they’re not very active in this segment except for a few short sequences where the detectives run out and interview some suspects. I experienced a bit of whiplash when I got to the ending sequence and I suddenly was reminded that these folks existed! There’s also a bit of wonkiness where sometimes, searching a name teleports you to an interview sequence, which was off-putting to me at first since I was worried that doing stuff in the “real world” would advance a clock (Spoiler - click to show)it doesn't.

The writing is generally solid, with only a few typos or infelicities (though I have to share one good one – during the inevitable struggle with the killer, the protagonist “hit(s) him again with the hammer, breaking his other jaw”. Wow, he really is a monster!) I thought the fantasy worldbuilding was occasionally a bit clumsily-inserted or underexplained, but since the focus really was on the real-world procedural stuff, this wasn’t a major area of weakness. Ghostfinder’s solidly put together, and fiddling about with the database does convey a fun frisson of really being a detective. Despite some subject-matter choices that put me off a bit, I think it’ll find an audience -- and I'm looking forward to hopefully less-macabre future installments!