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A slightly scuffed masterpiece, April 21, 2009
"Make It Good" is oddly-flavored detective noir. Though nominally set in the US in an unspecified year (but one in which a television is a luxury), it uses British spellings and cultural conventions throughout. The protagonist is a down-on-his-luck cop one drink away from being kicked off the force, who made a fool of himself with the Michaelmas liquor. One of the keen-eyed, not-to-be-trusted suspects is... a vicar. This sort of thing makes the game feel, from the beginning, as though it is somehow askew from the normal genres and normal reality.
That feeling only deepens as play goes on. What starts out seeming like a fairly straightforward mystery of looking for evidence and interrogating suspects quickly turns into something more: it's easy to begin to assemble a case, but a lot harder to know what you want to do with that information. The protagonist needs to make a careful plan and stick to it in order to bring the investigation to a satisfactory conclusion -- and that includes manipulating just what all the NPCs know, and when they learn it, and how they feel about him and about one another.
Ambitious coding underlies this design. There are five NPCs. Two of them walk around and perform somewhat complex tasks; all five talk, observe, and remember. This is not the sort of game where you can blithely carry evidence past someone and have him not notice. They will even, on occasion, talk to one another in your absence-- a dangerous matter. There are still some bugs in the implementation I played, but the astonishing thing is not their presence but how well most of this enormous machine does work.
The need to plan around these NPCs makes for an intensely difficult game. Like "Varicella" or "Moebius", "Make It Good" needs to be played over and over to be solved; and there are times in this process where the design is not quite as helpful as it needs to be, and it is hard to figure out just exactly what should change in order to make the next iteration more successful. It can, especially in the late-middle section, become a very frustrating play -- though releases after the first have become more generous with clues and somewhat fairer in scoring what the player has done.
Nor is the result of all the careful NPC code anything like a naturalistic portrayal of character. It would be more accurate to say that it is in support of allowing the characters to behave according to certain genre conventions, in which everyone has a secret and the best people are often the weakest and the most easily destroyed.
The PC, too, is an odd duck. "Make It Good" definitely uses what Paul O'Brian dubbed the accretive PC (in reference to "Varicella" and "Lock & Key"): the player starts out not knowing much about the protagonist or his motives, but after many playthroughs is playing a very specific role to specific ends. And yet even then, there is a touch of distance and strangeness; corners of the protagonist's mind that are never quite illuminated, trains of thought that are intentionally ambiguous.
In the end it all does come clear, in a breathless, vivid epilogue, and the player is left victorious, exhausted, and alienated all at once. But then a mystery of this genre never leaves everyone comfortable.
So: a little imperfect, but nonetheless brilliantly conceived and ambitiously executed.