The Case of the Solitary Resident

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Mystery, Detective

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Ferns and forensics, May 14, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

So this is a slightly strained parallel, maybe, but you know Evil Dead 2? The title makes it sound like a sequel, but actually it’s more of a remake, taking the same basic ingredients from the first movie (cabin in the woods, Necronomicon, first-person POV zombies, Bruce Campbell) and redeploying them with significantly higher production values. It’s the same story with The Case of the Solitary Resident, which is recognizably of a piece with Last Vestiges, the author’s IF Comp entry from last year, sharing a locked-door-murder premise and a focus on forensic deduction while moving to Twine, incorporating visuals, and better communicating its expectations to the player. While even in its more accessible form this gameplay paradigm is still a bit dry, the end result is a satisfying intellectual puzzle.

I sometimes struggled with Last Vestiges because it looked like a more conventional mystery than it wound up being – in particular, there were a series of standard adventure-game logic puzzles that gated progression, which made it seem like solving those would likewise solve the mystery. However, that just provided the raw clues; actually understanding what happened also required bringing medical knowledge to bear, and while a police-inspector NPC was on hand to provide some of that information, their expertise wasn’t clearly telegraphed, and accessing that information was made challenging by the open-ended parser interface. Solitary Resident improves in both areas, eliminating the out-of-context game-y elements to focus on its core competencies, while using the affordances of its choice-based interface to make clear what kind of data you need to gather and how you can get it analyzed.

The real strength here is the high level of detail; you can search for blood, hair, and fingerprints in each room of the victim’s apartment, as it becomes clear that poison may have had something to do with her demise, you’ve got lots of tools to come to grips with what’s happened, including sending samples off to the crime lab and two different keyword-driven reference manuals. Beyond that, you can also get formal statements from half a dozen or so suspects, and then question them to push on key elements of their stories (this is the one place where the otherwise-smooth interface falters – I was stymied for a bit after launching my first interview since I didn’t realize that I could go back for Q+A after reading the initial statement). Chasing down every single lead requires paying close attention to everything you’ve learned, and a few use text-box input to make sure you can’t just lawnmower your way to victory – I felt very satisfied when the game told me I’d found all 16 clues after finishing the game and aced the multiple-choice test where you lay out your theory of the case, since I’d had to use my noodle to get there.

My only real critique is that the forensic side of things feels like it far overwhelms the personal elements of investigation. The suspect interviews are much more straightforward than the evidence-gathering gameplay, and none of the characters – the victim very much included – never threaten to feel like real people. That perhaps fits the author’s design goals (the game is tagged as “educational”, and a few references within it suggest that it’s at least partially intended as a more-engaging experiential-learning alternative to textbooks), but does feel like something of a missed opportunity – a few more colorful characters to liven things up wouldn’t undermine the pedagogical possibilities, I don’t think. This head-down approach to detective-work also winds up making the solution to the locked-door mystery easier to guess: (Spoiler - click to show)when the thinly-sketched suspects are a son who needs money but clearly could have just asked for it rather than tried to hurry his inheritance, an old business associate who had a moderately-intense falling-out with the victim a decade ago, a neighbor who has no conceivable motive whatsoever, another neighbor who had a strained relationship with the victim since she was annoyed by his smoking habit, and a near-comatose ex-husband, it doesn’t take too many little gray cells to realize this was an accident and not murder.

If there’s a third game in the sequence, I think I’d enjoy it more if it paid more attention to the personalities involved and created as much suspense around the question of who did the killing, as around how it was accomplished. A full-comedy installment a la the third Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness, is probably not needed here, though – the authors have cracked their formula and there’s plenty of room to keep playing with it.

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