The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee

by Daniel Gao

Mystery
2020

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Number of Reviews: 4
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Less brutal than advertised, December 6, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Friends, I will level with you: 2020 has been tough for me, and going into this one I wasnít sure how I felt about another game about murder, especially one that puts the ďbrutalĒ right there in the title. Like, I love the Comp for exposing me to things outside my comfort zone and that I never would have found otherwise, but I also come to IF by way of what we used to call adventure games, text or otherwise. Say what you will about Dr. Ego being a bit wonky and not very innovative, but it had me give a banana to a monkey. Now thatís a proper adventure game puzzle: GIVE BANANA TO MONKEY. Not a severed carotid or trace of seminal discharge in sight.

Blessedly, Brutal Murder is Ė not actually that brutal? Partially this is the tone, which is miles away from the dour proceduralism the title might evoke. If anything itís a bit chatty, with a narrative voice that directly addresses the player, alternately confessional and urging the player onwards. And while the central crime is like, clearly a murder and is bad, itís nowhere near as awful, or as awfully described, as whatís on network TV every night (there is one somewhat disturbing plot element that possibly does deserve a content warning, though Iíll spoiler-block it just in case: (Spoiler - click to show)the narrator, an adult tutor whoís in prison for the murder of the eponymous 17-year old, was in a sexual relationship with her that he describes as consensual).

While this came as a relief to me, I do think BMoJL suffers a bit from this tonal unevenness Ė the subject matter is clearly meant to evoke tragedy, and that mood is stated as text repeatedly, but itís hard for that sentiment to land given the often-breezy narrative voice, as well as some out-of-context surrealistic flourishes. The game opens with a tutorial sequence, complete with the narrative voice telling you to TAKE KEY and OPEN DOOR, which is completely diegetic and in continuity with the meat of the game. Each chunk of investigation is interspersed with a trip to a black void, and the topography of the map changes in unphysical ways as the story progresses. Itís not too hard to suss out the reason for this, reading between the lines of some of the narratorís comments (Spoiler - click to show)(the player character appears to be a sort of crime-solving AI trawling through the narratorís memories) but this doesnít seem well-integrated with the main thrust of the plot, and felt very underdeveloped.

As to the game itself, itís got a pretty solid implementation. Thereís typically a good amount of scenery, some of which isnít described, but all of the objects one can interact with are broken out on their own line, which is a shorthand that adds some convenience. I was stymied by how to open the storage-room cabinet for a long time, even after I knew the code, since TYPE and TOUCH and OPEN and UNLOCK and all their variants failed, but the HELP text had told me that USE item was an important verb, so itís on me for overlooking that. I did run into one significant bug: my first trip to limbo never ended, leaving me wandering a black void forever, which prompted a restart (second time after a half-dozen turns of flailing, I was moved on to the next sequence as intended).

The puzzles are relatively straightforward and donít require off-the-wall thinking, but thereís never a time when you feel like youíre solving a mystery Ė instead youíre hunting for the one piece of evidence or reading material that will prompt the narrator to understand things a little better and explain his progress to you. There are no suspects to interview, or deductions to piece together, just cabinets to unlock and journals to read. It sometimes feels as though the playerís just fiddling about with some busywork while the game solves itself.

This is a shame, because the core story of the game is I think pretty good, with some solid character dynamics, an interesting twist (albeit one that could have probably used more groundwork-laying), and well-observed details on the experience of being Asian-Canadian in one particular place and one particular time. But these tonal issues, and the feeling of disengagement brought on by the gameplay/story disconnect, meant it didnít land for me as strongly as I would have liked.