Happyland

by Rob Fitzel

Mystery
2020

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A mystery that's a pleasure to unravel, December 7, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

(I beta tested this game)

A confession, dear reader: I am awful at IF mysteries. I like them in theory, and Iím pretty good at figuring things out when watching a murder mystery on TV. But put one in front of me in parser form and itís a bad scene Ė maybe itís because theyíre timer-dependent and I donít have the patience to take good notes, or that I usually have a hard time getting a handle on how NPC interaction is supposed to work, but every once in a while I decide to try one of the Infocom mysteries and get like five moves in before fleeing away in terror. I did once manage to hack my way through like a third of Make It Good before getting stuck and, upon checking the hints, discovered that actually all Iíd done was fallen for red herrings and Iíd actually been making negative progress.

Given all this, I was flat-out astonished that I was able to solve Happyland without any hints. I donít think itís because itís too simple or easy Ė nabbing the right culprit isnít excessively hard, true, but there are some sub-plots and side-areas of investigation that are pleasantly twisty, and I was able to unravel those after some careful experimentation too. Rather, itís because the game generally plays fair, uses a timer but has a generous hand both with the overall limit and the windows for specific events, and does a good job of providing clues and enabling you to work backward through an intimidatingly-large possibility space to suss out all the whys and wherefors.

Speaking of working backwards, I should probably back up and mention the setup. At first blush, itís a pretty standard cop-show premise, with your detective protagonist called in to investigate a death that may or may not be accidental (spoiler: it is not). I did experience a little bit of tonal disorientation on why a hotel is called ďHappylandĒ, and the idea of a regular hotel in the middle of a rural area developing an amusement-park add-on seemed a little odd to me, but itís easy enough to roll with: really, youíve got a body, half a dozen suspects, and a forensics kit, so itís all about diving into the details to try to solve the mystery.

That forensics kit does a lot of the heavy lifting Ė pretty much all the puzzles require using it to analyze fingerprints, assess trace chemicals, and magnify small discrepancies. The other half of the mystery-solving equation is interacting with the robust cast of characters, interrogating them and confronting them with various pieces of evidence. This is more complex business than the typical adventure-game TIE ROPE TO ROCK sort of thing, but the parser takes care of it quite well, with the only niggle a bit of wonkiness around disambiguation Ė especially notable given that this is a custom parser, which often have a negative reputation! But I didnít run into any guess-the-verb issues, and NPCs were usually smart enough to draw the appropriate conclusions based on what I was showing or telling them.

There are a few small things that could be cleaned-up for a post-Comp release Ė notably, in one playthrough, I was able to nab the suspect before a particular event happened, but the post-game newspaper story still referenced that event (Spoiler - click to show) (Iím talking about Cooperís death Ė I know the timing of his poisoning can shift depending on the playerís actions, but if youíve never seen him collapse itís odd to see it mentioned). But generally thereís a high degree of attention to detail, including probably my favorite Easter Egg of the Comp (Spoiler - click to show) (ANALYZE POEM). My only real complaint is that Happyland is lulling me into thinking Iím getting better at IF mysteries Ė so itíll be at fault when I take another run at Deadline, am promptly smacked back down, and once again write off the subgenre.