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The Thirty Nine Steps

by Graham Walmsley

mystery espionage

Web Site

(based on 17 ratings)
7 reviews

About the Story

The man on the floor was quite dead, a knife through his heart skewering him to the floorboards. At a quarter to eight, the train would take me from London, where people would be searching for me, into the moors and villages of Scotland.

The Thirty Nine Steps is a thriller, based on the novel by John Buchan, with original music.

Game Details


13th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)

Winner, Outstanding Mystery Game of 2022 - Author’s Choice - The 2022 IFDB Awards


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Number of Reviews: 7
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Most Helpful Member Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Spy thriller with some fun mechanics, October 11, 2022
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: About 1 hour, IF Comp 2022

In this choice-based multimedia game you play a man who wakes up on his last day of vacation in London to find a dead man in his living room and you quickly realize that it is part of some conspiracy and like it or not you are involved. What follows is a cloak-and-dagger chase across the English countryside where you must plan your actions carefully at every step to avoid being caught by your pursuers. Many of your choices will be presented in the context of one of three main strategies: BE OPEN, BE CLEVER or BE BOLD. Choosing one of them will alter the text in future scenes. For example: being clever will mean the text draws more attention to suspicious things, but also means that it might make something seems suspicious that really isn’t.

I quite enjoyed the mechanics of this game. Right from your first strategy choice the game tells you what it means to pick a certain path and will let you know when your personality alters later on based on your choices. I also loved that at the end of each chapter the game would give you the option to move on to the next chapter, or replay the chapter you just finished. Frequently, with choice-based games, I found that I’ve learned something for future playthroughs, but I still have to finish the game before I can go back and try the new thing. Sometimes I want to iterate on my path many times and that involves lots of clicking and not much reading. Being to take this game in chunks was lovely and made for a very pleasant replay experience. I also liked that at the beginning of Chapter 2 (Spoiler - click to show)the game told you that the chapter would end if you got caught and you would miss out on some of the story, then when I finished the chapter it let me know that I had seen the whole thing. Finally, I loved that the code in the game is a real cipher that you can decode on your own outside of the game, allowing you to take other productive actions during the game.

The game also has original music by the author, which was a nice touch in certain moments and at the beginning and end of chapters. I would also recommend reading the walkthrough that is available at the end of the game. It lets you in on things you’ve missed and also made me realize how impressive the coding was for this game.

The game says that it is adapted from a novel. I’m curious was the novel is like, but I can say that the reason I didn’t give this game four stars was the storyline. I just never felt invested in the characters, the plot didn’t grip me from the beginning because it all seemed to come out of no where without any context as to why I should care, and I felt like the end came too suddenly and too easily. So, only three stars for this one, but I hope the author writes another game like this with some of the same mechanics, I’d love to play it.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Classic spy novel, adjusted to three flavors you can customize, January 3, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I used to have a ton of Dover Thrift edition books. They were $1 at a mom-and-pop-ish bookstore. I bought up whatever I could. There were ones I knew, like A Shropshire Lad, and ones I didn't, like The Thirty Nine Steps. The physical book is gone, but an e-copy is on gutenberg.org, which sort of has everything–well, before a certain date. I didn't remember it very well, and I think that's the best choice for a project like this (or Dorian Passer's refiguring of The Lottery Ticket by Chekhov!) Too well-known, and it feels like a rehash no matter what you do. Yes, there's a movie by the same title, so it's known, but it's not overdone.

And I think the project works well. You wake up to notice Scudder, an acquaintance, has been murdered. How to escape and maybe figure out the who and why? This sort of thing lends itself to immediate choices. Whenever I read a book like TNS, I'd think "boy, I'd be too dumb or unobervant to make this choice, or I'd cop out." And though I gave the book a brief re-glance at Gutenberg, I couldn't really track how much was the original source and how much was needed to put parts of the original book into believable branches. Whatever the ratio is, it works. I noted some obvious changes: the cipher key is different in this work than the original book, which makes for a nice small puzzle without having to bang your head.

TNS is pretty up-front about the choices you can make. They're mostly classified into Open, Bold or Clever. There are no wrong ones, and you get the bad guys no matter what. But there's still a lot of tension. The music is effective and not distracting. And I wound up trying to play through while going heavy on each option, and I enjoyed the flavor.

Since you get vindicated in any case, you might then ask, what's the point of going through? Well, the more you observe correctly, the more of a story you get. You get out what you put in. With a bunch of bad or careless choices, I wound up saying "okay, yes, action, good." But when I made an effort to look around, things popped up. This might not work in a standard Twine story, but given that it's a spy story where there's supposed to be pacing, and the start is "someone is dead in your house and you don't know why," this makes a lot of sense–you can stumble through and be glad you're safe and have no clue what's going on, and the action in the meantime is breathless and branched enough that you can have completely different stories despite the core text being there.

So I thought this was a neat trick, though really it's more than a trick. There's enough to piece together that you have a story, but not so much you're confused. It's never self-indulgent, and I don't mean this as a pat on the head and a cookie for people or works that "can't be exciting" or "are efficient, at least." Flashy effects or embellishing critical passages would ruin the mood of the original book, since only the text is modernized and not the in-story environs. I enjoyed both the immersion and the realization that helpful technology would make a lot of the protagonist's concerns moot today (for instance, the cryptogram could be googled, as the hints point out.) True, more technology would make it easier for your pursuers, but it's really good to have a reminder that that's not needed for a good thriller. I retained a lot more images from this than from gaudier works. Perhaps that's because I read the original so many years ago, but I also think, beyond being a good story, TNS is a very neat and successful experiment in seeing how the writer or reader leaving certain things out can expand a work.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Alfred Hitchcock (Does Not) Presents, December 10, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Goot eev’ning. Before I was a horror movie nerd, I was a Hitchcock nerd. I do appreciate that the game very quickly squashed any expectations on that front (39 Steps was an early Hitch film, based on the same source material). Sometimes it’s best to just pull the bandage off.

The presentation was spare, but attractive and efficient. The black/white/green palette was functional and compatible with the on-the-run thriller story. The music was really top notch. The author apparently composed it himself, and it could easily have fit in the background of any of Hitch’s black and white works. I know the disclaimer explicitly said ‘not inspired by film’ but take the win, game! Just about perfect for the story. I was vaguely disappointed it only presented during chapter breaks. A much lower volume background could have worked in a few set piece spots.

The game presents you/the protagonist with three general approaches to decision-making: Open (ie truthful), Sneaky and Bold. Characters and scenes seem to be informed by which of those you lean on in given circumstances. I like the mechanism overall. It allowed you to define the protagonist as whatever mix of the three you-the-player wanted to work with. I vibed with the concept of that approach and about half the time it seemed to work pretty seamlessly. The other half kind of pushed me away from Engagement, unfortunately. Some of the options seemed MUCH more appropriate to some decision points than others, watering down the open-endedness.

Not all decision points were structured around the three OPEN/SNEAKY/BOLD choices, some had more or less unaligned alternatives. Those were also hit or miss. I can remember seeing a few options laid out and thinking ‘why would that be an option?’ Eventually I tested it out by selecting what seemed an obviously bad choice, and yup, it sure was.

Another design decision that was smart for gameplay but pushed against my Engagement was the option to replay each chapter before moving on to the next. This worked in conjunction with italicized text that acted as a hint system of what should be accomplished in a given chapter. Because it's a thriller, it is definitely dependent on cause and effect so I understand the impulse. I also appreciated that it wasn’t a full game reset. But I would hope that kind of thing could be implemented more organically in the text. Until the final chapter, it was a take-the-bad-with-the-good thing. The balance definitely tilted when the hint up front set expectation that you’ll need to replay the final chapter multiple times to be ‘successful.’ This sapped all the immediacy out of what thrillers famously deliver.

Narratively, it was also a little uneven for me. On the one hand, the protagonist went from ‘hey a dead body’ to ‘omg I’m surrounded by enemies’ blindingly fast, in a way that didn’t ring true to me. It could be that the sequence of decisions I made didn’t quite cohere the way the author intended, but I passed through a phase where I thought he was a raving paranoid. Uh, the protagonist, not the author. There were actions taken (Spoiler - click to show)hiding the MacGuffin from the bad guys that seemed to have obvious impact on the finale, yet went unremarked upon. On the other hand, there was real tension in some of the chase set pieces. The overall language of the piece was delightfully evocative of early Hitchcock thrillers, in that earnest and slightly stagey way. The author really nailed the black-and-white film language and tone, just nailed it. I know what you said Game Disclaimer, you’re not the boss of me.

So many Sparks of Joy here in the setting, the language, the music(!), the decision framework. Just enough clanky narrative and gameplay choices to keep me from truly engaging. I did smile a LOT while playing.

Played: 10/21/22
Playtime: 30 min, replayed final chapter multiple times for 4 endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? I could see revisiting it after a Hitchcock marathon. Not the boss of me, game!

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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The Thirty Nine Steps on IFDB


The following polls include votes for The Thirty Nine Steps:

Outstanding Mystery Game of 2022 - Author's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best mystery game of 2022. Voting is anonymous and open only to IFDB...

Outstanding Use of Interactivity in 2022 - Author's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for a game in 2022 that felt truly interactive. Voting is anonymous and open only...

Outstanding Mystery Game of 2022 - Player's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best mystery game of 2022. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Eligible...

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