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Detective, detect thyself, December 12, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
A couple days ago, someone slipped a flyer under the windshield wipers of my wifeís car while she was shopping in Target, two pages of densely-packed type fulminating about the horrible pedophilic grooming that our sleepy Southern California school district is inflicting upon our children Ė it was wall to wall homophobia, transphobia, and racist to boot.
But so anyway the writer of the letter had a lot of complaints about what was being taught in sex ed, and said that I could see for myself the filth that was being crammed down kidsí throats by going to TeenTalk.ca. I figured I would check it out, less because I was expecting to be shocked and more because I wanted to verify a hunch I had based on the URL suffix. Sure enough, not only was the content on TeenTalk.ca completely anodyne (I mean, so long as you donít have a panic attack at the idea of gay and transgender folks, like, existing), the ďAbout UsĒ blurb at the very top of the page noted that they were a Winnipeg-based nonprofit that worked across most of Manitoba. They have nothing to do with the California-based organization that uses the same TeenTalk trade name for their programming, and which had actually been tapped to create the materials for the district.
I wrote what I thought was, under the circumstances, a remarkably temperate letter informing the woman who made the flyer that while by my lights she was advancing a hateful, ignorant agenda, at least we could hopefully agree that spreading blatant misinformation was in no oneís interest, and, since the peccadilloes of those modern Sodomites called Manitobans could be of no possible relevance to Californians like us, it would behoove her to update her flyers.
I donít know what I was expecting, but it wasnít what I got, which was a reply doubling down, saying that she 1000% meant to link to that Canadian site, because as the flyer said, it was just giving people an idea of the type of thing they were teaching down here, and the district was keeping the actual curriculum so tightly locked up that this was the only way to spread the word (none of this was true; the flyer specifically said these were the folks making the curriculum, and if you search TeenTalk with the name of the school district, the first hit that comes up is a Google Drive containing the actual slides and lesson plans the district is using).
I bring this up in the context of The Grown-Up Detective Agency Ė well, mostly because I find the anecdote darkly hilarious. But the fig leaf of relevance Iím using to crowbar it in is that the gameís protagonist, 21-year-old lesbian detective Bell Park, is suffering from a species of the same mind-blowingly-implausible and toxic self-delusion as afflicts my right-wing interlocutor (sheís also from Canada, so there) (Bell I mean, not the DeSantis groupie).
Bell was once a kid detective, you see, solving crimes a la Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew, and in the course of one of her cases realized she was gay and even started dating an amazing girlfriend Ė much of which is depicted in the authorís previous games, though I havenít played any of them. But somewhere along the way, as she got older, the detective game started to curdle her, making her cynical about other people but mostly herself. As the game opens, sheís got a desk in a Toronto coworking space, a favorite mall-court chicken place, and not much else, cut out of the lives of all her old friends and ex-partners and convincing herself itís for the best. Two visitors might just jolt her out of this rut, though Ė one is an old crush, turning to Bell because her fiancť has gone missing, while the other is herself as she was at 12 years old, a plucky, can-do kid vomited up by the space-time continuum for whatís surely some reason. Can they crack the case?
This is an all-time amazing premise, made all the more compelling by the intertitle:
PART 1: THE HETEROSEXUAL DISAPPEARANCE OF MARK G
Reader, I laughed, and then laughed harder when the old flameís description of her in-fact-incredibly-het boyfriend made me feel completely attacked, from his boring hair to his normcore fashion sense. While I usually enjoy comedy games, very few of them manage to get more than a wry chuckle out of me, but this game had me giggling at least once per scene. Like, hereís the two Bells interrogating someone about the photo of a suspect whoís wearing some very incongruous headwear:
ADULT BELL: Whereíd he get the crown?
BRETT: Letís just say Iíve got a connection at Medieval Times. (He lowers his voice.) And you didnít hear this from me, but the jousting is rigged.
KID BELL: You should tell them the menu has too many New World crops for a medieval European banquet.
Speaking of self-delusion, Iím going to spend the next couple of days trying to convince myself this is a joke Iíve actually made.
While itís very, very funny, though, Grown-Up Detective also wears its heart on its sleeve. Indeed, if I have a critique itís that the case thatís notionally the jumping-off point for the adventure quickly recedes into a mere justification for the two Bells to bounce off of each other. Adult Bell is frustrated by her younger versionís naivete, while Kid Bell canít understand why her grown-up self is so cranky to be living her dream Ė itís a standard dynamic when flatly stated, but the dialogue between the two of them is very well-written, always pithy and with plenty of punch lines but enlivened by real emotion. Plus it turns out that there are some root causes to their tension Ė in particular, Kid Bell is outraged that Adult Bell has let a great relationship slip through her fingers, for what seems the dumbest of reasons.
All of this is played out in an attractive, low-friction interface; there are nicely-done cartoon portraits of all the main characters, the prose efficiently sets the stage for each part of the investigation, and it moves you quickly through dialogue, which typically progresses through a series of forward-linking choices rather than looping back into trees that need to be laboriously explored. I found I played this one really quickly, because the pacing is excellent Ė each scene was just long enough to get me eager for the next one, and progressed the Bellsí character arcs in meaningful ways as well as providing plenty of comment on the challenges of growing up gay or the vicissitudes gentrification has inflicted on Toronto.
I donít think itís possible to fail the case, which despite a bunch of twists and turns past a certain point feels like it largely solves itself, and again Ė without spoiling too much Ė reveals itself to have much lower stakes than whatís ostensibly the B-plot of how Kid Bell became Adult Bell. While the detective frame becomes a bit of an afterthought in narrative terms, though, itís necessary to make the character business work. For all that Adult Bell thinks sheís a hard-boiled detective, sheís let depression prevent her from truly seeing her situation for what it is; Kid Bell, still analytic to a fault, runs down the clues, pushes back against her subjectís self-delusions, and eventually gets her to realize the truth. Would that everyone was afforded such a chance to let go of the lies they tell themselves Ė the world might be a different place.