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Are you there, future me? It's me, former you!, January 4, 2023
I'll start by discussing a comment I saw on a forum about Matthews and Linehan and how I don't want to be that sort of person. M&L were the folks who created Father Ted, a universal character we probably wouldn't like in person but who showed our faults so well and let us laugh at them. The commenter said "Well, M&L never got close to that afterwards." Someone pointed out that The IT Crowd was very, very, good indeed, and the commenter said "Well, fair enough, but it's still not quite Father Ted."
Whether or not FT is better than IT Crowd, or however BPH's (I hope that's not too familiar. I know I hate, for instance, being abbreviated to Schultz. But I find Hennessy as misspellable as most people find Schultz, as my brain WILL insert that third E) works stack up to M&L, I want to relate this story: Small Child in Woods felt dang-near perfect to me. It had universal appeal and weird humor and made many people laugh. Someone had to do it, and I'm glad they did it well. Cow Farming Activities on the Former West, the second part of You Will Select a Decision, was almost as good. And the rest of the author's stuff? Well, it doesn't hit the sweet spot of SCiW for me, and he shouldn't try to, and when I make time for his stuff, it's always worth it. But I wouldn't want him to deliberately try for another flashy thunderbolt like SCiW. He owes me nothing.
Also, I'm hacked off he didn't publish the "promised" sequel It Is Good To Be Skateboarding Champion of the World. I had an idea that was just a bit of verbal gymnastics to make the reader laugh, and it still does, but each work of his reminds me I would love to read that apocryphal book some day. Curse the author for following their own vision, said the guy who knows his own stuff is probably more niche-y!
All this was no excuse for whiffing on Birdland, Known Unknowns, and BOAT PROM. And GUDA is one of many IFComp entries already that make me say, hey, I need to check stuff from this author's past, too. It may be the only one with a link in the introduction giving a brief overview, which I appreciated. But it was also sort of shocking to think, wait, did he really write Bell Park: Youth Detective that long ago? Wow.
Yes, it was nine years ago, and Bell is nine years older. She's a private detective now. I didn't recognize Cassidy, who's come to Bell with a missing persons report. More specifically, her fiance has gone missing. Checking back at BPYD, she doesn't get a ton of billing there. Drifting away from best friends is like that, I suppose, and with GUDA, it's pretty inevitable they would've broken up, as they show themselves to be very different people. Eventually you grow, and you realize how you were sorted into social groups at 12 was just a good guess, or it was the least awful of the available options, and you get to see what (hopefully) works even better.
All this navel-gazing aside, what sticks out about the start is: there is banging from inside of a locker in Bell's office. Is it an animal? How does Cassidy pretend it's not there? Is Bell some sort of criminal? You make allowances for friends' eccentricities of course, especially if you spent time being weird or outcast together, but, um, well, if it gets too obvious...
No, it's just that Bell is hiding her nine-years-ago self in that locker and doesn't want to have to explain things. And she doesn't, immediately, but it's tough to cover things up forever, and this is one of the many humorous threads that recur throughout the story. There are some leads in finding Cassidy's fiance, and you follow them all across a neat map of Toronto. Below the map are names, and a red arrow appears where they are on the map. This apparently was a big hit for people with an attachment to Toronto, and while it stirred up no memories in me, it's really well done and gives me some idea of how big the city is, and I was able to compare it to, say, a similar map of Chicago. I also like how the current characters in the scene have head shots–Bell-21 and Bell-12 on the left, and the person or people they're talking to on the right. The transitions worked technically, and the pictures are well imagined and drawn.
The Bells go to various places, visiting and revisiting them, and they meet casts of weird characters, even Bridget, whom Bell has broken up with. As someone not acquainted with Birdland, I didn't know Bridget in any way, but I still found her effective as a character. It's pretty obvious something is up, and I enjoyed Bell-12's reactions to a grownup she knew (Cassidy) and one she didn't (Bridget). Naturally Bell-12 starts bugging Bell-21 as to why they broke up. Through this all I had an occasional worry: is the time paradox going to blow up in our faces and make this whole story unbelievable?
Well, I don't know if it's ever resolved fully satisfactorily, but up until then there's a lot of fun to keep things going. Bell-12 has a lot of questions, which Bell-21 avoids, until Bell-12 keeps on asking. You have some agency in how much you tell Bell-12. But this certainly brought back how I would discuss things with Andrew-12 or Andrew-22. There's a lot to unpack, and I forgot how much there is to unpack even in the last ten years! It can blur together a bit. Bell-12 is decidedly more caustic than Andrew-12, asking the sort of questions I wished I'd asked, and having a mentor in Bell-21 who gave more good-faith answers than many people older than me.
The interesting characters about Toronto didn't land so well. I'm the sort of person who's not particularly interested in interesting characters, or if I think they are getting too obtrusive, I'm inclined to think "Stop showing off, already!" I can only take so much per day. Nevertheless, there's some good stuff in there with Bell-21 and a woman dressed like a cat, who seems like a potential villain, and having to return to the place that serves wings (Bell-12 and Bell-21 both hate to be caught dead there, for different reasons) provides character development. Bell-12 bugging Bell-21 about why Bell-21 broke up with Bridget is well done, even if the "aha, you're remembering what you liked about them" angle seemed a bit forced. A lot of good jokes and observations come out of this, well beyond narrative threads funneled into "Look! Bell realised that adults are weird and insecure and annoying but they have a good reason to be and are worth putting up with, even the obnoxious ones! And, um, yeah, humor, too!"
So it's a good sign that what to me were the less interesting parts turned out to be worthwhile, and I think the author had a strong idea of pacing–there's a shaggy dog story here, but it doesn't get too shaggy, although the reason for the fiance's disappearance didn't resonate with me. You have to deal with people you don't like, and it's tricky to pay attention to them the right amount without being fully transactional, which Bell-12 doesn't understand. Then you have to be annoying sometimes to get what you want, too, and Bell-12 encourages that (with Bell-21 ceding a few points) without getting too in-your-face. There's a lot to work with, telling one's younger self everything's not black and white, but also hearing your younger self remind you that intuition matters--presumably, you have more data to check your intuition at 21 than 12. There's knowing we can veer from certain big questions as we get older because focusing on some side issues is very interesting indeed, and if we can't do everything, we don't have to. And there's also poking oneself to realize, yes, there are definite dark and light greys where it's best to put nuances aside temporarily so, ahem, You Will Select a Decision to push ahead expediently and meaningfully.
I can't say I've run into an Andrew-12, but I did finally join my high school's graduating class's Facebook group, and it was like I was speaking to my old self, with things I remembered and people I remembered and may or may not have wanted to deal with. It was awkward, but I settled some things. GUDA brought back that, and new ways to look at things, and people and ideas and fears I'd forgotten, and I'm glad I was at least somewhat prepared for that.
Perhaps I'll be more prepared to replay GUDA once I've read the BPH works I've missed, especially Birdland. But I definitely found Birdland et. al aren't critical to appreciating GUDA, though, and even if GUDA didn't hit all the notes for me, it feels like it should hit a lot of really good ones for others who may or may not be familiar with BPH's works.
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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 wife’s 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 – 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 kids’ 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 don’t have a panic attack at the idea of gay and transgender folks, like, existing), the “About Us” 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 one’s 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 don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t 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 – well, mostly because I find the anecdote darkly hilarious. But the fig leaf of relevance I’m using to crowbar it in is that the game’s 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 (she’s 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 – much of which is depicted in the author’s previous games, though I haven’t 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, she’s 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 it’s for the best. Two visitors might just jolt her out of this rut, though – one is an old crush, turning to Bell because her fiancé 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 what’s 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 flame’s 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, here’s the two Bells interrogating someone about the photo of a suspect who’s wearing some very incongruous headwear:
ADULT BELL: Where’d he get the crown?
BRETT: Let’s just say I’ve got a connection at Medieval Times. (He lowers his voice.) And you didn’t 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, I’m going to spend the next couple of days trying to convince myself this is a joke I’ve actually made.
While it’s very, very funny, though, Grown-Up Detective also wears its heart on its sleeve. Indeed, if I have a critique it’s that the case that’s 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 version’s naivete, while Kid Bell can’t understand why her grown-up self is so cranky to be living her dream – it’s 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 – 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 – each scene was just long enough to get me eager for the next one, and progressed the Bells’ 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 don’t think it’s 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 – without spoiling too much – reveals itself to have much lower stakes than what’s 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, it’s necessary to make the character business work. For all that Adult Bell thinks she’s a hard-boiled detective, she’s 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 subject’s 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 – the world might be a different place.
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Book-like Interactivity, December 10, 2022
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
Everything about the pre-game hit my brain pleasure centers and put me in this thing’s corner. Grown Up Detective Agency is just a fantastic title. Time jumps? Mystery solving? The phrase “follow the trail of a missing heterosexual”?? It’s like a marskman-level glee sniper.
The work itself did not disappoint. The 2-in-1 protagonist was incredibly well realized. Their dialogue crackled with wit and personality and was simultaneously, recognizably same and different. The time gap shenanigans were not overplayed, just tossed in like precise seasoning. (I laughed out loud at “why are people getting more deliveries?”) I simultaneously felt bad for Kid and understood Adult perfectly. There were a few times I chafed when remembering this world-weary gumshoe was all of 21, but the text was strong enough to get me past that.
Secondary characters didn’t fare as well, but with one exception it was actually fine. Most of the non-protagonist cast was pretty one-dimensional, but in an amusing and winning way. We don’t NEED them to be fully fleshed out, they just need to be fun in their respective roles and most of them very much are. The bros, the bartender, the club owner, the furry… unique and consistent and funny. Even the client filled her role, though I suspect if I’d had more exposure to the other games in the series she would be more fleshed out. We’ll get to the love interest in a minute.
The mystery itself was extremely clever, in the sense of everyone’s motivations making perfect, hilarious sense, however surprising their reveal is. But the mystery-solving gameplay? Less clever. It relies a bit too heavily on NPCs withholding information more for plot than character reasons. It also appeared that player choice in following clues and interrogation tacks ultimately didn’t make a difference. You were always going to be able to visit every clue site, and get relevant info regardless of dialogue choices. I don’t know this is true, I could just be an Ace Detective. Honestly though, it's definitely not that. Which led to a thought mid-game that popped in my head unbidden. “Would I be enjoying this pretty much exactly the same if it were traditional fiction? Yeah, I think I would.” As soon as that thought popped in, I realized I was not engaged because of the interactivity, it was the story and characters. My clicks were less about participating in progress and more like turning pages. Is this a problem? Maybe? Didn’t feel like it in the moment, I was still Engaged in the narrative and enjoying myself immensely.
Really the only narrative shakiness for me was the love interest sub-plot. Characters made admiring assertions about them that I didn’t see corroborated in the narration or the character’s own dialogue. If I can be forgiven the pronouns for a moment, my reaction was basically straight out of Arrested Development. “Her?” Maybe this was a ‘play the previous episodes’ thing too.
As I roll up the score, I am again confronted with the inadequacy of my judging criteria. I was Engaged, no doubt about it. But I feel like the interactivity of IF was inessential and irrelevant to the experience, and I think I want to count that as ‘notable technical intrusion.’
Playtime: 1hr, finished
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaged/Notable
Would Play Again? Probably Not, but the rest of the series, likely
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
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What's past is prologue , November 5, 2022
This game is the latest in a series that includes Bell Park: Youth Detective and Birdland. Birdland in particular is a special game to me - I played it at the recommendation of my first girlfriend, and it was my first real introduction to interactive fiction. (Well, not including Counterfeit Monkey, which I enjoyed but came away with the conclusion that I was too dumb for parser IF). Appropriately given the summary of The Grown-Up Detective Agency, when I played Birdland I was also experiencing the ennui of my early 20s and all that entailed, with new and exciting challenges like “being out to my parents”, “I think my first real job sucks, actually”, and “baby’s first medical crisis”. The latter of these consisted of a really nasty sinus infection, and Birdland was suggested as a way to keep myself busy and cheer me up while I was stuck at home and struggling to be functional. So Birdland is one of those games that I played at the exact right moment in my life for it to really, really stick with me.
As such, I’ve been very excited and very nervous to play The Grown-Up Detective Agency, out of the hope that it’ll live up to my expectations and the fear that it won’t (possibly because things just hit different when you’re not taking enough antibiotics to kill a horse). But it turns out that I didn’t need to worry, because this game has everything that made Birdland great and then some.
What I Liked
One of the things I enjoyed most about Birdland was how it seamlessly balanced the silly and irreverent A-plot (psychic bird men are invading the world via summer camp!) with a touching, nuanced, and deeply relatable B-plot (how do I deal with being gay at 14?). The Grown-Up Detective Agency pulls off the same trick flawlessly and is equal parts more ridiculous and just as grounded.
The A-plot has you looking for a woman’s missing boyfriend, and is ripe with ridiculousness as you try to hunt down clues at a chicken wing joint, a cabaret club, and the world’s worst dive bar among other places. Many of these locations give you ample opportunity to hear about the ridiculous shenanigans that go on there, and I ran through every single one because hearing about the bar’s screaming contests is the kind of thing I find funny. (Yes, literal impromptu screaming contests over who can scream louder. It’s that kind of place.) Meanwhile, the B-plot has Bell attempting to solve why her 12-year-old self has suddenly time traveled into 2022 which turns into a subtle exploration of growing up, expectations vs reality, and the sinking feeling that maybe Kid You was more right about certain things than Adult You was. It’s very relatable to how I felt in my early 20s, and frankly still do to a lesser extent in my 30s. Bravo!
What I Didn’t
The mystery in this story can be summed up as “are the straights OK?”, which made for a lot of excellent humor throughout but didn’t give a satisfying conclusion to the A-plot (Spoiler - click to show)(since in the end Mark G was just off being bafflingly heterosexual). I think that was intentional, since its purpose was mostly to contrast Adult Bell’s boring detective work with Kid Bell’s wide-eyed enthusiasm, and most real life mysteries aren’t nicely wrapped up in a bow. Still, I don’t think it quite worked for me, possibly because after a certain point the mystery gets tied up in a way that felt rushed.
I’m also in a field that I’ve been interested in since I was a kid (engineering), and squaring my dreams of killer robots with the reality of endless Excel documents and heated arguments about flatness requirements for a while went only slightly better than Kid Bell’s journey did. Getting out of my awful first job helped though, and I think there’s a message here about keeping your youthful spark alive and not letting the reality of Adulthood (™) grind down your enthusiasm too far.
4 people found the following review helpful:
A comedic but heartfelt game about growing up and finding yourself, October 27, 2022
It's hard to review this game objectively. I got into IF for parser games, and it wasn't until I tried You Are Standing at a Crossroads by Cat Manning that I realized I could like Twine games.
Once I got started into Twine games, the funniest games I found were by Brendan Hennessy. I was very excited when, in my first IFComp, he entered a game, Birdland, which is the most-rated game on IFDB since 2013 and the most-rated Twine game ever. I thought it was brilliant and have shared it with many students since. The couple of mini-sequels that came out since then were enjoyable.
So when I think of 'what should a good twine game be like', or, I guess, 'what do I like in a Twine game?', it's basically 'whatever Astrid Dalmady or Brendan Hennessy write'. Which is why this isn't an objective review.
Anyway, as for the game itself, you plays as Bell Park, one of the longest-recurring characters in his games. While in past games you were a teenager full of promise, you are now an adult with history. Unfortunately for you, your younger, 12-year old self has travelled to your present and wants to know all that history.
Meanwhile, the two of you team up to find the fiance of your old crush Cassidy. In the meantime, you encounter a wide cast of characters and use a nifty map screen to choose how to navigate around town.
This game is different from Birdland. Birdland had a very consistent day/night mechanic over a week, making it clear how the game was progressing and allowing for a sense of excitement and overall motion. While the mechanics in this game are also interesting, it lacks that overall drive. Instead, though, it has a lot of real poignancy and emotional depth. How would your teenage self view you now, with all of your hopes and dreams having been tested by time? (or, if you are a teen, what's your older self going to be like?) It's a mechanic seen before in other stories, but I like all those stories (thinking of 13 Going on 30 here). It is a less substantial story physically, but has more to say, I think.
The game has excellent artwork (I went through a phase where I wanted to copy Hennessy's design for my Twine works but it was too hard and didn't really go anywhere, but I ended up commissioning art more often and he does that so maybe it did go somewhere?). The backgrounds and fonts and colors are easily readable and unobtrusive.
This game does a lot good that is unnoticeable because it's just not doing what bad games do. It gives you a sense of agency without pushing but also lets you feel like you didn't miss out on branches you didn't click on.
To me the highlight is the humor, subtly leading your expectations and then defying them. I enjoyed (minor spoilers (Spoiler - click to show)the part with with the two crowns, as well as the taurine chewing gum, just the fact that it exists). The many bizarre worldwide events over the last decade made for a lot of potential jokes at the time traveller's expense, but were selected with good sense and care (could have made a lot of darker jokes, which I'm glad didn't happen).
I really like this game, glad it was made.
4 people found the following review helpful:
Two mysteries, and a lot of heart, in one game, October 10, 2022
This choice-based, multimedia game puts you in the role of 21-year-old Bell Park, a former child-then-teen detective in the Encyclopedia Brown/Veronica Mars mold, now a fully licensed Private Investigator. Already jaded by life despite having achieved her dream job, Bell must confront her past in more ways than one, and in a much more literal sense than most of us ever have. At the same time that her first love and former best friend comes back to ask for her help, her 12-year-old self inexplicably travels through time and lands on her desk. Can she find her friend's missing boyfriend and figure out what to do about her past (and present) self in the process?
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This was a very fun story with a cast of colorful characters. The writing is excellent and the dialogue is very snappy. I laughed more than once and was smiling most of the time I was playing. The interface is great, with some artwork to represent the characters appearing on the sides of the dialogue heavy scenes, which read like a screenplay. I felt like the graphical part of the interface was perfect, only adding to the experience, never distracting, and was used very cleverly in one scene in particular.
I will say that the case of the missing boyfriend was a bit disappointing in its resolution, but I was far more interested in what was going on in parallel with that mystery anyway. The banter with adult and kid Bell was witty, they way they worked together and played off each other was endearing, the way they worked through the tough moments was heart warming, and their resolution was everything I hoped for.
I did notice that when we first encounter one of the boys, that he is referred to as "Bald Guy", but his artwork shows a man with hair. A minor nit to pick and quickly forgotten. Also, I think I would have liked to have the dialogue of the Bells subtly color-coded to indicate which one was talking. Something as simple as black and dark grey would have probably been sufficient. Their dialogue was so quick-witted that I didn't want to look at the tags to see who was speaking sometimes, rather I wanted to stay in the flow of the repartee and occasionally that cost me and I lost track of who was talking. I think making Kid Bell's dialogue just slightly different would have helped me stay in the flow.
Overall, I very much enjoyed the game and now I want to go play the earlier games with these characters that I've missed. I came very close to giving this one four stars, only the disappointing end to the main case held me back.