Welcome to a new column on dorthu.com - Avant-Garde Indie. Here we'll be exploring experimental indie games, and discussing what worked and what didn't, as well as what in the game has inspired me and will influence my own projects. This isn't a reviews column, and I'm not going to be recommending anything, but I will include links to the relevant sites if you want to try the games for yourself. I'm kicking this column off with a pixel-based short-story point and click by Peter Moorhead - Murder.
Murder is ostensibly a point and click adventure game, but in practice there are very few interactions - each screen of the game has one "Critical" interaction that advances the player, and maybe a few "Optional" interactions that trigger some extra dialog. In many cases, there are no optional interactions on a screen, and you just look around before selecting the only option to continue.
The first thing that drew my attention to this game was its art style - I'm a sucker for pixel art, and this is quality stuff. The use of color is especially striking, and the environments are fairly memorable, despite only visiting each briefly. It's also worth mentioning the soundtrack, which is spot on.
The real sell of the game is the story, though, and it does not disappoint. The story follows a Lieutenant in a cyberpunk future through the investigation of a single murder, and ultimately comments on the nature of conciousness and death. While left broadly open to interpretation, I felt the message of the game was that sticking to a routine, staying inside your small, sheltered safe zone, and never pushing yourself to do more than the rote bare minimum is essentially death. A powerful line went something like "I will not let conciousness be commoditized" - and I think the author wanted me to consider what that means for a nine-to-fiver today.
All of the dialog in Murder is voice acted, but I felt it detracted from the experience. The lines seem to have been recorded across many sessions, or out of order, or otherwise stitch together unnaturally - when played in sequence, they don't make for a conversation. Even worse, the lines for the few optional interactions can flow together very poorly when done in the wrong order.
The other major problem is the linearity of the experience - this game tells one story, and while it's a good story, it may s'well've been a movie. The most agency the player has across its thirty-minute runtime is the order of a few batches of optional dialog segments, none of whose order has any effect on the outcome. One sequence in the beginning really highlighted how little agency I had - I called an elevator, then the game apparently froze. A second later, I realized I was just waiting for the elevator through a scripted sequence where I couldn't even move the cursor. The shame of it is that I think this was avoidable - if I had simply been given the ability to walk my character around the room, even with no consequence to it, I would have felt more invested.
In fact, playing the game with a controller, all I could do was move the cursor between selectable points. If instead I could move my character around the room and interact with nearby points, it would have added an element of exploration and discovery that would have given me the agency I wanted - sure, highlight that I'm supposed to go through the door, but let me find out that I can interact with the newspapers and computer on my own. This would preserve the very linear story (which was not a problem), while making optional interactions feel like more of a reward for exploration, and make the entire game feel less like a short film that I have to press A to advance at points.
There was one moment that I don't want to spoil that really inspired me - toward the end of the story there is a sudden twist that took me by surprise in both its execution and impact on the message. If I take one thing away from this game, it would be the construction of that moment.
If there had to be a second thing though, I think I wouldn't attempt voice acting, especially in a situation where the sequence was variable. While I think I see what went wrong with it here, I don't honestly think I could do better, and I feel like the disjointed voiceovers took away from the experience more than I could gain by including them.