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By Sam Gordon
Played On: October 23rd (1 hour 35 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (ZCode)
Merk’s Score: 9
The word "xyzzy" comes into your head for no apparent reason. You cannot quite place it. Perhaps it is the title of a book that you've seen somewhere.
(Edit: There is a little more to XYZZY at work here -- which I learned of later from another discussion -- but I’m not going to spoil it.)
Lord Bellwater’s Secret opens like a good mansion crawler (I have a fondness for those, maybe because a few of my earliest IF experiences were set in large puzzle-filled mansions of mystery), but it’s essentially a one-room game. Technically it’s two rooms, but the other is just an extension of Bellwater’s study. Bert Smith (you), a groom in the service of the late Lord Horace Bellwater (and by extension, his heir James Bellwater), has entered the study in secret to search for the answers to his sweetheart’s recent and reportedly accidental death.
One nice thing about this sort of design is that everything a player requires is within immediate reach. Sure, locked rooms are traded for hidden compartments and the implementation of “areas” within the room (usually approached automatically and without any impact on the story or the puzzles -- with an exception or two) is a nice touch, but it’s reassuring to know that it’s never necessary to figure out where a given item will be needed. If it’s needed at all, then this is where it will be. It’s a perfect set-up for a puzzle game, because it’s more difficult to overlook or fail to investigate important items. The moment I began to wonder “okay, now what?” I just looked around a little more and came up with an answer.
That’s not to say it simplifies the puzzles. It just leaves most navigational duties out of the equation. The bulk of Lord Bellwater’s Secret involves finding clues and evidence by examining what’s around. That’s simple on the surface, but a few puzzles do ensure that the story is revealed in a pretty much logical and meaningful way. Hitting on certain elements too soon (such as the hidden parchment -- I didn’t find it early, but it would have been possible with blind luck or dogged determination) don’t necessarily spoil later bits, because it usually takes an understanding gained by further investigation to be of any use. Even though the puzzles aren’t complex, they do offer a few “ah-ha!” moments (such as solving the safe’s combination).
It’s all nicely implemented as well. Looking up certain entries in either of the two in-game sources seems cumbersome at first, but it’s clearly described and it works well (I envy the grammar flexibility of Inform that allows for this). Some potentially complicated actions (such as using the safe’s dial or reading from specific books among the 1200 shelved) are explained and made easy.
Ah, the books. It employs a slick little gimmick that’s not even apparent until a second or third play-through. It seems to hold up for quite a while, but whether it resorts to a generic response at some point, I can only guess. It might rely on a player to simply tire of the exercise at some point (which I did), but then again, maybe all 1200 titles really are there to be seen.
The story is notable in that it allows (even expects) players to make assumptions and guesses early on, which turn out to be wrong. This didn’t feel like a “twist” except in later reflection, but I suppose it is.
The downside for me is that the game begins and ends as a murder mystery, but the middle redirects the player into a big question of inheritance and motive. At the end, I expected a neat and complete resolution to that plot line, rather than the primary one. In fact -- and in a bit of irony -- I finished the game with what appears to be the best ending at one hour and fifteen minutes (after two variations on a “losing” ending), yet struggled for another twenty minutes looking for something more. Part of that is because I missed (or wasn’t convinced) that the ending really was punishing the guilty party. Another part is that the whole issue of inheritance is only in support of the twisty plot, not the point of the game as a whole.
Lord Bellwater’s Secret is pretty well polished, but a few minor issues did sneak into the competition version. Several typos (“Sott” instead of “Scott” is one example) are noted in my transcript. Trying to “look inside” (implying the bag but not specifying it) gives no response at all. Automatic in-room movement (recognizing different areas of the room as different zones, just to add the realism of saying something like “you move away from X, toward the Y”) works pretty well, but does seem to fail in at least one case (entering the fireplace and then going out the window). And for that matter, the author covers too few of the possible actions a player might attempt for actually climbing out the window. One of the losing endings somehow glitches into a run-on with the winning ending. If the murder’s proper name is shown on the confession, is the other just a nickname? If so, then why switch back to the nickname during the ending? None of these things were too big a distraction. They just merit a little more attention in a post-comp version (if the author intends one).
Somebody will probably call this game derivative. Somebody will probably point out that it introduces nothing new, and that it embraces the overused themes one might associate with a story about wealth and corruption in 19th-century London. Somebody will probably complain that the truth -- the ultimate result of Bert’s investigation -- reinforces a cliché that is better left in the past. Somebody might even consider these to be the game’s weaknesses.
On the last point, I wholeheartedly disagree. The trick to enjoyable, worthwhile IF isn’t always that it must break new ground, discard recognizable story elements, or strive to set itself apart from similar “generic” stories told in other mediums (such as a movie or a book). Enjoyable IF can take something recognizable and perhaps overdone in other mediums and do it really well as interactive fiction, where this overdone thing is possibly underrepresented in IF. This is why Lord Bellwater’s Secret is among my so-far favorites of this year’s IFComp entries.
As such, I’ve ranked it a “9” -- and that equates to “outstanding” on my list of judging criteria. It’s a well-crafted, puzzle-filled, seemingly predictable tale of clandestine clue-hunting, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.