IF Comp 2013: 'Bell Park, Youth Detective' by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Here is a mechanically simplistic web CYOA that transcends the simplicity of its design by the the strength of its storytelling and its gently resonating themes.

Bell Park, Youth Detective uses a minimal CYOA framework to tell a lightly humorous detective story, a 12 year-old girl cast as the detective.  The detective plot feels relatively unimportant, even though there are no non-plot-related goals to explore or substantial side plots.  There is a murder at a technology conference.  By some unclear reasoning, the conference director decides that asking the preteen to solve the murder might prevent the police from ruining the conference.  The best thing about the plot is that the young protagonist doesn't turn out to be an obnoxiously infallible prodigy, and with the possible exception of the potential villain, the conference director is the only adult who is made to look stupid.

The relative unimportance of the detective plot is emphasized by the lack of interactivity with it.  Dialog options may be the only choices.  The reader can't even choose the order in which to interrogate the suspects.  The CYOA progresses in a linear thread, with only the possibility to explore different conversation routes and minimally different accounts of the story.

The writing and characterization lend the game an open, friendly atmosphere.  The characters are all one-sided and static, their defining traits exaggerated for mild comedy.  However, the comedic characters are sympathetic, because they are shown to have real convictions, and their actions are rooted firmly in their convictions.  The depth of the portrayal of the way real people look at the world is evident in the advice that one of the characters gives to the protagonist:
Weird is normal. There are weird people all over. What you need to look for is someone being weird weirdly.
This turns out to be good advice for solving the mystery, and it also seems like a wise observation of human nature.  The characters in the game who are not particularly "weird" are not memorable.  The merely "weird" characters are the ones who express compelling and holistic life-philosophies, but the the "weirdly weird" character is delusional and disconnected from real life.

The characters' philosophies and lifestyles in regard to technology implicate our relationship to the Internet, and the ways that we can abuse it.  Early on, the game throws out the terms "Futurist" and "Luddite," and I interpret four of the characters as representations of the good and the bad of those two loosely-defined philosophies.  In my interpretation, the "bad Futurist" is the misguided visionary who sees technology and specifically the Internet as the cure for all the world's wrongs.  The "good Futurist" is the pragmatic hacker, a woman who lives and breathes binary, who is happy to be thoroughly engrossed in the digital world but remains the master of the machine.  The "good Luddite" simply lives his life in the digital age without pretension, but he happens to be a romantic, poetically associating the Internet with universal metaphors.  The character that I'm depending on to fill the role of the "bad Luddite" didn't get much of a showing, but from what we know of her, she blamed the world's evils on the Internet as indiscriminately as the "bad Futurist" blessed it as the solution.

Even the aesthestics reinforce the theme.  The webpage through which the CYOA operates is not an example of the Internet at its most progressive.  There are no advanced CSS or JavaScript effects, no complicated layering or roll-over menus.  Nor is it outdated.  It lacks the deliberate retro aesthetic so common in indie gaming communities.  The webpage simply uses the common container method of web design, with a simple solid border.  The aesthetic seems to say, "This is the mere Internet."

The lack of interactivity in Bell Park, Youth Detective is disappointing.  There is fairly little to see in this traditional web CYOA.  However, the blandness of the design and presentation -- if it can be "bland" -- plays strongly into the theme.  The thematic richness makes the game worthwhile.


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