in Comp04

Murder at the Aero Club by Penny Wyatt [Comp04]

IFDB page: Murder at the Aero Club
Final placement: 16th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

My first clue was a line in the banner: “(With apologies to all real-life characters and Government organisations upon which this is based!)” Do I detect a faint scent of “in-joke game”? Of course, the dead giveaway came when I encountered a character with the same name as the author. So assuming that “Penny Wyatt” isn’t a pseudonym, or that it’s the pseudonym of somebody who really does belong to an Australian aero club, I’m going to venture the hypothesis that this is one of those games where the author implements some familiar setting and characters, drapes a little concept around them, and then releases it to the world. It’s a close cousin of the “implement your house” and “implement your job” games: the “implement your hangout” game.

The vast majority of the time, games like this are vastly entertaining to the lucky few who are acquainted with the people and places represented, and irritatingly baffling to the rest of us. Murder At The Aero Club is no exception, though its competent prose and the presence of an actual story (albeit minimal) render it a cut above many. One of the problems with games like this is that they assume too much. Because the setting is so familiar to the author, a kind of unconscious shorthand sets in, a failure to fully describe the world. Perhaps it’s difficult to take an authorial approach to things that are right next to you, especially if you’re trying to fictionalize them just a little.

Certainly, unconscious assumptions would help clarify why so few first-level nouns are implemented. Take, for instance, the first room description:

Car park
You are standing beside your car, parked in a small gravel parking area. Light streams onto the ground in patches, mottled by the shade of the gum trees high above. Surrounding you is an assortment of vehicles. A gravel path leads north to the front door of the clubhouse, while to the west stands a large maintenance workshop.

Here are the things I tried to examine: workshop, clubhouse, path, gravel, vehicles, trees, lot, and car. Here’s what was implemented: vehicles and car. The rest told me “You can’t see any such thing,” which seems awfully contradictory to what’s just been described to me. It’s very difficult to get a great mental picture of my surroundings when they seem so hastily sketched. Still, vehicles and car are at least something. Here’s what the game tells me about the vehicles:

The vehicles appear to belong to the various members of the flying club. Among the ones you can see from your position are a gleaming green Porsche, a dirty ute, a formidable-looking motorbike, and a dust-covered van. Many of the vehicles have “I Love Aircraft Noise” stickers attached to their windows. There’s also your little car, of course. It’s looking a little worse for wear after the gruelling eight-hour drive to get here.

You know what the game told me when I tried to examine the Porsche, the ute, the motorbike, and the van? Yeah, that’s right. I couldn’t see any such thing. The premise of the game is that you play a detective sent to investigate a murder at an amateur aviation club deep in the outback, but it’s hard to feel like a detective when you can’t even see huge objects all around you. Heck, I don’t even know what a “ute” is (aside from an Indian tribe and a joke from My Cousin Vinny), and I would have really appreciated a little description, but it wasn’t to be.

See, for this game’s real audience — the people it depicts and the people who know them — a description of those cars isn’t necessary, because those people already know what the cars look like. The PC is an outsider to the situation, and the game’s inattention to world-building certainly helped me identify with that excluded feeling, but I wasn’t even able to do the basic sorts of examinations a detective would do, which in the end wasn’t much fun, and didn’t really make much sense.

Plenty of things about the game don’t make a lot of sense, actually. The solution requires some pretty non-intuitive actions, though because the game is so sparsely implemented that I was still able to guess what it wanted me to do much of the time. It also introduces random, crazy crap from time to time, like the character who is seemingly able to drink jet fuel. When a game sticks with an otherwise realistic milieu and then throws in something like this, I just roll my eyes and disengage. If the game doesn’t care about its own world’s consistency, why should I?

However, there are things to like about MATAC. The detective PC carries a notebook to which the game automatically appends any relevant information that the PC encounters. This device is both useful and well-implemented. (Shades of Madame L’Estrange And The Troubled Spirit, another game set in Australia with an investigative PC who carries an automagically-growing notebook.) The prose is clean and clear, and the game is free of horrible bugs. Mind you, there are still plenty of run-of-the-mill bugs — discoveries that can be repeated ad infinitum, dialogue that repeats weirdly, and so forth. I’d guess that MATAC is untested or minimally tested. Still, if you’re a member of the club it parodies, you’ll probably have a great time with it. If you aren’t, I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.

Rating: 6.0

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