Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit by Ian Ball and Marcus Young [Comp97]

IFDB page: Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit
Final placement: 17th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit (hereafter called MmeLTS) is a frustrating game, because it builds such a slipshod house upon a very promising foundation. The game is riddled with what I would guess are at least a hundred grammar and spelling errors. It flipflops seemingly at random between past and present tense. It can’t seem to decide whether to address the player in the second or third person. It consistently causes a fatal crash in at least one interpreter (WinFrotz). All this would be easy to evaluate as simply the product of incompetent authors if it didn’t take place in a game that starts with an interesting premise, executes a number of great interface decisions, and manages to unroll a complicated mystery plot along the way. As it is, MmeLTS is a great mess that could’ve been a contender if only it had been written with more care.

One area in which the game does succeed is that of the innovations introduced by its authors, especially in the area of navigation: MmeLTS combines the direction-based locomotion of traditional IF with the more intuitive “go to location x” type of travel used in games like Joe Mason’s In The End. The title character (a “spiritualist detective” who is also the player character) can travel to various locations around Sydney with the use of the “travel to” or “go to” verb. However, once she has arrived at a particular location she uses direction-based navigation to walk from place to place (or room to room, as the case may be.) Moreover, the authors often write direction responses as a simple set of actions performed by the title character rather than implementing entire rooms which serve no purpose. These methods of navigation combine the best of both worlds, providing a broad brush for cross-city or cross-country travel but not taking away the finer granularity available to the direction-based system. A related innovation concerns Madame L’Estrange’s notebook, in which the game automagically tallies the names of important people and places which come up in her investigations. This notebook (similar to the “concept inventory” used in some graphical IF) provides a handy template for travel and inquiry, and would be welcome inside any game, especially those involving a detective.

One other point: MmeLTS takes the character all over Sydney, and in doing so provides an element of education and travel narrative along with its detective story. The medium’s investigations take her from Centennial Park to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Taronga Zoo to the University of New South Wales. Locations are often well-described, and after playing the game for two hours I felt more knowledgeable about Sydney than when I started (I hope the game’s locations weren’t fictional!) As an American whose knowledge of Australia is mostly limited to Mad Max movies, I can attest that the travel aspect of the game is a lot of fun.

Prose: It’s not that the game’s prose was terrible of itself. The game is quite verbose, outputting screensful of text as a matter of course, and much of this text is effective and worthwhile. As I mentioned, many of the descriptions worked quite well, and the game does manage to clearly elucidate its plot as events happen. It’s just that the mechanics of the prose are so bad (see Technical/writing). When technical problems are so pervasive, they can’t help but have a tremendous negative impact on the quality of the prose.

Plot: The game’s plot is actually quite interesting. Mme. L’Estrange is presented with two apparently unrelated mysteries: strange wildlife deaths ascribed to a mysterious beast loose in Centennial Park, and the apparent suicide of a marine biology worker. As one might expect, these two situations eventually turn out to be linked. I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours (in fact, I only scored five points out of 65 in that time, which makes me wonder just how much of the game I haven’t yet seen), but what I saw makes it clear that the game is well-plotted. I was interested in seeing its mysteries unfold.

Puzzles: I didn’t really find many puzzles as such — the game is mainly focused on exploration. Those puzzles which I did find were quite soluble as long as enough exploring had been done. What took up most of my time was visiting locations, talking to characters, and “tuning in” to the spirit world to commune with the spirits of the dead or learn more about a place’s spiritual aura. This kept me busy enough that I didn’t really miss the lack of puzzles.

Technical (writing): The mechanics of the writing are just horrible. Sentences constantly lack periods or initial capital letters. Words are constantly misspelled. Typos are everywhere. The tense shifts back and forth at random between past and present; either one would have been workable and interesting, but the game seems unable to make up its mind. A similar phenomenon occurs with the voice, which vacillates between second and third person address. This avalanche of mechanical problems cripples what could have been an excellent game.

Technical (coding): The jury is still out on how well the game is coded. When I was using WinFrotz to play the game, I encountered Fatal errors repeatedly, but I’m not sure whether they were the fault of the designer or of the interpreter. JZIP presented the game with no problem, but again that could be because the interpreter was ignoring an illegal condition. Several aspects of the coding, such as Madame L’s notebook, were quite nifty (unless that’s what was causing the problem with WinFrotz crashing), and the implementation was solid overall.