Letter to Irene Callaci about Dangerous Curves, 28 April 2000

Warning: Spoilers ahead
Dear Irene --

First of all, let me tell you about me and mystery games. The first mystery game I ever played was Infocom's Suspect, fondly bought for me as a birthday gift or something. I loved walking around the mansion, talking to the various characters, and searching all the furniture. I filled up notebooks with every utterance I could squeeze out of the characters, with lists organized by room of the items therein, with chronologies of what happened when. I waited in every single location for the entire duration of the game to see what happens. If I walked into that mansion today, I could probably navigate it entirely from memory. The problem is this: I got absolutely nowhere at actually solving the murder. I couldn't figure out what was signficant in some places, but more importantly I just couldn't figure out how to establish motive, method, or opportunity, let alone all three. I started to get more and more frustrated with the whole thing.

After a long, long time of this, I broke down and bought the Invisiclues. When I finally found the solution, I didn't have a feeling of "Why didn't I think of that?" Instead, I felt, "How in the hell was I supposed to think of that?" Since then, my track record with mysteries has been unimpressive. I did OK with Ballyhoo, but that was really more of a puzzlefest with a mystery plot tacked on at the beginning and end. I was hopeless with Deadline. I couldn't get anywhere in Moonmist, though that may have been due more to the bugginess of the game than to my particular denseness. Even The Witness, which everybody on the IF newsgroups seems to think is a cakewalk, was totally impenetrable for me. I had only the vaguest suspicion who did it, and not the faintest clue how to prove it. There haven't been that many amateur attempts at mystery games, and what few there are I haven't played, so I can't say how well I've done in the post-Infocom world of mystery games. I will note, however, that I am an equally poor detective when I read mystery fiction. I basically never figure out who the murderer is ahead of the detective. Well, there was one period where I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie, and figured out that the murderer is always the least likely person. I was able to guess with a pretty good degree of accuracy using this method, but I still had to wait til the end of the book to find out just how the crime was committed.

Now let me tell you why Dangerous Curves is easily, far and away, my favorite mystery game of all time. I haven't got this figured out exactly, but I think it has to do with the fact that the game steps outside of all the paradigms for mystery IF that I've seen up til now. In Infocom's traditional mysteries, you had to establish motive, method, and opportunity. This was sometimes accomplished through the use of highly unlikely actions like TELL THE DETECTIVE ABOUT THE WEATHER, actions which required you to put together all the pieces in just the way a good mystery reader would do, and just the way that I completely suck at. I could never come up with these actions, and so I remained stuck forever, or until I looked at the hints, whichever came first. (You can probably guess what came first every time.) Dangerous Curves doesn't require this kind of reasoning. It allows for it, but doesn't require it. With the help of devices like the full score listing, Frank Thibodeaux's gentle prodding, and the anonymous tipster, I was able to put together all the pieces and, for the first time ever in a mystery IF game, feel like I was solving the crime. Let me tell you, this was a great feeling. I think one of DC's great strengths is that while it allows for the kind of player that was great at Infocom's mystery games, it also allows for players like me. None of the devices I listed above are required for a winning session with the game, but they sure helped me feel like I was having fun rather than banging my head against a wall. That kind of fun is a new experience for me in mystery games.

There are lots of other factors that added to my enjoyment of the game. One of the strongest of these was the outstanding writing. Even if I hadn't been able to get anywhere in the game, I would have had a good time playing it, just because the writing was so much fun to read. It caught the perfect balance between noir and humor, similar to the balance achieved by Columbo back when it was a regular TV show. All of the historical details were just excellent, and most of the one-liners were actually funny, rather than coming off as lame pastiches of Raymond Chandler. There was also a very satisfying attention to the rhythms and musicality of language in many of the game's longer passages. For example, from the opening text:

   Her eyes watch yours as she fans the money out on the desktop. "I
   never mix business with pleasure. Do you?"

   Not often. Not lately. "Not me," you assure her. "Wouldn't dream of
Now that's just a really well-written passage. Not only is it funny, and not only does it tell us a great deal about the character in a very few words, but it also rings with a great rhythm, like a good swing song, a rhythm that would make it enjoyable to read even if it made no sense at all.

Coming in close behind the writing is the game's remarkable technical sophistication and depth of implementation. I loved knowing that I could go to the Wednesday mass and watch the churchgoers, reading lots of great text that had nothing at all to do with solving the case. It was just there to make the fictional world feel more real, and it worked beautifully. When I wrote one of these detailed responses to Suzanne after testing Worlds Apart, I told her that the source of that game's power to immerse players came from the combination of two factors: range of interaction and rich detail. DC employs this same potent combo, and it works just as well. The more actions that got a non-default response from the parser, the more places I could go, the more people I could meet, the more things I could ask them about, and the more syntactical combinations that the parser understood, the more deeply immersed I felt in Dangerous Curves' Los Angeles. A little more about that last item: I was just astonished at how much work you'd put into the parser for DC. At least two or three times per session, I would try something non- standard and find to my surprise that the parser understood it. This is the kind of improvement, I know from experience, that takes a huge amount of time and energy, but you can never be sure how many people will even find it, let alone use it, benefit from it, or comment on it. Well, I just want to tell you that I found it, and I loved it. The same goes for all the other technical feats you accomplished to make life easier for the player: the status line compass rose, the convenient handling of opening/closing and locking doors, the money that worked so well I hardly needed to worry about it at all. You took a lot of the tedious details of IF off my hands so that I could spend more time enjoying the story and the writing. Great move. In fact, during the next game I played after DC, I found myself grumbling, "Where's my compass rose?" Your game was so good, it spoiled me!

I know we all like positive feedback, and there's certainly plenty to give, but I do want to make this review a little more useful to you than just simple egofood, so I'll briefly touch on a few of the game's weaker points. I found that some actions were insufficiently clued, or at least they wouldn't have ever occurred to me without the anonymous tipster. One example of this is giving the donut to the cop. Because so many locations in the game are implemented as one-room spots, even though they might realistically have other places to explore (for example, the Tribune, the library, or Rosie's), I wasn't expecting that I would be able to actually visit prisoners in the police station. Moreover, though I could easily come up with the idea of giving the donut to the cop once I knew he wanted something, I wouldn't have otherwise expected to be able to take it out of Rosie's, since so many other things at Lenny's and Rosie's are forced to stay inside their respective locations. Of course, it's logical that I could walk out with a donut as opposed to a beer or a blue plate special, but I sort of lumped it in with everything else. Another action I wouldn't have come up with on my own was to get the bank teller drunk. I never saw any indication from him that he had anything worthwhile to say, nor much evidence that he was the kind of vulnerable lush who could be easily plied with alcohol to spill his secrets. Considering how little room you have left, I'm not sure what you could do to remedy these problems, and because you have the anonymous tipster in there, they're not significant problems anyway, but I thought I'd just let you know about my experience.

The other problem is one that I'm not sure how you could solve no matter how much room you had, which is that the characters were so well-drawn that I frequently found myself straining against the interface because I wanted to tell them more. It's really frustrating to have to try TELL JESSICA ABOUT CARLOTTA when what I really want to say is "I broke into a real estate office and learned that the Mayor's wife owns a huge amount of property along the proposed highway site, and that's why Vickstrom was so hot on the freeway project, and no doubt why he had your husband killed." Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is outside of the current grasp of IF in general, not just Dangerous Curves. The fact that your game made me feel the absence of such an interface that keenly is a great credit to your writing and characterization skills, not to mention the depth of immersion you achieve in your fictional world.

Playing Dangerous Curves has been one of my favorite IF experiences in a long, long time. Thank you for that, and for the correspondence, which I've also enjoyed very much. Good luck with your game and your life, and keep in touch.

Dangerous Curves review letter / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised February 2006
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