Brute Forcing the Medical, Doc: Cybersleuth Puzzle Design

Where’s Karin? Where is she? She’s supposed to be here, to give me a check-up and fill these tranq darts. Neo, their AI assistant, tells me they’ll let me know when she arrives at the Police Lab, but I can’t leave.

I can’t search around for her though, you see I’ve got this problem where there’s doors and clear reasons not to go through them, I just don’t like it in that department there, you see. Or, it’s blocked, or, some other reason I have to stay on these two floors with their multiple rooms, waiting. For Karin.

Sometimes a game designer and a couple of genres love each other very much, and they have a baby, it’s called ‘Point and Click Cyberpunk game’. As one of the original styles of play that the genre of noir based cyberpunk sleuthing originated you have several indie tributes in games like Neofeud, Primordia, Technobabylon and the Beneath A Steel Sky reboot.

Welcome to The Sundew (2021)… and I don’t know if this puzzle is time sensitive or what… okay I just checked, it is, but not in the sense that time is time sensitive, in the way that, you have to do one thing before another except here these things aren’t correlated.

To trigger the arrival of Karin in the lab you have to complete another task further down your list of things than “Fill up the tranq darts.”

This was something I noticed earlier, in the apartment, that there were obvious triggers for visual intrusions in your eye interface by a hacker colleague, ones that need you to do something specific before they’ll pop up to distract you. In life, generally time based sequences of necessity/convention mean things a sequence of things related to each other. You put your shoes on before leaving for a journey with the shoe havers club, and they don’t let you come if you didn’t do this and instead planned to get shoes while on the journey. No way! But you don’t have to wait for them to turn up at the meeting point because you forgot to tidy or cook, that’s not what makes them arrive.

But that’s fine, you know, for a game made by one person, and that looks like The Sundew does, it’s fine that the triggers are designed in a uniquely odd way, because that’s how point and click games work, right? It’s just the way of the clickable world that everything is obtuse in it’s own unique way for each game that I don’t finish, because I got too frustrated at some point.

In games like this we have the recourse of “brute force”, which is actually just patience. We try every combination of objects and situations possible, we search the screen for hidden interactions, we travel to past locations to see what we missed. We scour and we try things we’ve already tried over again until hopefully we get it. Patience that gets us to that brute force outcome of picking a lock with no finesse.

This isn’t fun. It’s never been fun, and it never will be. Unless you’re actually picking locks.

The opening to The Sundew seems like something special at first, the atmosphere is great, the sense of depth, an apartment a lake and a city in one screen, all tied together by rain, your hookup’s snoring, a reliance on artificial light and a hangover. Great stuff, gorgeously shaded pixel art and real deep in the cybernoir genre stuff.

Anna’s a cyborg cop though. She hates being on time and loves whiskey, and in that way is the soul of the conjoined Japanese and American crime fiction cultures here. A real bastard, who hates robots to boot, and who’d make a perfect Philip K. Dick character if he ever wrote women into the place of the pissed off lead. More Women Cops! We hear the people shouting from the slums beneath the elevated high-rises, in what we’re calling ‘the smoke pits’.

Then you go to the precinct and the game hits it’s puzzle slump. And here we are, part way through a Bogart movie with no momentum. I cheat on the puzzle and play out the rest of the game. And for a minute it gets good, there’s some intrigue! It just behind an off-putting puzzle, and then minutes later, in the streets of the city, there’s more cool stuff going on but for your informant to turn up, you need to find a knife first. It’s another piece of odd, frustrating design, in a game where otherwise this great visual and sound design talent is on display, along with a thematic tie-in to flowers that could be the most interesting thing… like a note being played by another musician in a different room, away from it all.

Replaying the first moments over in my head. Watching a playthrough to take part in the future. Smelling the weird flowers again.

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