Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Trilby's notes

The world of adventure games is full of private detectives, paranormal investigators and loners with an axe to grind. Trilby could easily fall into all three categories, but he wasn’t always like that. He started out as a master thief, and only the encounter with an evil murdering entity has changed him to the extent where he got clumsy, got caught and was forced to work for a government team focused on out of the ordinary events.

Chronologically, Trilby’s Notes is the second of the four part series by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, which started with 5 Days a Stranger. Even though released later than the adventure in space of 7 Days a Skeptic and thus potentially confusing the story’s timeline, thanks to a very good introduction the player will quickly pick up where he left out in 5 Days. New players won’t have any problems either, as Trilby’s Notes is a fully self-contained game.

The action takes place in a hotel, which seems to be shifting between two realities. Trilby, the main character, will shift even more, completing very simple tasks or merely observing during five different historical periods, all of which explain some of the background of the cursed statue that caused so much trouble in the first game, and which is now back. Showcasing his superb writing, Yahtzee once again spins a very tight and enjoyable story, which despite its subject matter doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief. The author advances the story via writings that Trilby occasionally finds, in addition to the already mentioned flashbacks. At the very end, the player is treated to a bonus backgrounder that appears after the game’s been completed and before the end titles.

Gameplay-wise, the author has resorted to good old fashioned adventuring. The timed scenes from 7 Days are thankfully gone, and there’s no action like in the 1213 series. The puzzles are all relatively easy, and the greatest challenge will be with the text parser. The author decided to use it instead of a full point-and-click interface, but he did an excellent job loading the parser with synonyms. With only a single exception (finding the proper name for a smoke sensor), I’ve never had a problem with the parser. The greatest puzzle-related challenge will be the relative linearity of the gameplay, where many items appear or are usable only after certain puzzles are solved, and only in one of the two realities. Given the dozen or so spaces that Trilby will have access to, this will mean a lot of running back and forth.

Production-wise, the game bears Yahtzee’s signature. The backgrounds are very simple and clean, drawn in 256 colors (which tends to get a little frustrating when trying to get screenshots). Character animations are very basic, and they reminded me of 1980s commercial games – in a good way. The author was obviously inspired by slasher movies, especially the Friday the 13th series, as the main villain loves to maim other characters with big, pointy objects, in animations that were designed to shock. Even though the horror-themed hotel reality left me cold, the sudden killings out of nowhere did make me jump. The music, as simple as the graphics, fit in well enough, but didn’t evoke the eerie feeling that music in some other games does.

The simplicity of the production value isn’t a bad thing, though. On the contrary, it gives the game a very distinct character and has the author and the player focus on the story and the game itself. This allowed the author to leverage his strength, his superb storytelling and writing. Trilby’s Notes is an excellent game I’m happy I got to play.


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