The ridiculously prolific developer Owl Skip is back with another of his superbly crafted detective-o-logic games, this time moving away from pop music history and onto extremely topical politics. Like, so topical you do have to wonder if Tim Sheinman might be Q and originated the Qanon conspiracy as publicity for this game. I mean, the very first document you read begins,
“A prolonged standoff between a prominent Kansas militia group and the Federal government has come to an end.”
Then things get even more impressive when you play the first tape, and it’s Jon Ronson reporting his eye-witness account of meeting one of the game’s fictional characters. THE Jon Ronson!
What follows is an investigation that has you play as a lawyer for the American president, trying to root through various conspiracy theories to unearth the truth. There are, it seems, a collection of ex-CIA operatives known as The Four. Well, known as that by believers in various conspiracy theories, most especially by one Laurie Williams. Your job is to try to work out their involvement in claims of drug smuggling, disappearing email servers, and rigged voting machines. Oh yes, it’s a satire.
Sheinman’s skill in all of his games of this ilk is to always give you just enough information to progress, but barely. Like Family and Rivals, this is a multimedia collection of snippets, cuttings and recordings, that when read and listened to very carefully, will give you the nuggets of information you need to piece its twenty solutions together.
Here you need to attach the month and year to events, as you plough through the deranged or not-so-deranged reports from forums, podcasts, newspapers and transcripts. There will be those tiny details, those references to something having happened two months ago, and then a mention of a sports game. This time, wonderfully, you’re going to need Google to solve a lot of it – take the sports game I elude to: to find the date you’re going to need to search the teams, the winners, the rough period, and find the right result. Other times you’ll be scanning calendars, trying to work out when a Saturday fell on an 18th.
I kept thinking I was stuck, deciding it was going to be too much, and then re-listening to a recording and realising that throwaway line I’d glossed right over contained just the thing I needed to know. I bugged the poor developer at one point to say I couldn’t continue, before realising as I did that I could. I love it when an investigative game is so perfectly poised like that, never feeling simple, but always eventually possible.
The timing of this is perfect. If you’re worried it’s insensitive to make a game about the deluded thinking of extremist far-right Americans just now, know that actual real-life America has far out-satirised anything this game has to offer – it feels positively mundane compared to reality’s present offerings. Plus, any wisps of discomfort I had were removed by the brilliant reveal at the end. Which is then, I’m delighted to say, followed by a song.
My desk is covered in scraps of paper, each scrawled over with scribbled notes, which I think is always a strong sign of a good time with a game. You should get it now, before real life gets even more unrealistic. It’s out now on itch, and comes to Steam on the 20th.
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Does this game have any accessibility options? I played through Family, but I wasn’t able to use any of the audio clues. I would have enjoyed it much more if there were any subtitles.
Thoroughly enjoyed working through this, though I found it a shorter game than Rivals and Family – I finished this in about an hour. No regrets about the purchase, though. Owl Skip is a deft hand when it comes to writing layered, intelligent riddles and building compelling worlds out of a handful of elements. I’d love to see an old school murder mystery or something from him.
To be critical, I didn’t find the humor to be as clever as the gameplay. That’s not a Qanon view; I’m a lefty Canadian who’s horrified by everything happening in the States. But jokes about Logan Paul and gay frogs feel pretty stale and easy these days. One of the most interesting things about the narrative, to me, was the fact that you were actually (kind of) playing as a Qanon-type – I’d have loved to see that embraced more fully. The movie Four Lions comes to mind, as it was brilliant at switching from easy humor to a dark gutpunch of an ending. But that kind of narrative reach may be unfair to expect from a title with this scope.
In any case, it’s wild just to play a game that is so incredibly current in its story. I wonder how the humor would have come across prior to the DC riots – that was a pretty damn dark and worrying event, and a large part of the reason I would have preferred the humor in this game to be darker and smarter. That immediacy also means I don’t think I’ll be able to form a final opinion of this game until (at least) January 21st; if the situation in the US gets worse or more violent, then Conspiracy’s easy humor will really grate. All the same, it’s a very interesting title and a hell of an artifact for future discussion.
Forgetting the *very* relevant politics of this, there is something so beautifully satisfying about getting the clues to click in. Obra Dinn was really onto something even if it was a perfection of an existing format, I hope more games use this style!