Review: Death off the Cuff23 Jan 2014 0
Death Off the Cuff has a delightful setting: the climactic scene from so many mysteries, with the suspects gathered around the triumphant detective, but with the brilliant inspector clueless about the case. The interface is fundamentally similar to old text adventures like Zork: you can enter a noun to examine or talk about it, or a simple command like "Melt wizard".
While I never played those old text adventures, I hold a Masters of Science in Philosophy, so I regard myself as something of an expert on hokum. Heck, some of you probably believe I've played the games I've reviewed! So it is with some authority that I claim that the ability to raise seemingly irrelevant issues is vital to surprising one's listeners and circumventing their critical faculties. As a result, the programming challenge of developing an artificial interpreter able to handle a plausible player-driven flimflam story is fascinating. Unfortunately, the game's interpreter is not nearly as clever as its charming text.
Getting a handful of people in a room and explaining the plot resolution must serve some fantastically valuable narrative purpose, given how frequently it occurs in mystery novels. Turning that showcase of genius into intellectual slapstick is an artesian well of humor, continuously providing unforced comedy which doesn't get old in this admittedly brief game.
What does get old is gleefully typing in an inspired bit of improvisation just specific enough to make someone think you know their secret, only to have the game respond that you can't think of anything to say about it. Some amount of fishing around for a way forward is expected in a text adventure, but Death off the Cuff responds to very little except mentions of the concrete objects already mentioned, and not all of those.
As a result, the experience of playing the game is plodding and methodical, while the theme of the game involves wild leaps of guesswork and bluff. The mismatch serves to highlight the limitations of the gameplay, for while there are multiple endings worth reading, the paths to them are sadly pedestrian. Footpaths, then, I suppose, though your fingers are doing the walking, and metaphors are hard. If you're walking on your hands, are you still a pedestrian?
Compensating somewhat for the disappointing lack of unusual achievement in the intelligence of the interpreter is the helpful interface. Though it's all about simply entering text, you can tap any word to automatically enter it (that this is so often a useful shortcut highlights the shallowness of the gameplay, but it's a smart adaptation), there are shortcuts for frequently-used commands, there's a note-taking area in the app as well as a summary page with periodic illustrations.
A friend of mine once referred to Final Fantasy VII as, not a game, but a movie you crank. Death off the Cuff's plot branches in substantially more interesting ways, but the process of exploring those branches is less creative than it seems like it ought to be. It's also less burdensome than I expected, which means it's an effective method for reading a humbly amusing story.