The Girl Who Clicked The Hornet's Nest
Whispers of a Machine may well be one of the best point-and-click adventure games of recent times. Such statements ought never to be made lightly however all my reflections so far reach the same conclusion. Few titles, adventure game or otherwise, are made with such craft and discipline. It’s economical in design, yet flush with creativity and subtle innovations within the genre. It is yet another Adventure Game Studio construct and further evidence of not only the opportunities now afforded to storytellers to bring their ideas to interactive media, but of the wealth of talent that lies beneath the endless parade or overhyped, overpriced tat.
Our story this time around is that of Vera, a young detective who has been sent from the city to investigate a murder on the small floating hamlet of Nordsund. It is not quite a post-apocalyptic world, but it is suffering the aftermath of some form of civil collapse. As such, heavy technological restrictions are imposed on the citizenry with more advanced systems like AI outright banned.
Vera herself however is imbued with the ‘blue’, a somewhat indeterminate substance that grants the host the ability to use cybernetic augmentations, the exact nature of which arising out of their more dominant personality traits. From this comes the game’s most unique mechanic where puzzle solutions are altered depending on what skills you have developed. What’s impressive is how well the different potential solutions are integrated into the same location and set of objects. Likewise the solutions themselves are consistently logical with none of that bizarre puzzle design where you have combine the ball-gag with the crisp packet to build the makeshift atom bomb (don’t bother, I’ve tried already).
It follows the trend seen in 2018’s Unavowed where puzzle design is being made less obnoxious, helping to reduce frustration and ensure good pacing, one the most essential elements to a well told story. The puzzles in Whispers are a little more nuanced than in Dave Gilbert’s urban fantasy but are helped by the overarching police procedural structure, focusing your thoughts on a more narrow set of goals and using a lot of the tools and techniques your average investigator might use, your augmented super powers notwithstanding.
So you talk to witnesses, search for clues, analyse blood samples, examine corpses etc. and Whispers handles it all quite elegantly, making you feel like a proper detective. Talking to others is the principle method by which the game will determine what powers you have. In certain conversations you will be presented with three response options; empathic, assertive, or analytical. Each choice in turn moves your personality towards that state at the cost of the others whereby at the end of each day the dominant trait will be the basis for your next power.
The story does a very good job in contextualising this process. As a relatively recent imbiber of the blue, Vera has yet to fully develop her abilities and as you might imagine the investigation begins to affect her personally, all of which leading to multiple routes through the story and its alternative endings. The game auto saves aggressively so you are locked in to your choices, but with a modest runtime of around 5 hours or so it’s no great burden to go back and try something else. The short length is also indicative of the discipline mentioned earlier. Nothing in the game feels superfluous, everything exists for a good reason, that reason invariably being to serve the story. That the dialogue is well written and the puzzles smart is just a bonus.
In another step outside the common fads of more bloated, more richly funded narratives, Whispers is pleasingly understated, neither indulging in overwrought melodrama, empty bombast, or any of that cringe worthy habit of substituting overbearing ‘quirkiness’ for depth of personality. The cast is believably human, and more importantly, they talk like adults as opposed to the annoying anime stock characters a lot of writers now lean on. The story also handles its emotional and intellectual themes with a steady and even handed approach; there are no pantomime villains here, just flawed individuals struggling with the past and the future, with you in a position to determine both in the choices you make.
Is it perfect? Certainly not, there are games with better stories, better puzzles, music, art etc. but there’s very little Whispers of a Machine gets wrong. It’s not just a solid adventure but a very refined amalgamation of the many developments in point-and-click games that came before it. It’s quietly pre-eminent, destined to remain under the radar, a hidden gem and soothing antidote to the psychotic financial exigencies of the industry.