Review for The Game Maker – A Carol Reed Mystery
Carol Reed, renowned detective, is secretly hoping that one more case will come her way before she leaves on vacation, thus beefing up her travel savings. In The Game Maker, Carol is contacted by Dalton Jonson, a flea market owner in the Swedish town of Norrköping. His wife, Daria, has gone missing and the local police have not been very helpful. He hires Carol to check into Daria’s disappearance, having heard about Ms. Reed’s reputation for solving mysteries. As Carol searches the quaint Jonson residence, she finds a computer disk containing an unpublished videogame by an unknown developer. Carol accesses the game via her home computer and reads a disturbing reference to the murders of three local men. Bizarrely, each corpse was discovered in an absurd location. The victims had all been strangled and their hands tied behind their backs. Believing this may shed light on Daria’s disappearance, Carol decides to investigate any links between her current case and these local deaths.
This is the 18th Carol Reed adventure game by developer Mikael Nyqvist of MDNA Games. Throughout the years, I’ve played all of them. In this remarkable, long-lasting series, each game contains themes, locations and puzzles that set it apart. But each also features aspects that are deliciously familiar, bringing me back time and again for more exploration of the dazzling Swedish landscapes, interaction with the eccentric, often recognizable characters, and the chance to noodle out solutions to the classic adventure game challenges. There is no need to experience earlier games in order to enjoy The Game Maker, though playing previous MDNA adventures will spark a smile when you encounter familiar faces.
In addition to analyzing the game disk enigmas, Carol follows a trail of clues left in local parks, tunnels, and forests, leading to even more places to investigate. Graphics consist of realistic photographic settings viewed from various angles in first-person perspective, easily explored via the game’s point-and-click interface. Frequently, vista after beautiful vista unfolds; trees with sun glistening in the leaves, intricate shadows, dappled bark on the branches, streams crossed by handmade wooden bridges, a lake topped by light-infused storm clouds. As in previous Carol Reed adventures, the environments aren’t animated, though I hardly noticed the lack of movement because the locales are so extensive, attractive, and immersive.
The lavish outdoor settings are often accompanied by contemplative strings and bell-like tones, sometimes rendering an almost shimmering musical effect. In other instances, the locales are more droll -- an Aqua Golf course on a peaceful lake littered with floating golf targets, an abandoned quarry full of tumbled-down rocks and rusting equipment, or a cottage in the forest with the walls caving and an old-fashioned kiln. Occasional sound effects embellish the surroundings -- the lapping of waves on the shore, distinctive bird calls, the ding from a text message, the swish as Carol moves a jar, the thump of a refrigerator closing, the chirp of a button pad.
Diving even deeper into an investigation of the three local murders, Carol begins to find more links between the videogame and the crimes that have been committed. I found myself wondering if Daria was to be set up as the next victim. Familiar faces from previous Carol Reed adventures crop up in this one, and it’s amusing to spot them again and see how they have changed (or not). Appearing here are research expert Stina, tool supplier Jonas, and Bigge -- he who posits outrageous implications. Carol also questions a couple of new characters, Dalton Jonson and the “boss” at MDNA Games. These sessions are comprised of still images, with character poses changing as Carol asks questions of the interviewee (you click on the various questions in a notepad). Voice-overs range from enthusiastic to philosophical to matter of fact, with a touch of the comedic -- and can be quite entertaining. During the course of her adventure, Carol occasionally exclaims or comments with her British accent as she spies something unusual or possibly helpful.
To progress, you will need a sharp eye to discern any patterns in the environments – articles or symbols or artworks of specific shapes, colors, etc. Pick up anything you can (objects will automatically go into your inventory). Some inventory items must be combined with others or repaired or otherwise altered. Be imaginative (or very thorough). Take note of any number sequences. Don’t hesitate to revisit characters to ask for more advice when available. Some of them will send Carol on side quests to collect items or take photographs, all of which will eventually prove useful. A symbol indicates where objects can be employed in the environments – it pays to make a note of these particular hotspots because you will often need to return to them later in the game. Challenges vary in difficulty; none require quick reflexes. If you are stuck, there is an optional hint system with two levels – the first tells you which location needs to be explored and the second offers more precise instructions for solving a particular problem. The handy map system greatly reduces potential backtracking, though it doesn’t eliminate it altogether.
What distinguishes The Game Maker from previous Carol Reed adventures is the presence of the videogame by the unknown designer mentioned previously – a game within a game. It uses similar mechanics to the main quest, framing it but featuring intriguing differences. Graphics are darker, and more creepily sepia-toned. The locales are compact and set in winter or late autumn, unlike the generous spring and summer landscapes in the “exterior” Carol Reed game. You’ll encounter snowy stone ruins, a deserted museum gallery, and the woods in late autumn. The music is also full of contrasts -- ominous, electronic reverberations and repetitive rhythms. In addition, some of the puzzles within this inner, darker journey are more challenging – one in particular I found extremely difficult -- and here the hotspot indicator is missing, which also adds to the difficulty.
Puzzling your way through the bizarre world of this disk that Carol has acquired, you will take note of multiple, tantalizing messages from its enigmatic developer. You begin to sense the designer’s personality – the lust for power and the thirst for violence. Anger, accusations, threats, and a hunger for revenge become explicit, wrapped up in justifications for the game creator’s actions and details about the lives of the three dead men, plus warnings about yet another murder. It’s a “dark seed” Carol Reed game planted within a “traditional” Carol Reed game, hinting at what Carol’s world is not and (hopefully) never will be.
I spent twelve hours on my journey through The Game Maker, marveling at the alluring vistas, searching for clues, experiencing “aha!” moments when I finally solved a puzzle, and figuring out what was really going on with the unique game-within-a-game. I could sense the story’s upcoming final twist and was eager for the climax, though I was also conflicted because that would mean the experience would end. I wanted it to go on and on. The final sequence was something unexpected. Previous Carol Reed games often have face-to-face final confrontations; however, this game instead fits neatly into the current era of remote solutions. Surprises, satisfaction, and details from the journey are still resonating in my head. And I can only hope that this time next January, there will be yet another Carol Reed sequel to start the year out right.