IFcomp 2016: Stone Harbor

Next! “Stone Harbor”, a mystery thriller about a sideshow psychic who suddenly finds himself mixed up in a murder investigation.

I thought “Stone Harbor” to be an excellently written mystery thriller, and I really enjoyed it. Our hero is a carnival psychic (ie, a fraud) who is approached out of the blue by a police detective to help in a case. Neither expects our hero to be of much use–the detective was only doing this to humour a friend–and then psychometry happens and our hero becomes key to solving the case.

The characters are all very well-drawn, and I found the main ones engaging, interesting, and well-fleshed. Over the course of the story, Detective Whitby’s initial reluctance/resentment gradually turns to acceptance and even concern for our hero, and it’s a very believable progression. Our hero has backstory that gradually appears as the story progresses, and that backstory becomes a lynchpin to his own personal stake in the case. The mystery plot seems pretty convincing; I don’t know that I really understood the ins and outs of how the gambling racket shenanigans worked, but it was sufficient for me as a reader to understand that there were shenanigans; the important parts of the scheme were clear.

That said … it’s not a story in which I as the player had much agency. It really seemed to me as though my choices were always cosmetic in nature: if I’m sabotaging a car, my choice is only the part of the car that get sabotaged, and has about as much effect on the progress of the story as a paint job on the running of a car. Occasionally, a choice of three is no choice at all, all leading to the same piece of text. There’s a tarot reading at one point where I have three opportunities to pick which of two cards to talk about; but I sense that the number of available cards is limited, and we’re always working towards a similar outcome. The mix-and-match nature of the reading is fun, sure, but I doubt if the following story is affected by it.

So, really, this is a well-told story with a smattering of text effects. The hypertext links offer only immediate cosmetic changes to the text and/or story progress along a single predetermined line. It may be fiction that’s interactive, but I don’t feel that it’s properly Interactive Fiction without some sort of agency or sense of accomplishment.

Still, as I said, I enjoyed it. I might even say I loved it. I enjoyed it and I loved it much as I would enjoy and love Coquille St-Jacques and an artisanal beer: rich flavours and a boozy edge, down-to-earth without being run-of-the-mill. But is that breakfast?

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