East Side Story: A Carol Reed Mystery
First posted on 28 January 2008. Last updated on 15 May 2014.
East Side Story: A Carol Reed Mystery is the fourth game in the Carol Reed Mystery series from Swedish indie developer MDNA Games. Set in the impoverished East Side of Norrköping, Sweden, the game's story is an intriguing murder mystery that reflects on an ongoing local history of job losses, homelessness, and drug addiction. The game's artistic style is naturalistic and subtle. The graphics, which consist of digitally stylized photos, give the jumbled and colorful setting an authenticity that rendered or drawn scenes cannot fully convey. Other pleasant surprises include the wistful music and the whimsical character portraits. Undercurrents of suspense and humor are often present but for the most part the atmosphere is calm and conducive to clearheaded sleuthing.
Despite so many endearing qualities, the game also has a few significant shortcomings. There is no animation or video footage. Many of the inventory puzzles are similar to each other, and some puzzles require an implausibly widespread search for mundane items. From the middle of the game onward, the mystery's solution is well foreshadowed, yet the player cannot take any precautions when dealing with the murderer. Even so, the suspense (and humor) peak well in the concluding scenes. Moreover, the gameplay is intuitive and accessible to both novice and experienced gamers.
East Side Story: A Carol Reed Mystery is available only by direct mail order from MDNA Games' website. Gameplay is surprisingly long for an indie title, lasting about 15 hours.
As in previous games of the series, the protagonist of this game is Carol Reed, an Englishwoman in her 20s who spends her summers vacationing in the Swedish town of Norrköping. Carol has befriended several locals and, since she is curious and Norrköping is full of mysteries, her friends have gradually roped her into becoming an amateur detective. A letter from a friend launches Carol into investigating another mystery. A tramp has been found murdered in the apartment of her friend's friend, traveling salesman Anders Borg. Before long, a trail of keys, documents, and rumors leads Carol to investigate a factory closure, a stationmaster's suicide, and other events from decades ago.
Dialog plays an important role in advancing the plot in this game. The script is concise and largely linear (with the player simply checking off questions in order), yet it manages to capture several different conversational moods, ranging from friendly, to absurd, to brooding, to creepy. Carol is an unseen protagonist and she has voiceovers in monologues but (peculiarly) not in dialogs. The game's other characters have both voiceovers and portrait sequences in dialogs. The voice actors and portrait models are the game's designer and several of his friends. There is not much dramatic range in the voices, though they are clear and some of them, including Carol's, have pleasant lilts.
For the character portraits, the model is usually but not always the same person as the voice actor. An obvious effort toward caricature has humorous success for the male characters, who frequently bear dazed or intense expressions, scruffy or fussy costumes, bouffant hairstyles and huge props. The female character portraits do not show any obvious caricature, however.
The graphics engine employs a first-person perspective with statically rendered, non-panoramic nodes. Although the player is typically limited to making 90° turns left and right, in many nodes the perspective is tilted up or down to draw attention to relevant items and to more realistically give the impression that Carol is looking around. The images that make up the scenes are actually digital photographs, which the designer has manipulated to look slightly like watercolor paintings, especially in background areas. This effect is distinctive, warm, and inviting, especially in scenes that feature the sunlight of summer afternoons. Later in the game, however, certain low light scenes exhibit digital photo noise and posterization (the appearance of reduced color depth) artifacts. Compositionally, the photography provides remarkably comprehensive documentary coverage of the game's locations in East Side Norrköping. There are no areas where it feels as if the designer has skimped on photos or failed to patch together adjoining nodes coherently. This attention to detail is particularly impressive considering that many of the photo shoots must have taken place in abandoned buildings and urban wastelands, sites where it is not always advisable to linger!
The game's music also contributes to the unique mood. At first, the melodies lull the player into an aura of safety and curiosity but gradually other undertones become clear: loneliness, detachment, even menace. Various sound effects, such as birdsong and creaking doors, harmonize well with the music, as does Carol's voice.
The plot, which is crucial in any mystery game, actually makes logical sense. In fact, any player who is familiar with mystery stories and who reads the clues in this game is sure to guess the mystery's solution long before Carol reveals it. Moreover, the murderer's behavior readily singles the guilty party out for suspicion, so it is surprising that Carol lets herself get duped by the murderer even once (and the player can do nothing about it). Aside from the mystery, the game also has several subplots of human interest. A nice epilogue resolves most of these subplots but implies that a few outstanding plot details may carry over into the next game.
The game's point-and-click interface is standard and simple. Rollover icons indicate hotspots where the player can examine something, handle or take something, combine something, or go somewhere. An inventory bar appears when the mouse cursor nears the top of the screen. The right mouse button brings up the game menu or lets Carol examine an object in inventory. Otherwise, the left mouse button handles everything. An in-game tutorial explains the interface during the first scene.
The gameplay progresses forward as the player solves inventory puzzles, combination lock puzzles, and information puzzles. The inventory puzzles frequently relate to reaching something that is just beyond arm's length (or otherwise untouchable). Though some of the contraptions that Carol makes in the process are cute, this particular formula gets overused. Another issue is that many inventory puzzles call for commonplace tools, which Carol seldom finds in the likeliest places. The toolbox in her living room yields only a single usable tool and her favorite store (which opens and closes erratically) yields none. Thus, less plausibly, Carol must often leave an area to go rummaging around in dumps elsewhere before finding what she needs. Moreover, an unfortunate side effect of the detailed photography is that the player sees lots of junk that looks useful (and the junk may even appear in close-ups) but most of it turns out to serve no purpose in the game.
The information puzzles and combination lock puzzles integrate more smoothly with the mystery premise. The information puzzles consist of gathering documents, doing library research and questioning people in order to generate further leads, such as locations to visit or other research and questioning to do. Most combination lock puzzles are the culmination of longer information puzzles. However, a particular combination lock puzzle simply relies on listening to clicks.
This game ranges from easy to moderate in difficulty. As the evidence accumulates, the mystery simply falls into place. However, the gameplay becomes less straightforward as Carol discovers more and more locations to visit. Narrowing down the investigation to the correct area is perhaps the most challenging and sometimes the least intuitive aspect of the game.
MDNA Games states that the game is appropriate for ages 11 and up. The game contains no graphic violence and no coarse language. However, there are drug and alcohol references, as well as some sexual themes. On the whole, the game's serious side and humorous side both seem as if the game is meant to appeal more to teen and adult gamers than to tween gamers.
Overall, there is much to like about East Side Story: A Carol Reed Mystery. The simple interface, naturalistic artwork, humor, and socially relevant mystery story will appeal to a broad audience, even to mystery lovers who have never played computer games before. However, experienced gamers may be disappointed by a lack of animation, dramatic acting, greater puzzle variety, and surprise endings in the game. Still, even without any of this, the game's distinctive charm will put smiles on many players' faces.