Having gone out with one of those lads while I was at uni, I instinctively react to terms like “shoegaze” like a startled deer who can’t decide whether it’s safer to run, or stay very, very still and hope to be left alone. I was forced into action by Family, though, which is a free game you can get from Itch right this very second.
It’s a clever little detective game by Tim Sheinman (Owl_Skip on Itch), where your job is to uncover the names of 30 musicians from a specific, but entirely fake, 80s London music scene. You use snippets of clues, recordings of songs, and your own big sexy brain to work it out. It’s a lovely little gem to spend an afternoon with.
Having not actually been part of a London music scene, or the 80s, I can’t attest to how accurately Family represents those things specifically. But it does do a great job of replicating insular music scenes in general. You know the ones: everyone knows each another, sort of hates each other, and probably wants to fuck each other. There are a couple of shining lights who are immensely talented but also obviously total pricks, so they create and burn out multiple projects. There are the nice journeymen types who get on with things, and then later on you get the newcomers who the rest probably secretly look down on.
Thus the map of bands you are presented with resembles a family tree, as they splinter off, form new bands, switch instruments and so on. In Return Of The Obra Dinn style, you have to place 5 names correctly before the game tells you you’re right and locks them in, and then gives you some more clues.
My favourite bit is the names and short biographies of the bands, which include things like Casta Nyet, or Little Red Marx, who “machine-gunned a dead sheep at the PETA annual awards show.”
The clues themselves are great too, though, the most useful being extracts from interviews or biographies that mention names and instruments whilst also revealing what sort of people these musicians actually were. But you can do good work by comparing dates, and even listening to the songs that were written for each band. There’s also a 2005 local radio show running in the background, where one of the now properly famous members of this 80s family is being interviewed. All in all, the level of quality is an embarrassment of riches for something offered as pay-what-you-can.
As a love letter to a certain time, a certain vibe, I’m sure family is good. As a piece of detective micro-fiction, however, it’s great, because it has what most attempts at detective games don’t really nail: the personal touch. It has the heart along with the logic. I love playing detective, but there’s no fun in it if you’re just being a big mechanical think box checking off numbers.
Family is great fun because I get the satisfaction of all the “ah ha!” moments in its puzzles, but also the “ah ha!” moments of finding out about the people. I have figured out this London 80s music scene, and also I can say that Alex Adam is definitely a bellend I wouldn’t have liked.
Head over to Family’s Itch page where you, too, can assess how much you’d hate Alex Adam based on how you feel about The Smiths today. You can play it in browser or download it to keep.