How much of yourself would you sacrifice to create a literary masterpiece? Bucket Detective [official site], the new game from the creator of The Static Speaks My Name, is not interested in the answer to that question. Instead, it asks what you, in the role of forty-one year old man David Davids, will give up to write a trashy book that's sure to get you laid. Since seeing each of the endings, the discovery of which is largely based on the answer to the question “how far will you go?”, I've settled on a single word that captures my feelings about Bucket Detective.
Grubby. It's a grubby little thing, for better and for worse.
If you've played The Static Speaks My Name, you'll have some idea of what to expect. Like its predecessor, Bucket Detective is a short-form first-person adventure that concerns itself with mental health, art and obsession. It's also a comedy, at least in part, though even some of its most obvious gags are queasy.
When I wrote about The Static Speaks My Name, I described it as a comedy and a couple of comments expressed confusion about that. Even people who like the game have told me that they didn't find it funny, and weren't convinced that it was meant to be. I find humour in these games because they're so absurd, using a framework of clear objectives to draw out the desires and failings of their characters. The punchlines might be as painful or awkward as an unwarranted medical procedure, and perhaps the laughter is a coping mechanism, but Static did get a few proper laughs from me.
Bucket Detective less so. Part of the strength of Static was its setting. Absurdity and dread are more effective when placed against a backdrop of normality, and the protagonist's home is oh-so ordinary except in the places that it isn't. The pleasure, and horror, is in teasing out all the loose threads in that space to find how far the apparent normality will unravel. In Bucket Detective, player character David Davids is involved in such a bizarre quest from the intro onward that normality has already unravelled.
He's a grotesque figure, David. An intro, narrated through a voiceover speaking in fractured grammar and backed by ugly drawings of ugly people, tells of his ambition to write a bestselling novel because “famous book make it impossible for girls to resist sex”. The idea that writing a book called Bucket Detective might be a route to a decadent rockstar lifestyle is laughable in itself, but when a mate explaions that he knows of a cult that can make the semi-literate David a top author, the entire story dives headlong into stranger waters.
The setup allows for a fairly simple series of puzzles. The entire playable portion of the game takes place in a single building where David (and you) follow instructions, which appear as if by magic on a piece of paper that looks like an appointment card. In a strong opening, the first message and its simple objective backfire pathetically, but events quickly become more sinister. Potted plants vibrate, some rooms are rotting, blood sacrifices are demanded.
As you learn more about the cult and its two founders, what should make the game work is David's oblivious determination. You can choose to leave at any time but forging ahead through humiliation and pain seems like a very David thing to do, and even if you flee, David learns nothing from the experience. As you're picking up on the very blatant clues as to the true nature of the cult, through recordings made by its most naive and innocent member as well as visual cues, you're essentially peeling back the face to reveal the skull. David doesn't care what's under the skin though, as long as he can have lots of sex with lots of girls when the price has been paid. And if that price is self-mutilation or worse (much worse), so be it.
By the end, by which I mean the ending that takes the most time to unlock, Bucket Detective has mixed real horrors with imagined horrors. On one level it could be read as a story about the manipulation of greedy, lustful, apathetic people for terrible ends, but there's also a joke in there about the kind of person who will drive twenty miles to save a quid on their petrol. Even though I chuckled and winced, Bucket Detective never amused or disturbed me in the way that Static did.
It's that lack of grounding I've already written about that left me a little too distant. David is such a ludicrous idiot that stepping into his shoes is just an excuse to use him as a punching bag, something that the game acknowledges, and when other characters elicit more sympathy with a few seconds of screen-time, there's no space to step outside David and away from his grim, grubby little path. If the scenery along that path were more interesting that'd be fine, but I never had that sense of the curtain pulling back to reveal the machinery of the world, or of horror and hilarity escalating.
All of that said, I'm glad that Barksdale is making these twisted little stories. The Static Speaks My Name impressed me because I never quite knew which way it was going to twist, whereas Bucket Detective is soaking in its own horrible juices right from the start. It starts ugly and ends ugly, without enough humour or horror in between to shock or surprise. I'm not convinced its mingling of arcane silliness and actual suffering quite works either; it's a bit like Martyrs with gross sex jokes.
But it does have a couple of fun puzzles that aren't too taxing, and has one great joke about indefinite articles that made me laugh out loud, so I can't complain too much.