Wot I Think - Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard
That's him! He's the Detective!
Usually while playing a game for review, if a particular feeling or opinion grows large enough, I snip it off at the stem like a ripe courgette, and chuck it into the back of my head for safekeeping. As I continue, part of my brain keeps rifling through the growing pile of observation-veg, noting which ones stay fresh even as I see more of the garden, and which, though they looked good at first, turn out to be all full of bad-idea slugs. By the time I’ve quit to desktop and it’s time to write, I’ve hopefully chucked out all the manky ones, and ended up with a crop of impressions worth structuring a review around.
That’s the theory, anyway. In the case of Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard, however, none of this happened. I simply booted up and played and, after about an hour, I finished. And what was stacked up in the cerebral pantry when I was done? Nothing but a frog with a jumper and a pleasantly vacant smile, offering me a perfectly formed, mayor’s-rosette-winning beauty of a courgette. And on the courgette, in pleasantly ropey handwriting, was written “Frog Detective 2 is a lovely game. I’m the Detective!”.
It sure is a lovely game, and he sure is the Detective.
I don’t really know much about detectives, to be honest, as mysteries and noir have never really been my thing. I certainly know my way around the concept of frogs though, so I felt this game calling to me as soon as it was announced. Having not played the original Frog Detective, nor any of creator Grace Bruxner’s other work, however, I had no idea what it would be like - beyond, of course, the fact it would take about an hour. (Bless Frog Detective 2 - it stresses this so frequently, as a sort of apotropaic ward against angry Value Boys, that it even puts “this is a short game” in wiggly animated letters on its steam page).
I cupped my hands around my ignorance, and managed to avoid all knowledge until I had a chance to play. As such, when I started the game, I was as clueless about what was to come as the Detective himself would presumably be, as he embarked on the case of the invisible wizard. My expectations were based only on the game’s name, and a picture of its friendly-looking protagonist.
Let me tell you then, in no uncertain terms, that I’ve never known a game deliver so precisely on my expectations, while somehow also exceeding them. Frog Detective 2 has all the qualities I hoped it might have. It’s a short, prettty, gentle, amusing game, where a frog walks around talking to animal people about a mystery, and a conclusion is reached. Where it exceeded my expectations, however, was in the remarkable restraint it showed in only being these things.
I kept worrying that it was a bait-and-switch: that rather than being as sweet as it looked, Frog Detective 2 would turn out to be a More Than It Seems At First sort of affair, like genius partial namesake Frog Fractions, or perhaps Garfield Kart Furious Racing. Indeed, I only finally felt safe when the bit-after-the-credits finished and returned me to the title screen, and even then I had to check there wasn’t a new, strange option unlocked on the menu. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of thing, of course. But when innocence and simplicity so often exist only to be subverted, or to be juxtaposed with darkness and complexity, you find yourself longing for the real deal. Sometimes, you want to see a row of metaphorical cosy cottages that don’t turn out to be flimsy plywood fronts concealing an abbatoir.
And thankfully, Frog Detective 2 wore its heart on its sleeve. It was a pure heart. Its world is a small world that’s entirely benign, without being cloying or overly cutesy. It’s an innocent world, where the Detective can casually assure a worried suspect that “jail isn’t real”, and later admits to his boss that he doesn’t believe crime is real, either. And why should he? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that nothing dark at all turns out to have happened in the case of the invisible wizard. And while a crime is very definitely committed in the game, it’s both inconsequential, and the subject of one of its funniest conversations.
I mentioned just now that Frog Detective 2’s world is a small one, and it really is. It’s also simple. Very, very simple. In fact, I could probably summarise everything that happens in it (without spoilers - as there are some small, pleasant secrets I’m sworn to keep), and then list its features, in two paragraphs. So I will.
Frog Detective 2 is a first person exploration game with characters and environments made of simple, flat-colour 3D models. After a brief introduction, you travel to a village (several houses around a town square), where a mystery has taken place. You talk to a handful of characters, finding out what they know and what you need to give them in order to find out more. You bring them the things, acquire other things in return, and keep going for a bit until the conclusion to the mystery happens. There is also a sweet bug, that wanders around the town, doing what it likes.
The dialogue doesn’t really branch, and there’s only one significant choice you can make. There’s a magnifying glass, but it doesn’t do anything beyond making things look slightly bigger (“I couldn’t solve mysteries without it,” says the Detective at one point, “or I could, but I’m not sure I’d want to”). There’s a very limited selection of items you can interact with. Finally, there’s a notebook that keeps track of your inventory and your case notes, although both these functions are more vehicles for making the player smile, than actually necessary. Oh, and there’s a wonderful minigame at the start where you can put stickers on the notebook.
That’s it! Reading that, you might think Frog Detective 2 sounds like a kids’ game, or at least a game aimed at the affected infantilism of the Extraordinarily Online. And honestly, I’m pretty sure it would play well with both demographics. I know as soon as my daughter can read, I’ll be sitting her down with it (there’s a superb moral framework underlying the story which, showing off the game’s restraint once again, never becomes overbearing or saccharine). You might even think, if I hadn’t already said otherwise, that it was a game designed by a child, then copy-edited and coded by a family member. You’d be wrong if you thought these things, but it wouldn’t be unkind or dismissive to think them. Frog Detective 2 does feel at times like it has come from the imagination of a particularly cool child (it made me very nostalgic for Axe Cop), and that is emphatically not a criticism.
Have you ever experienced that thing, where someone sees an article about a turner prize entry or whatever - say, a stripe of paint on a wall valued at £500,000 - and indignantly announces “I don’t get how that’s worth so much - a kid could have done it”? Well, one time back when I was a kid I did exactly this, and my dad (who was an abstract painter) did a big weary sigh. He explained to me that creating something simple can take as much skill, and as much time to think about, as creating something complex. The fewer elements or aspects a thing has, he said, the more important they are - you have to really get them right. Professional cooks will tell you the same, by the way.
Anyway, to explain what he meant, dad took me to the next room and showed me one of his paintings - a big, rough triangle, swimming in a sea of glossy, blue-black paint smears.
“What does it mean?” I asked, thinking it was painted in some secret semiotic code that only the Learned could unravel.
“I dunno,” he shrugged, “do you like looking at it?”
“Yeah, a bit,” I said, truthfully, because while it was pretty, I would have liked it better objectively if it had been a cool picture of Darth Vader.
“That’s what it means to you, then. It means I did a good job.”
This digression is not for the sake of some bullshit detour into “aRe gAmEs… aRt?”, but as a way of saying Grace Bruxner and codeveloper Thomas Bowker did a good job. I might have had an objectively better time playing a cool game about Darth Vader, but I’ve got more respect for Frog Detective 2. It’s small, and - yes, it’s a cliché, but they exist for a reason - it’s perfectly formed. Just like the detective himself.
It’s pleasant to look at, with character designs that never fail to raise a smile when they appear on screen, and in one case (which I will not describe, because it’s worth the full £4 for the game just to see it) making me roar with laughter for a full thirty seconds. Everything is sweet and simplistic quirky, but once again, it never veers into affectation. There's a relaxing soundtrack of adorably hackneyed detective music, too.
Then there’s the writing. None of the game’s characters get a chance to say that much, given the game’s length, but if you asked me in a year I’d still be able to reel off each of their main personality characteristics, and maybe a couple of their better lines, without hesitation. That’s often not the case with games I’ve played for weeks at a time. My favourite (other than the bug that walks around the town) was Mandy, a vain tapir with a smirk and horn-rimmed glasses, who is also a witch.
The dialogue thrives on repetition and extrapolation of basic statements into absurd situations, which get all the more amusing for the fact the characters stay deadpan throughout. “That is a very rude thing to say”, the Detective might say in reply to a character who’s just mildly insulted him, and the complete redundancy of the statement makes it weirdly funny.
I’m a sucker for the humour that comes when supposedly naturalistic dialogue wobbles just slightly into the margins of the bizarre, through slightly off-centre word choices or the chaining of faintly odd rejoinders, and this game is full of it. It reminded me both of Winnie the Pooh and, somehow, Channel 4 comedy Stath Lets Flats.
Despite the game’s innocence, it never does the classic kids’ film thing of jokes with naughty double meanings for the parents watching - it doesn’t need to. Partially because there’s barely any proper, constructed gags at all. This is even highlighted at the end, when the Detective tries to make a capital J Joke, and it’s intentionally garbage. And yeah, other than the sequence I won’t spoil, and a couple of other moments, It’s never laugh out loud funny. But again, I don’t think it’s meant to be. I’m pretty sure that delight is what it’s trying to solicit, often through mild-to-moderate amusement, and it achieves that very well indeed.
We expect a lot of games, and because we do, so do their publishers. People want to play things forever, leading either to gigantic playtimes or attempts at endless replayability, either via procedural generation, roguelikelikeness, sprawling DLC trains, or development models involving perpetual, iterative feature creep with no release in sight. People want games that prove how clever they are, or how skilled they are, or which overwhelm them with the fidelity or complexity of their simulations. People want a lot of things, and I’m not knocking the many excellent games which cater to them.
But in the aftermath of games like Disco Elysium and Death Stranding, to name just two whose cache comes at least in part from how intellectually gigantic they are, it’s a tonic to encounter something so profoundly comprehensible as Frog Detective 2. There’s nothing to grapple with here, in any cognitive sense - no edifice so big you can only see a tiny bit of it at once. There was no need, in the end, for me to juggle with mental cucumbers, or whatever ludicrous metaphor for critical appraisal I started this review with, because I didn’t have to think about what I thought.
Frog Detective 2 is a game you can hold in your head all at once, and cherish. I think it’s great.