Crapshoot: MST3K Presents: Detective, the game that makes fun of itself

Okay, that's Private Eye. Today's game has no graphics.

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. This time he gets snarky with a bit of police brutality that mocks itself so you don't have to. Grab your respawning gun and wooden wood and get ready to fight some crime the text adventure way.

What many people don't understand is that those of us who savour bad movies, games, books and other forms of media really aren't doing it to be nasty. It can be a mean-spirited hobby, but if you hang out with a group for a good riffing session, you'll find the point is to have fun with the badness rather than get all smug and superior. The undisputed kings of riffing, and the ones who got more people into it than anyone else, were the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew. If you're in the US, chances are you don't need me to tell you who they are or what they're doing now.

In the UK though, we never got to see MST3K properly, making it firmly one for the alpha-geeks. If you want to check out the show, look for Mitchell, Space Mutiny, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, and of course, Manos: The Hands of Fate, which took over from Plan 9 From Outer Space as the worst movie ever made as soon as it got the MST3K treatment. The show's definitely worth checking out, and not just because it was the inspiration for today's game—an interactive riffing session that turns one of the worst text adventures this side of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy into one of the funniest.

If you're new to MST3K, here's the basic premise. Two mad scientists are trying to find a weapons-grade bad movie that they can use to conquer Earth, with the test subject being a regular guy trapped in space on an orbiting satellite. This was series creator Joel in the first few seasons, replaced by lead writer Mike. If you value your sanity, don't express an opinion about which one was better anywhere within 50 metres of the internet. It's not worth it. Run away. 

With the help of couple of sarcastic robots, the erudite Tom Servo and wackier Crow T. Robot, they were forced to endure a different bad movie every week, staying sane by mocking the crap out of them, making silly inventions, and doing bad comedy skits.

MST3K Presents: Detective is the same basic idea, except fan-made and fully interactive. In the original version, this is the first screen of the game, copied verbatim.

You are standing in the Chief's office. He is telling you "The mayor was murdered yeaterday night at 12:03 am. I want you to solve it before we get any bad publicity or the FBI has to come in."

"Yessir!" You reply. He hands you a sheet of paper. Once you have read it, go north or west.

It is a white sheet of paper.

The MST3K version on the other hand goes like this:

You are standing in the Chief's office. He is telling you "The mayor was murdered yeaterday night

MIKE: Yeaterday? Is that like Veterans' Day?

at 12:03 am. I want you to solve it before we get any bad publicity or the FBI has to come in."

TOM: Tonight, on "The X-Files!"

"Yessir!" You reply. He hands you a sheet of paper. Once you have read it, go north or west.

It is a white sheet of paper.

MIKE: Thanks for clearing that up.

What makes this the perfect target is that while Detective is far from the worst text adventure ever, it's a great example of My First Text Adventure Syndrome. The plot is nonsensical, the writer clearly never even drew a map of his world, and rooms were patently slapped together without any kind of plan or understanding of how to write a text adventure. The MST3K version doesn't fix problems like the chief's introduction speech being baked into the room description and thus constantly repeated, but it reacts to them all—broken directions, bizarre situations, and the Mayor's dreaded hallways.

To the north is the upstairs to the east is the living room and to the west is the dining room.

TOM: I thought we just CAME from the west!

MIKE: I don't think this author quite grasped the concept of a two-way door.

The beauty of the game is that the further you get, the more it goes off the rails. What starts out as a simple murder investigation quickly turns into a whole conspiracy against the city... but because the author has no idea how to program that, it manifests itself in deep, gritty situations like this:

Murderer's lounge

You are in the so called "Murderers Lounge". Unfortunatly, there ARE murderers here, and when you check around, they get angry. But, that's life. Ya lose!

*** You have died ***

Even Sierra would wince at that one. But it's not the worst bit. Check out this interrogation:

You are in the 3rd precinct police station. This isn't your station.

You get admitance from the guy at the desk and go to the holding cells. You ask each offender if they know anything.

You promise a lighter sentance for the ones who help. But one guy really sets you straight.

"I got caught wit' t'ree ounces o'crack. I'm supposed to get 20 years but I'll be out in 2. You can't make me talk cuz it don't matter to me. If I squeal, da guys who did it are gonna come lookin' for me. I know but I ain't gonna tell ya. Now git outta my face."

You are surprised but used to it.

Luckily, this apparent dead end turns out to be okay, because you're psychic. No, really. After completely failing to get anything from the criminals, and at no point having picked up anything that could even generously be considered a clue, you walk out of the police station to this:

You are outside. It's bitter cold and you pull your jacket around yourself. To the north is a nice, warm Holiday Inn hotel, where the killer is rumored to be staying.


CROW: Where did we hear THAT?!

Or you could go to his favorite hang out, the Wall, to the west, or to the east is the place where he is supposed to be working, the Doughnut King.

MIKE: Wow! And we figured all that out just by entering this room!

By the time you get to this point—which takes approximately three minutes if you don't accidentally walk into one of the instant-death rooms (of which there are more than puzzles, which number precisely zero), you're almost finished. It's worth giving it at least five though, just to savour the craziness.

CROW: At this point the game has finally thrown up its hands and said, "I just don't know."

Like most of the best MST3K episodes that don't have Joe Don Baker in them, Detective works because it teases rather than assassinates. It's almost all good natured ribbing, to the point that a re-release of the game features a full interview showing the original author taking the game in good spirits. He explains that he was 12 when he wrote it (and only 15 when he gave the interview) and there isn't a writer alive who doesn't have equally awful stuff to be glad the internet never gleefully discovered.

This is the only text adventure MST3K game worth playing—although there were a couple of other attempts. If you want more though, there's a whole MSTing army out there, generally focused on bad fan-fiction, sometimes with Mike/Joel and the bots, sometimes with original characters. By far the most infamous of them is The Eye of Argon, as riffed by another text adventure writer, Adam Cadre. It's probably the only way of reading the original story without having your eyes starting to bleed green. How bad is it? There's a game, played at conventions, where people sit around in a circle just reading The Eye Of Argon until they crack up, then passing it to the next person to continue. (The pro version is to do the same thing on helium.) The Eye of Argon also features my personal favourite line in all fiction:

"You"; ejaculated the Ecordian in a pleased tone.

But I digress. Before reading Eye, try Detective. You can play it online here. If it whets your appetite for other, better games, look up Spider And Web, Galatea, or any winners of the yearly IFComp. There's lots of great games out there, and they've come on a long way since Infocom folded back at the end of the 80s. Detective is... not one of the shining stars. MST3K Presents: Detective on the other hand is easily worth a few minutes of your time.

You are at a dead end. there is nothing to do but go west.

*** You have died ***

TOM: WHAT!? Why'd we just die here?

CROW: Oh, I get it! It's a "dead" end! See?

In that game you scored 180 out of a possible 355, in 36 turns.

Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game or QUIT?

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