Take a little bit of “Dora the Explorer,” and maybe a dash of David Lynch, and the resulting mix should be weird, whimsical, mysterious and, in theory, still kid-friendly.
That’s the hope, at least, of Joe Russ, whose “Jenny LeClue” is in development for home computers and mobile devices.
“We’ve been calling it a dark whimsy,” he says.
In a free playable teaser of the game, available now, little Jenny LeClue is a young detective who’s about to discover the world is far more dangerous than she ever could have imagined. There are ghost ships, for one, and even more imposing is the realization that her entire town, including her life, is under surveillance by a mysterious figure.
“Jenny LeClue” has ambitions beyond just getting adolescents — and adults, of course — to play more narrative-driven, text-heavy games. If the teaser is any indication, puzzles won’t always be obvious. That’s a blessing for those on the prowl for a head scratcher in addition to a page-turner.
Still, this mystery is also a bit of an experiment.
The first full chapter of the game is on target for release early or the middle of next year. A second chapter, if all goes according to plan and budget, is expected to follow within six to 12 months, but this one hasn’t been fully written yet. “Jenny LeClue” will shift with the choices of its players, as majority will rule when it comes to deciding the solution to the game’s cliffhangers.
Player choice is no stranger to games. Many titles boast branching, choose-your-own-adventure narratives. Mostly, it’s in the name of replayability. See how Choice A pans out, and if it’s not to your liking, try again with Choice B.
Here, however, decisions a player makes will not only affect one’s individual game but also shape the interactive universe. It may sound a bit like a theme park ride that requires audience participation, but Russ says it’s no gimmick.
Too often, he says, choices in games lack significance. If players, for instance, vote to kill off a character to whom Russ is partial, that character will die, and no alternative path will be made.
“It might come down to something where Jenny can choose between saving her mom or saving her best friend from a fire or something,” he says. “Then whatever the majority of people pick at the end of Episode 1, we’ll write Episode 2 from there. So it’s a permanent story choice. It’s not a choose-your-own adventure. It’s a choose-everyone’s adventure.”
“We’re exploring authorship and ownership,” Russ says. “The players are influencing us, and they’re influencing each other’s stories. I like the permanence of that versus ... going back and seeing what the other option is. It theoretically adds weight.”
“Jenny LeClue” looks like the sort of cartoon world Scooby-Doo has sniffed around before, but LeClue doesn’t have time for comic-relief canines — mostly. The bespectacled, orange-haired kid is a bit of a loaner, a rebel, and her mom is suspected of murder. A top-notch “Encyclopedia Brown"-like detective among her peer group — kids ages 10 to 12, that is — LeClue has longed to be among the grown-ups.
Now she has her chance. LeClue’s father is out of the picture (another mystery), and the bulk of the characters in the town seem to want to prevent LeClue from discovering the truth.
“Up until then she’s been solving these kind of silly cases for kids at school. She’s like, ‘All this is beneath me.’ Then she gets in over her head,” Russ says.
The teaser has LeClue tip-toeing around an office. She tinkers with old books, gets frightened by animal busts and navigates a few tricks of the light.
The final product aims to be rather ambitious, with the promise of some of light action and potentially duplicitous voice acting. The teaser, however, offers a couple puzzles and a glimpse of the game’s wry tone.
There’s a narrator — an author — who appears to be writing LeClue’s story, but it’s advised to not always take the writer’s advice. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to the way the game aims to play with player choice but also adds a hint of humor to the story.
As LeClue is about to flip on a radio in the twilight-lit study, for instance, the author writes, “Jenny was curious, but she couldn’t risk being caught. She left it alone.”
Players should feel free to not leave it alone.
Such choices are minor. There are risks, however, with the bigger plan to allow players to dictate the entirety of the narrative.
A selling point of many games is the ability to see how different choices play out and affect the world. Though Russ says that episodic cliffhangers may not be as dramatic as the decision to let LeClue’s mother live or die, what if a large segment of players were rooting for the other path and vow to not play Episode 2?
No matter, Russ says: “That means we made them care.”
Release date: Early to mid-2016; playable teaser available now
Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS
Price: Teaser is free; Game, availabe for preorder, is $14.99