An early puzzle in Chinatown Detective Agency's brief but engrossing demo revolves around a classic quote from the work of Herodotus, the Ancient Greek historian. Am I that easy to manipulate, I thought? Is that all it takes to get me going? A knowing, philosophical chin-stroke from the distant past, amongst some stylish neon lights in the near future? Honestly: yes. You got me. I'm a sucker for a philosophical deep cut, me - especially when it's all jumbled in with the murkier kind of sci-fi - and actually I think I'm quite happy that way.
References seemingly laser-targeted to my own personal interests aside, there was something genuinely interesting about that puzzle: you have to Google it to find the answer. Chinatown Detective Agency, currently in an early alpha with a new Kickstarter just recently underway, is pitched around the promise of breaking through the fourth wall and getting you to do some good-old-fashioned snooping for yourself. You take the role of a PI called Amira Darma, struggling along in a gorgeously envisioned Chinatown, Singapore, the last semi-refuge of the world's crashed economy. Like any great detective noir, a quick and easy job quickly sucks you into a deeper web of conspiracy, and off through the looking glass you go.
When it comes to the puzzles themselves, the ones I found in the demo were pretty tentative. I had to Google the Herodotus quote (the shame!) to find the name of the book I was looking for - a trail of clues had led me first to the quote, then the local library, see - but the others were comfortable enough in being solvable while still inside the game itself. But still, outside of just jotting a note or turning to the big G, there are other bits of admin you'll need to manage. The game is played through a kind of windowed overlay, which features key information like the amount of cash you have to hand, the time and date, and some basics about the mission, but those seemingly innocuous elements are all actually quite integral.
Time and money are resources you'll need to manage carefully, with Chinatown Detective Agency's pitch for realism coming via the logistics of going about real life - waiting at the airport if you get to your flight too early, for instance - rather than the way the real world looks. In a way, it's a kind of realism I'd rather spend my time playing than the literal one. It's about thinking more closely to how an actual investigator would, and by virtue of that the game's staid, if lavishly structured pixel-art environments - tableaus, as the blurb likes to call them - invite as great a sense of immersion as any photoreal alternative could too.
There is a lot here, potentially. A lot to hope for in terms of how the everyday restraints of practical things like time and money interplay with your chance to investigate. A lot to hope for in how the narrative, which seems to tease a typically juicy tale of transhumanist conflict and existential angst (a noir and sci-fi staple), might develop. And a lot to hope for in how you might be challenged and pulled outside of the regular point-and-click adventure beats by its puzzles, like I was with my little love-in with Herodotus. For now, it is just potential. The demo is tantalisingly brief and never quite gets going. But then for this early stage, potential is plenty.