What is that? A point-and-click adventure in a future Singapore.
Release date April 7
Developer General Interactive Society
Link Official site (opens in a new tab)
As a science fiction lover and a Singaporean, playing Chinatown Detective Agency was a rare experience. Shortly after entering this near-future version of my home country, it became clear that this game has two distinct layers, aimed at two distinct audiences: one is a point-and-click adventure for people who grew up with Broderbund’s Carmen Sandiego series. who took them all over the world. The other, although not mutually exclusive, is a game designed specifically for Singaporeans.
In 2037, the country has gone through the unthinkable process of deregulation, there is anti-government graffiti on the train, drones and droids are commonplace, and there is only one human librarian left in the country. You play as Amira Darma, an ex-cop starting out as a private detective in a run-down shophouse in Chinatown. As she takes on cases and meets with clients, Amira travels the world while pulling the threads of a much bigger and more dangerous mystery.
At the most basic level, it’s really cool to explore your hometown in pixels – even a fictional representation pasted with the standard disclaimer that the game is a figment of the developers’ imagination (the government is notoriously contentious). It’s something Americans, Europeans, and the Global North will never understand because New York, Paris, and London (and to some extent, vicious Cold War-era depictions of Moscow and Beijing) are exceeded. In mainstream pop culture, Singapore’s Western claims to fame are relatively recent, namely the final season of HBO’s Westworld and Crazy Rich Asians, which was a movie for Americans. I can’t underestimate how important it is for CDA to feature a Singaporean dub with the local English accent, punctuated with snippets of singular and Malay, and he reigns.
Overall, General Interactive Co. achieves surface narrative that works for a general audience unfamiliar with Singaporean jokes and cliches, as well as more nuanced storytelling that taps into real hyperlocal knowledge: the culture of mega- Singaporean churches, class politics and our drinking water supply. Of course, on a broader level, these issues are not unique to Singapore – growing economic disparities and environmental decline are everywhere. The main plot isn’t rocket science – mostly tried-and-true dystopian tropes like rogue AIs, cowardly tech moguls, and all-pervasive surveillance. Much of history’s speculative embellishments are extensions of trends such as mass automation, the rise of unions, and corporatism.
Most cases are relatively short: examine and return an object, decode a message or find clues, which could take you to different cities. Amira uses a travel program called HORUS and an in-game clock to plan flights. There are a handful of simple combat events that are very basic point and shoot scenarios, although you have the choice to wound or kill. Eventually, Amira must choose a lead client – I went with sleazy information broker Tiger Lily, who runs a “health club” in the Geylang red light district. Her case involves a local mega-church – the Temple of Self – and the wealthy, dysfunctional family behind it. It’s a sharp look at mega-church culture in singapore, and one of the most compelling story arcs. I left partly elated, partly bitter to remember the role of evangelism in the relationship between Singapore’s conservative values and its outwardly secular image.
The puzzles are probably the most controversial part of the game. The main thing about CDA (which I mostly enjoyed) is to google yourself for clues – there’s a UI button to tab you into a Navigator. Even as someone who likes numbers and taking notes, some of the more complicated puzzles – the stone tablet in particular – were tedious (partly due to the state of the revision version to which I played). There’s a fine line between giving the player a sense of empowerment and satisfaction, while pushing them to sweat a little, and here CDA hesitates. Luckily, the game offers help in the form of librarian Mei Ting, so that’s really just how masochistic you are.
Small inconsistencies made for a sometimes frustrating game. The initial part of the game saves automatically after each case. You are supposed to be able to save at your discretion after choosing a prime customer, but this feature only worked for a short period of time; so when I missed a key case, I had to start all over again. HORUS was a wasted opportunity to dig deeper into in-game money management, as each flight costs $550. Arbitrary weeks pass between cases – I don’t know why Amira would wait a week before disclosing critical information to a client. She pays the monthly office rent and utilities and ends up hiring an employee, whom she then pays no salary, which is funny considering the workers’ union subplot in the game.
In the end, I face the consequences of my actions: my hard-nosed approach means some clients won’t work with me, and working with Tiger Lily elevates him even more to power. Overall, the writing is a bit uneven – the main cast is pretty well characterized with distinct dialogue styles, but a few exposition-heavy segments veer into overly theatrical territory. Most of the NPCs had a canned line or two of dialogue that occasionally included odd and slightly jarring non-sequences, but is consistent with the idiosyncratic nature of point-and-click adventures as extensions of the developers’ personas.
Even with these flaws, CDA is bound to be particularly meaningful to a gamer like me, and the task of reviewing it for a general audience is rather overwhelming. Due to the lack of my cultural representation in games – Southeast Asian indies are on the rise, however – CDA is inadvertently taking on unfair talismanic weight for Singaporeans who still carry the residual indignity of the WIRED trial. by William Gibson from 1993, Disneyland with the death penalty, who decried the country as a barren hellscape. It’s a reminder of how much fiction deepens our relationship with our respective homes and environments, and how through fiction we can explore speculative paths to different futures. Perhaps CDA was always going to be a busy experience for me, even if I could leave the generic main plot behind and spend all day browsing its depiction of local issues and culture. As far as point-and-click adventures go, it’s a very good start, with room for improvement. As a cultural artifact, however, it’s pretty awesome.