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Alice is Missing

Spoiler warning – this talks about how Alice is Missing works and is played out, and as it is a mystery game, you might not want to read on if you’d prefer to be surprised by developments.

Intro and apology

Ok so first thing is to say that I don’t actually own a set of this – I played with someone else’s – so I haven’t looked through the decks and seen all the possibilities. So most of the below is inference from my own play experience, and might be wildly unrepresentative of the general thrust of the game. Apologies if so.

(Also, this will be quite incoherent, because my brain is made of mush at the moment. Sorry about that.)

About Alice is Missing

Alice is Missing was a hugely successful Kickstarter early in 2020. It raised $138K, with 5600 backers. This is big numbers for indie RPG! It builds on the success of the same designer and publisher’s Icarus, where you build a tower of dice as your civilization overstretches itself towards collapse. I played that a little while ago, and thought it was a clever and engaging gimmick, but ultimately not a very satisfying RPG experience. And I feel pretty similarly about Alice is Missing.

In AiM, the gimmick is that it’s played out silently, via a text message chat thread. (This is quite similar to how my own larp After Dark plays out, so of course I think this too is clever and engaging 😀 ) It’s intended as a face-to-face tabletop RPG experience, but when adapted to an online tabletop system (we used Roll20), it works well for remote play.

The game goes like this. You play teenagers in a small American town: you all have a relationship to a girl named Alice, who has gone missing overnight. Setup is about defining relationships and answering questions about your character. Then play is mediated by a timer: at defined times, players turn over clue cards which may lead to suspects, locations, and other procedural mechanisms. The cards broaden out the investigation by introducing new possibilities: and then at the end, they indicate which are the location where Alice is and who is the person responsible. Meanwhile, the characters discuss and narrate their journey towards the truth, working the new cards into the narrative as they appear. There’s a nice atmospheric soundtrack which accompanies the timetable – the whole in-play period is 90 minutes.

In general it was a fun play experience, and it mostly worked well. But I had some reservations.

Thematic

The first is thematic. The outcomes and plotlines are variable (the selection of cards that will get used in any particular play session is randomized, to prevent it feeling repetitive), but it will, I think, always be the case that Alice has either been abducted by a predator and is being kept somewhere against her will, or has been abducted and killed by a predator, or is alive but is in danger from a predator. And it seemed from what we saw of the suspects during our session like this was likely to have been done by a creepy (sometimes older) guy. I don’t think it’s ever openly explored precisely what terrible things the abductor may or may not have done to her, but in the storyline it’s implicit that there’s at least a strong possibility of such.

So I feel like this is a bit of a mis-selling. I signed up to play a game called Alice Is Missing, not one called Alice Has Been Abducted By A Creepy Older Guy And Probably Had Terrible Things Done To Her. Which, don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely fine if that is your personal jam – but it’s not everyone’s. I had assumed that there was at least a good chance that Alice had run away from home and was camping in the woods, or something like that: and that we as players would be able to steer away from more sinister storylines if we wished.

But that was not possible. Before our session, the facilitator asked for Lines and Veils – but of course if I had Lined ‘being abducted by a predator’ then the game would have been impossible to play. And also, the facilitator doesn’t have any control over who gets which cards, so one can’t protect individual players from content that others are OK with.

The game rulebook comes with a content warning about “lack of agency, death, grief, helplessness, loss, tense family dynamics, and violence.” But as a player, one doesn’t see the rulebook. And I don’t know if the facilitator is enjoined to share this warning with potential players before signing them up — although apparently they are told to discuss these themes during setup, and suggest possible Lines and Veils that the players might want to use. On the game’s website, and on its kickstarter page, there is no such warning, or any other hint about disturbing content.

To repeat, there’s nothing wrong with a game being about someone being abducted – but I feel that if it is, then it should say so, not just say that they’ve gone missing. It feels to me a bit kind of edgelordy to make potential players guess that well of course that’s what the game’s about, what are you, some kind of frail snowflake who’d like to imagine Alice is off somewhere picking flowers, real life isn’t like that bro, there are predators on every street corner?

But perhaps this is just me being weirdly sensitive, and I actually am a frail snowflake?

(Although, to be accurate, real life is like that. The vast majority of cases of kids missing overnight don’t involve predators. And they aren’t on every street corner, even in the USA. Not meaning to downplay the very serious issues of violence and abuse that do exist, of course. But RPGs don’t always have to scrabble towards the edgiest possible subject matter.)

But anyway that is just a personal taste thing, and you can very legitimately completely disagree with me. My second reservation is a bit more objective, and it’s about the narrative design of the game.

Structural

So, AiM is framed as a game of investigation, but it isn’t really, I don’t think. It’s not possible for the players to do any meaningful investigation of the mystery of Alice’s disappearance, because the solution to that mystery isn’t established until right at the end. Rather than investigating, players are marking time by pretending to investigate, chasing down clues whose value they can’t convincingly narrate. Because any given clue might be a red herring or genuine, but there’s no way of knowing which it is even after looking into it, until Schrödinger’s box is opened at the end of the game.

So for example suppose a dingy cocktail bar comes up as a location. A player may say “Oh yes, Alice often used to drink there without her parents’ knowledge! I’ll go and check it out!” Then, some time later: “So, did you find anything out at the cocktail bar? Had Alice been there last night?” / “… Er, maybe?” I’m exaggerating, but it’s that sort of thing. There’s little point inventing a vivid narrative about what you found at the cocktail bar relating to Alice, because it’ll probably (there are five locations in play, only one of which is going to be relevant) that it has nothing to do with the case. As a keen roleplayer, you still invent the vivid narrative anyway, but with a feeling of growing hollowness.

And I felt that quite a bit of the other work that we did as players – backstory tensions with Alice, reasons in our own lives why she might have behaved as she did – were kind of wasted. Because the design of the game is such that it’s not possible that any of us, or anything to do with any of us, had anything to do with her disappearance: it was just because of the spontaneous evil of an external NPC who at the start of the game we don’t know exists. Our backstory with her can provide motivation for us to want to find her, and reasons to bicker with each other, but nothing more.

But! This is not me saying that investigative games where the solution isn’t predetermined but is established randomly during play can’t work – on the contrary, they absolutely can, and can be huge fun. It’s just that I think Alice is Missing does it in a clunky and unsatisfying way. It feels like the designer has never seen games such as A Taste for Murder, or Arsenic and Lies, or even Fiasco. (In fact tbh I thought AiM would work much better if mashed up with the applicable mechanisms from Fiasco.) The overall model of the first part of the game broadening out the investigation by introducing more clues and suspects etc, and the second part narrowing it back down to an inevitable conclusion, is a sound and proven one. But the narrowing-down part has to at least feel like it’s responding to player activity/narration – and it has to be gradual and progressive, not just a whoosh-reveal right at the end. The mechanics have to support the intended mode of play — that’s RPG design 101.

And also

Another less important structural thing, which while I’m griping I might as well gripe about, is the use of travelling between locations. It’s expected that the characters will travel to the various locations to check them out, which is why they communicate via text – they are not allowed to be within sight of each other at any time, so they remain separated and moving independently. But this meant that at the end, when we knew which was the correct location, we had the choice of either one person going there – in which case they would be frantically texting progress, while the others just cheered them on distantly – or else everyone goes there (which feels a much more natural response), but then they have to stay out of sight of each other. We ended up with everyone trying to get there but some being held up in traffic, crowds, etc – which kind of worked, but as a way of playing out the climax to a tense session, it was kind of bathetic. But perhaps this was just us, and there are better ways of handling the end sequence which don’t feel either forcedly unrealistic or clunky or unsatisfying?

Summary

So, overall… it was a fun session, but I felt the game itself was kind of meh – and meh for reasons that one would have expected to come up in playtest with experienced indie RPGers. And I supposed I was more disappointed because of the game having had such a lot of hype and buzz… it kind of irks me when that happens around something that isn’t really all that well designed, miserable old scungebucket that I am.

There are a lot of good RPGs around, to re-enjoy or to explore for the first time, so I wouldn’t personally expect to be seeking this one out again. But if you do like it, then that’s great, of course: I’m not meaning to yuck your yum.


(Thank you to Laura Wood and Hazel Dizon for help with this post!)

2 replies on “Alice is Missing”

I do have a physical set of the cards and there is one thing to mention in regards to your point about investigating being about marking time. What the game does is narrow the scope of external suspects and locations from 5 each to 3 or 4 each – an for each you develop some of the fiction or motivation for them to be a suspect or place where Alice might turn up. The two penultimate cards (30 mins and 20 mins) then defines who is responsible for the disappearence and where Alice is, and gives the group time to re-incorporate their past suspicions about these things before revealing in the 10 minute card alices final fate- so I can see the logic to the structure. A variant in which PC cards could also be included in the final shuffle of suspects could be interesting, but there would have to be a negotiated buy in from those players who are OK being a potential murderer (though there is plenty of scope for Alice being alive, run away, in hiding or dead due to disadventure/accidental manslaughter rather than kidnap/murder)

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