Good humour takes proper setup and precise timing: Leading up to and delivering a punchline is an art form of its own which is harder to master than most people tend to believe. Yet it is one of the most important skills that separates the amateur jokester from the true comedian. Of course this is also what makes or brakes any video game that tries to make its audience laugh and it is especially the adventure game genre that has a tradition of delivering prime examples to both the best and the worst in comedy. One of the former is Alias 'The Magpie', a piece of interactive fiction telling the story of a hilarious art heist in a masterful way.
Right from the start it shows lots of potential: You take the role of an infamous gentleman thief with plans to steal a piece of priceless Egyptian art. To do so you infiltrate the household of a Lord Hamcester – which is filled with the finest of British stereotypes – by pretending to be a psychiatrist helping to institutionalise the Lord’s brother-in-law. The latter suffers from the delusions of being stuck in the Kongo jungle and therefore has a tendency to wreck the furniture. But the Lady Hamcester has grown quite fond of her brother and should not know about this. So naturally you have to take on another layer of disguise as the famous detective Perroquet, who incidentally is trying to track you down and might be right on your heels. Oh, and please, whatever happens stay quiet because the Lord has to write his acceptance speech for his award winning cucumber.
As you can see all the prerequisites for a great comedy of errors are there: Neurotic characters, lots of embarrassing secrets, a character taking on double and even triple roles, another one who cannot tell apart fantasy from reality and a pompous backdrop that demands utter seriousness. Of course this scenario will not stay 'relaxed' for long. But why? What is it about such setups that makes us want to see it come tumbling down? Why do we feel such a vicious glee in seeing the bull rush into the china? Maybe it is the feeling of relief when the tension is finally gone. Maybe it is our inner child that still wants to break the rules. Or maybe seeing someone else fail makes our own mistakes appear harmless or even ridiculous. One thing is for sure though: Good humour also has to hurt.
But simply hurting someone is not funny in itself, it takes context and motivation to decide whether we laugh or cry. Think of someone hitting a piano with a maul. Does this make you laugh? No, there has to be a reason to it and one of the funniest scenes in the game revolves exactly around this action. What was it that made the attacker crack? Why the piano? Is there something inside the piano? Who made him do it? How do the others react? Delivering delicious answers to those questions is what Alias ‘The Magpie’ really excels at, meticulously revealing one hint after another where this is going while slowly gaining momentum until there is nothing else to do except for entering the irreversible command, watch the pieces finally come together and have a hearty laugh.
Naturally the act of triggering this action yourself gives it an extra bit of satisfaction, because the interactivity makes it all the more involving. Playing the pranks yourself, being the trickster that leads to all that chaos is so much more amusing than watching someone else do it. For this it is crucial that you believe to be the one doing it. Simply entering a command and watching the characters do stuff is not enough, you also need to think you are the one taking initiative and making the decisions. And this will only be the case if the game can convey you a feeling of being in control. Luckily this one does it (for the most part) really well.
You can move around the scene almost unhindered and while there are certain events that have to follow a logical order – it would be impossible for a game of this scope to tell its jokes otherwise – you still have a bit of freedom where you want to advance. That is until you get stuck which might happen at times, because if there is one speck on the game's otherwise fine production it is that some of its puzzles take quite a lot of lateral thinking and the hints at the solution could have been a bit stronger. Admittedly there is a neatly integrated hint system that always can help you out of your predicaments though. Plus, most of the puzzles are perfectly fine and even the more obscure ones grow organically from the scenery.
Which might come at little surprise once you take a look at it. The amount of detail is incredible which is quite a feat considering how many rooms there are in this mansion and the park surrounding it. Each set-piece tells its own story and is filled with ideas, there are no empty rooms and each one has its logical place and use. Simply reading their descriptions is a joy of its own, which is mostly thanks to the unobtrusive way they are presented. While the narration gets wordy at times, it never gets excessive and there is a certain charm to the protagonists blasé remarks.
To come full cricle: Of course this is yet another sign of how much diligence went into creating Alias 'The Magpie', how much thought the author has given to telling his story and entertaining his audiences. Now, humour is a very subjective thing: What might make one person laugh might make another wince. But like illustrated in this review there are some rules that improve the chances for the former drastically. And this game here is sticking to almost all of them, so odds are high that it might have exactly your kind of humour too.