Jenny LeClue: Detectivú

Jenny LeClue: Detectivú - Windows, Switch (2019)

It’s hardly the most important feature to draw attention to, but any and all discussions on the relative merits of Jenny LeClue: Detectivú must begin thusly; it is frankly ridiculous how fun it is to say the title of this game out loud. Jenny LeClue: Detectivú. “Detectivú” isn’t even a real word or a translation from another language, it’s just detective with an ‘ooh’ on the end, and a funny accent for no reason. But it doesn’t matter, because not since the release of the lesser-known Shigeru Miyamoto puzzle game Mole Mania for the Game Boy has it been so entertaining to simply say the name of a video game. It would be awkward if after all that, it turned out that Jenny LeClue was actually rubbish, but luckily, it’s just as wonderfully charming as its name.

The storyline of Jenny LeClue is somewhat unique, in that the first thing you are told about the adventure you are embarking on is that it is a work of in-universe fiction. Before you meet Jenny, you meet Arthur K. Finklestein, struggling author of a series of kid-detective stories named ‘Jenny LeClue’ after the titular protagonist. The 38th book in the series ‘Jenny LeClue and the Missing Marmalade Sandwich’, has not been received positively, and Arthur’s publisher has issued him an ultimatum; write a darker, more gripping story, involving an actual murder, or the series is over. Insulted by this executive meddling, Arthur vows that if it’s a serious murder-mystery they want, that’s what they’ll get, and it quickly becomes apparent that this was no idle threat.

With this kind of ambitious metanarrative commentary, I was immediately convinced that whoever had developed this title must have decades of experience in the industry, but was shocked to discover that this is the debut game from developer/publisher Mografi, a self-described tiny studio headed by animator, writer and illustrator Joe Russ, whose only previous related work is a twenty-minute animated sci-fi film named Fathoms that was funded on Kickstarter and made freely available online in 2014. Co-created by fellow animator and director Ben Tillett, Jenny LeClue is so polished for their first attempt at a video game that it’s almost suspicious.

Once you’ve been introduced to Arthur, you’re finally ready to discover the picturesque and imaginatively-named town of Arthurton, home of Jenny LeClue, who in a shocking turn of events, is dead… or at least, playing the role of a recently-discovered corpse in suspicious circumstances for the purpose of a lecture delivered by her mother – Julie LeClue (former detective, teaches dumb students, terrible cook, great Mom) – which Jenny quickly derails in order to scoldingly correct the rookie mistakes made by the naïve pupils several years her senior.

This is the character of Jenny LeClue in a nutshell; smarter than all of her surrounding peers, extremely aware of it, and happy to explain why with as much sarcasm as she can muster. However, this never comes across as smug or unbearable, partly because Jenny really is surrounded by idiots – the other students write off the suspicious green powdery substance around the lips of her mock-cadaver as probably leftover icing from an old donut or something – but primarily because unlike many badly-written fictional geniuses, Jenny’s deductions are always clear, logical, and based on observations that are available to all, especially the player. Much like Arthur’s interfering publishers, Jenny is also tired of solving mysteries related to missing marmalade sandwiches and the similarly trifling trivialities of a small town like Arthurton.

While Jenny may not be a fan, Arthurton is a beautiful town to explore from the player’s perspective. Everything is so bright, colorful and expressive that it truly feels like an interactive children’s book, straight from the mind of Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton, minus the retroactively uncomfortable 1940s-era attitudes towards race and gender. The quickly-introduced cast feel traditional, but original; the well-respected but jovial Dean Strausberry of Gumboldt University, where Jenny’s mother works, his son and Jenny’s best friend Keith, friendly but something of a doormat. The standout performance though, both in writing and voice-acting, comes from the local conspiracy theorist CJ, voiced by Stuart Krug, who does an incredible job channeling the kooky enthusiasm of Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown from Back to the Future.

You may notice that gameplay hasn’t been mentioned yet, and this is because, while perfectly functional and enjoyable, the gameplay almost always takes a back seat to forwarding the plot. This is no surprise considering that it’s a narrative-heavy adventure game, but it doesn’t hurt the experience either. Jenny mainly walks from place to place, interacting with items and chatting with the good folks of Arthurton – even the throwaway characters show great personality – and most of the choices you’ll make boil down to how sincere or sarcastic you’d like Jenny to be in her responses; not in a Telltale Games fashion where you’re warned ‘Character will remember that’, but solely as a way to let you decide how you’d like to shape Jenny’s character.

The gameplay that most helps you get into Jenny’s mindset are the interrogations. When Jenny believes that someone is hiding something, she can examine their appearance in closer detail to spot anything unusual. These are always satisfyingly logical, and when Jenny focuses on something out of the ordinary, her deductions appear on screen in the form of hastily-scribbled notepad jottings, complete with appropriate sounds. It’s a little touch that gives the game an air of authenticity and sincerity, as well as showing us exactly why Jenny is such a good detective, rather than just telling us. This works well with a lot of the humor, as one of Jenny’s quicker ‘interrogations’ is scouring the appearance of one of the ruder members of Suzie Glatz’s girl clique in order to fashion an appropriate comeback to an insult. You’re given the option to ‘be mean’ by deducing that she’s self-conscious about a lazy eye, or ‘be really mean’, which you have to see for yourself, but is harsh and hilarious in equal measure.

With how light-hearted the game is for the most part, the change in genre when Jenny discovers an actual murder is also handled excellently. The lengthy scene where Jenny explores an otherwise-empty building takes the time to build tension and let the player get unnerved without ruining the atmosphere with any unnecessary attempts at levity. Once the murder has been discovered, Jenny LeClue takes a temporary turn into outright horror, with a nightmare sequence highlighting Jenny’s sheer disbelief and bringing several of her fears to the forefront. It’s genuinely disturbing, and while the game quickly returns to its lighter roots, there’s always a lingering unease; not helped by the creepy figure in black that Jenny and the player encounter on several occasions, who has a penchant for whistling dissonant children’s tunes while going about their business.

On a lighter note, Arthur continues to make frequent appearances in the story, both via narration at the opening of every chapter, and occasional visits back to his desk, where he soon embarks on a distraught binge-eating of jam out of guilt for killing off one of his characters. His narration can also be spotted fading into the scene as Jenny enters a new area, and sometimes he even chimes in to butt heads with his own protagonist, i.e. “Jenny came across a rickety old bridge, and wisely concluded that she couldn’t possibly attempt to cross it, deciding to safely return home and forget about this unnecessarily dangerous escapade,” only for Jenny to immediately disagree and go straight for the riskiest course of action.

While Jenny’s story is always the primary interest, the intermissions with Arthur are always a welcome reprieve. More than anything, Arthur’s inclusion is what caused my assumption that this game had to have been developed by someone with a deep and personal history in the video game industry, as not only did they write the intriguing tale of Jenny LeClue, but they also wrote a story about the in-universe writing of the intriguing tale of Jenny LeClue, which could not have been easy. It was also extremely smart to reveal this right at the beginning of the story. There are several works of media that draw attention to the fact that the work itself is fictional, but usually these occur in un-serious works where the story was never important, à la Super Mario Bros. 2 ending on the reveal that it was all a dream, or they form serious fourth-wall breaking narratives for which any suitable examples would be huge spoilers. By revealing that Jenny LeClue is fictional in-universe right from the start, it doesn’t undercut any of the player’s engagement with the story as it develops.

The progression is consistently straightforward, entertaining without being overly-challenging – like many modern point-and-click adventure games, it’s outright impossible to ever really lose Jenny LeClue – but there are plenty of optional goals for completionists. Stickers can be found all over Arthurton, either in the wild or by paying close attention to locations that Jenny can examine in more detail, and there are also torn pieces of postcards that when reassembled reveal a seemingly unconnected story, but I wouldn’t put it past the developers to have snuck in a deeper meaning, especially since more than two years after its release, Ben Tillett confirmed that there remains an unsolved puzzle hidden somewhere in the final postcard.

The stickers can also be used to decorate Jenny’s journal, which can be accessed from the main menu and contains a brief recap of the story, complete with records of how you chose for Jenny to react in every branching path of dialogue/action, and a current assessment of what kind of character you’ve chosen to play as; protector Jenny, girlboss Jenny, etc. The stickers are unlikely to hold your attention for long, but it’s a fun thematic reminder that despite being the sassiest, smartest kid detective in town, Jenny is still a kid.

This is helped greatly by the addition of voice-acting in the Spoken Secrets Edition released as a free update in July 2020. Elinor Lawless does a fantastic job as Jenny, able to switch from unrelenting snark to heroic determination on a dime, as well as showcasing her genuine fears and vulnerabilities; after all, she is a child who has recently gone from investigating missing marmalade sandwiches to trying to solve the murder of someone she personally knew.

The soundtrack also consistently helps to keep the tone appropriate, shifting from upbeat Saturday morning cartoon show to genuine life-threatening murder-mystery. A few important characters have their own leitmotif, most noticeably Suzie Glatz, Jenny’s irritatingly good-natured (to Jenny, at least) cousin with whom she shares a one-sided rivalry. Every time she appears, she’s accompanied with a sickeningly twee, bright, bubble-gum unicorn princess theme that is perfectly on-point for her character.

The closest thing that could be described as a flaw is that the game ends on a cliffhanger, so naturally not every mystery is solved before then. The conclusion is still satisfying enough, as Jenny pieces together enough information to solve the case and reveal the culprit, but several large revelations about motive, and the nature of Arthurton itself, are left for the currently-in-development sequel. It isn’t easy to strike a balance between rewarding the player with enough of an explanation so as not to feel completely in the dark, while omitting enough key facts that the player will want to find out more in Jenny LeClue: De2ectivú, but an admirable attempt was made, although your mileage may vary on whether sufficient closure is reached.

Overall though, Jenny LeClue: Detectivú is engaging from start to finish; a wholly charming handmade adventure story that combines the setting of The Famous Five with the narrative of a gripping Agatha Christie novel. Initially released on Steam and iOS, it has since been ported to Nintendo Switch and will be coming to the PlayStation 4 in the future, so there has never been a better time to embrace your inner detectivú and visit picturesque Arthurton yourself. Case closed.

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