Rivals review: a unique country music detective game

I love the premise for Rivals, a new game from Tim Sheinman. You play a writer who is working on a biography of two rival country music stars from the 2000s – and like me when I’m writing some massive longform magazine article encompassing multiple interviews and sources, she’s having a nightmare when it comes to piecing it all together. Also like me, she is clearly a bit crap on the organisation front. When did that album come out again? Did that band split up in 2001 or 2002? Goddamn, I’m sure I had it written down somewhere! [Sound of ruffling papers, followed by slosh of tea spilling onto laptop.]

The rivals of the title are Josh and Luke, who formed a moderately successful band in high school, but then ended up falling out and embarking on separate careers with different ideas about how country music should be played. But don’t worry if you’re not into country music – this game is all about being a detective, deciphering the clues to work out the order in which events occurred so you can finish the story.

You’re presented with a series of notes, some recorded interviews and a range of albums from Luke Jackson and his rival Josh’s band, Powderhorn. You also have a series of chapter headings with short descriptions, like ‘Powderhorn releases the album Alfa Romeo’, and the idea is to put the chapters into the right order. After you get five right, the game confirms your guesses and gives you the first page of each chapter, along with more notes and interviews.

By carefully reading through the notes, you can gradually work out the timeline. For example, a note from a record company might describe a song from Luke’s newly released album, so you can then listen to the albums to deduce which one it’s referring to. If the note is dated, say, May 2001, then you’ll know when that album came out, which will allow you to work out other clues, like an interview mentioning an event that occurred a couple of months after the album’s release.

The albums are little works of art in themselves, and the songs are brilliantly done, convincingly charting the career paths of two musicians with very different outlooks, all the way from jangly country music to experimental rock. And the taped interviews are excellently acted, too, even if on a couple of occasions the way a clue was worked into the dialogue felt a little forced and unnatural. Still, I’ve never felt more like a real detective than when I was spooling a tape back and forth to make sense of a passage, before landing on an eye-widening ‘Aha!’ moment that caused the penny to drop.

Rivals is a relatively short game at around 2-3 hours, but I found myself thoroughly absorbed throughout – and I’d rather play a short game that uses my time well than a long one which pads out its run time with pointless collecting. Yet even though Rivals is relatively brief, it’s far from easy – I really had to work my grey matter to put the events in the right order, getting hopelessly stuck at one point before realising something that made it all fall into place.

My one big criticism is that in some ways the difficulty curve is on its head. At the start you have 30 different chapters to choose from, so finding the applicable ones can take some time and deduction, whereas by the end you’re down to just five, so it’s relatively easy to know which ones go where.

This means that the start of the game can be quite intimidating as you sift through the mountain of evidence in front of you and work out what it is you should be doing. But it’s worth persevering, because I ended up being thoroughly engrossed in the trials and tribulations of Josh and Luke. Rivals is a voyeuristic snapshot of other people’s lives, a sympathetic story of hope and failure – and in that sense it’s a very good piece of journalism indeed.

Rivals was developed by Tim Sheinman, and it’s available on PC and Mac via Steam and itch.io. We played the PC version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Rivals was provided by Tim Sheinman. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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