As the US cable network behind all-time classic shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead, you wouldn’t expect AMC’s first venture into games to be the equivalent of a British rural soap to put on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Yet there’s a strong pedigree here as The Magnificent Trufflepigs is designed by Andrew Crawshaw, lead designer of the award-winning Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Once again, this is a first-person narrative adventure (or walking sim) set in the English countryside but it also combines with the two-hander walkie-talkie dynamic of Firewatch; arguably my favourite of all the walking sims.
Set in the space of a week, you play as Adam, a man who’s called back to his childhood village of Stanning by a woman called Beth. Their relationship is a complicated one, not helped by the fact that she’s apparently not reached out to him in ages, but it’s clear from the beginning that she needs someone to help her find a local treasure: a missing earring. It’s all connected to another earring she found when she spent her childhood roaming the local farmland detecting treasure (earning her and her metal detector the nickname of a trufflepig, hence the whimsical title), and now it appears it’s her last chance to do so before the land passes on to new owners.
With a metal detector in hand, you walk around your allocated enclosed land for the day detecting any old trinkets, be it a pin badge, a screw, or bottle caps. While Beth advises you to work in a methodical way of just walking in a straight line, you’re pretty free to do as you please. It’s basic stuff as far as walking sims go, and moves deliberately slower too when you have the detector in front of you, but there is a simple delight to seeing the UI blink with colour indicators and beep more incessantly when you’ve closed in on something, before you dig up your findings with a shovel and trowel then send over a photo of your findings.
You and Beth are actually split up so that you can cover more land in the limited time you have, and this is where the walkie-talkies (“the coolest toys money can buy in 2005”) come into play. It’s of course a way to get around not having to animate in-game human models (Adam’s hands are incidentally absent when interacting with a number of devices), although the pair do meet up for lunch breaks in Beth’s shiny red car, which then switches the perspective to just a pan of the vehicle and the idyllic rural landscape with a few wind turbines in the distance.
It’s the wonderfully British dialogue that drives the story forward more so than the detecting, which quite frankly really doesn’t amount to much more than just collecting bits of junk, although some items will spark certain conversations and memories. Luci Fish’s performance is the standout, partly perhaps because I’m a sucker for the Northern cadence, but it does feel well suited to her character’s charm, where under her veneer of light cheeky banter and go-getting determination hides a plethora of anxieties, insecurities and resentments. Needless to say, in a game about detecting and digging, there’s an obvious metaphor here.
Unfortunately, while the game’s aiming for some potential romantic chemistry between her and your protagonist, Adam – played by Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill – he comes off as an annoying know-it-all, and I don’t think that’s purely down to his accent (although you would think it’d make more sense if he had adopted a similar regional accent to at least give the impression they’re both from the same village). While you have a few occasions of being able to choose a response, they’re infrequent and don’t detract from the way he’s essentially got Beth all figured out before mansplaining everything to her. It’s a jarring position to be in as the protagonist, especially when it’s clear that Beth is the one with the arc we’re invested in, but I can only imagine Adam would be even more insufferable if he was the NPC talking at you.
There’s still some fascinating dialogue in there, as we dig into Beth’s relationships with her family and her conspicuously absent fiance, but it’s also lacking in the walkie-talkie dynamism of Firewatch where you’re proactively picking up the device to initiate and pick dialogue choices. In The Magnificent Trufflepigs, the walkie-talkie will just come up at prescribed moments, which also slows your walking to a crawl while rendering your metal detector unusable – if you’re the type who likes to walk and talk, you may also find that you’ve involuntarily dropped your detector, forcing you to backtrack to retrieve it.
Not that there’s much backtracking, since each day takes place in an enclosed and limited piece of land unlike the open-world exploration of Rapture or the trekking and imaginative jump-cuts of Firewatch. Nonetheless, the writing does allow us to get a better sense of Stanning’s people and history, from local mysteries to the village’s primary business, which Beth has the privilege of being part of as the founder’s daughter. The resolutions may all wrap up rather too neatly by teatime, with an ending you’ll likely have spotted a mile away, but after the year we’ve had, it’s hard to complain when you’re offered a chance to share good company in the great outdoors.