When Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View was first announced, it immediately caught my attention — the concept of a Rear Window-style detective period drama game is incredibly, extremely my kind of thing. For the most part, White Paper Games pulls it off with evocative, well-crafted 1950s environments, an engaging ensemble cast of characters that lean on tried-and-true murder mystery stereotypes, and perhaps unintentionally, a profoundly frustrating protagonist whose personal flaws end up driving much of the narrative.
Set in an anytown slice of northern England, Conway takes place over several days in June 1954 – a time when food rations were still a thing, pubs served meat drinks (probably Bovril or something like Shippam’s meat paste), and the Lord of the Rings novel was just being released (the Fellowship of the Ring was technically published at the end of July). You play as retired private investigator Robert Conway, a scruffy war veteran who spends most of his time peering at neighbors from his flat in Dahlia View. When a young girl named Charlotte May is kidnapped, Conway springs into action, hoping to put his dusty sleuthing skills to use, even though his own daughter, Catherine, is a police officer working the case.
White Paper Games has done a lot of background work on the era, including a wealth of historical tidbits in the form of objects, letters, and newspaper clippings that really bring the 50s to life. They also consulted accessibility experts in crafting Conway, a disabled wheelchair user; the finished game has noticeable navigation/manoeuvrability improvements over the demo, and I found myself favouring the “camera-centric” option that made it a little easier (at least cognitively) to move around. The story occasionally plays on Conway’s vulnerability at key points that feel powerfully upsetting, like the frustration of not being able to pursue an abled suspect, or the physical asymmetry of being threatened by a much larger, aggressive abled person.
Even while I cursed at Conway’s pigheaded ego and single-minded vision of reality, many of us can appreciate the struggle of trying to understand a beloved family member’s commitment to a self-assigned goal. Conway is the textbook definition of a washed-up, entitled old man who believes doing the right thing trumps everything else, even his own relationship with his daughter. To an extent, the game does this rather well, even at the end when it’s clear that Conway senior and junior are both equally guilty of being a pair of stubborn idiots.
In making Conway difficult and incorrigible, the designers (perhaps unintentionally) add an unexpected but welcome tension to your relationship to the character, almost to the point where you want to see Conway proven wrong on principle. It’s a smart approach that pays off whenever Conway has to deal with the impact of his actions on Catherine, who struggles to prove herself at her new police job. It’s painfully obvious that if Conway weren’t an old white man, that his repeated offences – spying on his neighbours, breaking into their homes, picking their locks and safes, taking pictures of their things and so on – would have incurred actual consequences. Most of the time, especially given Catherine’s job, he’s just swatted away as a nuisance. Does that make him tediously one-dimensional? To a degree, yes, but the pain-in-the-ass protagonist archetype is well-suited to cable television dramas for a reason.
The puzzles are generally straightforward and easy to deduce, and there are also a bunch of lock-picking and prising (floorboards, planks and such) minigames where your mileage may vary depending on how much you like jiggling a little pin with a finicky reticle. As a seasoned Skyrim lock-picker, I found the Conway twist on this to be pretty fun; the quicktime events less so.
There are also a fair number of bugs, including one game-breaking bug that put me off finishing a key storyline; there were also a plethora of smaller ones that required a quick restart, like half of Conway’s body floating, Bethesda-style, in the middle of the lift, dialogue not cueing correctly, or close-up scenes blurring out and losing focus. I deeply wanted more photography sections or interactivity with film development and Conway’s darkroom, or at the very least the ability to sort through my developed photographs. There seems to be a lot of lost potential there as Conway fritters away time in his flat. You can feel the pains of project scope.
This isn’t the sort of game you pick up if you want an especially complicated mystery, though the twist at the end, while tonally jarring, perked me up a bit. The evidence board sections are adequately satisfying, but predictably linear – we’re not living in an open-ended Paradise Killer-style “if you can build a convincing case, you can see what happens” kind of world. It’s not entirely surprising, either, because no matter how you dice it, Conway is very much a morality play about what it means to do the right thing and who’s best equipped to do it. The game is effective at borrowing familiar elements from your favorite period detective shows and historical thrillers, but doesn’t bring anything especially new to the table. It’s around 10 hours well spent if you enjoy immersive period games, but beware of bugs.