Review: Alice is Missing

Alice is Missing, designed by Spenser Starke and Hunters Entertainment

Very rarely in this hobby does a player stumble across a truly unique game, something that stands out as a powerful, engaging, and awe-inspiring experience. Even though I’ve only personally played role-playing and storytelling games for a bit over a year, I can say with confidence that Alice is Missing is one of those experiences. Even now, shortly after my first session, it’s all I can think about. I sit here in awe at the story told, the genuine feelings of anxiety and hope that I got from playing this game.

I had recently caught wind of Alice is Missing through a member over on the Cypher Unlimited Discord server – it came up during a discussion of silent role-playing games. Naturally, you begin to wonder how such a game would even work. The game’s themes and main mechanic, a timer with intervals where you pull random “Clue Cards”, immediately piqued my interest, and I purchased the Roll20 module (though there is a physical version). Alice is Missing was Kickstarted in June of 2020, and came to fruition in early August of the same year. Designed by Spenser Starke, the mind behind Icarus and Kids on Brooms, this game delivers a very intimate and tender experience over text message.

Premise

“ALICE IS MISSING is a silent role playing game about the disappearance of Alice Briarwood, a high school junior in the sleepy Northern California town of Silent Falls. During the game, players use their phones to send text messages to each other as they unearth clues about what happened to Alice”

Spenser Starke, Alice is Missing Rulebook, pg. 4

While this could be considered another diceless TTRPG like Bounty Hunter (by Guy Sclanders, and reviewed by Josh here), it’s more apt to consider this a collaborative storytelling vehicle – the players do inhabit a role, but there’s no traditional GM and player dichotomy. The ‘Facilitator’ is just as much a player in the story as the other members of the group, playing a character and being as “in the dark” as everyone else.

Production and Presentation

There is a physical version available, but for practical reasons, I purchased the digital version and Roll20 module. The physical version comes with 72 cards along with the rulebook, made out of what looks like fairly standard materials.  The presentation of the PDFs is roughly as you’d expect – no bad surprises here. Everything is crisp and clear. The 48 page rulebook is laid out well, with large and well separated blocks of text – most for the Facilitator, but with a well written introduction and explanation that you can read to the players.

The Roll20 module is equally well laid out, with different panels for each “phase” of character creation and gameplay, and the card decks all being available for shuffling.  On their website, there is also a link to a Discord template (if your players can’t or don’t want to share phone numbers/social media accounts) and the wonderful animated timer, with a sublime soundtrack (full of licensed music!) that I’ll cover in the next section. Overall, the presentation of this game is done really well, and though there’s some prep work if you only have the PDF, the game is made to be very, very playable online, or generally while social distancing.

Content

The core rulebook is split into two sections spanning 24 pages each; an overview of the game and how to handle it, and the actual Facilitator’s Guide, that one would use when running the game and explaining it to players. There are also many cards, all representing the mechanics of the game. The game has no extra fat – everything present here is for a purpose, and each one creates an experience far larger than the sum of its parts.

Over the first 24 pages, the game details how to safely play a game about a sensitive topic (like a teenage girl going missing), giving ample safety tools to the group, and a brief overview of the phases of the game. The second half of the book helps the Facilitator explain the game to the players, reiterating the rules, the safety tools at everyone’s disposal, and the set-up. It also includes a short game guide, and advice for running the game online.

All of the main mechanics of Alice is Missing revolve around the 72 cards included with the game, and the 90 minute timer. During character creation, every player takes one of five character cards. Along with a secret about the character, and a detail about Alice that they provide, each card comes with a voicemail prompt, a message each player records for the end of the game. The players also get Drive cards, giving each character a unique motive (such as “Leap to Alice’s defense when something bad is said”) and two relationships to dole out as they please.

There’s also five unique location cards and suspect cards, two copies of each. Every player provides a hunch they have about each location and suspect, figuring out what exactly makes that person suspicious. During gameplay, a location or suspect can be revealed, with a player mentioning something happening with that place or person, such as a suspicious post to social media, or finding something in Alice’s locker that is distinctly from that place.

The main “meat” of the mechanics lies in the Clue Cards and the Timer. At every ten, and toward the end of the game, five minute interval, a player uses their Clue Card to advance the story in some way, whether that be mentioning a lead that you had, but the police ignored, or getting an accidental voicemail from Alice. The timer, while persistent in the background, comes with a very intense, emotional, wonderful soundtrack of licensed music from artists like Message to Bears and Paper Planes. It evokes the emotion of the game perfectly, and sets the tone so well. It would be a mistake to play this game without the music, preferably from a high quality sound system, or headphones for every player. There are no reminders to check the timer, letting the players decide when they want to change the ebb and flow of the situation.

The book ends with some general advice for the player taking role of Facilitator. A basic overview for keeping things on track, and a well thought out debrief system to round out the experience. While it may seem odd to have end of session time dedicated to decompressing, the intense emotional journey this game takes you on really does make it necessary. The debrief is very, very well thought out, and helps the group to take a moment and let the experience sink in.

Critique

Out of everything, the only major concern to be had is re-playability. This game is best played once per group. While you can share members over playthroughs, and while the game does have multiple routes, the game does not carry the same weight on repeated playthroughs. Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say here. The experience is so well trimmed and so neatly packaged. The music with the timer fits perfectly, and the mood while playing the game seems perfectly executed. The only thing I really have to ask for is more. More of the sketches from the rulebook, more characters to play, more motives and relationships. . There are talks of an expansion pack, but there doesn’t seem to be any news circulating on it.

Summary

Alice is Missing is an intimate text-based storytelling experience. That’s really the best word to describe it – experience. A powerful, intimate, exhilarating experience. There are no dice, just a timer, and the inevitable stress that comes with looking for your missing friend. The package on offer is neatly presented, and very, very carefully crafted. For the asking price of $11.99 for the PDF, I can heartily recommend it for any gaming group that is able to take the game seriously and wants to experience this emotional roller coaster.  Happy gaming!

  • Chris Harris

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