Trilby's Notes is the third game in the Chzo Mythos, released on June 26, 2006. The game was written and designed by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw (known for his video series Zero Punctuation and website Fully Ramblomatic). Trilby's Notes is the first Chzo game to actually reference Chzo himself, the first to show The Tall Man, and the first to include original music composed by Mark Lovegrove (previous games used free music from RPG Maker). Like its predecessors, it was well-received by the Adventure Game Studio community and won several awards.
Set four years after the DeFoe Manor Incident from 5 Days a Stranger, the gentlemanly cat burglar Trilby is back as the protagonist for the second and final time (excluding spin-offs such as Art of Theft, anyway). But Trilby isn't the suave, collected thief anymore: his brush with the occult affected him deeply, causing him to become nervous and sloppy when breaking into buildings, unsettled by the fear that something like John DeFoe might happen all over again. Eventually, his sloppiness caused him to be captured by the British government. Not wanting to put his talents to waste, however, they offered him an alternative to a jail sentence; Trilby is now working for a secret government agency called the Special Talent Project, who loans out their agents to other organizations when special talents are needed.
The idol from 5 Days a Stranger, which in that game had caused people to be possessed by John DeFoe, was stolen by looters along with many other artefacts from the remains of the DeFoe Manor. However, for reasons unknown (at the beginning of the game, at least), the idol hadn't caused any more "mysterious" deaths or disappearances.
That is, until Trilby decides to pay a visit to his old acquaintance Simone, one of the survivors of the incident. One stormy night when he shows up at her apartment, he finds that she won't answer her door, even though the receptionist is certain that she is in her room. Growing worried, Trilby picks the lock and invites himself in. The lights won't work, but a flash of lightning soon illuminates the cold, dead corpse of Simone.
Trilby checks for a pulse, but it's no use. Her body has the unmistakable slash of a machete, and soon Trilby finds himself roped into another assignment to determine whether the DeFoe Manor incident might be repeating itself... The idol, along with other artefacts, is now owned by a Professor Chahal, who is showcasing them on Clanbronwyn Island this July 28th.
What could possibly go wrong?
This information is taken from the special edition's commentary mode as well as forum posts by Yahtzee. Please contact me if you spot any mistakes, as I've not had the opportunity to interview the man himself.
The designer and writer of Trilby's Notes, Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, admits readily that he designed the first two Chzo games as a two-part series, with no conception of The Tall Man or Chzo or anything else that's introduced in this game. He was inspired to retcon these things into the story by two things: one being the fact that he was constantly being asked to make another Trilby game after the success of 5 Days a Stranger, and he didn't want to rehash the same plot he already rehashed in 7 Days a Skeptic; two being that he'd been reading plot analyses of the Silent Hill series on GameFAQs and wanted people to be able to write such long, inquisitive things about his own series. The first two games, taken on their own, were very simple ghost stories -- Trilby's Notes took them and expanded them into a complex time-spanning epic with a mythos.
One common complaint about the first two games was that the music didn't fit particularly well. To rectify this, Yahtzee contacted Mark Lovegrove, a composer he'd worked with previously while making the Rob Blanc series, to create an original score. Lovegrove's soundtrack was so well-received after the game's release that his tracks were included in the special edition along with a text file explaining how he created each song. The main melody of the game (which is used memorably any time The Tall Man attacks, when the harpsichord is being played, and during the end credits) is based on the words "five days a stranger".
... One sunny day a miracle occurred and I thought of a great way to put the words "five days a stranger" into a melody. Using my keyboard, I quickly wrote this tune [YZZZZ.mid] to capture its sound. I knew this tune could not itself fit in Trilby's Notes, but the melody could be adapted. ... You may be thinking "Why's the music saying '5 Days a Stranger' and not 'Trilby's Notes'?" The answer is I don't know! -Mark Lovegrove
Lovegrove would later return to the Mythos to score 6 Days a Sacrifice, which uses a very similar melody based on its title.
The dualing realms of Technology and Magick which are introduced in Trilby's Notes are inspired by the classic video game dark world/light world plot device utilized in games like Zelda and Metroid. The actual design of the "dark world" in this game is in fact lifted from the original Splatterhouse's gorey hallways. Some bits of the game such as the uncommon hallucinations are taken from Eternal Darkness. (All of these influences are stated in the commentary of the game.)
This is the only game in the Chzo Mythos to use an old-fashioned text parser instead of a point-and-click interface. Yahtzee did this to fit the game's style, making it seem more like it's actually lifted from the notes Trilby made during his investigation. He also did it to challenge himself -- and apparently it was a big challenge to program the parser in Adventure Game Studio, so he's stated that he'll never use this interface again.
Review (no spoilers!)
Trilby's Notes seems to be either the most popular game in the Chzo Mythos, or possibly the second most popular after 5 Days a Stranger. It's hard to tell. 5 Days has five AGS awards and Notes only has four, but the praise I see for Notes always seems to be much stronger than 5 Days, which people often criticize for its somewhat sloppy design. While Notes does occasionally get put under fire for its text parser (all the other games use a point and click interface), it's a lot less common in my experience. Personally, I never had a problem with the parser whatsoever, whereas 5 Days had me constantly throwing the mouse cursor back and forth across the entire screen just to select new actions.
However, one bad thing about the text parser is that it makes conversation options harder to figure out. In the other games, all the things your character can potentially say to people are listed in a menu so you can easily see them all, but in this game you need to actually type in topics (e.g., "ask abed about idol"). Without the conversation topics being listed anywhere, many players will miss a lot of the dialogue in the game, which can make the characters seem less developed than in the other Chzo games. If you make a point of asking every character about everything you can think of, this flaw won't affect your game experience, but it is a design flaw nonetheless.
On paper, the game is extremely simple, but like the rest of the Chzo Mythos, the execution sells it. All you really do is wander around Clanbronwyn Hotel, searching for items related to the history of the idol (the same one from 5 Days a Stranger, which contains John DeFoe's soul). As you find each item, you experience flashbacks in reverse chronological order, which go through 1821 AD, 1789, 1778, 1581, 1501, and finally 55 BC. These flashbacks are probably the best, scariest parts of the game other than the ending and one extremely memorable scene in the middle; without them, I don't think the game would have been nearly as well received. As you go back through the history of the idol, it seems more and more sinister, and it soon becomes clear that something bigger is at play -- and you have no idea what it is or what it wants. This fear of the unknown is the key thing that sets The Tall Man and Chzo apart from John DeFoe, and makes Trilby's Notes stand out in the horror department.
The "dark world" in the game is definitely one of the more memorable things. Yahtzee expertly highlights his ability to keep the player on the edge of their seat solely through atmosphere. The normal hotel is almost eerily quiet, with little to punctuate it other than Trilby's footsteps pattering softly against the carpet -- then you enter a new room and you're unexpectedly greeted with the hard clatter of Trilby's footsteps against hardwood, hellish whispering that you can almost-but-not-quite comprehend, and some haunting, sparse accompaniment from the soundtrack. Yahtzee told Lovegrove during production that the dark world music should "evoke the feeling of standing up from a hot bath" -- and it definitely does.
Simply put, the game is terrifying and very much worth the price tag of zero dollars and zero cents. Definitely worth your time.
Much has been written online about the thematic elements introduced into the series by Trilby's Notes: the Body, Mind, and Soul, as well as themes of human sexuality, cooperation, and the lack thereof. While the other three Chzo games use a group of characters attempting to work together and slowly falling apart over the course of several days, Trilby's Notes diverges from the formula entirely. In this game, all the events take place over the course of a single day, and Trilby is totally isolated -- the one character who does try to help him is rejected, as Trilby warns her that she's involving herself in something more dangerous than she understands. To fully analyze how these themes tie together, I'd have to spoil the ending of the series, so go read my writeup on 6 Days a Sacrifice for further discussion of these themes.
Download Trilby's Notes here.