Riley & Rochelle marks the zenith of a concept Sheinman Games has been working on for three years. A period of recent music history is chosen, imagined bands and singers are created, songs written and performed, and then your task as the player is to piece together scattered information into some sort of order. They’re logic puzzles, but with a soundtrack.
The format started with 2020's Family, in which you were tasked with forming a “family tree” of band members and the various groups and careers they followed through London’s 80s music scene. Just two months later came Rivals, set between 1995 and 2010, this time exploring U.S. alt-country music. Both games contained songs written and performed by developer Tim Sheinman, and demonstrated a deep love of both diverse musical scenes. After a diversion into American politics with 2021's Conspiracy! (although still following the same puzzle solving format), 2022 offers us Riley & Rochelle, once more set in the 90s, but this time in the world of cheesy pop and ultra fame.
Riley Stone is a good looking young man from Detroit, who quickly (perhaps too quickly) makes it big in the U.S. pop scene with some classic 90s pop. Rochelle Robert grows up in the Canadian pageantry scene, dominating with her ballad singing, until she’s picked up by a creepy promoter and introduced to America. Both become enormously famous, and as the game sets out you explore their entirely separate careers by trying to provide the exact date for a pile of detached diary entries from both.
This is achieved by reading through the entries, and then looking through other materials provided for each of the game’s eight chapters. These might be flyers for gigs, recordings of radio interviews, live talk show appearances, or even a diner menu. Each is replete with clues that suggest a time, which when pieced together (occasionally requiring some real-world searching too) will let you work out the precise date for the entry. Correctly assign all for that chapter and the story advances.
All of the clips for radio shows, filmed events, DVD commentaries, etc, are recorded audio, with actors performing and singing. And every key song mentioned in the game is available to listen to at any time, not only from Riley and Rochelle, but a few other tangential artists. You listen or read, scribbling down important details, then Googling when the 1997 Oscars took place, and refer back to Rochelle’s birthday you learned earlier, and work out that this meeting must have taken place in March, then piece that together with the information that it was a Monday, and eventually you have that date.
With Riley & Rochelle, Sheinman (and a growing team around him), I think, reaches the peak of this concept. If you’ve been playing along with his games, as I have, there’s definitely a bit of a sense of repetition here, and a desire to see a new set of ideas. However, if you’ve not (and let’s be sensible, they’ve not been break-out hits, you likely haven’t), then R&R is the best place to discover this brilliant idea. It’s certainly the most accessible in terms of the music scene it covers, even if it’s not the genre I’d personally choose to listen to.
Saying that, as the game progresses toward the end of the 90s, both Stone and Robert clearly tire of the largest market, and start to become influenced by Portishead, Massive Attack and Radiohead. This has interesting implications on the storyline, but also makes the music far more palatable to my ear-mouths. And indeed demonstrates Sheinman’s remarkable range when it comes to song composition. That he can put together a corny ballad that sounds like a reasonable contender for a 90s Oscar nomination, and indeed the blissed out lowcore difficult-third-album vibes of a disappointing flop single, really is testament to an impressive talent.
The UI isn’t as great as I’d hope. Previous games haven’t exactly shone when it comes to presentation, but I found Riley & Rochelle’s a little too lo-fi. The art is lovely, but crucial elements like the piles of diaries look pretty poor. Where previously the zine-scene presentation made sense given the subject, here it feels a bit too scrappy. It’s fine, it does the job, but I’d really like to have seen something more detailed.
But the important thing is the overall effect that this, and the previous music scene puzzles, have on me: To make me feel like these people were real, and their musical history actually happened. It totally works here, both artists—despite being based on industry cliché—feel completely fleshed out and real. This is enormously helped by the lovely details about Rochelle’s mother, their home lives, and the very human moments you glimpse in their diaries, contrasting with the public presentation in the found materials.
I’ve come away with such a depth of knowledge about some entirely imaginary musicians, having heard so much of their music, heard clips of films in which they appeared, and been given a behind-the-scenes perspective on their lives. I love that. That’s what makes these games so special, even when a puzzle might be especially corny (“Helena went for a coffee with me today. Wouldn’t meet me yesterday, unlucky, she said. I thought it was just for Fridays.”), it’s still totally forgivable, because it allows you to hear more of the tale, learn more of this fictional music history.
I really hope Sheinman does something very different for his next game, because I really think this format is done now. But Riley & Rochelle is a great, if sometimes scrappy, way to prove what a solid idea it’s always been.