Friday, March 29, 2013


「渇いた叫び」(Field of View)

This yell of thirst stabs through my dispirited heart
I want to invite you to see the world with me
A Yell of Thirst (Field of View)

Am I writing about the wrong topic? The post on Kyoto ramen got more hits in just a week than...well, practically all other posts on this blog. Anyway, I am not in Japan anymore (though my sleeping rhythm still is), so it's back to business for this blog. A lot of my Japanese reading material is still somewhere on sea somewhere between Japan and here, but I'll fill in the time somehow until those boxes arrive.

And because this month has been weird anyway with a post on a game, a book and ramen, I figure I might as well finish off March with an audio drama. Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken ("The 'Castle of Screams' Murder Case") is the fourth adaption of Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series by Kikka Mystery, following 46 Banme no Misshitsu, Swiss Dokei no Nazo and Yaneura no Sanposha. Like the latter two stories, Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken was originally a short story featuring the detective duo of the mystery writer Alice and his criminologist friend Himura. This time, they're after the so-called Night Prowler, a serial murderer operating in Osaka who has been killing women at night. What makes the case 'special' is that the Night Prowler is actually a fictional murderer from the horror video game Castle of Screams. The real-life murderer seems to be copying the game, from using the same name to operating with the same modus operandi and targeting the same kind of victims. Can our duo avoid a game over and catch the Night Prowler?

I only read the earlier material in the Writer Alice series, with one reason being that the series' quality dropped quite quickly. I loved the first novel, but the stories become very simple afterwards and the interaction between Alice and Himura make it seem like Arisugawa is just aiming at a certain public with this series (the same public a company as Momogre/Kikka Mystery would aim at). Which also makes Arisugawa a marketing genius, making money with the easy and carefree Writer Alice series and just once in a while releasing a Student Alice novel to keep his more orthodox fans happy.

But I haven't read the original Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken, so I am not quite sure whether my thoughts about the audio drama also hold for the original story, but to start with the conclusion, it's an OK story, nothing more, nothing less. The first thing that one should note is that this is a hunt for a serial killer, which brings a different dynamic to a detective novel than you'd usually see. Sure, even in good old safe Country House Murders (TM), the main dynamic is one of the detective hunting for the murderer, but the change from a (semi) closed circle environment to an open one, from the Country House to the Anonymous City brings so much uncertainty to the game that it feels different. The change from a search among a group of known variables to a unspecified group of unknown variables, the invisibility of it all makes such novels much more thrilling.

At least, in theory. In Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken, the story is narrated by Alice, but this takes the listener away from much of the excitement. In the first half of the story, Alice isn't even involved with the investigation into the Night Prowler, because he's being held captured by his publisher (to finish a book). Most of the killings are already over when Alice finally joins the police and Himura, but that's just too late. Compare to The ABC Murders, Cat of Many Tails! Narration from the point of view of the people close to the victims, from the start of the investigation, from the reaction of the common people to the murders, that is what makes these kind of novels fun to read. And none of it here.

This is an orthodox mystery, so you know that Himura will deduce who the Night Prowler is and stuff, but I don't know whether this was something they did in the audio drama or whether it was like this in the original too, but the hints pointing to the murderer come 1) late, and 2) too obvious, meaning you can't really solve it until the end, but you will solve it. Which makes me think about the meaning and usefulness of all the story up until that point.

As a gamer, I did think the premise of the story was interesting. Every time people get killed videogames get blamed for everything and nothing, so why not a story about someone who might be copying a videogame? The story naturally features a bit of discussion on that, but it is nice to see that a large part of that is also done from the point of view of developers. The themes between Castle of Screams as described in the story actually also sound very interesting and I wonder whether it's based on an actual horror videogame.

Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken has an interesting premise and it is easy to listen to as a mystery, but it does miss the finesse some of the more famous serial killer hunt stories have.It might be because the story was originally a short story, but it does seem like a missed chance.

Original Japanese title(s): モモグレ、有栖川有栖 (原) 『絶叫城殺人事件』

Sunday, March 17, 2013


"And now for something completely different"
"Monty Python's Flying Circus"

Don't worry: you're probably still on the right blog. But no detective stuff today.

Before this was a blog solely focusing on detective fiction, it was just a blog about life in Japan. Which naturally also touched upon food at times. And people might have noticed that I developed a love for ramen while I was in Fukuoka. Even now, nothing beats a bowl of Fukuoka's characteristic Hakata tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen in my opinion, so I had a bit of trouble adjusting when I first arrived here in Kyoto. The standard soups here are mixes of pork bone soup, chicken stock and fish stock, resulting in less stronger taste. On the other hand, they tend to add pork back fat to every bowl and the soup is usually on the thickish (what they call kotteri) side of the spectrum, resulting in somewhat greasy and quite filling ramen.

But on the other hand, I was lucky enough to end up in the Shugakuin neighbourhood of Kyoto, which is right next to Ichijouji, an area also known as ramen street because it probably features the highest density of ramen restaurants in this area of Japan, resulting in a relatively high standard of ramen. The main street of Higashi Ooji, which crosses through Ichijouji ending at Shugakuin is full of restaurants and the branch streets are just as interesting. Note that Ichijoji is known as both ramen street, as well as a ramen gekisenku, an area of fierce ramen competition where weak restaurants will die fast.

And so, in the spirit of and now for something completely different (and because I want to use the food tag again!), an introduction to the ramen restaurants in Ichijouji, Kyoto. Lovers of ramen who are going to visit Kyoto, skip the ramen restaurant floor at Kyoto Station and take the bus to Ichijoji! 


The biggest restaurant here, especially as it moved three buildings next door last month, doubling its size. It's a chain restaurant and they serve what I can only describe as a very, very bland pork bone /chicken stock soup. It's not bad, but there are so many better restaurants nearby, with much more interesting tastes than what they serve at Yokotsuna. You should only come here when you can't handle the strong taste of real pork bone tonkotsu soup, or the distinctly thick, kotteri soup of Kyoto. Yokotsuna does serve absolutely delicious black pork gyouza though.


Located close to Yokotsuna and quite small with just counter seats. They do feature a very wide variety of ramen though, variating from standard pork bone stock ramen to fish stock ramen. While most of the restaurants in this neighbourhood have soups that consist of a mix of pork bone, chicken and fish stock, I'm pretty sure that Taizou was the only one that served a ramen where fish stock is the main flavor (until Tsurukame's arrival). It's a nice, slightly soury ramen, and quite a difference from what you'd normally get in ramen street, but Taizou's best has to be their Garlic ramen. And Garlic should be written with a capital G, because it's really Garlicky. They add garlic to the soup, and roasted garlic cloves and a mountain of chopped scallions and it's delicious. And incredibly smelly. But oh-so-delicious.


One of the two new restaurants that opened during the year I was here. I think it opened just after the summer and when I finally decided to go there, I found out it was closed. For a long time. I knew that competition here was fierce, but to close in just two months? It turned they had closed to get the shop redesigned etc., and it finally reopened in February. It's still an immensely small shop with just about ten counter seats, while the kitchen part of the store seems to be almost double the size. They serve a variety of  ramen and I tried their fish stock based ramen, which was a bit expensive for just one bowl, but it did feature a lot of fillings and it tasted great, so I was content. Definitely one to stay in this neighbourhood.


The other new shop. This one serves Hakata tonkotsu ramen like Ryuu no Suzu, but with relatively high prices for the ramen they serve (the amount of men is rather small, meaning you do want to get another serving), their geographical position with much more direct competition and the not particularly special soup, I can't see this shop going on for long to be honest. The most surprising was when I saw the cook checking the menus himself when someone ordered a set menu: apparently he hadn't memorized his own menus!


One of the bigger restaurants here and I quite like it! I think they use a chicken stock based soup, with some added fat and soy, but it's a surprisingly taste soup and their men is quite good though. It's a bit of a standard ramen though, but it's done right and Chinyuu is a nice place to visit occasionally because the price of a small ramen is really reasonable and the taste is good.


Specializing in tsukemen, this is one restaurant you don't want to miss. It's a bit more near the residential part of the neigbourhood, next to an videogame center, but it's just as important a part of the ramen street as the other restaurants on Higashi Ooji. Their thick, yellow soup is fish/porkbone stock based (with a bit of curry powder it seems) and goes perfectly with their men, which are also thick and yellow, and full of elasticity too. You have the option of both warm and cold men, and an experiment with my partner in dine (who has the habit of ordering the non-optimal choice), resulted in the conclusion that you should always go with the warm men to accompany the soup. After eating all the men, you can ask for a soup-wari, where they add some stock to make the soup less thick. Which is another experience on its own, because the soup changes taste because of the fish-based stock, adding another layer to the dish.


One of the two immensely popular restaurants here. On any given day, it's quite likely to see about 50 persons standing in the line in front of the shop. In the weekends, it can become worse. The main attraction is probably the restaurant's interior, which is nothing like what you'd expect from a ramen restaurant. Sure, chains like Ippuudou also go for a stylish interior, but Takayasu is bright, features chairs with fancy designs and TVs that show old Tom & Jerry cartoons for some sinister reason. I've seen groups consisting of only females eating here, which is a sight you very seldom see in ramen restaurants. Hip and stylish, but how is the ramen? Well, not very interesting. It's a bit like the one at Yokotsuna to be honest, bland and not interesting (challenging?) at all. Takayasu looks quite revolutionary for a ramen restaurant, but its taste is boring. Which is why instead of a photo of their ramen, I added one of their karaage. Which are something to write about, because they are gigantic (compare to the toothpick). They feature delicious juicy chicken meat and there is a bit of curry powder sprinkled on top of them for just that little kick. But they are really big, so order with caution. I went twice to the shop, both times accompanied with a partner in dine, and sharing one plate of three karaage between the two of us was still providing a challenge.


During the day, the shop is called Hirumaya, at night Tentenyuu. The selection of dishes is different, but I am pretty sure that the cooks are the same. At Hirumaya, their special ramen was fantastic. A bit expensive, but with a great variety of fillings like an egg and even hosotake, something I had never even seen in ramen (I have no idea what it's called in English and I can't seem to be able to find the proper translation...). A slightly thickish pork bone based soup, but you can choose your own type of noodles to go with the dish (thin noodles or wavy noodles), and thick soups always go great with wavy noodles.

Tentenyuu has the strange habit of opening at 19:00, instead of 18:00, which meant I always had troubles visiting it (because I would just go to a restaurant which would open earlier), but I finally managed the restaurant several months later than I had originally planned. And I was a bit disappointed. Their chashu men featured a lot of delicious chashu, but I wasn't a big fan of the soup, which wasn't nearly as tasty as when I ate at Hirumaya. It seemed liked a slightly watered down version, which made it less tasteful. Tentenyuu is way more popular than Hirumaya as far as I know, but I would definitely recommend Hirumaya over Tentenyuu.

Yume wo Katare

One of the two Jirou-kei ramen restaurants. Jirou-kei ramen is almost a genre on its own: as a shop, they operate on a system where customers have to get their chopsticks, towel and spoons themselves, and you're supposed to clean up your counter yourself after you're finished. The ramen themselves are almost monstrous if you have never seen them before: thick noodles, very greasy soups, copious amounts of vegetables and chopped garlic and gigantic slices of chashu. And I really mean gigantic. You don't go to a Jirou-kei restaurant unprepared. An empty stomach is really needed to be able to get all of that through your throat and you might die because of clogged veins during the fight. But it tastes oh-so-good. Yume wo Katare is the more famous of the two Jirou-kei restaurants here and has a lot of shops spread over Japan (and even in the States), though they all feature different names. Their link is in their strangely ambitious names: Yume wo Katare for example means talk about your dreams. This was the first Jirou-kei ramen I ever ate and I liked it quite a lot. But once again, not for the faint of stomach.


The other Jirou-kei restaurant. They're actually quite similar, so I am not sure why there are so close to each other. I liked the taste of Ikeda a bit more than that of Yume wo Katare though and it always seems full of students whenever I pass by. Except for that one time I visited the shop, when I was the only customer there and the cook suddenly started a conversation with me. I am not sure whether I really wanted to know that he was a hired cook and not the owner of the shop, that he's married (his wife was in his home prefecture) and that he tries his hand at the international exchange markets at times, nor am I sure whether he really wanted to know about the cycling culture in the Netherlands, but he did serve a very fine bowl of Jirou ramen which was enough food and fat for me for more than a day.

Ichijouji Boogie

Another shop specializing in tsukemen, but while Enaku seems to go for a more sophisticated taste, Boogie goes for a healthy mix of pork bone soup with added fat. Which isn't a bad thing! Sure it's a greasy and salty dish, but it tastes wonderful! Not a shop to visit every week, but a shop you should definitely visit if you love pork bone based soups and tsukemen. Also, you get an enormous amount of men for the money. And the music selection, is like the restaurant's name suggest, quite good.

Tenka Gomen / Mugen no Chikara

One of the two shops here that utilizes two formulas: during the afternoon, this shop is called Tenka Gomen, while at night it operates under the name of Mugen no Chikara, even though the cook remains the same. The restaurant is located quite far from the competition, which might explain why there are so few customers every time I passed by. It's definitely not a small shop, as they have a long counter and two tables, so I always wondered about that. Anyway, I first visited on an afternoon, where I was lured by the name of snowwhite ramen, which was exactly what I ordered. And it was white! The soup was a thick, chicken-stock based one, which explained the name. What was even more surprising was that the men were placed on top of the soup fillings (it's usually the other way around), meaning you can't see what's in it. Which was a fun game on its own, as it made you curious to what you would find next time. Visually, but also... tastily... tastewise a fine ramen.

And at night, it turns into something completely different. I passed by it one night and I wasn't that hungry, so I thought I would just go for the standard chuuka soba, which is just another name for ramen. You would expect them to serve their basic, default ramen. What I got was a ramen which looked nothing like ramen. I thought I was being served gyuudon. But beneath the beef, onions and the egg, there really were men. I can really only describe it as a mix between gyuudon and ramen, which isn't a bad thing, but definitely not what you'd expect when you order a chuuka soba. It's very cheap for the volume though and definitely worth a try if you're nearby and need something filling.


A small shop that's never open when I want it to be open, but it has a very nice atmosphere being run by an old couple. Most of the clients seemed to be regulars and everybody chitchats. Their default ramen is a miso-based ramen and it's definitely worth looking up the actual opening times of Shinshintei to try their ramen. A very rich soup and the bowl is full of fillings like vegetables, meat balls and chashu slices. There also chili flakes in the soup, adding that extra little punch. In my mind, a perfect ramen for in the winter.

Ramen Gundan

Located right next to Shinshintei, but specializing in tsukemen. Another thick chicken/fish stock based soup, but very tasty. What I particularly remember of my visit to Ramen Gundan, beside the somewhat cold reception of the cook, was that the difference between the temperature of the soup and the men was perfect. It's hard to explain, but with tsukemen, you eat the noodles by dipping it in the (thick and hot) soup and them slurp them up (together with some air to cool down the soup). Cold noodles and hot soup is the default form, like at Ichijouji Boogie, but my visit to Enaku had made me realize that it's much better to have warm noodles with thicker soups, as a big difference in temperature cools down the soup too fast. And at Ramen Gundan, this difference was precisely right. The soup cooled down to be eatable, but was warm enough to convey its great taste. Might have been a coincidence (as one should also consider the temperature in the store and the body temperature of the customer), but it was just right that one visit.


Not sure whether this is a new restaurant or not, as it is located a bit seperated from the other restaurants (though in the same street as Ramen Gundan and Shinshintei). The interior is stylish, which was why I was quite surprised to see they served a very thick, and very peppery soup with loads of scallions and grilled meat: I had expected to be a bit like Takayasu, to have a more bland and universal soup. I am personally not a very big fan of the super thick soups so typical of Kyoto (like they serve at the famous Tenka Ippin chain), and the cook threw way too much pepper seeds in the soup, masking all other tastes, but not a bad dish at all.


Specializing in tonkotsu pork bone soup, though not of the Hakata variety. The difference lies in the cooking time and the strength of the fire: with 'regular' tonkotsu pork bone soup, the soup is boiled to extract the basic pork bone taste, leaving you with a brownish soup. With Hakata tonkotsu soup, the soup is boiled with a strong fire for a long, long time, resulting in the fat and collagen from the bones to also melt into the soup. Hakata tonkotsu soup is thus white. Anyway, Butanchu does offer a tonkotsu ramen that is boiled over a long time, but not at a strong fire, resulting in a very different kind of tonkotsu soup. Tastewise, it has that distinct strong pork bone taste I love and I actually love that I can also eat this with wavy noodles, but the salt amount in the soup is incredible. Hours after eating at Butanchu I was still in need of water. Tastewise OK, but you need to buy a two-liter pack of water for the aftermath.


A restaurant serving a porkbone tonkotsu soy soup. The soup is slightly on the thickish side and really tasty, great men and a wide variety of fillings. I was surprised to have been served slightly al dente men, which is usually something you have to ask for. Not sure whether that was the standard at Bishiya or just some mistake on their part (not that it would have mattered, I actually do order al dente as a default if I have the option). The atmosphere in the restaurant is great too, very clean, with a slick design and they have a great sense in music.


A shop with one table and a long counter run by an elderly man and he serves what I can only describe as a decent ramen. I found the soup better than Takayasu and Yokotsuna's soup,  though it does change every day (the man writes down what the soup consists of every day on a board in front of the shop). It's mostly chicken stock based, but it is a troublefree soup that somehow manages to escape the sheer blandness of the two restaurants mentioned before. It's a bit like the ramen you'd expect from restaurants that don't exactly specialize in ramen, but do offer it (like a lot of the Chinese restaurants here). Well, it's a bit more tastier than that, but I wouldn't say that this was a fundamental corner of ramen street.

The other super popular ramen restaurant here, together with Takayasu, also easily featuring lines of 50, 60 people in front of the door every day. Which is also because it is super small. They serve a super thick chicken based soup here. And with thick, I mean that your spoon won't sink if you place it on top of the soup. With pieces of chicken in the soup, the dish is really filling and it tastes great, but you have to be a fan of the typical Kyoto thick soups to really appreciate the ramen, I think (which I am not).  And true story: after having this for dinner, I wasn't in need of any food until around dinner time the following day.

Ryuu no Suzu

The most northern restaurant of what should be considered ramen street and probably the smallest one too. There are only about six counter seats and they only serve two dishes: tonkotsu ramen and champon. And with tonkotsu, I mean actual Hakata tonkotsu ramen and none of that tonkotsu with fish /chicken stock added to soften the taste business. They're fast and relatively cheap, but I wouldn't say that you really should visit this shop. Their ramen is OK (I like the chili flakes they add to the soup!) and I was glad I was able to get Hakata ramen nearby during my stay here, but there is no need to go out of you way to come here.


Is this still part of ramen street? From the most southern point of ramen street part of Higashi Ooji, you'd still need to ride your bike for about five minutes to reach Isao. The reason I visited the small restaurant, located in a residential area, was because it served a tai-based soup. The soup itself tastes very refined, and the hand-cut noodles add a bit of that rustic feeling to the dish, but the filling consist only of a little bit of vegetables and it's a bit little for the price. It's a very light ramen with a distinct taste that is definitely unique, but the cost/performance ratio isn't really optimal.

And I admit, part of the reason I wrote this post is because I don't think I will be able to post something detective-related this week, as I will be moving back to the Netherlands this weekend. And I aim at four posts a month, so this was sort of a cheat post. But hey, sometimes, you just need to write about food.

Original Japanese names: 横綱 / 大蔵 / 鶴かめ / はらだ / 珍遊 / 恵那く / 高安 / 天天有・ひるまや / 夢を語れ / 池田屋 / 一乗寺ブーギー / 天下ご麺・ムゲンノチカラ / 新進亭 / ラーメン軍団 / 壱蔵 / 豚人 / びし屋 / 鶴はし / 極鶏 / 龍の鈴 / 伊佐夫

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Scarlet Letters

Get Wild (TM Network)

"Embrace the puzzle of love you can't solve on your own"
"Get Wild" (TM Network)

Note to self: books are heavy and it is expensive to send them back home, even by boat. And you should learn by now, because this is definitely not the first time you ended up with boxes full of books to be sent to the Netherlands.

Last year's Misshitsu Shuushuuka was a parade of great locked room murder mystery shorts and I was already a fan of Ooyama Seiichirou's scenarios for the PSP game Trick X Logic, so you'd figure I'd be a big fan of him. And I sorta am. And not. Ooyama actually has very few releases, just three books under his own name and a bunch of contributions to anthologies, which makes it hard for me to really get into an Ooyama mood. Also note that two of his three books have been out of print for quite some years now. Anyway, I finally got the chance to read his debut work, Alphabet Puzzlers, a collection of two short stories and a novellette that once again showcase Ooyama's talent for writing short but strong puzzlers.

Police detective Gotou Shinji, translater Narai Akiyo and psychologist Taneko Rie all live in the apartment building AHM owned by Minehara Taku. They have the custom of gathering at Minehara's quarters to engage in intellectual games, which usually means talking about unsolved cases (of Shinji, or ones they read about in the newspapers) and then trying to deduce the solutions. Alphabet Puzzlers starts off with P no Mousou ("The P Delusion"), where Akiyo tells about her acquaintance Akemi, a somewhat elderly lady who had the habit of having afternoon tea parties at her house. Had, as in past tense, because she has been saying lately that her maid is trying to poison her and thus refuses to drink any tea except for canned tea. Which makes for horrible tea parties. Akiyo suspects it's just a delusion and convinces to Rie, the psychologist, to attend to one of these canned tea parties to see whether Akemi is suffering from some delusion. Rie thinks it's likely, but is forced to rethink her own diagnosis when the old lady is really poisoned later that day.

A somewhat dubious start. Sure, the ending is surprising and I admit that there were clues pointing to it, but it seems a bit too hard to deduce from just those hints. As a story, it feels very bare-boned and artificual, really little more than a puzzle. Which is usually not a problem with me, as a fan of puzzles and in fact, a lot of the guess-the-criminal scripts at the Mystery Club usually don't go further than this level, but when the puzzle feels unfair because of vague hints, well, then there is a chance you'll hear me complain. It is not impossible to arrive at the solution, but you do have the feeling that the readers aren't given a completely fair chance at solving it themselves.

Which is luckily different with F no Kokuhatsu ("The F Accusation"). A murder of an art scholar at a sculpture museum is troubling Shinji. The corpse was found inside the storage room, which is locked with the so-called F (fingerprint) system. The logs show precisely who entered the room at what time, but it seems that none of the suspects could have done the deed because of various reasons (arm injuries preventing from them raising the murder weapon etc.). This story is definitely constructed as a very fair puzzler and the ending has you both surprised as well as nodding in agreement, as you suddenly realize what all those little hints in the text meant. Best story in the collection in terms of fair play, length-to-pleasure ratio and readibility. Definitely the material that foreshadows Misshitsu Shuushuuka.

Alphabet Puzzlers ends with Y no Yuukai ("The Y Kidnapping"), a novellette about the size of the previous stories combined. It starts with a manuscript written by a father whose son was killed after a ransom transfer went wrong. After his son's death, he had nothing but misfortune visiting him, losing his wife to an illness and he himself being diagnosed with a terminal illness too. His last wish is for his memoires about the kidnapping, which happened many years ago, to be published, in the hopes that someone will reveal what really happened then and find out who the kidnapper was. The four amateur detectives at AHM challenge this old mystery, but the solution is not what they had expected.

The first thing that I noticed: the novel takes place in exactly the same place I'm living now. I don't just mean Kyoto, or the Sakyo Ward, I mean literally the same neighbourhood. Heck, the child was kidnapped around the bus stop which is just out of the sight from my balcony. Familiarity however isn't a sign of a good story (nor the opposite though), so how does Y no Yuukai fare? Well, this might be a personal note, but I am usually not a very big fan of kidnapping stories in the puzzler/orthodox genre. They can be exciting yes, and they can be technically very well-constructed stories, but they have a tendency to be very similar. Which is something that happens a lot with orthodox detectives, but it feels more apparent with kidnapping stories, in my opinion. The trope of kidnappers sending the person holding the ransom money from one place to another for example is getting really old and when something goes wrong during this process, resulting in a cancelled exchange, it's usually actually precisely what the kidnapper wanted. Our genre is one where tropes are reused (in various ways, I admit) probably more often than in other genres, but it feels extremely repetitive when we get to the kidnapping puzzler. The ending of Y no Yuukai is thus both surprising and not surprising at all at the same time. A decent story on its own, especially as the final story as it ties up some storylines surrounding the inhabitants of the AHM bulding, but it doesn't stray much from the formula.

Alphabet Puzzlers is a decent volume: if you're into puzzler type of mysteries, it's definitely recommened reading as the stories are all well constructed puzzlers, but it can feel a bit too artificial at times if you're not a particular fan. My recommendation: go for Ooyama's more recent works.

大山誠一郎 『アルファベット・パズラーズ』: 「Pの妄想」 / 「Fの告発」 / 「Yの誘拐」

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"The game is afoot"

"My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.” 
"The Sign of Four"

Like I said in the pevious post, this month will be low on updates. Did want to mention I finally presented my 'guess-the-criminal' story at the Kyoto University Mystery Club's spring camp. I have no experience in writing fiction, so it was quite fun to see the people struggle with my story (and weird Japanese) and it felt really good when someone finally appeared with the right solution, pointing out the right clues I had carefully placed for the reader. But now to contemplate whether I will rewrite it in English...The story has a lot to do with Sherlock Holmes (for reasons even I don't even understand, because it didn't start out like that), which brings me to this post's main topic.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silver Earring is a 2004 videogame featuring an original story featuring the great detective and the second in a relatively famous series of Holmes games by Frogwares. Silver Earring starts with Holmes and Watson attending the birthday party of Lavinia Bromsby, daughter of the wealthy industrialist Sir Melvyn Bromsby at Sherringford Hall. Just ast Sir Bromsby is about to make an important speech, he is shot, with Lavinia appearing to be the guilty party. Holmes however quickly finds evidence that suggest otherwise and he and the doctor start their investigation which brings them all over London.

There have been quite a few games starring Holmes up until now, but I have to admit that this is the very first time I played one. And I am not sure what to think about Silver Earring. It does a lot of things absolutely wrong, but it's (fortunately) not all bad. Yet I would hesitate to actually recommend this game to someone.

Let's start with the bad. The main problem is that while the story an sich is quite interesting (though not particularly Holmes-like), as it brings us to shady business deals, secrets in India and traveling troupes, it isn't translated well into a game. Which is sort of the one thing you want do right if you're making a videogame. Adventure Gamers has an interesting article on the question of the necessity of puzzles in adventure games, but Silver Earring is one of those games that show how weird puzzles / problems can screw up a game. Some puzzles feel very out of place in the context of the story, they're only there to pad the game's contents. Why would for example someone hide a key in a secret compartment which has to be opened by a key in another secret compartment in neighboring rooms? Any sane person would skip the middle part right? Why the 'stealth' puzzle where you have to sneak past a dog with the most amazing eyesight if it doesn't really add anything to the story except for countless of reloadings of old save games? Having someone declared a lover of puzzles sorta explains why his house is full of logic puzzles and other brainteasers, but these puzzles feel very distinct from the rest of the game where you're mainly collecting material clues and testimonies and trying to make sense out of them. Too many of the puzzles in the game feel seperate from the story and are also often the source of irritation. It's made even worse by the developer's habit of hiding necessary items in a way you're bound to overlook them (several times), due to the clues blending in with the background a little too good (may be realistic, but this is a game!).

Silver Earring is also not very good at providing the player with the experience of being the great detective. It's once again the big problem of mystery (especially if you want to translate it to a videogame): the player wants to be able to solve the mystery themselves, but also be perplexed by it at the same time. The case has to be solvable, and sorta not solvable at the same time. Here, it leans on the latter. Most of the game you're collecting testimonies and all kind of documents and at the end of each chapter, you're supposed to answer a short quiz that concerns the main findings of the day using all the evidence you found. These questions just barely lead the player to the final solution though and in fact, the very final quiz, where you're supposed to answer who the murderer is, isn't every compulsory: apparently the developers also realized that it would be very, very hard for anyone to actually solve the case based on how it was presented to the player. The final scene is a 20~30 minutes movie, with no interactivity at all, where Holmes suddenly presents one fantastic deduction after another, concluing with a solution that almost arrives from nowhere, while the player is just sitting there. There is no sense of accomplishment at all, as Holmes is doing everything. All I did was collect all the clues for Holmes to work with. And I can't believe that was the intention of the developers.

As a game, Silver Earring has some major flaws, but I did like the visual and audial presentation of the game. While there were quite some lines read in a way that makes me think that the director of the voice actors didn't actually know what context the lines were being used in, the voice acting is generally quite solid. The game presents a visually attractive 19th century London (and 221B Baker Street!). Silver Earring is great at conveying atmosphere and the development team must have had a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish here. You also see it in the 'visual' evidence: the documents you find throughout the adventure, including newspaper clippings, official Scotland Yard documents and photographs all look authentic, which helps creating a coherent world where this game Holmes and Watson live.

Also, the puzzles mentioned above might be hindering the game, but when you're measuring the sizes of mysterious footprints, or calculating the approximate size of the shooter based on the height of the powder marks left on the door, then you're really feeling like you're working like Holmes. Too bad too little of this is implemented in the 'proper grammar' of Silver Earring.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silver Earring is a flawed game, and while it has its moments, you'd better be off with the sequels, which (from what I've seen) are less flawed (though still sharing some of the same problems).