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).

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