Friday, March 5, 2021


“I admit," I said, "that a second murder in a book often cheers things up."
"The ABC Murders"

 I enjoy mystery fiction as a genre, not any particular medium, so while the focus on this blog lies mostly on books, I stilltend to discuss a lot of mystery fiction in various media, from television shows and comics to videogames and theatrical releases and whatever. When it comes to the subject of mystery videogames however, I'm probably not the only person who has noticed that a lot of the other blogs that discuss mystery fiction barely acknowledge videogames, even if they do for example talk about films or television shows. It's a shame, because each medium brings something completely different to the mystery genre and some concepts work brilliantly as a videogame, while they wouldn't work as well as for example an ordinary novel or even a show.

Of course, that's also the other way around, and there are plenty of good mystery novels that simply wouldn't translate well to the interactive medium and that's why there are in general very few straight videogame adaptations of mystery novels, and even fewer that are actually good. Agatha Christie's famous The ABC Murders (1936) is fairly unique in the sense that it has two seperate videogame adaptations: an adventure game in 2009 for the Nintendo DS, and a multi-platform point-and-click adventure release in 2016 (note that the two games aren't related save for the fact they're based on th same novel). The more recent game is titled Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders and if you are familiar with the original story, you might guess why in theory, Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders (2016, Steam, Xbox One, PS4, Switch and more) could make for an engaging videogame. Like in the original novel, the game starts with the famous French Belgian private detective Poirot and his friend Hastings receiving a letter signed ABC, which points them to things to happen in Andover soon. When Poirot is informed by Chief-Inspector Japp that a woman called Alice Ascher was killed in her shop in Andover on the announced day and that an ABC railway guide was behind at the crime scene, they realize the letter was not just a prank: a second letter announcing a death in Bexhill means both Poirot and the police have to work hard to catch the alphabet-minded murderer before they'll arrive at the Z.

There have been several videogame adaptations of the Poirot novels by Agatha Christie in the past, and many years ago, I reviewed the game based on Evil Under the Sun, but as a story, The ABC Murders is definitely one of the Poirot stories that is best suited for a videogame adaptation. The story is set across the country, with murders occuring in diverse locations and this also brings Poirot and Hastings in contact with a diverse cast of suspects, as each victim dwelled in very different social circles: the murder in Andover is set in a small tobacco shop and the people in the victim's immediate circle are all in the working class, while later in the story, Poirot and Hastings will have to visit the stately country manor of a wealthy doctor. This means that the game too presents the player with a diverse cast of suspects and locations to visit: with so many Poirot novels focusing on one or maybe two murders in a fairly confined location, The ABC Murders is quite unique for its 'scale' and that at least makes Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders a pleasant game to look at: while your mileage might vary regarding the comic book art visual style, the game certainly isn't confined to only one or two boring locations and gives you a nice variety of locations to explore, as well as the 'home base' that is Poirot's office (which seems very much inspired by the office we see in later seasons of Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet, with the Japanese prints on the wall as well as the neat, curved cabinet beneath the windows). 

The story of the game follows that of the novel fairly faithfully: there are a few changes here and there to open up the suspect pool (often cleverly done by building upon minor points mentioned in the original story). You won't be confronted with drastic changes like a whole new murderer or anything like that (the game adaptation of And Then There Were None had its own twist to the conclusion, as well as the original ending as an extra), so there are few surprises here if you already know the story, but it works as a functional adaptation of the novel, which remains a fine tale of mystery regarding a serial killer with a seemingly crazy fixation on the alphabet.

Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders is on the whole a pretty simple point-and-click adventure, where you control Poirot as you gather clues at each crime scene by exploring the location and talking with the people involved. Once you have gathered all the necessary clues at a specific location, the game will prompt you with questions that you need to answer with the clues/statements gathered earlier, to arrive at conclusions regarding the identity and modus operandi of the killer ABC. At the very end of the game, you use the conclusions you made and corrected throughout the game to figure out who the murderer is: it's not an original or surprising set-up, but it works for this story. There are some nice little ideas that make this feel like a Poirot game though. For example, each time you meet a new person, you don't start talking to them right away, but observe them for a moment, which allows you make deductions about their character and current state of mind. While it's a very simple gameplay mechanic, where you just find a few hotspots as you zoom in on a character, it's a mechanic that fits Poirot so well, as he's a detective who's always been more interested in the psychology of the crime, and of the persons involved. It's a simple gameplay element that fits wonderful with the story of The ABC Murders. A more advanced variation on this mechanic is found in 2014's Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments by the way, for those interested in seeing a different (and more engaging) take on the concept. There are also touches like being able to look in the mirror as Poirot to make sure you look tidy, or having Poirot lament the fate of his shoes and trousers each time you walk through a puddle.

As mentioned above, Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders is a pretty simple game to play, and most likely, its primary target audience doesn't consist of people who often play mystery-themed adventure games, but people who like Agatha Christie's works as books or television shows and who might try a game based on the brand name, or mystery bloggers who never discuss mystery games. The game not only always tells you how many clues you have to find at a certain location or what your next objective is, but there's also a baked-in hint system that will automatically perform the next neccessary step to advance in the game (like picking up a clue you missed). Which is of course perfectly fine as not every game needs to be a stress-fest, but it's strange that at the same time, Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders also uses frustrating adventure game conventions to stretch the experience, and the puzzles you often have to solve to advance in the game are incredibly contrived. At each new location, you gather clues not just by questioning the people related to the case, but also by searching each location, like the bedroom of the second victim. As per bad adventure gaming convention, often important objects are found not just lying on a table or in a drawer, but inside elaborate puzzle boxes that need to be opened: usually it's a box that needs to be turned around in 360 degrees, and sliding a panel at one side will open a mechanism somewhere else, which again will open another door etc. It's one of the things I really didn't like about the Sherlock Holmes games developed by Frogwares like Crimes & Punishments and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes and it certainly isn't different here. I don't know why so many detective adventure games seem to think that a detective characters needs to open puzzle boxes,, and why the people in these worlds tend to keep all their important stuff in puzzle boxes that can be opened by anyone as long as they figure out the mechanism instead of, like, keep it in a safe with a key. The most ridiculous example of this happens late in the game, when you need to open a trolley-size travel case which consists of perhaps five or six mechanisms which need to be opened in order, and when you're finally done, it turns out that perhaps 80% of that case consists just out of those puzzle mechanisms, leaving one small drawer as the actual usuable space of the travel case! It's such a 'game-like' thing to fill the narrative with these filler puzzles (and even then, it's a bad gaming convention), so while Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders feels like it's made to appeal to non-gamers with an interest in Agatha Christie's work, it's at the same time using boring adventure design conventions that are most likely to first scare off or bore non-gamers. It's just a weird dichotomy in game design. Well, at least the hint system allows you to skip these puzzles if you really don't like them.

Oh! By the way, I did like the inclusion of The Dark Shadow in the crime reconstruction scenes! The Dark Shadow is such an iconic part of Japanese visual mystery fiction, I just thought it was so funny to see that familiar face in a Poirot adaptation of all things!

Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders on the whole is a capable game adaptation of a novel that actually lends it well to a more interactive medium: the core plot translates well to the medium to show how Poirot solves the case on a mental level by allowing the player to go through each deductive step themselves. Little touches make the game feel like a Poirot game too. It's just those puzzle boxes that feel horribly out of place, and sadly enough, a lot of objects are kept for some reason in these puzzle boxes that for some reason are the newest fad in the UK, making everyone put things on boxes that can be opened by anyone with a mind for puzzles. In general though, Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders does feature a lot of design choices that make it an easy experience for non-gamers, so it's one I can recommend if you aren't into mystery games yet, but want to try one out to ease in the medium.

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