Women's Murder Club: Games of Passion
US: 22 Sep 2009
As games begin to come into their own, people who specialize in producing dialogue and narrative that works well for the medium are becoming more prevalent. There are certain tropes, such as the story progressing in different ways based on player input, that you just need practice and experience before you can really write well. Expectations vary for this, a linear sequence of cutscenes mixed up with gameplay is still a fun way to play, but there should never be a point where the player wants to do something within the confines of the design that the plot won’t allow. Women’s Murder Club: Games of Passion is a massive exercise in plot conflicting with gameplay, resulting in an unpleasant mess to click through rather than play through.
The gameplay is object hunting in pictures. By the genre’s standards (you can find a lot of these sorts of games for Flash) most of the puzzles are pretty easy because they have to organize the picture that you are hunting around a real world image. Normally that’s not an issue, a high-resolution picture lets a developer make the hidden objects much smaller and more carefully tucked away within that image. In this game, because the DS isn’t capable of high-res images, things have to be left a bit more obviously around the crime scene. To make things challenging, the game features symbol hunting sessions, which are hidden around the objects and made to blend in. Every crime scene starts with the symbol hunting clean-up, followed by a linear series of evidence questions. An example would be to collect all the items from the victim’s purse or to answer the question, “How did the suspect break in?” There’s a map that you click around to move from location to location, but these experiences are all linear and you can’t leave a scene until you solve all the puzzles. The game is broken into chapters, which are rounded out with a dinner club session with your lady friends. Each will ask you a question about that chapter’s murder and require you to remember the bits of evidence that you found.
The problem with all of this is that the game is clearly written by someone who thinks that they’re producing a TV episode or book. You can spot this a mile away. After clearing up clutter from a crime scene, the game will ask you to find the suspect’s wallet. At the same time, there are guns and knives lying all over the crime scene. It seems a lot more rationale to pick up the murder weapon first. These irrational situations start off being relatively innocuous but get worse as certain clues, like a perfume bottle, become key to the case. You want to go and pick-up the obvious piece of evidence lying right in front of you, but instead, you can only pick things up as the game asks you to do so. This becomes worse when you leave a crime scene that you can clearly see has not been solved yet. A bit of plot and jabber goes by, your avatar realizes she should go back, and then you can unlock the remaining details. The game will also fob a bunch of relationships on to you that assumes an intimacy that doesn’t yet exist. Your friend, the coroner, will be cracking jokes about corpses before you know anything about her. Your partner, who is supposed to be a sort of loveable asshole, mostly comes across as annoying because the game presumes the loveable part. Obviously the game is based on a series of books and a short-lived TV show, so fans are going to engage easily, but there’s not much exposition here for newcomers.
Occasionally puzzles get broken up with other puzzles like a Mahjong game that can played at any time along with some other spins on familiar flash titles. None of it makes sense in terms of the story (you have to do a Mahjong session to see what’s underneath some tiles?) and often they’re a pain to play on the DS. The Mahjong tiles are small and it’s difficult to tell how they are stacked up. It only happens once, but it’s one of the game’s features, so it bears mentioning.
In terms of the story, I’m not really sure what Patterson’s books were like, but I hope this isn’t indicative of their quality. A series of murders related to a few artists spiral into a case concerning a much larger black market operation, which all has something to do with a private school for girls and brainwashing. Since the game won’t let you deduce things on your own, there isn’t much point in thinking about anything until the final reveal that the murderer was—wait for it—the last person you’d suspect. Characters are all shown via pixilated photos, which doesn’t work out well because they all have a specific look on their face. Detective Boxer spends the whole game with this bizarre “I really need to pee” expression while the Chief is constantly looking at you quizzically even when he’s ranting. I understand wanting to liven up the blank expressions that make up most avatars’ faces but people didn’t put these kinds of images into games because they lack imagination. If you can only have one or two pics to show the character’s face, then it needs to be one that can read in a variety of different ways.
It’s just the little things that grind about this game: a caucasian pimp in a purple gigolo suit, the inability to pick up the murder weapon while everyone wonders where it could be, and the changing rules of the game’s photo mechanic. Sometimes everything in an image is plausible and life-size; other times you have massive scavenger hunts because the objects in said images are out of proportion to one another. By the end, it’s easier to just click on everything and know that you’ll eventually hit it. If you’re a fan of the Women’s Murder Club books or show, keep it that way by avoiding this game.