[27 May 2014]
The type of puzzle you specialize in solving says a lot about you as a person.
There are two types of puzzles in KING Arts’s Agatha Christie-inspired episodic adventure series The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief: physical puzzles that consist of finding and using items and conversational puzzles that consist of talking to people to unearth clues and information. The two are often intertwined, or at least, they feel like they’re often intertwined because that’s how the game presents itself initially. In the first episode, we’re introduced to Constable Anton Jakob Zellner, our first playable character, who can seemingly do it all/ He’ll spend just as much time slyly interrogating a suspected thief as he does jumping on moving trains and escaping his bindings.
The rest of the game, however, is less all-inclusive. The puzzle types are more deliberately split up according to character, which makes the puzzles themselves a form of character development. The Raven argues that the type of puzzle you specialize in solving says a lot about you as a person.
The Playable Cast
The Raven revolves around a group of thieves trying to steal a pair of precious jewels called the Eyes of Sphinx. The catch is that the group of thieves is not working together. You are presented with the brutal and brilliant mastermind of the operation, Inch, his kindhearted assistant, Adil, and Adil’s secret fiancée and co-conspirator, Alex/Patricia (more on the dual identity later). Inch thinks he has the perfect plan, but Adil and Alex plot to sneak the jewels out from under his nose and leave him to take the fall.
We’re introduced to Adil, our second playable character, in the second episode. He’s essentially the arms and legs of Inch, who has grown old and has a bum arm, leaving him incapable of the physical feats required for the heist. That leaves it to Adil to sneak around, taunting the detectives to keep them off Inch, posing as the legendary Raven to drum up fear and excitement, and when the time comes, steal the jewels. But that also means that as far as the other characters are concerned, Adil doesn’t exist. He’s meant to remain hidden, to stay out of sight, to go unnoticed, and to absolutely never talk to anyone.
It makes sense then that playing as Adil means solving a lot of environmental and item puzzles. He spends much of his time alone. It is just him and some random items against the world. The game purposefully avoids putting him in public spaces, and when he is surrounded by others, he’s usually in a disguise. Since we spend so much time solving physical puzzles with Adil, those types of puzzles come to define our perception of him.
He’s clearly self-sufficient, a kind of MacGyver figure able to improvise his way past most obstacles. He’s a man of action, preferring to tinker with a problem rather than to talk it through but that doesn’t mean that he’s impulsive. He doesn’t act first and think later. He’ll only act when he’s found a solution. However, he always arrives at that solution by himself.
The in-game journal gives us a more internalized view of this character, and his inner thoughts match his outer actions. He takes pride in being inconspicuous: “A successful thief is one who can blend into a crowd, someone you don’t notice… I’m Spanish and I don’t actually speak Arabic, but no one’s caught on yet. People just look right through you if don’t belong to their class or race.” Adil naturally goes unnoticed, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s a character created specifically to solve puzzles on his own. In other words, he was created specifically for this kind of gameplay.
Alex exists on the opposite end of the puzzle spectrum. She’s Adil’s fiancée, his secret conspirator against Inch, and our third playable character. Unlike Adil, Alex specializes in conversational puzzles, i.e. fake personas and public performances. In this case, she plays the role of Patricia Mayers, “a pretty daughter from a good family,” which allows her to get close to the Eyes of the Sphinx. She spends a majority of her episode trying to solve a riddle by circuitously asking those around her. She never asks a question directly related to the riddle, as that might give her away. Instead she steers conversations towards a related subject that might offer a hint. Alex is good at talking her way to a solution.
What’s particularly interesting about Alex is that she remains so dedicated to her performance that we never actually hear her real name spoken aloud: The other characters only know her as Patricia. Adil never calls her by name, she herself acknowledges the persona but never says her real name, and even the game itself only ever identifies her as “Patricia.” The only place that we see her real name is in the journal, and even then it’s a journal entry written by Adil, not Alex. She immerses herself entirely in her role and enjoys it.
That’s not to say that Alex/Patricia doesn’t get physical at all, and her foray into item puzzles hints at the makings of a more versatile thief. She dabbles in puzzles outside her comfort zone whereas Adil only sticks to what he knows best. Alex solves her way into a locked room by creating a makeshift screwdriver and squeezing through a vent. Once inside she’s faced with the big riddle, and answering it is the only way to unlock an important puzzle box. With no way to break into the box, Alex goes back to doing what she does best: Talking. She talks her way to a solution but only after improvising her way to the puzzle itself. She knows what she’s good at, but she’s also willing to expand her skills. However, she’s eventually caught by Inch, exposing the double-cross, and proving that she’s not quite the expert spy that Adil is.
With this in mind—how the game establishes character through adventure puzzles—the final twist that ol’ Zellner is the master Raven feels like something we should have seen coming. He is, after all, the only playable character skilled at both types of puzzles, and among the entire cast he’s the only one who enjoys being skilled at both types of puzzles (Inch is also good at both, but he hates the conversational puzzle that he is stuck in, “degrading himself” by hiding in plain sight as a butler).
This is a particularly great twist because it is hinted at rather explicitly through the gameplay, but since we’re not accustomed to seeing gameplay as reflective of character, it goes right over our heads. The Raven relies on our lack of expectations to hide in plain sight, much like Alex does as Patricia. That final revelation plays us for a fool, yet seems so obvious in retrospect. The Raven encourages us to rethink how we consume mystery stories, especially as video games. Plot isn’t everything, and gameplay is not always honest.
The Supporting Cast
This kind of character development would seem to work best for playable characters since it’s our interactions with the world and its inhabitants that serve as the conduit for the development. However, The Raven also uses this dichotomy to develop the unplayable supporting cast. They may not engage with the puzzles directly but they don’t need to. For them, the puzzles are symbolic of social roles, and all of these characters are struggling with their social roles.
While Adil and Alex are able to stick to their preferred roles, the lone thief role adopted by Adil and the social butterfly role adopted by Alex, none of the supporting cast have that luxury. For one reason or another, they can’t embrace the social role that they’re good at, which leaves them miserable and constantly at war with themselves and the world.
Take Inch, i.e. the Fake Raven, the villain of this story. He seems at first to be a master of disguise like Alex. Not only is he taking on the persona of the Raven for this jewel heist, but he also became a butler for a Baroness in preparation for this heist. He’s playing with two personas at the same time and succeeding, so he’s clearly good at this kind of social manipulation. However, his skill has nothing to do with desire: We eventually learn that he used to be an assistant to the real Raven, and while the Raven was the brains of the operation, Inch was the doer, the muscle, the man on the front lines, much like Adil.
This was his natural role, manipulating the environment to suit his needs for the heist. However, things went wrong during a job and he got shot, so now he’s forced to sit on the sidelines and he despises it.
Inch had his dream role and lost it. He blames the Raven for that loss, and so he now forces himself into a role that he never wanted, forcing himself to puzzle with people when he’d rather puzzle alone in order to execute an elaborate revenge plot. He rages against his unfortunate circumstance by putting himself in an even more unfortunate circumstance, which explains why he’s so damn angry all the time. He’s created a downward spiral of misery for himself in the name of revenge.
Inch’s story is actually very similar to that of Kreutzer, the violinist. Kreutzer loves his music and is truly skilled with his instrument, but he never had his big break. He laments watching other less talented musicians gain fame while he has not, simply because he was never in the right place at the right time. He just wants to play the violin, to live a life that allows him to embrace his natural skill, but a lack of luck has taken that life away.
Now he panders to wealthy socialites for their patronage, and he despises himself for it. He may still be able to play the violin, but with each passing day, he spends more time socializing for his own welfare rather than making music. Kreutzer is forced to puzzle with others when he’d rather play in an entirely different genre altogether, but rather than take revenge on this unfair world, he is defeated by it. He understands that he has a limited shelf life, and that it will become harder and harder to gain that patronage as he grows older. When that finally happens, he’ll just kill himself. That’s his life plan.
Thankfully, not all the supporting characters are as tragic. Lady Wesmacott is a fascinating character because she’s spent much of her life moving back-and-forth between roles. Early in life she was like Kreutzer, forced to ignore her true passion due to the pressures of high society. In her case, Westmacott wrote a series of super popular mystery novels that catapulted her to fame. While she would have simply loved to spend all her time solving crimes at a typewriter or at an archaeological dig site, everyone around her had other plans.
However, unlike Kreutzer she was able to recuse herself by becoming a reclusive writer. Unfortunately, her son became one of those social elites, and their party lifestyle eventually got him killed. Now, Lady Westmacott has made her daughter-in-law her caregiver, giving the widow a much needed job. Thus, Lady Westmacott has purposefully put herself in a subservient role that demands social interaction everyday. She’s even decided to kill off her famous mystery hero, thus preventing herself from retreating into her writing again. Lady Westmacott actually wants to change her role and that allows her to see joy in her new life rather than misery, like Inch and Kreutzer.
The detective Legrand is one of the few supporting characters who is living a life suited to his skills. He’s a lone wolf puzzler, so it makes sense that he’d be a detective. Unfortunately, he’s almost too good at what he does because it’s his knowledge of his own skills that haunts him. Legrand is the man who supposedly caught the Raven, but while the world believes the master thief to be dead, Legrand isn’t convinced. He’s a good detective, and he knows when the clues don’t match up.
Just because the Raven’s robberies stopped after Legrand shot a man on a rooftop doesn’t mean that man was the Raven. It just means the Raven was smart enough to know when to stop, uncaught. If Legrand was a poorer detective he could think himself the hero, but he’s too smart to delude himself like that. As a result, he’s haunted by his failure to live up to his role.
Part of the reason we root for Adil and Alex to succeed, even though they’re initially portrayed as the antagonists, is because they’re living the dream life, and we’d rather not see this likable couple forced to put themselves through their own personal hell. If abiding by the law results in a miserable life based on deception and breaking the law results in a happy life based on deception, the choice seems easy. Their thievery represents their struggle for a happy life and that makes them the secret heroes of this game.
Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.