[18 July 2014]
Someone has done it. Someone has managed to successfully bring the point-and-click adventure game into the realm of the 3D big budget AAA game. Past efforts like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire had made interesting overtures in this direction, but those games either missed the subtleties of the genre or created a design antithetical to their concept.
Murdered: Soul Suspect succeeds where others have failed by first finding a middle ground between Heavy Rain‘s strict linear progression of scenes and L.A. Noire‘s ill-conceived open world. Airtight Games manages to do this by taking a page from The Legend of Zelda of all things. The Salem, Massachusetts of the game is a big area of winding streets, alleys, and open squares that look like I imagine the sleepy New England town with a dodgy history might. Additionally, it then provides access points that lead to other self-contained parts of the city that for all intents and purposes are investigative “dungeons.”
It’s within this basic structure that Murdered: Soul Suspect is able to properly focus (for the most part) on what matters. You play as Ronan “I Couldn’t Have Suggested a More Thematically Appropriate First Name” O’Connor, a cop with a checkered life story, who is introduced to us when he is shot and thrown out a third story window by the hooded serial killer that the Salem PD have been after. After coming to terms with the basic fact that he’s dead and now a ghost, the player is instructed by Ronan’s dead wife to solve his own murder before the night is over or face eternal damnation for said checkered past. Somehow the game’s self serious, gritty tone manages not to clash with the inherent ludicrousness of the paranormal presence. Salem is the perfect setting for this slightly unreal premise as even the name of the town evokes such slightly otherworldly possibilities. Seeing ghosts hanging around the cobbled streets or church pews or graveyard paths feels right given the extensive and dark nature of the town’s history and its image in popular culture.
The game manages to get a lot of mileage out of the basic structure of investigation. It brings adventure game concepts into these missions that act as to move the case forward. You’ll walk around a crime scene, noting clues, and then sometimes using those clues as the solution to a puzzle that reveal further clues, usually by possessing and influencing witnesses to remember some detail. Once you’ve gathered them all the clues at a scene, you are then asked to choose which ones are most relevant to piece together what happened. Eventually, you’ll team up with a teenaged medium named Joy Foster. As she lacks your ability to walk through walls and generally be invisible to everyone, you will have to help her through the “dungeons” by distracting cops and doctors, going poltergeist on security cameras, and so forth to create a path for her to the next leg of the case.
Not only is Murdered: Soul Suspect is nice enough to keep track of how many clues you’ve gathered so far, and it does likewise for the numerous collectibles scattered throughout the game world. And while usually one wouldn’t bring them up, these are what makes the game for me. The various collectibles (your wife’s diary pages, ghostly relics, tidbits on the Bell Killer case, moments from Ronan’s life, or information gathered from historical landmark plaques) all add something to the narrative, whether that is characterization, exposition, historical background on the town, or a general texture and tone to the proceedings. I spent a lot of time tracking down nearly all of them and felt I had a richer understanding of the story as a whole. Those details add up to a greater whole that, if looked into with any great depth, might not seem to mean much, but the feel that they add to the game worldcannot be underestimated.
The game gets that a part of the pleasure of investigation is the need to wander about and take in the scene. Looking into the nooks and crannies of the graveyard, church, haunted house, and so forth are an extension of that act of play. Since not every area can be devoted to the main mystery, the spaces in between are peppered with these tangential, yet related items. It makes use of the space in the game world and spreads out that information rather than delivering it through meaningless exposition dumps. It’s the first time that I’ve seen this type of “gamey-ness” so thoroughly harnessed for the necessities of the narrative.
Ronan, who at first comes off as another gruff, hardened white man with a heart of gold, while not given especially deep layers, is still given more texture and personality than his formulaic motivations might suggest, thanks to hearing and seeing the impressions of others of him. Joy eventually grows past the player’s likely initial impression of her as a bratty trouble maker in a uniquely 90s broadcast television sitcom kind of way, and we gain a better appreciation of her predicament by hearing her mother work her psychic juju. Even Julia, Ronan’s deceased wife, manages to be more than the heavenly prize at the end of the rollercoaster implied by her own introductory exposition dump. Over the course of the game, we hear her voice through her collected diary pages, and learning her story makes it clear that there is more to who she is. She may still the prize at the end of the adventure, but she is not a mere token character. That is just her part, and no one really escapes their part in the modern pulpy tradition of the detective pot boiler.
In a nutshell, the game just manages to do more for these characters than games often do through effective texturing. The characterization reminds me of classic Hollywood in that regard. Those movies, through fast plot and broad archetypes, did a lot with a short running time. The characters relied not so much on complex beliefs and desires, but were vessels filled by the charisma of their actors. They became beings through the feel of their personality.
But for all that the game manages, the devs still didn’t seem to think Murdered: Soul Suspect could stand by itself without some form of combat. So, they added in demons that occasionally appear, floating around to later charge over to kill you if spotted. To deal with them, you have to hide in ghostly pockets of stuff hanging in the air, waiting for the timing to be right so that you can sneak up behind and disintegrate them during a super finicky quick time event. I groaned every time that these orange faced bastards showed up. The combat adds nothing to game. It kills the flow, is anti-exploration, and adds nothing to the story, as the demons’ presence has no meaningful consequence on anything. They are there solely to provide a more traditional video game challenge. Honestly, I get that the developers wanted to add something that created a sense of danger for Ronan, but the execution here is all wrong. Have these moments be quick and scripted, not drawn out and infuriating.
Murdered: Soul Suspect was never going to be exceptional. It doesn’t try to reach that high. Then there are those factors (one poor design decision and a number of other minor faults, like audio de-synching) that keep the game from being really great. What it is, though, is a damn good game. It’s a piece of studio game making at its finest. It knows what it’s doing, does it well, and is a truly entertaining in the process. If nothing else, it offers the basic blueprint for how to do a big budget adventure game for future.