I’ve killed a lot of people in video games. Mostly on purpose, sometimes accidentally. It’s usually for some greater good or for survival. It’s kill or be killed out there in these virtual worlds. Occasionally there is no greater good or even any good involved. Vengeance, anger, curiosity, boredom — these are all fine reasons to kill someone in a video game. It’s not a big deal. I’m not here to pontificate on the morality of it all, I’m more interested in the ease of it all. It’s just so easy to kill someone in a video game that it’s surprising when a game makes murder difficult.
The Deed is not explicitly a horror game. Tonally it’s more of a crime thriller, a classic murder mystery whodunit in which we play the killer instead of the investigator. Structurally it’s more of a puzzle game in which have to figure out how to best frame someone else for our crime. However, the horror element emerges the more that you play it and the more that you realize how the game is making you think.
We play as Arran Bruce, heir of Dunshiel House, though not for much longer. We’ve been estranged from our family for quite a while, but we’ve come home for our father’s birthday in order to stop him from giving our inheritance to our sister. The easiest way to accomplish this is to kill our sister. Don’t worry too much about the morality of your actions here. Our father was physically and mentally abusive, and our sister is a deranged individual who would squander her inheritance anyway. Our mother drinks away her pain, but at least the maid and butler seem like fine people. Not that that matters. We’re going to murder someone tonight, and we need a patsy to take the fall. Kindness and sympathy are only going to get in the way of our perfect crime.
Like any good murder simulator, The Deed offers plenty of options for killing: shotgun, rope, poison, knife, club, or even your bare hands. As the evening begins, we have free reign to explore the house in order to pick a weapon and a piece of evidence. Once we choose these two items, the game automatically moves forward to a dinner scene, and afterwards, we have free reign once again to plant the evidence and do the deed.
This structure is actually quite simple and straightforward. The Deed is a short game that’s all about replayability, testing different combinations of evidence and murder weapon. If you skip over the dialogue, which you’ll absolutely do by your third attempt, you can get through the game in less than 20 minutes. It’s short, but it’s far from simple. There’s a surprising and impressive amount of nuance in how the night can play out.
The first time that I tried to kill my sister I carefully explored the house until I found some items that told a perfectly acceptable story. I’d hide some love letters between my sister and the maid under the maid’s bed. Then I’d strangle my sister with a noose, making it look like suicide. To further sell the lie, I was sure to comment on their flirting during dinner.
The maid was certainly a great patsy, but I ended up getting the details of my story all wrong because I didn’t realize the game was smart enough to recognize my inconsistencies. The noose came from a crate locked by the butler, so why would the maid have access? My sister and the maid may have been flirting, but I did nothing to hint at a strained relationship, so the suicide angle fell flat. Finally, I was acting like an asshole the whole night, telling off my abusive father, insulting my idiot sister, and calling my mother a drunk. It felt good to do all those things since the fiction goes a long way in demonizing your family members, but my cathartic vengeance only succeeded in turning suspicions towards me. It took me a few tries to realize what I was doing wrong.
Games often make us into killers, but they rarely make us think like a killer. The Deed wants you to think like a killer, and more specifically a sociopathic killer. The perfect crime is more than just the right weapon used at the right time. It’s about manipulating the people around us as well. The Deed wants us to think through every aspect of the crime, to plan our every move and every word. All that we do is a thoughtful act of deception. We’re not just any old killer, we’re a fledgling Hannibal Lecter, an amateur Dexter Morgan.
If those two successful (fictional) serial killers have anything in common, it’s their understanding of the importance of outward appearances. They act demure. They’re smart, calm, and certainly not afraid of speaking their mind, but they’re not one to go looking for a fight. If offended, they would shrug off the insult publicly, make a show of taking it in stride. Privately, they would kill the shit out of the offender, but it’s that awareness of outward appearances that matters to The Deed.
Our attitude matters. Our outward appearance matters. Our actions, as interpreted by others, matter. We’re not an assassin or soldier or hero who can act without consequence, we actually have to worry about how our actions will be perceived by those around us (or more specifically, by the detective called to the house to investigate).
This is how the game moves beyond its premise as a simple murder simulator. It’s not really about the physical action of killing, it’s about the mental preparation before the killing. It’s not about being a killer, it’s about thinking like a killer. It’s about understanding the importance of a social mask, and forcing ourselves to bear the niceties of society in order to achieve our dark goal.
I can’t curse out my father if I’m trying to set up the maid. I must be polite so as to not distract the later investigation. However, if my father is going to be the fall guy then I can argue with him, but only in such a way as to establish him as a man with a violent temper. I still can’t curse him out. I still can’t let my true feelings be known. The kill is all that matters, any other want or desire must be suppressed and controlled.
There is a perfect way to play The Deed, a perfect series of answers that you’ll always want to give to avoid suspicion, and they always involve you keeping your real feelings to yourself. You only let down your mask if doing so will help frame a target, but for the rest of the night, every night, you put up a smile and act nice.
As a sociopath in The Deed, I cease to exist as an individual, a character, a personality — I am nothing but a conduit for the kill, a malleable persona that changes depending on the situation and plan. I am not a person, I am only a means to an end.
The Deed is available on Steam for $0.99.