In gaming generally, relevant and irrelevant objects are forever separated because mixing them up might be too confusing for the player.
When you open a copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, a board game originally published in 1981, you actually won’t find a board. Instead, you’ll find a rulebook, ten story modules, a map of 19th century London, a small directory, and a stack of old newspapers. It’s an odd assortment of contents, especially if you’re used to the cardboard and tokens of Settlers of Catan or Monopoly.
Your goal in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is to uncover the truth of some mystery, from murder to theft and more. While the solution to each self-contained story is found somewhere in the stack of papers, you’ll find it spilling out onto notebooks and post-it notes and ideally into a snifter of brandy. Like in a good Sherlock puzzle, the solution is messy and jumbled up with other tidbits of useless information. This is a board game full of stuff, and the joy of playing it is found in sorting out red herrings and dead ends in pursuit of a nugget of truth.
At the back of Consulting Detective’s London Directory, you’ll find lists of Synagogues, Tailors,Watchmakers, Doctors, Booksellers, Map Sellers, and a variety of other merchants and locales. Some of these locations are important to the game, while other hints are purely thematic. This excess amount of necessary information makes the world feel real. We are often -- or at least I am -- surrounded by junk. I’ve got notes, coasters, old mail, cables, and a couple of plants on my desk as I write this now, much of which has no bearing on my life at all. Regardless, they are components of it, one way or another.
Setting aside Sherlock Holmes, I was considering the role of this kind of bric-a-brac in gaming, the junk that populates our digital worlds. We’ve got a garbage filled wasteland in Fallout 4, but does the miscellanea of that world feel real? Sometimes it does, but generally no moment elevates the stray cans or stuffed animals into something meaningful. In gaming generally, relevant and irrelevant objects are forever separated because mixing them up might be too confusing for the player.
The game that tosses that rule out the window in a way most similar to Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is Her Story, which asks you to scour disorganized video interviews to uncover the facts of a murder. Like Sherlock Holmes, Her Story is over when you want it to be. The pleasure of the game is found in coming to your own conclusions by sorting through information that can, at first glance, seem unimportant.
Her Story is a dialogue driven game though, and I think that there’s something uniquely special about actual stuff, like a stack of newspapers and the strange articles therein. With that in mind, maybe Gone Home is a better example of finding meaning in the bric-a-brac of games. The large Pacific Northwest home is full of family artifacts, old and new, some meaningless, others imbued with nostalgia or tragedy. It’s fitting that the solution to Gone Home’s first puzzle is found under a plastic duck.
When you actually go into the house that serves as the game's setting, you’ll find a deeper collection of family stories similarly buried in and around the house. Gone Home is primarily about the protagonist’s sister. However, you’ll also find a story about a mother’s infidelity in letters or about a father’s depression and growing substance abuse. You’ll experience the narrative of Gone Home by exploring at your own pace the physical objects of the home.
In the triple-A space, the Dark Souls franchise finds meaning in an assortment of objects not terribly unlike Consulting Detectives. In the Sherlock Holmes game, you may find a variety of sub-stories in small newspaper clippings or in NPC testimonies. If you’re laser-focused on solving a murder, you may miss the events of an illicit affair or of a quiet marriage. Likewise, if you’re just moving from one boss to another in Dark Souls 3, you’ll miss the architectural representations of a dying religion or the remnants of some great battle.
What is unique about the use of bric-a-brac in these games isn’t that they’re examples of environmental storytelling. Those are everywhere. Rather, it’s that the environmental stories aren’t just handed to you. You need to dig, to sort the superfluous out from the significant. In doing so, you help create meaning within meaningless stuff.