I like mystery novels. I mean that like the way you mean “I like lasagna,” or “I like scotch.” I don’t mean that you’ll take any swill that comes your way and boasts it’s oven baked, or aged 12 years. Nothing beats a good hand crafted, super cheesy, just enough spice 12 year old scotch… or lasagna. Well, something might beat that, maybe a good Sherlock Holmes mystery.
I’ve got a soft spot for Sherlock Holmes. That partly might be because of my love for mystery, and the search for truth. Much of it comes from the delicious irony I taste while examining his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle created a champion of observation, of skepticism, and was famously taken in by some early photo doctoring, known as the Cottingley Fairies. He also had a longtime friendship with Harry Houdini, much of it arguing (in a friendly fashion) about the shyster and second rate scams of spiritualism and seances. I won’t comment about my particular feelings one way or the other, but it was fascinating to see a character dominated by science helmed by an author so ready to discard the powers of observation and rigor.
That said, you’d think that adventure games would have used the mystery story format more frequently. Fairy tale, sword & sorcery, future dystopia, cyberpunk, all very deeply developed, all very overly used. A good mystery style adventure game was a touch rarer than you’d think. Tex Murphy, (the horrible) Jack Orlando, The Colonel’s Bequest, The Dagger of Amon Ra, Gabriel Knight, Private Eye, classic mystery stories were largely underused in adventure gaming. You’d think that Sherlock Holmes would be ripe for a game.
That’s true, and it isn’t. Perhaps the most daunting thing about creating a Holmes game is the eponymous character himself. Painted as an elevated man, above everybody else in reason and understanding of purely human machinations, he is difficult to characterize as an avatar for any player. He is by nature supposed to be more intelligent than the observer, in this case the player. That might be a problem in a badly designed first person shooter (I *DARE* you games industry – make a Sherlock Holmes FPS. I DARE you.) but when adventure games mainly relied on descriptors and dialogue options, the player was in charge of where to walk, what to pick up, how to use it, and never in charge of what the game decided to tell the main character.
That’s why we’re going back to
Ok, that’s a touch too specific, if we could just get a little more
ALRIGHT, thank you! The point being that the theme of this game is
OKAY! Yes! The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. I’ll bet you didn’t know that Electronic Arts ever published adventure games, did you? Even more surprising, I’ll bet you didn’t know they were good.
The Case of the Serrated Scalpel was released in 1992, developed by Mythos Software (who did a whopping 3 games: the aforementioned, a second Sherlock Holmes adventure called “The Case of the Rose Tattoo,” and “Bodyworks Voyager: A Mission in Anatomy”) and published by Electronic Arts. It’s a pretty damn good adventure game too.
Adventure games have this horrible reputation for a number of good reasons:
1) Unfair, sudden, gruesome deaths – This is true, especially of Sierra adventure games. Push the rock from the wrong side, open the wrong door, talk to the wrong guy and it all means death. They even make fun of themselves in the very first Leisure Suit Larry (text based) game, where a quick trip to the alley to the left of the starting screen gets you beaten to a dead pulp. Suddenly the ground descends from under you to see the Sierra death center, where every dead character is repaired and returned to their respective games.
2) Obtuse puzzles – These were best illustrated in comedic games like Monkey Island, where nothing was meant too seriously, and worst in games like Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. Stealing a man’s passport is puzzle enough, but making a mustache of cat hair and tape… these things were downright strange, and nobody reasonable would have, or SHOULD have thought of these things as “solutions.” Throw a custard pie at the abominable snow man? I have NO idea how that occurred to me in the first place.
3) Weird context – Well, it’s true. The strange logic observed by each designer needs to find a place to exist, and that’s almost always some kind of weird, messed up other world based in legend or fairy tale. Realistic or historical adventure games are a void; they each dictate their own rules, to mixed results. Wonderful new worlds like Machinarium can come to pass, but then we have to also accept Dark Seed. Some great, easy to relate to historical games exist, like The Last Express, but there are large gaps between them.
The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel doesn’t really fall victim to any of these things. Most puzzles are easily overcome by properly observing the environment, talking to the right people, and occasionally resorting to drastic measures, without being strange.