December is a slow month for new games, so over the next few weeks we’ll look back at notable 2012 releases that we haven’t reviewed yet. Today Brian Taylor reviews the latest installment in Frogwares’ series of Sherlock Holmes adventure games.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is odd. It’s the sixth of Ukrainian developer Frogwares’s adventure games featuring the English Great Detective and his companion. Its formal relatives are point-and-click adventure games, but it also shares something with other Ukrainian developed games like Metro 2033: apathy (or maybe even antipathy) toward making you ever feel comfortable. But where Metro 2033 and others refuse to ever let you feel physically comfortable, Testament uses Holmes’s arrogance to keep your opinion of your mental prowess in check.
Whether it takes you two seconds or two hours to solve a puzzle, Holmes will often say, “It is simplicity itself!” when you finish. It’s identical to the way he treats Watson: indirectly patronizing via self-praise. At times he appears to have little qualms of manipulating Watson, treating him as nothing more than an errand-dog. The game does this as well—almost as if it’s saying, “Do this. Trust me. It’s in your best interests, and I’ll explain why later, when you’re ready to understand.”
So at best, you can hope to be as smart as Watson, who spends most of the game in the dark about what is going on around him. You understand his confusion—even when you’re controlling Holmes, it’s pretty obvious that you don’t know nearly as much about what is going on as the detective does. It situates you in the same position as reading a Holmes story, where you’re sort of solving a mystery but also marveling at the spectacle of Deduction.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories have a metanarrative tying them all together—like a modern police procedural, each mystery is self-contained, with the personal lives of the main characters providing a throughline linking the stories. The books as we know them exist in the Holmes world as chronicles written and published by Watson. Holmes knows that people read about Holmes. There’s a framing story here, too: Three children find a manuscript in the back of a Watson marionette in an attic. We’re playing their reading. Sort of.
Where Sherlock Holmes stories take Watson’s point of view, and film or television adaptations take a third person perspective, this game lets you shift between the two.
It seems like a first person perspective would make us align with a character more —literally seeing things from their point of view. Except the problem with that literalization is that it ignores the empathy needed to understand someone else’s point of view. Plenty of people see the same things (in the way that light bounces off an object and onto their retina), but that doesn’t mean they see them the same way. That’s why so many protagonists are silent: They’re our vehicles, not our friends.
This, obviously, isn’t going to work with Sherlock Holmes, a character who’s been around for a hundred years, mostly in the public domain. His entries in that folktale-in-a-commercial-culture genre, fan fiction, have become an entire industry in and of themselves. Holmes is defined by being smarter than everyone.
To make the avatar disappear isn’t an act of erasure—it’s creating the avatar (and the world around it) in such a way that it completely jives with the player’s worldview. If dislodging identification is a bug, then challenging their bias is not a feature. If you want a world to be so big, so detailed it can blot out another one, then any cracks in the former that allow the latter to show through are going to read as flaws.
The game regularly swaps your control back and forth between Holmes and Watson, though you’re never fully in control of either.
When controlling Holmes, sometimes Watson will respond to a clue you click on, or ask a question that you’ve chosen from the Mass Effect style conversation options. Loading screens tell you that if you’re confused, you talk to Watson. Doing so usually causes him to ask Holmes what to do, allowing the detective to give the player a hint.
Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes weren’t about the reader solving them—they were about Watson and the reader being wowed by Holmes’s prowess. Watson “writes” the stories after they’ve happened, but their solution often hinges on an esoteric bit of knowledge Holmes possesses or a surprising observation he makes—knowledge and observations that aren’t revealed to us until Watson reaches the point in his story when they’re revealed to him.
So the game doesn’t let us fully become Holmes, or Watson, or the children reading the book. We shift between perspectives—something that fits in with the shifting of thinking that adventure games require of you. They’re worlds where Occam’s razor has been dulled and the most complicated explanation is more likely than the least.
Often, the importance of things is situational. One sequence finds Watson making his way through the London sewers for, to be honest, I don’t know what reason. My notes don’t say, and I’m pretty sure the game didn’t really make a logical case for it (though the events of the story make a very strong thematic case). He pulls on a rope attached to a “heavy object”, dislodging a corpse that had been held under the surface of the water by an anchor. Watson acknowledges the bloated body before announcing, in ultimate adventure game fashion, “If I can get the anchor, I can use it as a grappling hook!” Which you do. And then he never mentions the body again.
The weird adventure game inventory priorities (corpse is less important than grappling hook!) aside, Watson’s descent into the underworld feels disjointed. It’s as if the narrative logic of cause-and-effect has been set aside for the symbolic: another shift in thinking. Videogames often aren’t very good at this. Maybe being part software means their bones are code, rigid rules for generating effects from player-provided cause. It makes them a good fit for Holmes’s worldview, but Watson’s symbolic travels and his premonition-nightmares suggest that there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Holmes’s philosophy. Hints that maybe there are other ways of knowing…
Games are also spaces through which you move, and that’s what makes up the main bulk of Testament’s play. Wander around, look at clues (conveniently marked with a magnifying glass icon whose outline changes from blue to green after you’ve gotten all the information from it), interact with objects (marked with a hand icon), talk to people (a speech bubble icon).
The icons appear when you move near them, but they can be displayed by activating Sherlock’s “Sixth Sense” (a sense that apparently is not unique to him, as this option is available no matter which character you control). Icons will appear on every item that you can see at that moment.
Because your modes of interacting with the environment in the point-and-click are limited to, well, pointing and clicking, many adventure games build the exploration segments on figuring out what you can interact with. Testament’s icons take away a lot of the trial and error of these spot hunts, but it is still possible to get stuck for a while because you can’t find one and you don’t have the camera pointed in the right direction when you trigger the Sixth Sense (There are clothes in a tree. You will probably miss them.)
The aesthetic is uncomfortable as well. Close-up investigation of tortured corpses is a regular event (It’s funny that a game that required me to prove I was over 21 to pick up is framed by children reading a story about its events). But the environment is also oppressive, the way one would expect 19th century London to be. Streets are narrow, spaces cluttered. The third person movement is slow and clunky, making it feel like things are always in your way. Even trips outside the city, to an old mill and to an old fairground, end up feeling claustrophobic and ominous in this game engine (This is a good thing).
The exploring occasionally stops and you’re presented with a puzzle—usually logic-based, although one late-game situation involving pairing clothing with its owner’s occupation requires observation beyond pattern recognition. And if you get stuck on any of these, after a short amount of time you’re given the option to skip it. Holmes will still tell you that it’s “simplicity itself!”, the snide jerk.
A few times the game will have you fill out a “deduction board”, which lists a series of clues that link together. You choose from a list of interpretations of the clues. Interpretations lead to more links that will eventually lead to the solution of the mystery at hand. These segments have no “solve this puzzle” or sixth sense option, but it is possible to make your way through these sections with trial-and-error guessing. These are the only points in the game where Holmes’s observations aren’t hidden from you, but after a successful completion the detective and Watson will discuss what you’ve just put together and explain the situation in great detail. It’s a crucial part of this kind of story: The unknown situation is robbed of its destabilizing power through the privileged narrative of the detective (and its truth is ensured by a very powerful ally: the author).
Holmes has always been a status quo stabilizer: He defends Queen and country against Victorian colonialist anxieties (go ahead and count of how many of the original stories involve either a “threat” from the lower classes or from some colonized group), a masculine ideal of rationality, repression, and Britishness defending against all outsiders.
At a time like now, when the way to make a mainstream Sherlock adaptation involves updating its time period or its tone and acknowledging that Holmes’s Great White British Paternalism is a colonialist attitude (only to turn around and reify it by proving Holmes right and his questioners wrong), the game’s dedication to both its ultracolonialist Victorian source material and its adventure-game roots can seem old-fashioned.
It’s reactionary in other ways: The masses of people you see on the streets that are starving and out of work turn out to be not dissatisfied with an unfair system but the pawns of an individual’s machinations—there’s little Occupy support here. So it goes with Holmes stories, always a battle between two Great Men—or, occasionally, Irene Adler. What’s interesting is the way that it avoids the fan fiction trap of keeping the characters static in order to use them as a kind of shorthand and actually tries to develop their characters, even if it still requires you to be familiar with some parts of the Holmes canon in order to understand just what that development is.
Brian Taylor is really into the idea that Conan Doyle once received “a request for portraits of Sherlock at different periods of his life.” Take THAT, people who think Star Trek is the starting point for modern fan communities.