Murdered: Soul Suspect review, and game puzzles

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Is there enough time before the next E3 burst to post a link to my Murdered: Soul Suspect review?

They didn’t unseat Condemned 2 as the best forensic game currently operating. To reiterate my tweets: why can’t I have a hard puzzle mode? If you have to make your puzzles for the lowest common denominator—and I don’t think there can be a LCD more L than “what does this bell sound represent? answer: bells”—then it’d be nice if you left that to them and gave other people some meat to chew on. For a game supposedly about detectiving, you’re more like a clue garbage man(—garbage ghost) than an investigator.

Not that Condemned 2 required a Criminology degree (coincidentally, I have one of those!), but it didn’t show you a bloodstain while saying “it looks like, from this bloodstain, the killer dragged the victim” and then painting a holographic arrow the direction the victim was dragged and then asking you “which way was the victim dragged?” There was some possibility of failure in Condemned 2’s forensics—though failure was not a game over—and some teeny-tiny bit of thought. Not a lot of thought; the amount of thought you’d have to apply when reading a cheesy mystery novel. For me that’s enough.

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Mind you, even though it was Fast Karate Game of the Year #4, Phoenix Wright does the exact same shit. There at least, the game requires some logical abstraction, but it kills me how those games have always dithered back and forth for an hour after you’ve figured out how the crime was committed, then, a second before they let you solve the case, they make some statement about the killer that a blind otter would be able to figure out. But I already figured it out before you even spoiled it for me! I did so by reviewing the evidence and reading the dialogue—i.e. playing the game—so please let me feel like you’re letting me solve the case on my own merits, even if you aren’t actually and never were.

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Games like 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward are way less hand-holdy, which is nice, but their characters and writing are pretty much garbage (excepting Rabbit Zero), and most of their puzzles are based on math—you’re not sleuthing whodunnits, you’re managing Towers of Hanoi. I still like solving those games, and I appreciate that they give you room to try solutions (and reasons to write things down on paper), but I always get worn out by the end where you have to figure out, like, what number each color in a rainbow spectrum represents to feed a plant the proper food or some shit.

For straight up riddles, few things are on the level of Silent Hill 2 and 3. Even though 3’s Hard mode has the infamous Shakespeare puzzle, that’s one really prickish example in a game chockablok with brain teasers. Silent Hill 2’s are probably better overall because, even outside the Shakespeare one, 3’s puzzles require a level of abstraction that’s a little on the unfair side, and an ability to completely ignore most of the gross-out puzzle text that’s just there to distract you.

And what would it feel like?
Like jelly?
Trembling with ecstasy, I obscenely
mix it around and around: I must
taste the warmth of your blood.

The above is some text having to do with a numerical keypad puzzle. So, you know… I mean, it’s a little much, yeah. 

Here’s the thing: Silent Hill games had multiple riddle modes. They are made so you can tailor the experience to your needs. Take the puzzle from Silent Hill 2 where you have to slot three coins into a bureau.

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(You really don’t need to read these, I just provide it for an example of word count and complexity between difficulty modes)

On Easy it goes:

“To the right is the lady.
To the left is the old one.

In the center crawls the other.

Now just two spaces remain,
But fear not for now,
The puzzle is done.
The puzzle is done.”

On Normal:

“Three bright coins in five holes be

At one end sits
the Seducer of she

The wind from behind
the woman doth play

The Formless One,
Null, lies furthest from they

The Old One beside
the Serpent sits not.

‘Tis to the Prisoner’s left
that he doth rot”

And on Hard:

First lies the seat of
He who is Peerless
Silent and empty,
heartless and fearless

Beside him sits one who knows
The place of the servant is
next to throne

Dozens of feet,
yet not a single toe
The One that is Hidden
beside him doth go

Seducer of dreams,
creature of Hades
Lying further from
Man and closer to Lady

Man and Woman seeing all
Heedless to the Raven’s call

Silent and Hidden the two may be
They be not there for you to see

Return them to whence
they would be
And blessing shall
descend on thee

I speak thus with
the North Star behind me
The birth of the sun is
the start of the story”

If you really don’t feel like teasing your brain, then on Easy it’s basically like “put the snake here the old guy here and the girl here.” All you need to know is you have snake, old guy, and girl coins. On Normal you really just have to know your Adam & Eve, and that the woman coin is not “Woman,”—like the old man coin is “Old Man” and the snake coin is “Snake”—but “Prisoner.” On Hard the poetry becomes almost inscrutably dense, many of the words having no apparent connection to the puzzle items, many of the worlds having no actual connection to anything.

Something really fun about puzzles is separating the bogus information from the real stuff. In Murdered: Soul Suspect almost all information is bogus, and you know this without even having to think about it because there’s 100% no way “broken glass” or “my primary gun” is going to tell you anything about the crime. You don’t have to delve into the item descriptions because the item description on “my primary gun” is “my mom gave me this gun,” or whatever. It’s all just useless flavor text, and obviously so. It’s just bland descriptions; it doesn’t even sound like the guy writing it was having any fun.

There is no abstraction in Murdered. In fact, abstraction is the only thing that can trip you up. In an early sidequest you have to find a way to get an old man to think about a crime he committed. The answer isn’t to present him with the image of a shovel, what his wife used to bury the body and the only piece of concrete evidence, it’s to present him with the “my wife committed a crime” clue. If you don’t have the “my wife committed a crime” clue, then keep clicking on stuff in the environment until you do.

Often, Shootygun games put a great deal thought into the difficulty of their bullet slinging. Take Gears of War, which lets each co-op player choose their own Easy-Medium-Hard, thus bewildering Graz and I when we couldn’t understand how our friend was blazing through the level without using cover—oops he was on Casual.

Remember the Borderlands 2 “controversy” with Girlfriend Mode? Too bad that guy put his foot in his mouth, because that character does have a lot of options that eases the burden on someone who wants to shoot bullets, but isn’t super great at it, like a talent that causes your missed shots to ricochet and home in on enemies (for reduced damage). Not only does this benefit someone who isn’t great at shooters, it also has great synergy for higher skill players, because it pairs well with a talent that greatly increases your damage while greatly reducing your accuracy. The person who made that talent in Borderlands 2 obviously put a some modicum of thought into making a skill tree that would benefit both low and medium skill players (Borderlands doesn’t really allow for “high” skill ones).

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—also her class is Mechromancer, which is fun wordplay in its own right, but furthermore, it reminds of me Tech Romancer, and Tech Romancer was really cute and fun—

So there are people willing to put thought into gun-shooting difficulty beyond tweaking bullet fire rates and damage resistance, an amount of effort you’d probably put on par with making a new set of puzzles. I’d really like there to be something similar for puzzle difficulty. Not in every game, obviously. Stuff like Phoenix Wright is so dense with text that changing things around for three different difficulties would probably be pretty tough.

But check out Dangan Ronpa, which does exactly that. It’s not a hard game, but it’s got some interesting mechanics. During interrogations, questionable statements are lit up in a different color. You must find what questionable statement is relevant to the discussion; identify “I wasn’t in the dorm,” and “attack” it with a “bullet” that says “witness’s location at the time of the murder.”

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At face value, this sounds identical to Murdered. However, raising the difficulty gives more junk statements to sift through, and more junk evidence you can present, so you have to work on both axes of making sure you’re contesting the right statement, and making sure you’re contesting it with the right evidence. Meanwhile, raising the difficulty messes with the position of the text, making it harder to read, and also throws more crosstalk onto the screen—sentences that get in the way of your aiming that you have to get rid of before you can score a hit. The action moves in real time, sentences pop up and disappear possibly before you realize that’s the one you need to attack (there’s also a time limit, but it’s always something ridiculously long like 10 minutes, and will never affect you). The system keeps you on your toes, using speed and forward momentum to hide its simplicity, while Murdered sits you at a pause screen and lets you pick an incredibly obvious correct answer at your leisure. Dangan Ronpa still requires more effort than Murdered’s sadly simple puzzles, but it’s in no way something that’s going hound you throughout the night after you put it down. It’s not so hard that you’ll have to wait for your revelations to come to you in the shower, but it’s not so easy that you’ll feel like the puzzle the game is asking you to put together is one of those ones made for three year olds with like six giant pieces.

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Aside: all video games are actually artifice, so, to a certain extent, all a game has to do to succeed is trick you. People rail against the “choices” in Mass Effect and Walking Dead for the wrong reasons. Obviously those games aren’t life simulators where every single choice must matter, they’re Choose Your Own Adventure books. During an intense action sequence, the illusion of a strict time limit is identical to an actually strict time limit. So Dangan Ronpa’s time limit works even if it’s usually 5+ minutes to review 30-60 seconds of dialogue. Feeling like you’re pressed to disarm a bomb, only to realize later you had 25 minutes to cut two wires, doesn’t mean the tension you felt in the moment wasn’t real.

At the end of a Dangan Ronpa case you have to put together a series of comic book pages to describe the chronology of the crime. Most of the panels are filled in, and you have maybe ten you have to set the order of—some of them junk, or even red herrings—this is not hard, ever, but it does give the player a moment to reflect, and to crystalize the events they’ve just discussed in their mind. It acts like a final exam to prove you were paying attention, but it’s willing to slip you a few hints if, and only if, you ask for them. This is like the 3 Step hint guides you would get for old Sierra adventure games. If someone’s really stumped, they have access to things that will nudge them in the right direction, but the game doesn’t force it in as part of the puzzle or, god forbid, part of the narrative.

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I am literally asking for a multiple choice test, which is what Murdered gives you, but all the wrong answers are crossed out and the right one is circled, highlighted, and has a bunch of arrows pointing at it. I am being mean to this game, and that’s a little unfair—I actually did enjoy it while playing it, but, like I said in my review, my enjoyment is a little neutered because I know, in my head, I am giving this game more leeway because there are very few games like it, and I’ll take what I can get.

Murdered definitely isn’t a bad game, just a frustrating one. It feels like the idea was “if we make it stupid, more people will play it,” but that’s robbing Peter to play Paul, because it’s not like you’re going to secure a Call of Duty-sized audience by making your puzzles easy. Meanwhile, you’re disappointing the people that should be your core. If the response to “why can’t these puzzles be harder?” is “harder puzzles means less sales, which means we can’t support this game’s budget,” then my solution is “make a game with a smaller budget.”

Or keep making games with dumb puzzles, if that’s what makes you happy. It’s a free country.

Looking forward to Dangan Ronpa 2, though.

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And I’d like them to make a new Trauma Team, too.