The Gaming is Afoot: Sherlock Holmes in Videogames
A Facebook update yesterday announced yet another Sherlock Holmes adventure: Sherlock Holmes in Japan, written by Indian author Vasudev Murthy. In the Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat production of BBC’s new Sherlock series, Holmes himself discusses his detection on his website and Watson records their adventures on his blog. True to his technology-friendly Victorian avatar in the canonical stories, Sherlock Holmes has adapted himself to digital media effortlessly. In fact, if one is to think beyond current digital technology into the blue-skies tech of Star Trek’s Holodeck, the ‘Elementary, Dear Data’ episode of the cult SF TV-series features the android protagonist Lt Commander Data playing Sherlock Holmes’s role and attempting to solve a crime that would challenge the wits of Holmes himself. The Saudi Arabian bestselling author, Mohammed Bahareth, in the Introduction to his Sherlock Holmes in 2012 series, thanks Star Trek captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) as a major inspiration. Judging by the very diversely digital contexts created by Murthy, the BBC, Star Trek and Bahareth in recent times, Sherlock Holmes, with his mastery over technology and his futuristic appeal in Conan Doyle’s stories, has adapted himself to the current digital ethos using his ever-current technical knowledge to overcome boundaries of space and time.Arguably the most involving digital Holmesian adaptation and one closest to Data’s playing Holmes on the Holodeck, however, is the experience of ‘becoming’ Holmes in digital games. Retracing the steps of the Victorian ‘consulting detective’ and the continuation of his adventures has always fascinated Holmes enthusiasts and the writers of pastiche, numbering among them famous literary figures such as Anthony Burgess and Neil Gaiman. The Holmes videogames involve both the virtually embodied experience of ‘being Holmes’ simultaneously with the creation of Holmesian pastiche. Before entering a discussion of Sherlock Holmes videogames per se, it might be useful to look at the ludicity or playfulness of the stories themselves. Holmes’s famous phrase ‘the game is afoot’, adapted in the title of this essay, is a point of departure here. Allegedly a borrowing from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 (Act 1 Scene 3), this Holmesian quote features in the Canon in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’ where Holmes tells Watson: ‘Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!’ This usage plays on the many meanings of ‘game’: game as something that is hunted and game in the sense of the ludic. The association is carried into the world of Holmes pastiche: the film, Sherlock Holmes and the Game of Shadows and the third episode of Sherlock (‘The Great Game’). In both of these adaptations, Holmes meets his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty and both contain elements of puzzle-solving, riddles and overtly gamelike activities. In ‘The Great Game’, Moriarty, Holmes and Watson (after all it is he who has an explosive jacket strapped to him), seem to be playing an Alternate Reality Game (ARG). ARGs usually connect closely with videogames because of the multiplicity of networked narratives and the transmedial storytelling that such games facilitate. This rather oblique association of Sherlockiana with videogames is intriguing and perhaps the topic for another discussion. For now, it will be useful to return to the broader discussion of the detective story as game.
The hunting of the criminal by the detective operates in the sense of tracking game while the detective story is itself a rule-based entity that involves a play-like experience. As such, many commentators on detective stories are quick to point how they seem to follow sets of rules and conventions, almost like games. The rules of the detective story get a greater focus in Roger Caillois’s 1941 essay ‘The Detective Novel as A Game’ (published as Le Roman Policier):
[T]he reader opens a thick folder similar to a dossier of a case in progress. It is filled with police reports, the depositions of witnesses, photographs of fingerprints […] which together constitute the necessary evidence. Everyone must study this evidence and deduce from it the identity of the criminal: his name is sealed in an envelope which the enthusiast can always rip open in a moment of despair and which contains in addition the whole solution of the problem he was supposed to solve himself.
Caillois goes on to say that ‘when the novel is freeing itself from all rules, the detective novel keeps inventing stricter ones. Its interest, its value and even its originality increase with the limitations it accepts and the rules it imposes itself.’ For Caillois, therefore, the detective novel is ‘not a tale but a game’. As one of the pioneering theorists of games, Caillois makes a substantive link between games and storytelling when it comes to detective fiction. Pace the so-called Ludologists, who invoked his theories in their foundational research of Game Studies and argued that games and storytelling were mutually exclusive entities, Caillois’s definition of detective fiction clearly points to an obvious synergy between the two. However, to return to the discussion of the rule-based ludic narrative, Umberto Eco in an essay on the narrative structures in the James Bond thrillers describes the story as a set of game rules, almost chess-like in the terminology used (Bond moves and gives a check to the villain).
However, in his own detective novel, The Name of the Rose, Eco creates ‘a mystery in which very little is discovered and the detective is defeated’. Brian McHale calls Eco’s novel ‘postmodern’ precisely because of its strategies for destabilising the world it projects and its disorientated and displaced notion of space. According to Michael Holquist, postmodern novels, such as the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jorge Luis Borges, ‘use as a foil the assumption of detective fiction that the mind can solve all’. The rule-bound and formally structured idea of the detective novel is challenged in such notions. If, as Caillois claims, the detective story keeps inventing stricter rules that it imposes itself and thereby plays itself out like a game, then one needs to accept that as in any game the rules themselves allow for such a variety of play-experiences. Helmut Heissenbüttel, in his essay ‘Rules of the Game of the Crime Novel’, argues for a ‘between-ness’ in detective novels that enables the ‘reconstruction of the trace of the unnarrated’, which is the governing logic of the detective story. Something remains that is not revealed; the detective can only reconstruct the event through a ‘trace’ and this, by definition, is something that can turn into the ephemeral. Heissenbüttel’s search for the rules of the game that he sees in detective fiction leads him to the following conclusion: ‘Within the framework of its rigorously calculable schema, the reconstruction of the trace of the unnarrated permits ever new combinations of possible contents.' The detective story, like a game with its rule-based framework, can be played over and over to produce ever new combinations of tales.
Like a videogame, one might argue. It is now a critical commonplace that some videogames easily qualify as storytelling media, despite many earlier debates in the still-young discipline of Game Studies. In More Than A Game, his early analysis of the story in videogames, Barry Atkins states that ‘it is at least as important to pay close attention to the ways in which games designers and players have exploited the strengths and weaknesses of the modern computer as a vehicle for the delivery of fictional texts’. In his book, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Dylan Holmes states that ‘it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that a different kind of medium emerged, one that allowed the consumer to actively change a story rather than simply absorb and interpret it. This was the videogame.’
Of the detective stories themselves, perhaps the most common objects of pastiche are the Sherlock Holmes stories; like videogames they have involved active reworkings of the Holmesian narrative. Consider stories such as the series by Laurie King where Holmes has married the younger detective, Mary Russell, or in The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes where Holmes meets H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional monstrous cosmic force, Cthulhu and other famous contemporary literary creations. Not surprisingly, then, the Sherlock Holmes pastiche has found a suitable medium in the videogame. Starting with the DOS-based games such as Sherlock and The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes (1992), the Sherlock Holmes videogames became part of the adventure game genre, providing players with the options of interacting with characters through a command menu with speech / action icons and navigating to various locations in Victorian London.
Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy (2002), developed for the PC, was the first in the line of a Holmes videogame franchise created by the game studio Frogwares. The company went on to make other Holmes games such as Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring (2004), Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (2006), Sherlock Holmes versus Arsene Lupin (2007), Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper (2009) and the recent Testament of Sherlock Holmes. Adapted from an unpublished Holmes pastiche by the game’s designer Jal Amr, The Case of the Silver Earring earned mixed reviews. Gamespot, the international videogame review website, gave it 7.3 out of 10 and the reviewer described the game thus:
All you do is exhaust a preset series of dialogue choices. There's no true interaction here, which can make it feel like you're just along for the ride. Searching for clues can sometimes make looking for a needle in a whole row of haystacks seem easy by comparison. The game's environments are richly detailed, and you're expected to find little strands of hair or suspicious smudges in them. Real-life crime investigators might engage in the equivalent of pixel hunts, but this is a game, and games should be fun, not frustrating.
Although The Silver Earring is an early game in the series, it nevertheless reflects how players have responded to the Holmes videogames by Frogwares On the one hand, there is criticism on account of often frustrating gameplay; on the other, these point-and-click games, as carryovers from the popular mystery adventure-game Myst (1991), manage to capture the interest in puzzle-solving that is characteristic of the game’s genre and also stay true to the Sherlock Holmes canon. In many of the later games, Holmes encounters illustrious fictional contemporaries such as the master-thief Arsene Lupin, Jack the Ripper and Cthulhu thus expanding the Holmesian experience into the world of pastiche.
To take a case in point: while diehard fans acclaim the Arsene Lupin game (the third in the series) for its intricate storyline and plot twists saying that it is ‘a “game” within a “game,” a meeting of the minds and a remarkable battle of wits’, others find the gameplay involving looking for clues in a vast 3-D environment quite frustrating. As in the earlier The Awakening game, the combination of standard shooter game controls and adventure game mechanics proved cumbersome for the ordinary gamer and more so because these same controls made the gameplay experience much smoother in contemporary shooter games such as Half Life (1998) and Max Payne (2001). Sophia Tong, reviewing the game calls it ‘a solid adventure title if you like pixel hunting in a 3D environment while solving riddles and the occasional obscure puzzle’ but with the caveat that ‘[h]aving the game in 3D allows the player to feel like they're in the world, however it impedes the gameplay when items are difficult to find.’
Within the adventure game genre itself, the critique of the later Frogwares games changes. GameSpot, in its review of the more recent Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, praises its storyline and detailed investigative procedures but agrees that ‘anyone who favors innovative adventure gaming might find that the quests and puzzles are a little too orthodox.’ The game’s graphics have been criticised: ‘It isn't quite as gruesome as it sounds, because the bodies are replaced with cartoonish dummies that bear just the slightest imprint of the murderer's attentions with his knife. Slashed throats, for instance, look like they could have been drawn on with lipstick.’ Nevertheless, the very experience of being able to investigate the notorious Whitechapel murders and the lure of solving one of the world’s most intriguing unsolved crimes is a bonus for any Holmes fan. Indeed, besides the printed stories, Holmes has come face-to-face with the Ripper in films such as Murder by Decree, starring Christopher Plummer as Holmes, and in works of fiction such as Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story Given the mixed responses to the ‘canonical’ Holmes videogames, it would be instructive to examine how far the adventure-game genre itself fits in with the idea of the Holmesian experience. The adventure game is comparable to Tzevetan Todorov’s description of the whodunit where he sees the detective story as the story of a crime and the simultaneous story of its detection (which is usually also an explicit acknowledgment that a story is being told). The clues need to be discovered, pieced together and the narrative woven into place. Usually, if even one clue is not unearthed, the game becomes a frustrating activity that refuses to go beyond a fixed narrative point. In Todorov’s other type of detective fiction, the thriller, suspense is a major characteristic and the movement from the cause to effect is one that happens as the reader reads the narrative. This is perhaps the type of narration that is most often associated with videogames. When Max Payne, the protagonist of the eponymous videogame, walks through the noir environment of Manhattan hunting for the city’s drug lords, the player experiences the spine-chilling fear of imminent death at the hands of some armed junkie lurking in the next street corner. Arguably, although reported as closed cases by Watson, the experience of Sherlock Holmes stories is often every bit as immediate, whether one follows Watson on the Grimpen Mire or Holmes at the Reichenbach. As Steven Doyle and David Crowder remark in Sherlock Holmes for Dummies, ‘the most common event is for Holmes and Watson to go to the scene of the crime and investigate. Time and again the famous duo is on the case together, and these scenes are often crowned by an exciting example of forensic crime-scene investigation by the Great Detective’. Indeed, not always is Holmes provided a risk-free future – he ‘dies’ in ‘The Final Problem’ albeit to be resurrected by Doyle because of public demand. As such, one might argue that, especially in an interactive medium that lets the player be Holmes, the point-and-click clue hunting and puzzle solving does not adequately capture the thrill of the Sherlock Holmes experience. What would better address the complaints of the reviewers and the gamers the world over would be a Sherlock Holmes videogame that brought together that complex mix of hands-on investigation and reflective deduction, or in effect combined Todorov’s two categories of the whodunnit and the thriller, which is typical experience of the original Holmes stories as well as pastiche in various narrative media.
Two recent videogames that remediate the detective fiction genre are useful models for how future Holmes games could better reflect the experience of the original stories. Heavy Rain (2010), released for the PlayStation 3 console, has been described as a ‘murder mystery, albeit with some of the trappings of the filmic thriller’. The game is a powerful interactive drama (its developer David Cage calls it ‘interactive cinema’) that succeeds in creating an emotional bond between the player and the game characters through a plot that involves the tracking down of the ‘Origami Killer’ whose victims are all discovered drowned four days after they go missing. As the protagonist whose son has gone missing and as a variety of other characters such as an FBI-operative, a journalist and private detective, the player builds up a tissue of narratives that are ‘defined by its choices and its actions’. In further praise for the game, Dylan Holmes states:
Heavy Rain strips away all possibility for power-gaming. My character has no stats, no clear foes to battle, no inventory to fill up with collectable objects. The game is focused solely on its narrative, and so I can make choices only within the context of the story. In the opening scene, I chose to blow off my work and watch TV because I wanted to watch TV, not because I thought it would aid me in any way. This freedom to choose for choosing’s sake has always been rare in gaming, largely lost in the shuffle towards clear consequences for every action.
The freedom of choice within the narrative’s boundaries adds to the intensity of the experience. Moreover, there is no ‘Game Over’ screen when the character you are playing as dies; unlike in other videogames, death is final – although the story carries on through the other characters. The game stresses the importance of drama and emotional experience and many of the decisions need to be made in the heat of the moment as opposed to the repetitive puzzle hunts in the adventure games described earlier. Now, is this also not what one would expect from Sherlock Holmes were he to be in search of the Origami Killer? Despite the common impression of him as a cold thinking machine, even within the canon Holmes shows emotion for Irene Adler and also for Watson, when the latter is wounded in the ‘The Adventure of the Three Garridebs’. In later adaptations such as the 2009 film, one finds that ‘Sherlock Holmes has been injected with a new energy. In 2009 we are just as likely to find him waking up naked while tied to a bedpost following a night of (heterosexual) passion, or swinging on a chandelier to escape in the Lord Chief Justice’s palace in London, as assessing incriminating evidence’. Clearly, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes involve a considerable degree of thrill and adrenalin (and even emotion) in the canonical stories and, therefore, pastiche as well. Holmes, therefore, would make an ideal protagonist of a first-person shooter or roleplaying videogame that involves puzzle-solving as well as the thrill of facing imminent danger such as the hunt for the Origami Killer of Heavy Rain would entail
Heavy Rain is not the only detective story to make its mark in the videogame medium in recent times. Even those who did not like Heavy Rain, as much, are enamoured of a later crime-thriller videogame, L.A. Noire (2012) as blogger Zachary Oliver reports:
I’m not too big a fan of the “interactive movie” style, yet I really think L.A. Noire has a great handle on how this thing should work. Of course, the key is “interactive”, and not movie. […] The game puts you into the shoes of an honest-to-goodness detective from the late 1940s, and you do exactly what the technology of the time allowed you to do – no DNA, no security cameras, just some natural good sense and deductive reasoning (both of which I have neither). That’s great! I like this; I was never a fan of adventure games, simply because the logic and reasoning behind the sequences was mostly a one-off, and divining the developer’s intentions wasn’t fun at all – it was frustrating.
Cole Phelps, the protagonist of L.A. Noire , drives around Los Angeles and has considerable leeway to carry out investigations . Although the game makes the player choose from a number of options, it provides a large number of choices and leaves crucial decisions to the player’s own intelligence or intuition, especially when the player interrogates suspects. One is tempted to imagine the same happening in Sherlock Holmes games – driving around in the proverbial hansom across Victorian London and trying to outdo Holmes himself by using one’s own methods to solve his cases would be a dream come true for Holmes fans. Data, in the Star Trek episode, aims to achieve just that through the Holodeck, albeit with near-disastrous consequences in his case. Although not replicating Data’s Holodeck experience, it is heartening to see that recent Frogwares titles such as Testament of Sherlock Holmes have been shifting towards more complex modes of gameplay. Commenting on a forthcoming title, Olga Ryzhko from Frogwares tells us what players can now look forward to:
With Crimes and Punishments, the player has to decide who is guilty and why. We’re giving you the ability to decide peoples’ lives and your choices can save or damn them. I’d say the game sets two main questions for players to answer: ‘Who is guilty?’ and ‘How are you going to handle the situation?’. You’ll have to assume responsibility for your choices after you’ve made them, and you’ll end up facing the moral consequences, whatever they might be. Altogether the game has eight cases to solve, with every case having three to five possible solutions decided by your choices.
The new Holmes game in the series, Crimes and Punishments will be using the Unreal 3 game engine ( used to build famous shooter games such as Gears of War and BioShock: Infinite) and this might be a game-changer, literally, for videogames based on Holmes’s stories.
Bran Nicol, in his essay in Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multimedia Afterlives , points at the remediation of the concept of Holmes as a thinking and crime-solving machine. Nicol states the 2009 film envisages Holmes ‘as a figure just as “computerised” as the gaming action heroes who feature increasingly in popular cinema, such as the Prince of Persia or Neo from The Matrix , and transmogrifies the Holmesian method into a kind of onboard computer geared up to enhance bodily performance’. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a similar impression in his portrayal of Holmes from the very first scene of the Sherlock series where he hacks the mobile phones of all the journalists at a press conference called by the police with the text message ‘Wrong’. With the digital appropriation of Holmes’s character itself, the narratively-rich space of possibilities in Doyle’s stories lends itself to digital recreations where Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts can explore new combinations of Holmes mysteries. It is possible, today, to argue that in the videogame medium, Sherlock Holmes is ready to go the next step beyond earlier narrative media by adding to the complexity of videogames and to the way the very genre of detective fiction has been hitherto conceived. Doyle himself has left readers with the freedom to ‘do what you like with him’; It is hardly surprising, therefore, if they want to step inside 221B Baker Street and become Holmes himself. Judging from the extremely immersive narrative experience that videogames provide, it is evident that the expectations for such interactivity as raised in the printed stories certainly finds a fuller expression in videogames. However, although the present Sherlock Holmes games are yet to meet such expectations, they are not too far behind as game design keeps evolving and the videogame grows up as a storytelling medium.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino