Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & other cases

I’ve had an unopened copy of the first volume of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective on my board game shelf for some time now, and decided to finally give it a solo try during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. This isn’t really my first experience with the game, though: the 1991 FMV game based on it was one of the first CD-ROMs I purchased, back when CD-ROMs were new and exciting. Apparently the cases in that overlap somewhat with what I’m currently playing, but it’s distant enough that I remember nothing. Also, I played one case from a later volume with a board game group a few years ago. The group failed to solve the case, and, on reading the solution, declared it to be basically nonsense, full of suppositions that didn’t really follow from the evidence, and so we didn’t do any of the other cases. But the fellow who had brought the game told us that the earlier volumes were better in that regard, and that’s why I bought the first.

Although it’s packaged like a board game, and the instructions describe it as an activity for multiple players, it’s fundamentally more like a gamebook, a work of semi-interactive fiction like a Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book, based around reading text passages in a nonlinear, reader-determined sequence. The closest thing it has to a game board is a map of London, marked up with numbers for all the locations referenced in the cases, but this just a reference tool, and hasn’t even been useful in solving the two cases I’ve gone through so far. Structurally, the main thing that separates it from other gamebooks is that the passages aren’t even partially ordered. Instead of each passage linking to its own set of what-happens-next, each passage corresponds to a location (most locations being linked to a person) that you can visit any time you want. (In other words, it’s more like Her Story.) This does not mean there’s no sense of progression whatever: gating is done through player knowledge. You start a case knowing that A, B, and C are persons of interest; you look up A’s passage and he mentions person D, who you didn’t know about previously but who you now know to also visit. (Passage lookup is mediated through a lengthy address directory, shared by all the cases, to maintain secrecy about what things each case makes available.) It does, however, mean that, as the game state is in your head, it cannot affect the content of passages. There are certain resources that are always available from the beginning — public records, informants, contacts at Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office and so forth. It’s tempting to consult them about things discovered late in a case, but due to their position at the head of the discovery tree, you can only ever ask them about the very basis of the case.

Although the game is clearly part of the same lineage as the Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers, the emphasis here is, as I say, on deducing from things described in text, rather than on examining physical evidence included in the package. In that regard, it’s a lot like reading the stories that inspired it and trying to solve the mystery as you go along. The closest thing it has to feelies is the enclosed single-sheet newspapers, which are still text-based, but are nonetheless artifacts from the world of the story that you can hold in your hand, providing physical proof of the fiction’s reality. Most of the articles in the newspapers are irrelevant to the cases, giving an impression of a larger world of which the cases are only a part. Best of all, though, they provide interlinking. The cases occur on specific dates, in sequence, and can use information from not just that date’s newspaper, but also all the newspapers from all earlier cases. One of the best moments the game has delivered so far was in case 2, when I speculatively looked back at the news for case 1 just to see what I could find, and learned that a man I wished to find and question, as he had been corresponding with the deceased shortly before his murder, had been declared dead several months earlier.

I’ll have more to say about the experience tomorrow, after I get another case or two under my belt.

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