SHCD: Code of the Professor

The fifth case in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective adds a few new things to the game’s repertoire. For one thing, it’s the first case where the critical path actually involves using the map to interpret clues. For another, it’s the first case involving Moriarty. I’m kind of glad he’s showing up here, because him appearing was pretty much inevitable — for all that Moriarty is a marginal figure in the original Holmes canon 1Fun fact: The Sherlock Holmes fandom was the first to use the word “canon” in its fannish sense. Really, they pioneered a lot of the customs of modern fan communities., dying in his first appearance, he looms large in the Holmsean imagination, and could hardly be left out entirely — and putting him in the middle means the writers aren’t taking the cheap route and saving him for the climax. Now, The Valley of Fear, one of the few canon stories to mention Moriarty, starts off with Holmes receiving a coded message from one of Moriarty’s agents, whose conscience is just troubled enough to make him send Holmes the occasional pseudonymous tip. This man uses the name Fred Porlock. SHCD expands Porlock into one of your always-available resources, just like your contacts at Scotland Yard and the Old Bailey, but a great deal less generally useful, because he knows only about Moriarty’s activities.

And, as in The Valley of Fear, the case starts off with a coded message, although not from Porlock. This is another new element: the static equivalent of a minigame. That is, like a minigame in a videogame, it’s a break in the game’s main activities, a self-contained segment where you have to think in a different way. I was liked this at first, not just because it provided some pleasing variety, but because it seemed to be applying it well. To start with, unlike a lot of mass-market puzzlefests, it doesn’t expect that the player is unable to crack a simple substitution cipher without being handed a key. That is, you can go to Holmes for help if you want (Holmes himself is another one of those always-available resources), but recall that the game discourages taking more hints than you need. And anyway, Sherlock Holmes fans should all some idea of how to solve cryptograms, seeing how Holmes himself explains the basics in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. But then, once you’ve deciphered the message, it turns out to be gibberish, just semi-grammatical word salad. Because obviously no one would encode the real message in such an easily-cracked way.

Getting at the note’s second layer almost necessitates consulting Holmes, and even then, he doesn’t tell you what to do directly, preferring to watch you flail about helplessly. Honestly he’s kind of a jerk in this game. I’m willing to believe that this is one of those puzzles best suited to a team effort, with multiple minds that work in different ways. Working by myself, I did at least find the signature, and that was worth a few points, but missed the actual content.

At this point, I’m really leaning toward the idea that you’re not really meant to solve these cases, that you’re supposed to try to solve them and then let Holmes actually solve them for you. I intend to keep going out of sheer stubbornness, but this isn’t really to my taste. It makes me wonder, though, if a similar format could be used for a different detective with results more to my liking. Someone whose cases are less about the brilliant revelation that makes everything clear, and more like a police procedural, where you keep on finding more confirmation the more you dig. Columbo, maybe. You’d have to alter the rules for this, though, because the current rules discourage the style of detection where you keep digging and digging and find more and more confirmation of what you suspect.

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1. Fun fact: The Sherlock Holmes fandom was the first to use the word “canon” in its fannish sense. Really, they pioneered a lot of the customs of modern fan communities.

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