Archive for December, 2021

SHCD: Garden Path

I said previously that the structure of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and the static nature of the text, means that the basic resources available in all the cases can never answer questions you didn’t have at the very beginning of the case. I should have said “shouldn’t” instead of “can’t”. It took until case 4 for me to encounter out-of-sequence information, but it happened.

The first four cases have something of a progression in Holmes’ involvement. In case 1, he’s active for the entire introduction, handling the initial questioning before sending you out on your own. Case 2 is similar, but Holmes talks less — admittedly, mostly because Inspector Lestrade spends most of the scene delivering monologues. In case 3, he actually rushes out the door before the intro is over, trusting you to handle things while he pursues a completely different case. (I wish his trust were more warranted!) And in case 4, he doesn’t show up at all, just leaving you a note indicating that there’s something of interest in the day’s newspaper.

This leaves some ambiguity. There are two articles in the paper that present apparently separate mysteries: one involving a pair of dead lions that appeared in Hyde Park, the other of a sailor who fell dead in the street for no obvious reason. Now, the case is titled “The Lionized Lions”, so it’s obvious to the player which item is the important one. But the player characters sometimes express confusion about it, and will ask the people they question about either or even both mysteries, as appropriate. And if you pursue both investigations far enough, you can find a suggestion that they’re connected. So I felt somewhat cheated when Holmes’ analysis didn’t involve the sailor at all, and none of the end-of-case questions had anything to do with that side of things.

I feel like this entire extended red herring is the game turning up the difficulty, on the assumption that you’ve got the basics down now and need more of a challenge to keep things interesting. But of course I haven’t got the basics down. This is something that a game on a computer can deal with a lot more easily than a game made entirely of paper. A truly interactive mystery can test you and make sure you don’t progress faster than your ability. Heck, even Pandemic Legacy slows things down when you fail.

SHCD: Scoring and Progression

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective doesn’t simply expect you to solve cases for the pleasure of figuring them out. No, that stuff is gamified. When you’re satisfied with your investigation — and only you can say when this happens — you turn to the back of the case booklet and answer a series of questions, including “Whodunit?” but also including other pertinent details. Each correct answer scores a number of points indicated with the question, with tangential questions scoring lower. Then you subtract five points for each location you visited over par. (Equivalently, you could say that every location costs 5 points, but you get a certain number of points for free.)

In three cases, I have yet to score above zero, and have not once correctly identified whodunit.

It must be said that this may just be the result of a solo attempt at a game intended for a team. More eyes means fewer details go unnoticed, right? Except that the one time I did attempt the game with a team, it didn’t make a lot of difference.

There’s another factor, though. The text casts the player(s) not as Sherlock Holmes, but as sundry unnamed Baker Street Irregulars, former street urchins led by the now-grown-up Wiggins, studying under Holmes to learn his methods. When the optimal solution is presented, it’s presented as the solution Holmes came up with. His solution is always worth 100 points by fiat; it is this that establishes par. So, you can see the player’s failures as an essential part of the Holmes story. The point is not to equal Holmes, but to stand in awe of him. To get it wrong so he can impress you by getting it right. The main difference from conventional Holmes stories, then, is that a conventional story presents you with all the information the author wants you to have, while SHCD lets you miss crucial data entirely, and what’s worse, implies that it’s your own damn fault. Someone will make an offhand mention of going to the theater, and if you don’t take this as a cue to visit that theater yourself, you won’t see the thing that makes sense of the whole case. Sometimes the questions at the end will reference characters you’ve never heard of.

So it’s something of a guessing-game, and something of a maze — each node leading to other nodes, some of those nodes being dead ends. But it’s a peculiar sort of maze, in that there’s no exit, no definite goal. And yet, I do have a sense of progression.

In case 1, I failed because I went for the solution too soon, hoping to maximize my score by minimizing locations visited and falling for what I now see as a fairly flimsy red herring. In case 2, I corrected and even overcorrected that mistake, but still failed to interpret the clues correctly. In case 3, even though I missed a crucial turning, I at least managed to see the significance of all the physical evidence at the crime scene, figure out one of the story’s major revelations, and answer fully half of the questions at the end correctly. The points from those questions were entirely wiped out by visiting too many locations, but I’m less worried about that: once I actually solve a case, I can start thinking about maximizing my score. The point is, I’m learning how the whole thing works. If it’s still too dependent on reading the author’s mind for my liking, at least I’m getting better at reading the author’s mind.

This kind of progression also fits the narrative frame well. You are, after all, supposed to be learning. I’m not sure I believe any of this is entirely deliberate — it seems to me quite possible that the author(s) intended each case to be solvable but underestimated the difficulty and didn’t do enough playtesting. But the possibility makes me wonder what else today’s narrative designers could do with the format.

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.