For an E3 that was all about the next generation, it can be hard for a title that is only being delivered on the current gen. This may be why Airtight Games’ Murdered: Soul Suspect received relatively little attention next to CoD, Battlefield, and the next-gen exclusives. It may also be because Murdered eschews hyper-realistic action and dynamic gameplay, instead focussing on rich atmosphere and investigative mechanics. It’s a risky gambit.
The premise of Murdered is instantly engaging: You play as Roman O’Connor, an ‘unorthodox’ (read: hardboiled, ‘more criminal than cop’ to some) detective who is murdered in cold blood while working on a particularly challenging case. You instantly reappear as a ghost of your former self, and must set about the task of solving your own murder whilst only being half in the world. It’s a bit like Ghost twenty years later, with a strong film noir aesthetic (and hopefully no pottery scene).
This game is a deep homage to film noir, one of the most influential and highly-praised of film genres, and its literary counterpart, hardboiled detective fiction. O’Connor could be straight out of the pages of Chandler or Hammett, and would have been played well by Bogart in his prime. The setting is precisely chosen: Salem, Massachussetts, is rich in supernatural history and otherworldly goings-on, and this combination of setting and characterisation is very promising indeed.
The gameplay can be roughly described as ‘supernatural investigation’, not a category we are called on often to invoke. The core gameplay is reminiscent of L.A. Noire, with the searching of the crime scene, the gathering of clues and the reassembling of crimes to solve the mystery. There is none of the dependence on facial animations and “truth/lie” challenges that ultimately became a bit stale. Instead, the player is required to apply what they know about the object, person, or clue, in order to reconstruct some sense of meaning out of the chaos of appearances. In some areas there is a kind of psychic graffiti, and ghostly vestiges of memory that can help to solve a particular part of the crime. There are also side-quests given by NPC ghosts (“I can’t find my body!”) and from the environment, wherein a location of some form of historical trauma will stand out as ghostly blue.
These investigations combine with supernatural skills and abilities, as well. As the ghostly O’Connor, the player is able to possess the bodies and minds of NPCs in order to influence their actions, read their minds, and see and hear what they do. It is also possible to pass through internal walls, which makes traversing the environment completely unique. Although it is not possible to interact physically with the physical world in most ways, it is possible to enact poltergeist-like chaos to force humans to help you out in various ways. These varieties of supernatural gameplay mechanics are certainly innovative, and it will be very interesting to see how they play out in practice (some of them sound a bit linear).
Fortunately, it doesn’t look like Murdered is attempting to kowtow to the current obsession with action gaming: There appear to be no car chases, fistfights, or shootouts where retaining your hat will win you an achievement. It really wouldn’t work with the ethereal fists, anyway. One real innovation to the hardboiled detective genre is the introduction of creepy horror and stealth mechanics. Apparently the Otherworld is populated by demons and other shimmery nasties, and it is necessary to evade, pursue and possess them in order to destroy them. It is also possible to possess humans and use them as vehicles in order to outwit the demons. This should provide some diversion from the core supernatural investigation gameplay.
From the hands-off demo we saw, there are still some major questions that need to be answered about how the game will work. What about O’Connor’s own memory? Has he suffered some form of after-life amnesia that he can’t remember anything about the case he was working on, and has to reconstruct it all as if he were playing a murder-mystery video game? And what happens if you get the clues wrong? Is it a trial and error affair, can you have another go, or do you have to branch off into further side-narratives to get back on track? The thorny problem of failure in investigative gameplay (you can’t just respawn) has not been definitively solved yet, but we sure hope that Murdered does a good job of it. It will certainly need a lot of expertise in narrative design to make the experience waterproof.
This game came out of the dark and surprised us with a completely innovative milieu and new gameplay design to stand out as one of the more interesting offerings of E3. With such sharp innovation in hand, the developers will have to negotiate many serious dangers to ensure that the project doesn’t collapse in on itself. If they can manage that, though, Airtight Games and Square Enix Japan will pull a golden rabbit out of the fedora of this current generation.
Murdered: Soul Suspect releases on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in early 2014.