I've just polished off True Detective -- eight episodes of taut, tight, expertly written, brilliantly acted, investigative awesomeness. It was gripping, compelling viewing, confident enough in its structure and script and stars to really slow the pace at times and let you drink in the story and the performances. I had to find out what happened next, I had to find out where these characters would go next on their journey.
It's the same with all good television: you want to know what happens next. But we're impatient in the 21st century, and these days we often want to know what happens next right now. It's the Netflix mentality -- the psychological reasoning behind dumping a whole series on demand all at once -- if we can have all of the cake and eat it too, we absolutely will.
Murdered is a game where you play a deceased detective investigating his own murder and pursuing some unfinished business with the serial killer he was stalking before he was unceremoniously cast out of a fourth-storey window by the masked butcherer himself. It's a procedural told over distinct episodes that each have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Square Enix have taken the Netflix approach to this game, looking at advanced user statistics, and trying to solve the problem that every single game has: why do such a small percentage of players finish the games that they start?
The structurally episodic approach to Murdered is an attempt to change that, the idea being that if players stop their playing sessions at the end of an episode, they're more likely to come back. Then there's the fact that instead of actually releasing episodically, like The Walking Dead, Murdered is arriving as a complete package. Square and Airtight don't need to recycle funds from episode into the next, the game is pretty much done. Why not go the Netflix route and put everything out there? As one Square rep argued, people stop playing because they get frustrated. Murdered seeks to avoid that, preferring to place its faith in the narrative hooks rather than anything else. It's a confident approach, but that means the story has to be compelling. There's a lot riding on it after all.
I'll admit to being disappointed at the lack of investigative consequences in this game. Though Murdered takes plenty of cues from The Walking Dead and L.A. Noire and (of course) Ghost Trick, you can't fail investigations, there are no real consequences to anything that you do or don't do as a player, and the story plays out the same way each time. The three police badges that accompany actions such as mind-reading or profiling, depleting if you come to the wrong conclusions about the scenario at hand, don't tie into anything in-game. There's an Achievement for being the perfect detective and getting everything spot on, but that's about it.
That's not to say that there's isn't a feeling of satisfaction that comes from being thorough, and you do get little bits of narrative context and character-driven vignettes that you wouldn't normally see otherwise. Murdered lays its focus out right at the start -- it's a game all about story -- everything here supports that. So if you're invested in the narrative, you'll go the extra distance to find out as much as you can. We breezed through the first chapter in half an hour this time around, but it took me almost three times that long when I had my first hands-on, so preoccupied was I with rooting out side quests, the stories of others, searching for collectibles, and making sure I got every facet of my investigations right. The game won't do much to shake up that formula, but it has its hooks into me already.
As the we began to explore episodes a little deeper into the game, the conversation turned to similarities with David Cage's work. Indeed, Murdered is something of a cross between Heavy Rain and Beyond, being a detective procedural that involves a poltergeist protagonist. All of these games, along with the Sherlock Holmes titles, the aforementioned L.A. Noire, and many more are trying to find a way of bringing adventure games, point-and-clicks and murder mysteries into the twenty-first century. But Murdered handles better than most, certainly better than Quantic Dream's forced QTEs. The freedom you experience as Ronan, just in terms of movement, is a thousand times better than the restrictive, bulletpoint swooping of Beyond's Aidan.
There's also a point to scouring rooms and crime scenes for interactive items: the collection of evidence. Instead of just randomly completing menial tasks, here you're doing things with a distinct, singular narrative purpose. Everything here, from the little snippets of thoughts you can read from people's minds to the extraordinarily detailed design that often tells little stories of inconsequential NPCs all by itself, everything serves the story and the setting and the context. It's impossible to say how well Murdered maintains that across the entirety of its running time, but the fact that I'm positively bursting to find out suggests that it's done its job.
Elsewhere, we saw Ronan given some new tricks in this build of the game. Murdered wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve, and it owes a lot to Ghost, particularly in the notion of ability/gear gating here. As Ronan speaks with other ghosts, he becomes more aware of the powers available to him, and so new abilities unlock at certain points of the story. A short-range teleportation ability, similar in form and function to Dishonored's Blink, is just one of several gameplay features that'll unlock as the story progresses. It's a nifty little tool, allowing Ronan to take advantage of verticality , and giving him opportunities to avoid Demons rather than confronting them directly. Combat is not something that Murdered focuses on, but Demons are used to shift up the pace a little -- there's always a way around them if you're smart, mind, and the levels have been constructed to give players options.
We also met some new characters, one of whom was the girl on the run from the Bell Killer that we'd been tracking in the first couple of episodes of the game. I don't want to go into too much detail because story is everything in Murdered: Soul Suspect, but her name is Joy, and she can see dead people. Ronan and Joy end up teaming up, a little like Swayze and Goldberg, providing an interesting one-two punch when it comes to ferretting out information and interacting with others -- both living and dead. See, Ronan can't talk to the living or touch actual objects, but Joy can. Similarly, there'll be areas that Joy can't reach, but Ronan can to help clear a path. One section saw the duo entering a psychiatric ward, with Ronan having to go on ahead and use his poltergeist powers to knock out security cameras, distract orderlies with possessed TVs, and flick switches on locked doors. Another sees Joy chatting to a receptionist in order to find out which room a person of interest is currently in. The receptionist, of course, is not eager to give out that information, but a quick snoop around her office by Ronan locates a pressure point that can influence her into letting Joy through.
There are some heartbreaking moments too, particularly when Ronan catches up to a couple of young girls who died at the hands of the Bell Killer. Coaxing their stories out, being able to see their thoughts and memories, and reliving the moments leading up to their deaths, these scenes are brutal and devastating, adding more fuel to the investigative fire in both Ronan and us. If I came out of my first hands on with the question "who?", I walked out of the second with another: "why?"
And that's the thing: Murdered has me hooked. I've seen enough of the story now to need to see it through to the end. It's done its job brilliantly, presenting just enough questions to leave me wanting more. If it can replicate that throughout however many episodes there are, if it can continue to create questions, whilst answering just enough to keep the player satisfied in terms of progression, Airtight and Square are onto a winner. Everything rests on the story: can Airtight sustain this tension? Can they keep it interesting enough to forgive gameplay elements that render players relatively passive? The first hour or two of combing scenes and gathering evidence, putting the pieces together and drawing conclusions, this was all engrossing because it was fresh. But ten hours in, especially when there's nothing really at stake, will it still be as gripping?
We'll find out on June 6th.