Murdered: Soul Suspect (2014)

As I have strategically threatened to do elsewhere, I will, finally, be deliberating Murdered: Soul Suspect in this post. In that same breath, I remember saying that I originally put this title on ice because I felt the need to write on something that had made a little bit more of a splash in the tumultuous waters of the modern gaming industry. So, instead, I opted to write on Crysis. If Murdered: Soul Suspect could be likened to the little girl from Matilda making an adorable little plop! from the pool’s edge into said waters, Crysis was a colossal, Nutty Professor-style cannon ball from the highest diving plank. We owe many tips of our feathered, proverbial caps to this game for injecting a Schwarzenegger-sized dose of steroids into the development of gaming graphics that have effectively become an invisible industry standard today.

Yet as I was bemusedly recalling how many of us added our own inflated epithets to Crysis along the lines of ‘best game evaaaar!,” I discovered that my mind began to wander in the opposite direction. My high school teachers would undoubtedly bang their hands on the table and bark “typical!” at this point, but hear me out; I might actually be on to something here. While it is easy to sum up the features of a game that we experienced as really good, why is it that we rarely consider in detail what makes a game bad? What are the constituents of a game you actually cannot bring yourself to finish, or causes you to slouch back towards the ‘Used Games’ counter in a foul mood? What are the common denominators across the titles that cause our fingers to flex unconsciously as we fantasise about wringing the developers’ necks for the crap they just put us through (and then lead you to compromise by taking to the forums instead)?

When we contemplate what a bad game is actually made of, the answer becomes almost as varied as what has made good games… well… good. For some, it is first and foremost a matter of plot. Nothing makes a certain group of gamers quite as peeved as a game that is besmirched by a main story line riddled with clichés, plot points that are improperly connected, poor character representation, pointless filler and a shoddy ending that provides no sense of closure. For others, it comes down to bugs. It is a frightening experience to behold the anger that manifests when an already frustrated gamer has to reload a notably tedious section of a game for the umpteenth time due to a recurring crash, or when he/she/neither is denied the completion of a quest (or the entire game!) as a result of some blasted NPC not acknowledging your character’s level, quest item, size of genitalia, or other triggers that the game engine cannot seem to find. Alternatively, other players simply cannot overlook issues with the game’s visuals, be it one too many blurry textures, disgraceful optimisation, clipping issues, weirdly animated characters, or just plain ol’ poorly rendered models and assets.

Yet, while each individual player could prioritise on a single issue that is likely to bring up a sour taste at the back of their throats (such as dodgy controls, torturous DRM, poor optimisation), it is also a pretty safe bet that when a game contains a combination of more than two or three of these issues, players are bound to unanimously label this game a flop.

I can therefore make two general assumptions. Firstly, a bad game can  sometimes be the trash where others saw the treasure because there is no universal checklist which will unavoidably churn out a true stinker. What causes one player to charge at the Steam reviews (and make all sorts of obscene observations about the developers’ mothers) might be vastly different from what causes much gnashing of teeth for a different player. An overall crappy game is therefore not contingent on what a developer might literally be doing wrong per se, and we can all agree that it is possible to find a few obvious faults in even our favourite games. My point is simply that there is always a measure of subjective opinion in branding a game as bad, no matter how many loudmouths may congregate in favour of this opinion.

Secondly, a bad game emerges from the reality that its flaws are fundamentally built into its core mechanics. In other words, it is about how the overall package that you are busy playing has been built around several problematic elements, and then allowing those problems to actually trip up the experience. In these kinds of games, the player  inevitably reaches a point where they can simply no longer digest the flaws that are staring them in the face and the game drops down the enjoyment meter because it is now the game itself, and not the NPC’s, that have become the enemy. A notoriously bad game such as Ride To Hell: Retribution 1%  might still have been forgiven for the mistakes it made on the whole if it not for the fact that these mistakes made you realise something rather ironic: you are playing a video game. The abysmal voice acting, cringe-worthy representations of women, laughable graphics or half-hearted motorcycle races of Ride to Hell were not game-breaking problems by themselves. The issue here is that these disasters collectively ended up severing that crucial connection between the player and what is happening on screen. The moment of immersion has been destroyed, and it is not coming back.

It is important to think specifically about what a bad game epitomises because it shows how we are sometimes too quick to dismiss a game as ‘bad’ before really reflecting on whether the game deserves this condemnation. I think that Murdered: Soul Suspect was an excellent example of how gamers became a little (mouse) trigger happy over the ‘dislike’ button because while the game’s wrongs overshadowed the rights quite a bit, this did not necessarily add up to a bad game in this case.

Murdered was a tiny bit of a noir detective story blended with a paranormal crime fiction in which the pale ghost of a detective attempted to solve his own murder before being able to reunite with his late wife in the afterlife. The player inhabited the ghost of the recently deceased detective Ronan O’Connor who was murdered at the beginning of the game by the same serial killer he was investigating, namely The Bell Killer. The rather hipster-looking detective set out to track down the identity of his killer using his newfound paranormal vantage point while still bearing the ghostly bullet holes where his killer emptied a clip into him. He eventually enlisted the help of Joy, a girl who wore a lot of black clothing with piercings (and probably spent most of her days reading Twilight novels while screaming “Nobody understands me!”). She also happened to be Salem’s local medium and the only person who could therefore see and speak to Ronan.

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“Dear diary, today I tried to investigate my own murder as a ghost, but the clues hit a dead end in the living room.” 🙂

Even with such a small sample from the plot’s storyline, it is clear that the game was basically taking on two gameplay mechanics at once. One, being a ghost, and two, being a detective – quite an intriguing combo considering that this made way for the opportunity to discover clues in your ghostly state by drifting through walls, possessing animals to take you into hard to reach areas, and infiltrating the minds of cops to eavesdrop on their insights into the evidence (all things the game allowed you to do by the way).  Yet the problem was that the game never really explored the full potential of either mechanic.

There were certainly issues with how the game let you get your ectoplasm on. Even as early as the fourth century BC, Plato had already begun a thought experiment in which he considered whether human beings would have any imperative to act morally if we had absolutely no chance of being caught. He wrote on the tale of Gyges, a sheep farmer who found a golden ring that turned him invisible just like Frodo. Gyges used the ring to enter the palace invisibly, he seduced the queen and killed the king thereby seizing the throne for himself. Yowza! One of the points of the story is that we would potentially get up to all kinds of mischief if our actions couldn’t be traced back to us, and what a better place to test this idea than as an invisible ghost? Sure Ronan could eavesdrop on the citizens of Salem, walk right into their houses or make some electrical devices go haywire, but that’s kind of it. You could not really fly around or even scare people, and there must have been a chemical spill into Salem’s water supply recently because, damn, there were some agonisingly mundane thoughts drifting through the heads of the game’s NPC’s. My point is that being a ghost was not really… fun in this game. And the answer is no: There wasn’t even a gym in the game where you could go haunt the girl’s locker room.

And then there is the detective aspect. I realise that it would surely require a rather complex game engine (and a whole additional level of gameplay mechanics) to replicate anything close to what Condemned: Criminal Origins did in terms of giving players the agency to solve clues. But why is this game so blatantly ignored all the time? I’ll talk more about it when I actually write on this game, but, basically, Condemned took you there. The horror of a crime scene was shoved right into your face as you had to use a fancy camera to zoom in on the bruises on the victim’s neck to pull off the finger prints for headquarters to analyse. For Ronan, detective work was rarely more than what critics referred to as ‘pixel hunting’ combined mostly with guesswork. I spend enough time every single day trying to find the TV remote or my reading glasses around the house, so it makes sense that I kind of hate the chore of looking for stuff in games, such as collecting Riddler Trophies in the Arkham series (and don’t even get me started on those effing nirnroots!!!).

I therefore felt a strange sense of dejá-vu as I made Ronan plod along to do ‘detective work’ which usually involved little more than looking for stuff. There was some deductive logic involved when Ronan was facing several explanations for one piece of evidence, such as the moment where the player had to arrive at the conclusion that killer was most likely unarmed by focusing on the fact that Ronan was shot with his own gun. Yet, they were a bit like asking “here lies a gun, here lies a dead body and there were traces of printing ink found near the scene of the crime. Was the person killed by a) a priest, b) a typesetter, or c) a gigantic muskrat mutant brandishing a massive Cinnabon?” I ended up clicking away at the multiple-choice options just to move the hell along because there is no significant penalty for guessing incorrectly anyhow. I therefore feel that this means a golden opportunity was lost to invoke some excellent Silent Hill-style puzzle solving elements.

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This is how a ghost pees.

So now that the flaws have been laid bare, can I say that I have a bad game on my hands? No, I cannot. Because while these flaws were often nagging at you while you made your way through Ronan’s spectral adventure, the game had some well hidden aces up its sleeve. The detective gameplay mechanics and ghostly tricks that left much to be desired were the side dishes to fantastic character representation, riveting story, captivating gameplay environments and the witch hunting history that Salem is so infamous for.

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“There is a really important question in this room… I can feel it!”

Murdered was developed (almost bizarrely) by the same studio that brought us Dark Void, another title that received its fair share of harsh criticism due to its likeable characters and engrossing storyline nearly being drowned under a unpolished jetpack gameplay mechanic. The studio was Airtight Games, and in Murdered the developers clearly played their old strengths by once again crafting a game in which a few sloppy mechanics were carried by other stronger elements. Ronan and co. were all animated by mocap, and whoever the animators were did a superb job of migrating the actors’ facial expressions and emotional states into the game. Murdered ran superbly in Unreal 3, and we all know by now how lifelike and relatable characters can become when this engine is married with a full motion capture studio. The exploration of Salem was also pretty cool as the game world offered a few interesting side missions for Ronan to complete amidst a few eerie but detailed locations throughout the town, such as graveyards, cathedrals and witch hunting museums. The encounters with the demons that occupy limbo along with the ghosts were also pretty thrilling, and these were tense, sort of stealthy combat portions in which you had to sneak up behind a few rather frightening monstrosities by hiding in the ectoplasmic remnants of other ghosts and do some kind of… exorcism… thing… from behind that destroys them.

Finally, I found the main story really exciting too. There were several really interesting twists throughout the plot that you would normally expect from a big budget series, and the ending had me gasping with my hand in front of my mouth in surprise when Ronan… actually I dare not spoil it here. And it is not just the main plot line that I found enthralling, but also the little side stories that play out as you interacted with other ghosts and found collectables. Like I said, you can possess a cat, which tells me the game is really trying to make you experience a few new things, even if these things fails miserably in practice.

It is worth noting that Murdered was something like the swansong of Airtight Games as the studio was shut down right after the game’s release. This tells me that we probably got a game that wasn’t quite finished and that Murdered could have been bigger and more daring than it currently exists. Also, the group of people that I would imagine finding joy in this IP looks rather small in my mind’s eye, but sometimes it is just pleasing to play a third person, over the shoulder title where you are not expected to take cover behind waist-high walls with a gun, or make death defying leaps across platforms. It is really not a bad game, as it is perfectly possible to get nice and lost in its story and setting. While the flaws in this title may be obvious, just think of them as that fuzzy moustache you try not to look at when you talk to your sweet great aunt Mildred. Yuck.

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