Mystery is a giant genre in movies and books, but not so much in hardcore video games. Square Enix and developer Airtight Games want to change that with Murdered: Soul Suspect, an original mystery game for the newest generation of consoles and the PC.
They unveiled the game at last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo video game trade show, and they showed me an hour-long preview of gameplay this week. I found this noire-like game to be quite fascinating. It opens with Ronan O’Connor, a detective in Salem, Mass., being thrown out of a fourth-story window by a mysterious hooded figure. As a ghost, Ronan realizes that he is dead, and his mission is to solve his own murder.
After the playable demo, I interviewed Matt Brunner, the chief creative officer at Airtight Games, about Murdered: Soul Suspect’s history and the design decisions that the team made in order to create a different kind of suspenseful experience. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: So we just played through about an hour of the game, maybe?
Matt Brunner: You played through it a lot more thoroughly than most. I think you missed a couple of things, but for the most part, you saw it all.
GamesBeat: It’s intriguing. It holds your attention. It seems like you’re going for keeping someone focused through mystery, or suspense.
Brunner: Absolutely. The core of this game is a mystery. It’s an investigation of a mystery and solving a mystery.
GamesBeat: You’ve been with the project since the start. Can you describe some of the process, what it’s been like?
Brunner: Honestly, we started out with just the idea of wanting to make a game that was based around a ghost as the main character. We explored a number of different avenues around that. Some of them were almost superhero stories, and others very much weren’t.
When we landed on this idea of a policeman who got killed in the line of duty, in this sort of cavalier action, and then needed to find out who had killed him and why — he has no idea, when he first almost blunders into it. That really began to resonate for us.
We took that and said, “What’s the core gameplay that needs to support this fantasy of being this character in this world at this time?” That brought us to the idea that it was about investigation – uncovering clues and making sense of those clues.
Then we began to add in more dimensionality to it. What’s the world surrounding you? Why is it interesting? How can it be relevant to what you’re doing? How dangerous is it? Adding a bit of danger, for both narrative and emotional spice, helped a lot to give it peaks and valleys as you went through it.
GamesBeat: Square Enix creative director Yosuke Shiokawa came up with the idea a few years ago. It was at a time when Square Enix had an ambition to go beyond their core Japanese audience and Final Fantasty, to find a more worldwide audience. Was there something interesting to you about that part of the project as well?
Brunner: When they came to us, it was a very loose idea. It was literally just a game about being a ghost. So there was a lot of freedom in the development process. It wasn’t a fleshed-out idea that we just had to put into practice.
The process of melding a Japanese sensibility with a western sensibility about a ghost story was kind of rough, to be honest with you. There are a lot of assumptions that we weren’t even aware of, that we were making on both sides, about how to fictionally support who you are as a character in this world. It took us, I would say, a good year and a half of constant back-and-forth to get that sense of, “What, really? Oh, so that’s what you’re talking about.”
GamesBeat: The things that come to mind from my side on the Japanese front would be things like Rashomon, where you’re actually having conversations with dead people, raising their spirits and talking to them. But when you start talking about Salem, for Westerners that brings up a completely different kind of lore, the witch-trial lore. It seems like a big gap to get across.
Brunner: Salem bubbled up out of several narrative ideas that we’d come up with and developed. It resonated strongly with us for a number of reasons. It gave us a smaller location that we could develop a lot within, because we didn’t want to turn this into a big rambling story about moving from place to place. It was more about characters and interacting with those characters and exploring a smaller, more detailed space. That worked well for us. It also has this rich supernatural history, which immediately worked for the ghost fiction.
I remember some of the early concept work that we started doing. I think we did some that took place in a larger city, and no matter what you did, it didn’t feel like a ghost game. A skyscraper and a ghost don’t go that well together. So we pulled it into that world for a number of reasons, both for visuals and for narrative structure.
To the broader point, there’s definitely—Shiokawa-san’s sensibilities are there as far as trying to bring a certain vision. But the entire team has been charged with trying to make that relevant to a global audience. You won’t find it falling in line culturally with what a Japanese ghost story would be.
GamesBeat: The advantage to the basic idea is that every culture has ghost stories.
Brunner: Absolutely, everybody. We all have our individual takes on what it means to be a ghost. The core of the game for us, though, was finding out what we needed to do to make it feel like you’re a ghost in this world. It doesn’t just feel like we’re telling you that you’re a ghost. We wanted you to feel like you’re playing as a ghost.
GamesBeat: Things like the lack of physicality.
Brunner: That’s one of the big elements, yeah. Until we incorporated that, and you crossed the threshold into that scary territory—there were lots of problems to solve when we did that. But before that, it didn’t feel like you were a ghost. It felt like you were a transparent physical character.
GamesBeat: For that to work, it seems like you needed to put in some visual cues to help out. You don’t necessarily go through every single wall. You can go through the walls with the ghostly shimmer to them.
Brunner: Fundamentally, the consecrated walls, the exterior walls of buildings—because the town does have this history of supernatural almost-paranoia, they’ve gone to some extra lengths to consecrate their buildings against evil spirits. That just had the natural effect of preventing ghosts from freely passing in and out of them. But the interiors are fair game for moving about.
In many ways, that one simple rule set is all we really needed. In the afterlife world, too, the Dusk is also physical to you as a ghost, and not physical to human beings. They’ll all walk right through a car. But if that car is part of a past event that was rather traumatic and ended up in the afterlife world, then you can’t just go right through it. It’s solid to you.
GamesBeat: There’s a good mixture there of a closed, single-path narrative experience and something that’s more like an open world, where you can go in any direction or pursue different parts of the story.
Brunner: It’s weirdly freeing. It was unexpected to us, how freeing it was to be able to run through a space which normally would, at first glance, feel like something where you’d seen it all and knew it all. All of a sudden, if you can just pass through any door, any closet, any bathroom, in any order, it becomes a very different physical relationship puzzle.
GamesBeat: So you’re solving a mystery, solving each puzzle along the way. Again, it looks like there are lots of visual cues for people on how to learn to do that.
Brunner: Yeah. At the very beginning of the game, we try to walk you through it in a sort of seamless fashion, so that you understand the rules of the world intuitively. We don’t want to lay out the rules ahead of time on a sheet of paper and say, “Here’s what this place is.” We slowly introduce it to you so you understand, “Oh, I can walk through walls. Wait, I can’t walk through this one, but here’s why. This looks slightly different. That’s what’s going on here. I can’t talk to a human being, but I can possess them.” And so on.
GamesBeat: Last year, you didn’t have a lot of the cinematics in place, so that’s been new. The women in the story have come to the fore a lot more, very early on. Was it part of your effort to make a game that was as interesting to women as men, your sort of core male gamer?
Brunner: Yeah, I guess the core gaming audience has been mostly male. But that’s changing very quickly. Good storytelling is going to appeal to everyone. That’s our goal. We have quite a few women working on our team, as writers and environment artists and animators. We have a healthy balance there. It does begin to bubble up into the production, just helping us to keep things narratively strong, and not necessarily in a male-dominated way.
GamesBeat: It made a difference in how I perceived this character. He seemed like this sort of inexplicably tough, don’t-give-a-damn character last year, but now he has this romantic connection, which wasn’t there before. It makes him seem a little more human. You understand his motivations better.
Brunner: It’s also a motivation for getting the hell out of there. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: Beyond just, “Why did this happen to me?”
Brunner: It definitely has. It’s been part of the story development from the beginning. A game that has just one motivational thread is usually pretty shallow. A mystery in particular needs to have a lot of threads for it to sustain over many hours of gameplay. Mysteries are tough to write to begin with, because if one little moment gets yanked out at any particular point, it begins to fall apart. It takes a careful construction process to get from beginning to end.
GamesBeat: The pattern seems to be that you have a critical path – solving this one particular story – and then you have all these side-quests. But you have to collect clues for everything in order to be able to proceed and know if you’ve covered it all. At that point you have a choice of whether to use some of these clues to pursue the side-quests. Do the side-quests help at all as far as solving the critical mystery?
Brunner: No, they’re purely side-quests. You don’t have to play them. But they make you part of the world if you do. Honestly, if you just wanted to chase through the game and only do the main route, you’d be selling yourself short on the experience by quite a bit.
First of all, many of the ghosts that you encounter within the game are not on the main path. Getting to experience that other world with people who have already been stuck there for some time is really interesting. It’s much more dynamic.
GamesBeat: The great thing about being a ghost is that you get to be a voyeur.
Brunner: Exactly. [Laughs] We’re not going to push that to its limit.
GamesBeat: You can find out what people are thinking, too. I thought it was interesting that you could influence what they’re thinking.
Brunner: That takes a minute for people to see through. “Oh, maybe I can push this a bit further? Maybe I can get someone to give me some more information.” Using your influence, you can do that.
GamesBeat: It feels as if one lever you have for controlling this is just how difficult to make each puzzle — how many clues you have to find and that kind of thing.
Brunner: Not all clues are always necessary. You do have to find the important ones to be able to follow something all the way through, but if you feel like you want to give it a stab early and leap over the edge, you can do it. If you go, “Aw, I haven’t found them all,” you can dive back in and explore some more and find what you need.
GamesBeat: And if you guess right, do you get a better achievement score?
Brunner: Yes. Guessing right is definitely rewarded. Although we wouldn’t call it “guessing,” exactly. Call it a deduction, based on how you read the events that have transpired.
GamesBeat: The combat is also interesting. I don’t know if you even need to call it combat.
Brunner: I don’t think of it as combat at all. We didn’t want to turn this into a combat-focused game. Early on in development, we did have some true combat, and it began to feel too magical, if that makes sense. It began to feel like you were a sort of ghost Harry Potter. It felt like it was not within the parameters of the fiction that we wanted to develop.
Making it a dangerous world—You have to be cautious and careful about that. Having a number of tools that you can use either offensively or defensively began to make a lot more sense to us. We developed it a lot more around that idea, rather than a simple combat scenario. Yes, there are enemies. You do have some scary enemy encounters. But we’re not turning this game into a combat session
GamesBeat: Without as much combat, though, did it become a challenge making the game more interactive?
Brunner: It was more about the pacing of the experience. You need to have moments that hit a peak of adrenaline engagement. It was flat without that. It needed to have those elements.
GamesBeat: Was there any feedback from showing it at E3 for the first time that influenced your direction?
Brunner: E3 was a positive experience. That always makes me nervous, because I’d sort of like to hear the bad stuff early. You want to be able to fix things in time if you can. One of the things that we sat back on our heels with from E3 was, how could we make investigation more engaging for the player to think through? As opposed to just handing it all to them on a silver platter. There’s a funny balance to finding that.
We made an untold number of changes to the smallest of things, which actually have a big impact. Like, what exactly is the item you find that gives you the right clue? What is it that helps you to understand why that’s a clue and why the other things around it aren’t? How many of those should we have in this section? We didn’t want to make just finding clues the challenge of the game so much as what you do with them after you’ve found them.
GamesBeat: There were definitely more heavily promoted games at E3. It’s a game that you have to play in order to appreciate. You’re not necessarily going to understand it from a distance.
Brunner: It’s something you need to sink into. I appreciated people’s understanding that this was not just an attempt to make an experience you’ve seen before. E3 is one experience after the other that you’ve seen.
GamesBeat: Narrative experiences, stories, seem to have come back with a vengeance in the past year. We’ve had The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite. Watch Dogs is coming out.
Brunner: You know, I don’t know if that’s true. I keep being told that narrative games are dead, that nobody’s ever going to play them anymore. We can’t go into reruns.
GamesBeat: Do you think there’s an example for you to follow, in some ways? From other kinds of media, or other games that might have done this well?
Brunner: We looked at a lot of investigation games. We’d already played a lot of them. One of the reasons we got excited about this, though, is that there wasn’t much of a template for it. We both had the responsibility to develop what this template could be and own that space. That was one of the core reasons we were attracted to it at the very beginning. Even though there are elements that we looked at in many games as far as interactivity, I would say that for the most part, it was a process of having to invent it from scratch.