In an E3 that is full of sequels and the same-old, same-old Murdered: Soul Suspect, may stand out as something that's actually new. But one look at this game — the adventure of a ghostly detective who has one night to solve his own murder — probably wouldn't make you think of its even more unusual origins.
"Square Enix actually came to us," the game's senior design producer, Eric Studer told me recently, after running through a demo of the game. He was referring to the famous publisher of Final Fantasy and, more recently, Tomb Raider. He works at Airtight Games, development studio for the jetpack action-adventure Dark Void and the Portal-like puzzle game Quantum Conundrum.
"Their creative director, [Yosuke] Shiokawa-san, had an idea for a game. It came, kind of in a weird way, from the movie Die Hard. He imagined: What if John McClane had died? And he wound up as a ghost and was trapped in this space? What would he do? What would his goals be? Well, he's not just going to turn around and abandon his wife. He's not just going to let the bad guys win. He would find a way to, as a ghost, to stop the bad guys and save his wife."
This was not at all what I thought Studer was going to say. This is a third-person action game. You're a dead detective wearing in a vest and a fedora. You can possess people and see through their eyes. You can walk through walls. I mean, look at the trailer. Die Hard inspired this? I would have thought Patrick Swayze's Ghost did.
Nope. Die Hard.
"So he had this kernel of an idea and he brought it to Airtight Games," Studer said. "We built a team to support this concept. We started kicking around prototypes. Two of the things that really stuck were: this notion of using investigation gameplay to help drive the narrative — the story we wanted to tell — and also this concept of interior walls and not being bound by the same rules that living people are. And with his original germ of an idea and these other gameplay concepts we were working on, that's sort of where Murdered came from over time."
Alright. They used to call this game Fate (Studer even did by accident a couple of times during the demo). It's the adventure of a detective named Ronan O'Connor. He's been killed at the start of the game after poking his way through a house in the spooky American town of Salem. A mysterious figure throws him out of a three-story window onto the pavement below and then shoots him for good measure.
The game unfolds over the course of the night and is designed to be a mystery with more focus on clues than combat. It might be the first big-publisher mystery game since Take Two and Rockstar's 2011 game L.A. Noire.
Here's some gameplay, via GameSpot (skip two minutes in):
The rules of the game are as follows: you can possess people to see through their eyes. You can walk through interior walls of buildings. The exterior ones, according to the fiction of the story, have been sealed by the townspeople with a spell that keeps supernatural ghosts and demons out, unless there's a breach like an open door or window they can pass through. Inside, walls are no obstacle, but manifestations of the spirit realm O'Connor now operates in — the dusk — can block him.
To solve mysteries, players will have to learn about an area and its people by possessing them, sorting through word puzzles that represent a manifestation for the player of O'Connor's thoughts, and subtly trying to manipulate the goings on in the land of the living.
There is some combat. Red demons who exist in the dusk plane will attack O'Connor, but he can fight them by sneaking up on them. They're only vulnerable when they're unaware of him.
The big gameplay twist appears to be the walk-through-walls thing, something that's hard to appreciate without playing the game a bit. Studer said his team has seen this one change really throw players off, at first. "You're sort of breaking rules that, passively or not, they've come to expect in video games. There's a lot of legwork in teaching them and helping them to understand that, 'No, you're not bound by this anymore. You have a freedom you've never had before.' In some of our early playtests people walk into a space — we tell them they have this ability — but it's almost like they don't believe it initially. ... By the end of the playtest they get so used to this notion that internal walls don't block you anymore that they're passing through walls and barely even notice it anymore."
If none of that sounds like Die Hard to you, well, me too. But who cares? The point of the game is to tell a story while giving players some skills (investigation) that they don't use much in major modern games and some skills (walking through walls) that will feel new. The story and the level design are going to have to be good to make this work, but 'tis the season for optimism. The game will be out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in early 2014.
"I think what we're developing is a really, fascinating interesting world," Studer said to me in closing. "All the gameplay mechanics of it, the characters, the story, all serve to help build what is a really original creative space for them to interact with."
This preview is based in part on a hands-off demo of about 15 minutes of the game.