|Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases (1982)
|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg and Gary Grady
There is a genuine thrill that comes from experiencing something that takes a beloved property and runs with it in an entirely different direction. That thrill is even more electric when it confounds your own expectations. Look at Stephen Moffat’s modern take on Sherlock, for example. ‘Oh, it’s the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, except we lose everything about them and set them in modern London’. It sounds awful. ‘The only place that the BBC should show a train-wreck like that is on the news’, is what you might well have said. It’s certainly what I said.
And I was so very, very wrong because Sherlock is excellent. I love it so much it makes me like the original stories a little less. And yet Elementary, which works in a very similar way, is rubbish. Yes it is. YES IT IS. You have to be respectful of the source material if you want to be revolutionary – you have to understand it so well that you can reshape it from new materials and still retain its key features. That’s very risky. It requires a kind of genius, and a surety of touch that is far from ubiquitous.
However, there’s also great joy to be had from revisiting a beloved property in its rightful context. Sometimes you don’t need anything revolutionary. Sometimes you just want to relax into a warm bath of soothing, comfortable familiarity.
That’s where Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective comes in. It’s a competent and reverential take on Classic Holmes, with a heavy scoop of new and exciting casework thrown in. It’s respectful enough of the character to be encouragingly unchallenging to those familiar with the works. It’s original enough to avoid the risk of over familiarity. It walks a tricky line between playing to the gallery and simply letting the gallery play.
Games that revolve around some variety of intellectual Ubermensch present an interesting challenge. Realistically, we can’t play the character ourselves. Look at us, with our dull uncomprehending eyes and vacuous, slack-jawed incomprehension. We don’t have it in us to walk into a room and shamelessly accuse a Duchess of the murder of her favourite dog. We’re not the kind of people that can arrogantly condemn her to the gallows with a startlingly brilliant flash of inductive insight. And if we were able to bring ourselves to do that we certainly don’t have the sheer chutzpah to leave without anyone having us flogged and thrown in a jail cell. We’re not Sherlock. We can barely tie our own shoe-laces. The role of Sherlock is not for the likes of us. Come on, let’s be honest. We’re not even up to the challenge of being Watson.
Within this game we play the role of Wiggins – the closest thing to a leader that the Baker Street Irregulars ever had. This group of urchins and scallywags are one of the key tools in the urban espionage of the great detective – simultaneously observable everywhere and nowhere. Wiggins is all grown up now, and still serving as an informal collaborator for Holmes’ work. That’s where we enter the tale.
Once you open up the box of this game, you find a startling richness of content. There is so much game density packed into this slim package that it creates a slight gravitational lensing effect. However, it also comes with a fixed lifetime. There are ten cases in this box – new, exciting, and rich with subtlety and mystery. That is, however, your lot – once those ten cases are done, there’s not a lot of point revisiting the game again. It’ll have all the intellectual satisfaction of a solved crossword puzzle. That might put some people off. It really shouldn’t, because those ten cases are thick and meaty and full of flavour like a fine stew.
It’s difficult to talk too much about the game without risking spoiling the cases. I’ll do my best. Sherlock Holmes is, at its core, a collaborative choose your own adventure game. However, it’s only as collaborative as you want it to be – it’s as satisfying as a solo endeavour as it is in a group. We begin play by reading aloud the introductory passages of the case we have chosen. This drops us right into 221B Baker Street, listening in to Lastrade or some other hopeful petitioner as they try to gain a few moments of Holmes’ attention. We’re given a mini novella of details about what has happened, to whom, and when. We’re given names, addresses, places and particulars. At the end Holmes flounces off to solve the case without us, leaving us to our own devices. Holmes, being the absolute bastard he is, will always solve the case perfectly. Our job is not to beat him at his own game. Our job is simply to avoid embarrassing ourselves.
It’s harder than it sounds.
But where do we start? We have the whole of London spread before us in all its Victorian complexity.
Holmes’ London is a rich, vibrant place of secret alleys and dark menace. Each location here matches to a section of text in our case book – or at least, all those locations that have even the most tenuous link to the case. We also have access to a small army of specialist allies. The head coroner at St. Barts will tell us the result of any autopsy. Mycroft Holmes is available as a consultant to governmental affairs. We can pop in to Scotland Yard to ask Lestrade about his views. We have over a dozen of these expert sources we can consult for advice, including Mr. Holmes himself. Not only is he going to solve the case perfectly in an optimal way, he’s got time to sit in Baker Street in his slippers while we knock our little pans in. God, Holmes. Why are you like this? You are just unbearable.
So, it’s a case of methodically working the evidence. We visit the locations linked to the case, ask our sources what’s what, and then solve the thing. It couldn’t be easier.
Except of course it could.
See, we’re not scored on whether we get the right perpetrator for whatever dastardly deeds are at the fore of our minds. I mean, obviously we are but that’s not all. Holmes is going to earn 100 points, just because he’s a jammy sod. Mere mortals like ourselves earn twenty-five points for each of the main questions we can answer at the end of our investigation. We’ll also potentially get some more if we can solve some of the ancillary mysteries we may have encountered. So, we can beat Holmes. Wouldn’t that be nice
It sure would, but our score is also going to be dependent on how optimally we arrive at the solution. Every time we work a lead, we add a penalty to our final score. Every single time we consult the case book for a location, we lose five points. Argh?
Now, to be fair there are some ‘free’ leads – the ones that Holmes followed to arrive at the right answer. Those don’t count as penalties. Everything else though…
This isn’t your average Choose Your Own Adventure. Because good gravy, look at how dense this map is:
That’s one small part of the overall thing, and most of the map references will have something of relevance to us. Our job is further complicated by the fact that each case also comes with a copy of the day’s Times. This is absolutely full of interesting tidbits that may be of interest to the current case. And, even more troublesome, potentially of interest to future cases.
The newspapers in particular are a lovely touch in the game, reminding me forcefully of the fantastic feelies that were once part and parcel of game packages. Picking up my first edition of the Times was reminiscent of when I bought my first precious copy of Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. Inside that box was a copy of the tabloid rag that Zak worked for, and it was full of clues and hints if you knew how to read it properly. Sherlock Holmes has that in spades. Some of the facts in the paper are pertinent. Some are red herrings. All of them look plausible. Some of them look frustratingly important only to end up creating more loose ends than they tie up. Some of it is only incidentally relevant – referring to elements of the political climate that have subtle impact on the way in which you should carry out your investigation. If someone is mentioned in a newspaper, they’re probably available in London. They might not have anything useful to say. Or perhaps they’re the lead that cracks the thing wide open…
The worst kind of lead to work during play is the one that ends in ‘You knock at the door, but nobody is home’. It’s a dead-end, sure – but it cost you time and points to close it off. If you want a score that isn’t horribly embarrassing you’re going to have to ration investigative work like ice-cubes on a hot day. Every single time you consult a passage, you need to be sure it’s going to have gold in it.
If that seems like a recipe for analysis paralysis, you’re right. That’s why it helps to have more eyes on the case. While Sherlock Holmes works perfectly well as a single player adventure, it does become a different game with more. Every additional player is a new perspective, with a different lens through which they can view the mystery. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t require deep knowledge of any particular field of study, but it does benefit on occasion from historical, geographical, or political understanding. Every new set of skills you add to the team, the more comprehensive your interrogation of the available data becomes.
The thing is, every long passage in the case-book is absolutely chock-full of clues that may be important. There might be hints in the architecture, or the décor. The position of the body might be key. The physical disposition of the suspects may be the fulcrum upon which everything can be levered. But it’s just as likely that it isn’t and you can find yourself disappearing down a rabbit-hole if you are not careful. Within the Sherlock Holmes books, cases are solved through blinding moments of radiant brilliance. ‘Of course Holmes, the fact that the villain liked Egyptian cigarettes proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could not have struck the killing blow!’.
Remember how I said above that we can’t live up to that? Don’t even try, because you’ll just trip yourself up. We’re not the great detective. We need to work the case like actual police offers. Moments of insight will just as easily be your downfall as they will your salvation. You want the five Ws:
- What the hell happened, and does it matter?
- Who the hell did it, and does it matter?
- When did they do it, because look I’m not going to lie here time is a factor and I can’t be doing with all your random bullshit Mrs. Miggins.
- Where did it happen, because if it’s not on my way I think I’m just going to leave the theft of your prize petunias to the local police.
- Why did it happen, because oh God I see Holmes is already on his way to confront the suspect and I’ve got nothing. I mean, I’ve got Bupkiss. I don’t even have that. I’ve got Bup, Mrs Miggins. I’VE GOT BUP.
It’s easy to get caught up in the subtlety of the tale when you take on your first case. Everyone is an amateur blood splatter analyst, and an expert in criminal psychotherapy knowledge, with the unerring ability to unpick ballistic evidence from a few metal fragments. I’m not saying you’ll be wrong. I just hope this meaningful silence will do the heavy lifting of conveying that message without me being the bad guy.
It’s not all pointless busywork and frustrating dead ends. In every case there is a secondary narrative – another crime, or something very like it, that will raise its head in your investigations. The two narrative trends don’t intertwine, but they do tangle together on occasion. Like railroad cars in an old-timey thriller, you can end up following the wrong tracks if you mistakenly jump from one to the other. There are points available for answering some of these ancillary mysteries, but the real prize comes for solving the case for which Holmes has been commissioned.
This could so easily have become a kind of gamified fan-fiction, but the writing in Sherlock Holmes is genuinely sharp, and with a sureness of tone that is borderline reverential. It’s generous with scene-setting and world building, and delivers the context of the investigation in a way that is genuinely immersive whilst also serving a game purpose.
Chekov once remarked ‘One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off’. That’s a fine guideline for passive experiences like theatre and novels. It doesn’t work for more interactive mediums, especially when it is not knowing which rifles are loaded that carries the greatest gameplay impact. Sherlock Holmes neatly side-steps the issue by throwing rifles everywhere. If you want to pull the trigger, you go right ahead. Maybe you’ll get lucky. You might have noticed though that Holmes himself isn’t pointing rifles in the air and optimistically hoping for a bang.
The sheer word-count of the cases too does a wonderful job in alleviating the other issue that comes with this kind of journal-based incremental revelation. Back in the day, computers didn’t have enough memory to store any meaningful amount of narrative. The job of telling the story was often offloaded into a companion paper book, with important events randomly threaded through numbered sections. The SSI Gold Box games were especially noted for this. However, the risk in such a system is that people read them through in a linear way and thus reveal what was going to happen at various pivotal plot-points. The solution adopted for video games was to seed fake entries into the text so that you wouldn’t know what was true. Sometimes these were bizarrely involved, or cross referenced so that you’d find mini scenarios that had the ring of authenticity about them. Playing with the expectation these prognostic flashes were true would lead you down many misleading avenues.
Sherlock Holmes solves the problem in a different way – it lets you choose which passages are going to be relevant, and buries the key information deep within them. Everything is going to be important to your investigation. The question is, how closely is your investigation cleaving to the true thread? You can find yourself being able to provide very detailed, forensic answers to questions that absolutely nobody is asking.
Perhaps expectedly this sheer mass of narrative creates a problem of internal consistency. The quality of cases is uneven, and the sense of the logical leaps required to solve them modulates considerably. Some of the cases too come with frustrating typos and broken map references that make them impossible to solve in their published form. You can get the errata from the internet, but depending on what corrections you acquire simply knowing the passages to which they refer is a small spoiler in and of itself. Sometimes too it’s frustrating to be assessed against invisible criteria – properly, you should only read the questions after you’ve concluded your investigation. However, you then run the risk of discovering that elements which seemed incidental were in fact pivotal.
‘Explain why the two brothers were fighting over the onyx monkey statue’.
‘Uh… what brothers?’
‘What was distinctive about the sword that was used to stab the curator in the Museum of Freaky Doll Sex?’
‘I don’t think we went to a museum…’
‘Why is your wife leaving you?’
‘What? This is news to me!’
There’s a certain irony in my complaining about this since this is exactly what I expect of students when they sit an exam I have written. They do though at least know the topics they should be studying. The Sherlock Holmes equivalent is pitching you an unexpected question on astrophysics during a test on anthropology. Sure, there is a tenuous link between the subjects but a bit of warning would have been nice.
It’s hard to feel too aggrieved though because the truth is that it’s rarely the thing that keeps you from beating Holmes. Your own fundamental misunderstanding of the facts of the case is what will do that. When Mrs Meeple and I took on the first case, we managed zero points, and thought we were lucky to get that. We accused the wrong person, for the wrong reasons. We got only a few elements of the mystery correct, largely out of dumb luck. On the other hand, our exhaustive and ill-conceived efforts had revealed a considerable amount about the secondary affair. We got zero points and called it a win. You’re going to have to be very good to beat Holmes. You’ll likely fall quite far short of your own expectations, and so the few points you didn’t know you wouldn’t be able to get don’t really matter much. Focus on avoiding failing so badly that everyone in the group resolves to never see each other ever again.
At the end of the case, you get a wrap-up section that gets read aloud to the group. During this, Holmes explains how trivial the thing was and how few clues were needed to solve it. It’s best to avoid eye-contact with everyone else while this is going on. Holmes is an asshole, because all the final passages underline is that he got lucky. It just so happened that the things he chose to focus on were exactly the things that were important. You can’t go back to the case and say ‘My God, it’s so obvious with hindsight’, because usually it isn’t. Most of us don’t have the luxury of unerring gut feeling. Holmes may be the smartest person in the room. You have to wonder though how many of these beautifully efficient yet fragile conclusions have ended up sending the wrong person to the gallows because of his insufferable arrogance.
That’s what I tell myself anyway. Holmes can turn a half-smoked cigarette into a death sentence. He’s so convinced of his own correctness that his conclusions, no matter how tenuous and circumstantial, are all but unassailable. When I wrongly accuse someone I get laughed out of the room. If Holmes had made the same accusations for the same reasons, they’d be swinging from a hemp rope by the end of the day.
What I’m saying is – it’s okay to hate Holmes at the end of the game. Give in to that hate. It’ll be the thing that rescues you from your own intellectual self-loathing. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is an outstanding exercise in self-flagellation, executed with grace and poise. We can all do with being humbled on occasion. Pick it up, you’ll be a wiser person for it.