Many people found themselves turning to video games to help them through the COVID-19 lockdown. Whether to fill the extra hours, forget about what’s happening in the real world for a while or stay in touch with friends, gaming has been a gift over the past six months.
Although I’ve been fortunate enough to continue working, doing so from home and not having to spend four hours commuting each day has meant longer evenings to dedicate to more games. I’ve now managed to finish 27 titles since April – way more than I’ve been able to get through in recent years. That’s not to say I’ve completely enjoyed that time though. As I wrote at the end of July, gaming was starting to feel like it was becoming another job and the stuff I was playing just wasn’t inspiring me.
Thankfully, I recently found the game to pull me right out of that slump. It was one I’d had on my wishlist since July 2018 after it had appeared in my Steam recommendations one day, and then bought on a whim as part of this year’s summer sale purchases. My other-half and I decided to install it a few weeks ago when we were looking through my library for something to stream and realised we both fancied another detective title; and it has ended up being my favourite gaming experience of 2020 so far.
The Painscreek Killings by EQ Studios takes place in 1997. As young journalist Janet Kelly, you’re sent by your editor to the abandoned town of Painscreek to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of businesswoman Vivian Roberts in 1995. You know you’ll find an interesting story to publish, based on the information released by the media, but what you don’t count on is just how many secrets the inhabitants of this place were hiding. There’s also the small fact that someone seems to want them to stay hidden.
At the beginning you find yourself locked out of the town and your first task is to find a way in. Fortunately, the door to the Sheriff’s office is open and it would be silly not to have a snoop around. Your search a key to the padlocked gate preventing entering Painscreek, along with several documents which help set up the narrative in front of you: a newspaper article about Vivian’s death, another about suspect Scott Brooks, the murder report and the Sheriff’s diary. There’s also a handy flashlight and map to pick up.
At this point the game feels like a walking simulator – but it goes beyond these mechanics by making the player think for themselves. The developer has tried to mimic real-world investigations so there are no hints or quest-markers to hold your hand. Instead, the story is told through items such as diaries, notes and other everyday objects, and you can explore wherever your investigations take you. We kept a pad and pen close during our playthrough so we could note the leads uncovered and follow up on each of these.
That’s not to say you’re stuck in Painscreek until you’ve uncovered all the evidence though. You can leave at any time by taking certain paths out of the town but your editor will still expect you to provide the name of the murderer, the weapon used to kill Vivian and a photograph for the front page. Depending on your actions, how far into the game you are and the choices you make for this final decision, you might be fired by your boss, receive letters from concerned citizens or worse: leave the real killer forever unmasked.
But at no moment did we consider leaving early (although I almost did once by accident). Every lock opened, code cracked and document revealed was a breadcrumb leading us on in an investigation we wanted to see through to the end. The further we progressed, the more we uncovered about the individuals who lived in these now-abandoned houses until we realised just how tangled and deceptive their lives were. This was no longer a case of simply murder; it was far more complex than that.
This made The Painscreek Killings an excellent game to play on stream. Everybody in chat joined in by discussing what each clue could possibly mean, the lead we should follow up on next and possible theories surrounding Vivian’s death. Shout-outs here to Will from Geek Sleep Rinse Repeat and Destiny (partner of Ian from Adventure Rules) for all their help, plus props to The_Ghost_Owl who came up with a theory about one particular plot point which ended up being spot on.
There was only one negative point about the game, and I say this with my tongue firmly in cheek. At the start you find out that the town’s population has been steadily decreasing since the murder and that the location is going to be auctioned off very shortly. This explains why almost all the items in each house are packed into boxes – but why did everyone decide to leave their diaries out in the open for anyone to find? And if we were able to discover the clues and follow the trail to the killer, why couldn’t the police have done that back in 1995?
Although we joked about this funny oversight, it didn’t bother us: the story was such a good one that it almost seemed insignificant when compared to how much we enjoyed the title. For three afternoons and around 16 hours of gameplay, we totally forgot about everything else. Even after we’d found out who the murderer was and submitted our findings to our editor, we jumped straight back in because there were a few leads we hadn’t yet followed up on and we wanted to uncover every single little secret that we could.
Speaking of the ending, it was tense. I made a joke about my palms sweating because it felt as though the killer was watching me from a dark corner and then had to hand the controller over to Pete because I was so anxious. A few reviewers have said that the final section of the game is out-of-place with what comes before it but for me, it really worked. The level of tension has been building steadily throughout our investigation and it was fitting that it would reach such a climax.
Forget the victim’s murder – the real crime here is that The Painscreek Killings hasn’t had more attention since its release in September 2017. I’d never heard about it before it appeared on my Steam recommendations back in summer last year and now I’m kicking myself for waiting for so long to get around to playing it. If you’re a fan of narrative-based titles, detective stories and solving mysterious cases, please do check this one out as soon as possible because you’re going to love it.
I’m so pleased that EQ Studios are working on their next project. There’s no release date for Scene Investigators just yet but what has been revealed so far sounds great: it’s set in a near future where reported cases are downloaded in a construction room so they can be re-examined, and it’s your job as an investigator to analyse each scene and uncover the truth. The official website advises this is going to be a game for anyone who’s a fan of detective films, the true-crime genre and escape room puzzles.
I’ll meet you at the crime scene.