LudoNarraCon 2021: Murder Mystery Machine

Regular Later Levels’ visitors will know I have a thing for detective games. Give me a storyline featuring a hardboiled investigator, hidden clues and devious crooks, along with gameplay where it’s up to the player to solve the crime and I’m there.

It’s therefore no surprise that Murder Mystery Machine was added to my wishlist immediately after coming across Blazing Griffin’s project on Steam in December 2019. Teasing a series of murders, disappearances and conspiracies, the trailer showed two protagonists trying to link them together. I’ve now had the opportunity to try a demo of the game for myself during LudoNarraCon at the end of April – and I can’t wait to get my sleuthing on during the full release.

Players join fresh-faced rookie Cassandra Clarke on her first day with the District Crime Agency (DCA) where she’s teamed with a reluctant burnt-out detective named Nate Huston. They’re sent to investigate the murder of a prominent politician which at first seems to be a botched robbery; but the evidence soon entwines them in a complex, interconnected series of crimes which are anything but an open-and-shut case. Will you be up to the challenge to discover the truth?

Justin Alae-Carew and Neil McPhillips from Blazing Griffin gave some insight into their game’s design during a livestream for LudoNarraCon. Because the company spans video game, film and television development and production, they wanted to combine these areas and create an interesting title which felt like a police drama you’d see on TV. The result is a ‘detective mystery puzzle game which combines a few genres in one’ and takes place across eight episodes made up of several scenes.

The demo features three scenes for a case and each of these follows a similar format. You start by speaking to the witnesses or suspects if any are present then comb the environment for clues, sometimes having to turn or zoom into the isometric view to get a better look from a different angle. Every piece of evidence found is placed on a mind-map board where it can be linked together, and connections made can give the detectives new ideas and dialogue options.

For example: you discover that the politician has a political rival so could a hit have been arranged? Talking to the secretary reveals she was told not to answer questions from the press and didn’t tell anyone else of his whereabouts. Linking these two pieces of information on the mind-map causes Cassandra to realise that this theory isn’t possible so it rules out the rival as a suspect; and a further conversation with the secretary as a result uncovers some useful information.

Murder Mystery Machine, video game, office, secretary, detectives, sofa, Cassandra, Nate

During their livestream, Alae-Carew and McPhillips shared that the game started out as a ‘procedural crime scene generator’ and then evolved into something else. They wanted to create a freeform title where players were given a lot of freedom to investigate, as many current detective releases streamline the gameplay too much or include puzzles not related to the investigation. Focusing on a detective’s skills including powers of logic and deduction, and a desire to include a narrative led to what is now Murder Mystery Machine.

The biggest challenge the development team faced from day one was working with people who were used to creating linear narratives for television: how do you emulate a TV or film approach to a story but give the player some control over it at the same time? The writers were trained to understand that you can never be entirely sure what the person in charge of the controls is going to do, and that you therefore need to write for all the different possibilities.

With a television show, it’s usually the case that the characters know more than the viewer or vice-versa; but with a video game, you somehow need to marry these two together so the player knows just as much as the protagonist. Scenes therefore had to be constructed in a way where information is uncovered in a careful fashion and too much isn’t revealed at once. You should never be able to solve a case before the game has given you, Cassandra and Nate all of the necessary pieces to do so.

Using the clues gathered and linked together on your mind-map board, you’re asked to answer questions about the who, what, why, where, when and how at the end of each scene. You can submit your evidence once you’re happy with your conclusions but be warned: you only get three attempts to get it right and missing any links reduces your detective score. I made a guess during the final scene without getting all of the deductions and had my grade decreased as a result.

Based on what was shared by Alae-Carew and McPhillips, it sounds as though there’s going to be an overarching story rather than just individual cases during Murder Mystery Machine. Some will be personal stories, such as how the protagonists progress and build their relationship, while something much larger is teased and will be revealed at the end of the season. The point out that they wanted to add a lot of depth: ‘Nobody is a straight-up criminal, but nobody is a saint either.’

Murder Mystery Machine is already available on Apple Arcade, and PC and console players will be able to get their hands on the game very soon to find out whether they have what it takes to be a detective. Check out Blazing Griffin on Twitter for further announcements.

The 7th Guest: the horror of the 90s

I’m a coward when it comes to horror games. But that doesn’t mean I’ve not played them: although I’m never going to be brave enough to face an action-adventure or survival on my own, I’ve managed to force myself through a few scary point-and-clicks over the years.

One of these was Shivers by Sierra Online back when it was released in November 1995. Picking it up again last year reminded me of just how much it had frightened me then, and I felt that familiar fear sink its teeth in even though the cartoon spirits are laughable now. A lot of this feeling was to do with the soundtrack; many studies have documented the ability of songs to recall previous events and emotions, and hearing The Theatre and The Secret Hall returned me to being a scared teenager.

Before this though was The 7th Guest in January 1993. Like with Shivers, it seems strange now that it was a game I bought as its promise of a ‘long-abandoned mansion’ filed with ‘eerie lights and the terrible sing-song rhymes of children’ should have really put me off. I remember playing it on the PC in my parents’ conservatory during the evenings after school while they were in the lounge, the lights and sound of the television from the other room making me brave enough to continue.

After meeting Darkshoxx in October last year, I watched several of his streams where he attempted to speedrun Trilobyte Games’ release. We then had the pleasure of seeing him move on to sequel The 11th Hour as part of a charity marathon one Friday evening. Seeing these games being played again made me want to return to The 7th Guest myself so, after receiving the 25th Anniversary Edition as a Christmas gift from Ellen from Ace Asunder and then working through a section for our GameBlast21 marathon stream, I decided it was time for a proper playthrough.

This isn’t your typical horror. Instead of grabbing your gun to fight off the monsters or hiding from ghosts in cupboards, the action takes place in the form of 22 puzzles dotted around the mansion and solving these opens further rooms. They range in type and difficulty, and there are some spooky happenings as you progress: you may hear a random scream coming from upstairs, see hands trying to push through a painting on the wall or get sucked into a secret passage which transports you to a different area.

The room I remember most from my first playthrough was the kitchen for two reasons. First, the puzzle was one which had me stumped for a while: your objective is to rearrange tin-cans with letters on them to form a sentence, but you must make do with only Ys as no vowels are provided. I spent days working on anagrams in a notepad and it was through this that I learnt the word ‘tryst’. Luckily I recalled this memory and was able to solve the challenge the second time around with little difficulty.

The second reason is the soup incident. As mentioned above, strange things happen at certain points in the game and if you click on the stove in the kitchen, you’ll be treated to a full-motion video (FMV) clip where a liquid face comes out of a pot. I remember this one frightening me the most as a teenager. The 7th Guest’s story is told through similar FMV scenes, although their sequence is dependent upon the how you tackle the rooms and so they may not necessarily be shown in order.

This made me wonder how well the plot is communicated to today’s audience. Storytelling methods in video games have progressed far beyond what was available to players back when this title was released and so I can see how elements of The 7th Guest could be viewed as confusing and out-dated. Indeed, I asked the friends who had joined us in Twitch chat whether they understood what was going on – and most of them admitted to not knowing what was happening.

I carried on progressing through the rooms, hoping that the ending would make the narrative clearer for viewers. The bishop puzzle in one of the bedrooms upstairs almost stopped us though and trying to move two sets of chess pieces to the opposite side of the board was just as difficult as I remembered it to be. Thankfully, we had both Darkshoxx and Die4Ever2011 – the person who holds the world record for completing the game in the fastest possible time – to give us several hints which got us through it.

So did the final cutscene make the narrative any clearer for those in Twitch chat after over ten hours of gameplay? The answer on one hand is yes because they now understood the plot-twist; but the other it’s no, because there were several friends who asked: ‘Is that it?’. There are certainly a few holes and unanswered questions when I look at the story through older eyes now. But playing it as a teenager in 1993, I seemed to overlook all those problems and lose myself in the atmosphere of the mansion.

To be quite honest though, I’m not sure the title has aged entirely well. The FMV sections were technically ground-breaking at the time of release and I remember being amazed by them but now, they just look incredibly fuzzy; and the ghostly moments are more cliched and comical than terrifying. Whereas Shivers managed to still scare me thanks to its creepy soundtrack and mysterious museum setting, I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the effects and acting throughout The 7th Guest.

But this is what makes it what it is. It’s nostalgic and brings back what you remember of gaming in the 1990s. It wouldn’t be the same title without the bad FMV cutscenes, weird villain and cheesy lines and a remake just wouldn’t be able to capture what made it special. I can see why many players still look at this classic fondly, and it has been a pleasure getting to know several members of the speedrunning community who continue to hold it in high regard.

During our streams, Attagoat suggested we next move on to The 11th Hour. It’s something I’d like to do one day because I bought it when it was released but never finished it. First though, I think I’m going to immerse myself in the world of FMV a little deeper as The 7th Guest has reminded me why I love these games so much.

The Mysterious Museum: finding the Exit

Something you really don’t want to happen on a Friday night is a power-cut. Having the lights go out halfway through dinner, then having to entertain a 13-year old who’s moaning about not being able to use his Xbox for is rather painful.

This is what happened to us one evening last month. A cut earlier in the day had meant I’d been unable to connect to my work’s network and get anything done all morning; and then shortly after my stepson had arrived for the weekend and we’d sat down to eat, the power went out for a further three hours. A website informed us there had been an issue with the cabling somewhere and the engineers were diverting electricity between several areas in to get it fixed.

We decided to get out the physical games after scrambling around the house in the dark to find torches and lighting candles. It kicked off with the stepkid’s first experience of Exploding Kittens, which he was annoyed at for losing but asked to play again the following night; then Pete wanted use Ethan’s Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set so he could be Dungeon Master (DM) until the stepkid and I overruled him (I dread to think how that would have panned out). Instead, we turned to an Exit The Game escape-room-in-a-box.

Pete and I had bought this for Ethan as a Christmas present back in 2019. He seemed to have enjoyed the couple of escape rooms he’d completed with us by then and so we thought it might be a gift that would appeal to him. It had however remained untouched for over a year, after the siren call of his Xbox and Overwatch with friends had lured away his interest. Luckily it was still sitting on a shelf in our bookcase with the other games and was just what we needed to pass the time.

All escape rooms seem to come with a loose story and Exit The Game is no exception. The Mysterious Museum takes place on the last day of your vacation in Italy, when a strange man hands you a free ticket to the Florence Natural History Museum. Nobody else is around when you enter the building and the doors slam shut behind you, and the only other exit is blocked by a turnstile with an odd symbol. You must work out how to solve the riddle of the museum and escape otherwise you’ll be added to its permanent collection…

Let me give an example of how the game works without giving away spoilers. On the first page of the booklet contained within the box is a welcome note with from the institution along with a note asking you to look at your first Riddle Card. Turning this over reveals a ticket with a handwritten message scrawled on it. You’ll need to manipulate this – drawing on, folding or cutting it as necessary – and use it with the picture shown on the second page of the book to obtain a three-digit code.

The Mysterious Museum, Exit The Game, decoder, disk

The decoder disc deciphers this to give you a number that relates to a specific Answer Card. Flipping this over will reveal an ‘X’ if your code above is incorrect, or a series of symbols if you’re heading in the right direction. Comparing these pictures to the images shown in the book will then lead you to a further Answer Card, which will give instructions on how to proceed if you’ve picked the right one. It’s a little hard to explain but it makes more sense after you’ve completed your first few puzzles.

We found it slightly difficult to get started because we weren’t entirely sure what to do. This always seems to be the case with any kind of new puzzle game whether physical or digital; it was the same when we tried to interpret the clues in the Space Observatory jigsaw last year or solve the first challenges in Quern – Undying Thoughts recently. It gets easier once you’ve wrapped your head around what the game expects of its players and how to approach the puzzles, and this was the same for The Mysterious Museum.

Thankfully Hint Cards are included in the box so there’s no need to turn to a walkthrough if you get stuck. A set of three are provided for each puzzle: the first tells you what you need to be able to solve the riddle, the second gives somewhat more concrete assistance while the third explains the solution. We found we needed to use one of them for the initial couple of challenges but once we’d got on the same wavelength as the game, the Hints were put to one side and it felt as though it became easier.

There was a nice mix of mechanics used throughout the series of puzzles with a few involving additional objects besides Riddle Cards. One had us making a thaumatrope, where you spin a piece of card on with separate images on both sides to make them blur into one; while another required us to look at an item in the dark to find the glowing symbols. Perhaps the game knew we’d experienced power-cuts on that day and was showing us some sympathy.

The Mysterious Museum, game, cards, book, decoder

Ethan wasn’t there to experience that challenge though. The lights came back on around 45-minutes into the game and he immediately excused himself from the dining table so he could get back to his bedroom and Overwatch. Pete and I decided to make a cup of tea now we could turn the kettle on and get back to the museum. It took us around 90 minutes to complete in total – so only longer than a real-life escape room – and it turned out to be a fun way to spend the evening.

But The Mysterious Museum isn’t the first ‘box’ experience we’ve played and I have to say that some of the others are a little better in terms of story and quality. Take Post Mortem Los Angeles: Death in La-La Land for instance, which I preferred because I’m drawn to the narrative side of gaming. There’s also the fact that, while we were able to re-bag the evidence for the latter and pass it on to another family-member, Exit The Game boxes are one-time-use games due to the need to draw on and tear Riddle Cards.

But considering they’re so much cheaper than the Post Mortem Los Angeles games and others, and you don’t need to pay shipping fees as they’re readily available from Amazon (not an affiliate link), it’s hard to find much to complain about. There are currently 16 versions of Exit The Game available with varying levels of difficulty from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ so you’re bound to find one which suits you. We may try another one soon or even give the Unlock! series suggested by Luke from Hundstrasse a go.

We do need to find an escape-room-in-a-box for our GameBlast21 stream at the end of this month. If you have any recommendations, please do let me know.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

A puzzling situation

This Friday is National Puzzle Day: an event established to celebrate puzzles and encourage everyone to participate in more of them. Not only are they enjoyable, but they can also help with concentration, brain function and stress-relief.

I’ve loved puzzles in all their forms for as long as I can remember. It began with jigsaws, newspaper crosswords and the number rounds in Countdown with my grandmother after school when I was small; then moved on to video games and the adventure genre after finding The Secret of Monkey Island as a nine-year old. I’ve continued to play all sorts of puzzle games throughout my adult life and it’s likely I’ll still have a controller in my hand for as long as I can.

Extra time off over the Christmas period in December meant my other-half and I were able to get stuck into more video games, and Röki was probably my favourite from the holidays. Inventory puzzles in the classics can be confusing – take the monkey wrench from Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge or the cat-hair moustache from Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned as examples – but modern titles like this have put a new spin on them so they feel much more intuitive.

We also played Call of the Sea, a beautiful-looking game which laid out its puzzles like a series of escape rooms. Last year’s COVID lockdowns meant we were unable to take part in any real-life experiences but releases like this have meant we’re still able to participate in digital format. The Escaper is well worth a look if you’re a fan of escape rooms; our friends in chat joined in with figuring out the solutions when we streamed it in April, so it turned into a fun social evening.

You could also try an escape-room-in-a-box such as the Exit The Game series by Thames & Kosmos. When a power-cut meant having to spend a Friday evening in darkness recently, we finally got around to opening The Mysterious Museum edition after purchasing it over a year ago. It turned out to be an interactive story with physical objects, with some great puzzles taking place outside the box, and being huddled around the table by candlelight just made the experience even more fitting.

How about a jigsaw instead if that doesn’t float your boat? The Escape Puzzle series from Ravensburger is an interesting take on them that gives it a twist. It’s not as simple as putting the pieces together: they can fit in multiple places, allowing you to form items that will assist in your ‘escape’ from the scenario. We completed the Space Observatory version last year and found it to be a nice escape from our laptops after spending so much time in front of a screen during the lockdown.

If a detective story is more your thing, I’d highly recommend the Post Mortem Los Angeles series by The Mysterious Package Company. We really enjoyed the Death in La-La Land version after it was sent to us as a gift by Kevin from The Lawful Geek. Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure complete with physical items that come hidden away in evidence bags, where you must direct the investigation and figure out whodunnit before submitting your final report to the Global Detective Agency.

This was an awesome gift because I love detective games. The Painscreek Killings was my favourite from last year (even though it was published in 2017) because it gives the player plenty of independence in gathering the clues and putting them together. January got off to a good start with Blacksad: Under the Skin thanks to a Christmas present from friend-of-the-blog Phil as it was a grown-up adventure with a smooth noir vibe and great protagonist – I really hope a sequel is released one day.

Detectives don’t only have to be hard-boiled private investigators or enthusiastic journalists though. For a technology-based take on the genre, give Greyhat: A Digital Detective Adventure a go and become a hacker searching for their missing daughter. I’d also recommend picking up Interrogation Files: Port Landsend if you’re a fan of full-motion video (FMV) and the search mechanic used in Her Story, a good 2020 release where you must choose who you want to arrest for the crime and see the outcome unfold in court.

Some people prefer their puzzles to be without a strong narrative and if that’s you, maybe The Witness will be just the thing to entertain you for numerous hours. The challenges get progressively harder the further you make it through the game but still manage to retain a relaxing quality thanks to the lovely visuals. It’s nice to turn on the game and complete a couple of puzzles whenever you have some spare time, then step away from the screen to mull over the one that’s stumping you before returning to it the following day.

As mentioned above, I appreciate puzzles of all kinds – but there’s one exception. I’ve never been able to get my head around chess challenges despite being taught how to play as a kid because my brain seems to switch off as soon as I see them. The 7th Guest is a classic horror game from the 1993 with a creepy horror theme but it contained too many chess-based puzzles for my liking! Hopefully I’ll be able to get through them if this title is voted for as part of our GameBlast21 marathon stream schedule.

So which puzzle games are you going to be playing for National Puzzle Day on Friday? If you have any recommendations, please leave them in the comments below!

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

Do walkthroughs make you a bad gamer?

I’m always surprised when I remember the classic point-and-clicks I played as a kid growing up in the 1990s. The fact I managed to complete what are now considered ‘difficult’ puzzles without the help of a walkthrough is hard to believe.

The internet wasn’t so widely available back then and not everybody had access to a modem in their home, so it wasn’t as simple as opening a web-browser on your computer when you were stuck. You had other options but they weren’t as instant. You could wait for one of the monthly gaming magazines to include a guide; listen out for hints from friends at school (while pretending not to need their advice); or you could persuade you parents to let you call the costly helpline number listed in the back of the video game manual.

The latter was something I had to do with Shivers, a horror-adventure which still scares me even now. There was one puzzle I couldn’t figure out the solution for – I believe it was the Chinese Checkers in the Funeral Rites room, although my memory is a little hazy – and I begged my dad to allow me to use the telephone because it was the only thing stopping me from completing the game. After handing over a rather large amount of pocket-money to pay for the call, I managed to get through that challenge with the guidance provided and see the end-credits roll.

Game design has improved dramatically in the past three decades, with titles now better leading the player to where they need to go in terms of both location and answer. Some even include hint-systems that gently nudge you in right direction or tell you the direct solution when you’re lost. But the nature of the adventure genre means its puzzles can seem mysterious and illogical; so is it ok to reach for a walkthrough when you’re not sure what to do, or does this let both you and the game down?

Let’s be honest here: I do use walkthroughs now, both when I’m playing games for myself and when Pete and I are streaming on Twitch. The latter is particularly true when it comes to adventures, even though it’s my strongest genre. It’s important to show your viewers some consideration and, although they may find watching you struggle over a puzzle entertaining for the first 15 minutes, there’s a good chance they won’t be laughing if you’re still facing the same challenge an hour later.

We’re fortunate in that we’ve found a great bunch of streaming-friends over the past few months who enjoy these narrative-focused games as much as we do. Usually, at least one of them has already completed the title we’re trying to work through so we can often rely on their gentle guidance rather than a full-blown guide if we get stuck. There’s also the added bonus of this making it feel as though we’re hanging out with friends in real-life, everyone piled on the sofa while trying to figure out the solution to the next puzzle.

Could advice like this and the guidance contained in walkthroughs negatively impact the experience in some way though? This was a question I asked myself after completing Quern – Undying Thoughts on stream recently. While I’m very grateful for the help we received from everyone in chat, I’m almost certain we wouldn’t have resorted to using such advice if there hadn’t been the pressure of people watching us. It may also have made the title feel more like playing Myst for the first time all over again.

I also wonder whether my reaction to its ending would have been different if Quern had been one I’d tackled privately. Would I have been more disappointed in its short conclusion and final decision if I’d put in all the work needed to solve the puzzles myself? Or would the achievement of making it to the credits without the aid of a walkthrough, regardless of how many hours it took, be enough to make me look at the ending more favourably due to the sense of accomplishment?

Before writing this post, I checked out a few forums to see how others feel and it seems a lot of gamers consider the use of guides to be a bad thing. The most frequent comment I came across was something about it being pointless to ‘buy a game and then let someone else play it for you’. Most of the people who’d joined in with those conversations only admitted to turning to a walkthrough when they were completely stuck, or if they’d already completed a first playthrough and wanted to quickly see the content they’d missed.

Some even went so far as to call walkthroughs ‘cheating’ and say that using one makes you a ‘fake gamer’. Here’s a quote from an article I came across: “Referring back to the walkthrough too often can easily spoil the creation that’s gone into the game, and takes away from the freedom of exploring the land. It also destroys some of the self-satisfaction of working through the challenges yourself (as really, you’re only cheating yourself out of a sense of accomplishment).”

Elder Scrolls, The Elder Scrolls V, book, video game, strategy guide, pages, words

Does this mean that turning to a friend who’s already completed the game and asking for advice when you’re stuck make you a cheater? And are the people who purchase the official strategy guide to go along with a release bad gamers? And what about those who watch longplay videos on YouTube or live-streams on Twitch? I’m curious to know where the distinction lies (and why we’re still having the tired discussion of what constitutes a ‘real gamer’).

I don’t actually believe the majority of people on those forums. Think about it: on one hand, we’ve got this large group of gamers who say they pride themselves on overcoming difficult challenges within video games using only their individual intelligence and skill. But on the other, walkthrough sites and game-specific wikis are some of the biggest websites on the internet. And according to Wikipedia, over 56,000 guides for 21,639 unique games had been contributed to GameFAQs – and that was nine years ago in 2012.

I believe most gamers use walkthroughs more often than they care to admit or are even aware of. It’s just too easy nowadays to open a web-browser, do a quick search and pull up a guide when you’re struggling. We don’t have the attention-span or free time to be able to plug away at the same problem for days like we used to when we were kids in the 1990s. Instead of fighting against the same puzzle for hours, you can have the solution in front of you in a couple of clicks.

Personally, I think the most important part of gaming is having fun. Some members of the community get off on challenging themselves and that means not using any kind of advice to complete a game; they consider it a disservice to the developer and their gamer-pride if they pick up a walkthrough. Others don’t find the slightest pleasure in this kind of frustration and instead prefer to concentrate on moving forward within a release. However you choose to play, it’s all good as long as you’re enjoying it.

Hands, video game, controller, gamepad

I don’t see the problem with using a walkthrough though – whether that’s looking at one occasionally for a hint, using one to uncover secrets you may have missed the first time around or following whole thing straight through. Whatever floats your boat. If turning to a guide means I’m more likely to finish a game and then be able to appreciate what the developer was trying to achieve with their work, regardless of the fact I didn’t get to the end of it unaided, then that can only be a good thing in my mind.

How do you feel about walkthroughs, and do you use them? I’d be interested in hearing your opinion.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

Call of the Sea: puzzles in paradise

Call of the Sea has been on my wishlist since I first saw its trailer a few months ago. It stood out back then due to its lovely visuals and mysterious premise – and it stands out now because it’s a recent addition to the Xbox Game Pass which isn’t another shooter.

Having the subscription during the past year of lockdown has been beneficial as it’s given me the chance to fill those extra free hours by trying titles in genres I wouldn’t normally be interested in. Take Yakuza 0 for example; I was able to give it a go without the risk of buying a game I might not enjoy and ended up finding something that’s a lot of fun. My only complaint about Microsoft’s line-up is that tends to be action-heavy and as a result, I’ve already played most of the narrative-based releases available.

That’s why I jumped on Call of the Sea by Out of the Blue shortly after its release at the beginning of December. Set in the 1930s, it tells the tale of a woman named Norah Everhart who suffers from a strange illness which causes black blotches to appear on her arms. She embarks on a journey to a small island 74-miles east of Tahiti after her husband Harry disappeared there while searching for a cure. What is she going to find waiting for her and where has her spouse gone?

The articles I’ve read about the game since completing it have tended to liken it to Myst and The Witness. I have to say that neither of these sprang to mind during my playthrough and I don’t entirely agree with these comparisons, outside of the appearance of challenges on an island. To me, it felt more like a series of escape rooms: finding the clues to solve each puzzle within a chapter opened the doorway to the next and allowed Norah to progress on her quest.

The clues mentioned there come in various formats but you can usually glean a lot of information from the items left behind by Harry’s team and the notes scattered around each location. You always seem to be just one step behind your husband so you must use his drawings, letters and photographs to figure out how he made it past the current obstacle. If you get stuck, you can always look at Norah’s journal for a recap of the story so far along with the most important details.

Although Call of the Sea isn’t the most challenging or the longest adventure I’ve ever experienced, it did feature a nice difficulty curve and didn’t outstay its welcome. There was one particular puzzle which had us stumped for a good 30-minutes around two-thirds of the way in (I’m putting this down to tiredness due to the late time) but at no point during our eight-hours did we feel the need to turn to a walkthrough. The pace felt mostly constant, a good thing as you don’t want your momentum to be slowed down in narrative titles like this.

There were only two minor negatives I picked up on in terms of gameplay. First was that I didn’t enjoy the later swimming sections as much as some of the other parts of the game because they felt a little slower; and second was that Norah really isn’t a fast walker. This does make some narrative sense as she explains her illness causes weakness but even holding the ‘run’ button doesn’t speed her up very much. Still, at least you have plenty of stunning scenery to look at while you’re strolling along.

I couldn’t help but take a couple of screenshots while playing and post them on Twitter. They’re exactly what you’d expect of a tropical island – white sands, blue waves and glowing sunsets – and several friends in Twitch chat remarked how much the graphics looked like Firewatch. The settings in the later chapters change to a stormy beach complete with shipwreck, a mountain-top with murals and an ancient temple, each of them beautiful in a distinct way.

Norah’s inner monologues through her journey reveal details about her relationship with Harry and it’s lovely to see that these protagonists consider themselves as equals. Forget the 1930s view about a woman’s place being in the home; the way these two refer to each other as ‘my dear old pal’, a reference to their favourite song, shows they’re best friends as well as partners. It does go some way towards making your final decision more poignant but sadly it’s not as poignant as it could have been.

The start of Call of the Sea feels as though the island is crammed full of mysteries, and certain items uncovered hint at something dark and horrible happening to Harry and his expedition. This feeling continues throughout the title but observant players will be able to figure out what’s going on well before the conclusion is reached. At certain points we found ourselves talking to the screen and asking Norah why she still didn’t have a clue, because it just seemed so obvious to everyone watching.

This did the protagonist, who initially seemed like a very intelligent and determined woman, a disservice by making her come across as somewhat oblivious. Her habit of expressing shock at something alarming revealed in Harry’s notes and then immediately making a humorous comment about the next item observed made her seem distracted. Not that you wouldn’t be distracted if you had a weird illness and your husband had disappeared on a remote island several months ago, but you get what I mean.

Still, the final choice players find themselves confronted with in chapter six is a fitting one. The fact it’s a binary decision was frowned upon by one person who joined us for our stream but to me, it felt as though it suited the characters and their situation. There’s no good or bad ending regardless of which option you pick because Call of the Sea is a game which explores what it means to love someone and being true to yourself, and as such there are no perfect answers.

This is the first release from Out of the Blue and it’s a very promising start. Despite the shortcomings of the narrative and the minor niggles I had with the gameplay, I’d recommend Call of the Sea to adventure fans or anyone who’s looking to get lost in a story set in a beautiful location. If the team can take what they’ve learnt from making this game and use the experience in their next project, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

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