Among a field of upcoming game releases centred around action and violence, Murdered: Soul Suspect promises something different.
It tells the story of Ronan O'Connor, a former petty crook gone straight who has reinvented himself as a detective. While looking for clues to identify a notorious serial killer operating in the witch-haunted town of Salem, Massachusetts, he inadvertently becomes the killer's latest victim.
Normally, this would be the end of Ronan's story, but in this game it is only the beginning. Refusing to pass on to the afterlife because of his unfinished business, Ronan continues his investigation from beyond the grave, but this time the murder he is trying to solve is his own.
"I watched Die Hard and I imagined, what if John McClane, the main character of the movie, got killed during his adventure?" recalled Yosuke Shiokawa, creative director on the project. "I think he'd become a ghost detective and still try to save his wife! I realised, oh, this is a good, unique experience, sort of Die Hard meets Ghost. So that was the beginning of the concept."
That was in 2009, and he immediately got to work, looking at games in comparable genres to see what he liked and what he would have to invent. "I played a bunch of adventure and investigation type of games, including LA Noire, the CSI games, and Sherlock Holmes games, and Nintendo DS games such as Ghost Trick and Hotel Dusk. I took some small elements from the mechanics of each game, but I wanted the core gameplay to be something new."
Like many of his contemporaries in the Japanese game industry, Shiokawa was tired of making the same games over and over again, and yearned to create something genuinely new. "You can find a lot of innovation in small, independent games," he said, "but I truly believed that big AAA games can still be innovative."
The end result is a fascinating blend of genres, with Ronan exploring crime scenes in search of clues and using those clues to reconstruct past events. He can also jump inside the heads of the living to pick up their thoughts and subtly influence their actions, prodding them to ask particular questions or talk about relevant topics.
There is action as well, but Shiokawa was adamant that it was not going to be the dominant gameplay element. "This is not an action-packed game – the combat is just one part of the investigation," he said. "If the player has to get past an enemy, they have to study its behaviour, its surroundings, its movement paths, and then they have to solve that problem and deal with the enemy. The combat is a puzzle to be solved."
The combat that has so far been shown to the public involves creepy demonic entities that have manifested in various homes and workplaces. While the living are not aware of anything amiss, Ronan sees the demons as amorphous figures that flit erratically around the environment. Taking them on face-to-face is not recommended, so stealth, planning and puzzle-solving are required to sneak up from behind and forcibly exorcise them.
"The basic genre I'd call action-adventure, but the core concept is more important, solving your own murder as a ghost detective," Shiokawa said. "The gameplay is a means to deliver that concept; the gameplay elements - investigation, combat and so on - are there to serve the story."
In order to tell that story more effectively, the team has heavily invested in the script and performances, and the technology that underlies them. "We hired a Hollywood director and did full performance capture – voice, face and body – and we hired experienced film and TV actors. We put a lot of effort into it."
The digital recreation of the real town of Salem is also an important element of the game. This is a place with a history of the occult, and it is rich with legends and folklore. In practical terms, this affects the ghostly detective: many buildings have supernatural wards on the front door that stop ghosts from entering.
"Often, getting into the building is the first puzzle," Shiokawa explained. There are many ways to achieve this, but one that has been shown is for Ronan to use his subtle powers to urge one of the living to open the door for him.
Apart from that, ghosts in the game can walk freely through walls and doors. These are unique gameplay mechanics, perhaps never before seen in a major game release, and they brought with them some unique challenges. How do you plan scripted events, for example, when the player could walk in through any wall, not just a single designated door?
"I had the design proposal, so I went to a bunch of designers and programmers and said, can we make this? Is it possible?" Shiokawa recalled with a laugh. "It was very hard to do, but as a gamer, playing this game is refreshing, a really new experience. It was worth it."
On his journey to solve his own murder, Ronan will end up helping others, both dead and alive. Some ghosts are trapped on earth because of unfinished business of their own, and they need his help to get a resolution. Others are part of ongoing story arcs, optional side-quests that flesh out the lore of the game's universe.
Despite all these other activities, however, Shiokawa stresses that Ronan has one primary goal. "You meet many ghost characters and living characters who contribute to the human drama and mystery," he said, "but your main concern is solving your own case – your murder."
Murdered: Soul Suspect is scheduled for release in June on Windows PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.