Burning the Backlog: The Joy of Crime and the Failure of Punishment

Burning the Backlog was inspired by a very simple fact: I own a shitton of games. And the reason I do is because games are ridiculously easy to acquire but […]

Burning the Backlog was inspired by a very simple fact: I own a shitton of games. And the reason I do is because games are ridiculously easy to acquire but they aren’t easy to play through. So as my resolution for the year 2016 I decided to not buy any games until I finish all the games I had purchased previously that I hadn’t played before. So far I have mostly succeeded (I have only bought 7 games in 8 months which beats my average of four games in one month by a fucking lot) And hopefully this project will help me maintain my goal of not going over 10 games for the year 2016

Sherlock Holmes is technically my favorite fictional character of all time. I say technically because while my experience with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work is minimal, Sherlock Holmes is probably the most influential character on the works I love. Sure, I have lots of love for The Hound of the Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlet but they don’t beat my love for Grant Morrison’s take on Batman or Doctor Who, two franchises clearly built on the dynamics that Doyle established with his detached, transcendent genius detective.

Frogwares has been developing a series of video games surrounding one of the most important fictional characters in our culture for 14 years. I won’t pretend I’m familiar with any of them before Crimes and Punishments outside of my attempt at playing The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, a game I remember so little about that I literally had to look at my Steam library to remember it existed in any other way than Hazy Memory To Be Dug Up For This Review.

The installment I got to play all the way through is the relatively modern Crimes and Punishment. I say “relatively”  because its principles of design are clearly point-and-click and reward consistent attention to detail and analysis of story, which are not things you usually find in modern big budget gaming which rewards reflexes and skill creativity. I say modern because my previous attempts at playing through Frogware’s work involved a degree of clunkiness that was rather unwelcoming during most of my play time.

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Crimes and Punishment is an anthological game where each story is rather self contained and has you, as Holmes, just figure who the fuck did whatever the hell happened. Sadly, like most procedurals, it’s all very murder-centric. One of my biggest concerns with procedurals is the outright fascination with murder. I feel crime should be more diverse. Bank robberies, heists, scams. Sherlock Holmes Vs Bernie Madoff. That sort of thing. Holmes is at his best when his principles do not align with either society or criminals so he hunts bad guys but clearly does it more because of the thrill of the chase than because of justice or queen and country

At its active best, the game does feel a lot like being Sherlock Holmes or what I imagine being Holmes is like. It makes you pay attention to everything and it rewards you rather cooly for noticing things. It’s not a thrill so much as a slightly smug satisfaction that fits the character well. It helps that the game design is balanced in the sense that it clearly makes clues stand out but not hit you over the head with them.

The game also lets you arrive to your own conclusions rather than just have you pick up a series of clues. Deductive reasoning is a huge aspect of the game that determines whether you get the correct ending to each case. With that said, and it might help that while I’m not fluent in Coyle’s work I am certainly fluent in his influence across pop culture, I never found it particularly hard to figure out the correct conclusion. And the game is pretty good at tipping you off when you got it wrong by simply making bad conclusions anti-climactic.

Whenever you figure out a case you are given the chance to choose how Sherlock would approach the matter. Does he care about law and order or does he help the victims and criminals? The moral decisions are too binary for my taste and they only work as a thematic underpin to the decision  Holmes has to make regarding the Merry Men, an anarchist group that has a stated mission to attack Victorian England’s elite. It’s pretty hard to not choose them over Mycroft, Holmes irritating by the book brother, especially since Mycroft loves to exalt the virtues of the British Empire. Sadly this conflict doesn’t provide much of anything other than some vague stabs at meditating the nature of, well, crimes. And punishments.

In general, I feel these games nail the fact that Conan Doyle’s stories were mostly short fun meant to find thrill in the unknown being made  known. Sometimes the game and the stories have larger concerns but they are mostly afterthoughts, like when you hit the bong and you realize you never actually thought about it like that before. It’s all in good fun and in service of the high. But at the same time, a little more ambition on what, exactly, is Sherlock Holmes’ place in society, either Victorian or otherwise would have been more thrilling.

Still, you should seek this out and maybe give their other games a shot. There are very few games out there that actually make you feel like a detective, putting together hypothetical scenarios and testing them until they are accountable to reality. There are very few games that make this kind of work fun, even with so many of them relying or hoping more for the strength of the writing or the nature of the franchise to carry  the games through (See: The Arkham series) and as much as this yearly games could be seen as cash-ins, there’s also a lot of love in them, for Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle, probably the only two lovable figures of Victorian England, let’s be real.
Burning the Backlog is an Irregular, Hopefully Monthly Feature. The Next One will be The Last of Us, The Daddy of all Dad Simulators