Adventure Gamers Awards
It is all perfectly elementary, isn't it? Bringing Sherlock Holmes to the computer, I mean. A famous and popular sleuth, known for being featured in good stories: a perfect idea for adventure games! So it is no surprise that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's consulting detective has been the hero of many different games. Yes, quite an obvious choice – or is it? After all, what is Holmes' hallmark? An eye always open for details, a strong grasp of scientific matters and a mind able to piece seemingly unrelated clues together. Put that into a game, and it translates as: pixel hunting, obscure knowledge and leaps of logic – not exactly an engaging prospect. Yet it seems no one thought of warning Mythos Software when they embarked on making The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, a series which made its debut in 1992 with The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. And they indeed needed no warning, for the game managed to avoid most pitfalls while retaining a typically Holmesian flavour.
The story begins one rainy day of November 1888. A young actress has been found murdered outside a theatre, and the brutal nature of the wounds seems to point in the direction of Jack the Ripper. Scotland Yard calls Holmes to the rescue, and he will soon discover that there is more to this murder than appearances may lead one to expect. Indeed, instead of tracking a demented serial killer, he will have to untangle a complex web of crime and dissimulation, of which this murder is only one thread.
The developers wisely chose not to make the game a collection of inventory puzzles, which would be quite inappropriate in a Holmesian setting, focusing instead on investigation. Having a closer look at how this first murder is handled might therefore be interesting, as the rest of the game essentially plays out in a similar pattern. The body is of course the first thing to attract attention, and it must be examined thoroughly (and here enters pixel-hunting): the main wounds, the bruises revealing that the victim's jewellery has been taken, a mysterious powdery residue on the corpse that will need be picked up and analysed later. The surroundings also warrant some inspection, and clues quickly turn up, such as cigarette butts revealing where the murderer stood, waiting for his victim. Holmes' colleague, the trusty Dr. Watson, can be of help, and his medical opinion on the body is valuable (and elegantly settles the question of obscure knowledge).
And then comes the time for deduction. You will have to show to a bragging inspector Lestrade that his understanding of the case is faulty, and that it may very well not be another Ripper murder. Navigating through a short dialogue tree, you will make your point, based on the clues at hand -- provided you have indeed found them and understood their significance. Only then will you be allowed to move further, as Lestrade will let you go inside the theatre. And if you get your answers wrong: no worry! You can try again as many times as you wish until you get it right – after all, the game wouldn't want to punish you poor player for not being as fast as Holmes when it comes to leaps of logic.
And so the game manages to avoid two of the three potential problems, becoming quite forgiving by making the player act like Holmes without demanding the need for his brain power. You will definitely get stuck a few times, but that will likely only happen because you have failed to completely explore a location, try all conversation options, or recognize that a clue you have just found may serve you in another branch of the plot. It is certainly not impossible to play The Case of the Serrated Scalpel by clicking everywhere on the screen and trying every conversation option until something happens. But if you agree to play by the rules and try to investigate as Holmes would, you should find the intellectual challenge stimulating and the game a very enjoyable experience. And though it almost always sticks to its mechanics (with the exception of a few basic inventory puzzles here and there), the game manages never to feel repetitive or formulaic, through the use of varied settings and investigative methods. After all, Holmes wouldn't quite be Holmes if he could not come up with some creative means of furthering his investigation, and the game will involve luring characters out of his way, breaking doors open, dealing with shady people in a billiards academy and even moving crates around!
The point & click interface is well-suited to the gameplay, being similar to the verb-driven system used in LucasArts games at the time (with the left and right mouse buttons reversed, but there is an option to change that). Much like the interface, the graphics are adequate for 1992, but not particularly notable. The opening screen has an oil painting-like quality, and sets the mood well, with a haunting use of those two typically Londonian attributes, rain and smog, but the game's third-person presentation never lives up to that early promise. It is true that Victorian London is possibly not the best setting for stunning locations, but the visual design seems more focused on practical concerns (clearly showing the important items and exits) than artistic ones. The music fares better; it fits the atmosphere of the game well, being as varied as the plot itself, and at times as memorable. Note that this only applies to the proud, and few, owners of a Roland MT-32 sound module; all others will be stuck with dull, metallic-sounding, AdLib conversions.
But it is the plot that really makes The Case of the Serrated Scalpel shine. As Watson puts it, "this case has more unexpected turns than the Cretan Labyrinth." Finding the actress' murderer is only the beginning of a long path that branches and twists at the most unexpected of times. A lion, a palmist and a wardrobe are but a few of the elements of a mystery that will make you search high and low, and scour London East and West. The story is divided into four parts, but much of parts two and three can be done before finishing the first part, leaving players a certain freedom in their investigations -- but everything will have to be done at some point.
The designers seem to have been quite aware of the plot's complexity, and tried hard to make sure that the player would not get lost by frequently reminding us how the various branches fit into the larger plot. Still, I recommend you take a few notes, especially at the beginning, where several different leads emerge and must be investigated separately. The game includes a journal system, which records all conversation made, but not the descriptions of what you've looked at. It can be useful at times, to check a detail or remind you of how you first heard of a character, but once again, some well-organised notes are also advisable.
And do not be afraid that too much note-taking and scrutiny will spoil the game by making plot holes apparent. The story is extremely solid, and even a born-nitpicker like me was hard-pressed to find more than one or two weaknesses (as well as a couple of awkward moments if you do things in an order completely opposite to what the game expected). It is likely that you will not notice those, though, as busy as you will be guessing what the game has in store for you next. Solving the case involves a fair bit of reading, especially descriptions of the places you explore and the items there. They often offer insights into Holmes' mind and methods of deduction -- but the less a description dwells on a detail's significance, the more likely it is to turn out being crucial to the case. The game sometimes indulges in long, pointless "cultural" digressions, but these are thankfully not too frequent, and the writing is generally pleasant.
Much the same can be said of the dialogue, which manages to build believable characters who seem to have an actual existence beyond their (usually short) appearances in the game. Quite a few characters are taken from Doyle's stories and remain true to their literary models. More generally, it is obvious that much attention has been given to being true to the Holmesian canon and to the Victorian times. I must confess that on a couple of occasions I thought the game would have benefited from not blatantly waving its homework at my face to show it had done it so well. But I guess Holmes fans will love every moment of it.
It is a testament to its quality that The Case of the Serrated Scalpel manages to be altogether authentically Holmesian while remaining eminently enjoyable to play -- something that, as I suggested earlier, was by no means "elementary". While the graphics may not be worth pinning on your bedroom wall, the writing worth quoting in literary circles, or most of the music worth humming, they all impeccably serve the game's clever and gripping plot. Having always a surprise in store for you, the game will keep you awake for many days until it reaches its satisfying conclusion. But before that, you will have to complete the most difficult search: that for a copy of the game. It is definitely worth it, so grab your deerstalker, pipe and magnifying glass -- and start looking.