Since adventure games are often compared to movies or novels, thanks to their emphasis on story and characters, I guess it’s pretty safe to draw a parallel between episodic adventures and TV series. In both cases, the continuity is guaranteed by recurring elements such as supporting characters and established locations, while on the other hand each episode can focus on a distinct storyline and maybe even a different setting, without losing sight of the larger picture. Critics used to be nitpickingly demeaning toward TV series and it was only relatively recently that they started watching them without prejudice, maybe when they realized that many shows had better writing and direction than most Hollywood flicks. Likewise, episodic adventure games are really starting to demonstrate that briefer isn’t a synonym of weaker, and that it doesn’t necessarily take twenty or more hours to tell a riveting story. If all these comparisons are true, well, I really need to purchase a TiVo, because now that I’ve played The Watcher, I know for sure that I can’t miss a single episode of Casebook!
This compelling crime series, from independent New Zealand developer Areo, started off with a very promising pilot: Kidnapped introduced James Burton, a rough detective with a knack for thorny cases and a penchant for vanilla perfume, while casting us in the playable role as his silent field assistant. At the end of the first investigation, we were called to the Skylark Apartments for what superficially seemed like another routine inquiry, and this is right where Episode II picks up. Francis Salt, a young archaeologist on a sabbatical, plummeted from his window and crashed on a block of concrete, breaking his spinal column in three points. A dangerous mix of sedatives and antidepressants found in his blood stream, it seems obvious that Salt killed himself. Or is it? Is it true what his fellow tenants say about him, that he was a freak? Was he really spying on them? And what about a report he filed weeks before, stating that he was being stalked? Like Fox Mulder would say, “The truth is out there”, and it’s up to Burton and his assistant to unveil it.
The plot of The Watcher is not only more complex and intricate than Kidnapped, but also darker and more unsettling. The premise of the adventure may bear some resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but the world of Skylark Apartments is far more sinister than the one James Stewart watches from his Greenwich Village flat. Once a mental institute, this huge, whitish prefab is now a shelter for pariahs and failures, paranoids and religious fanatics, all crammed together in an unhealthy, secluded environment. It doesn’t take much time for Burton to realize that the apartments are a tinderbox of suppressed violence, and a preliminary investigation is sufficient to spawn a jumble of unnerving questions: why is there cat blood on Salt’s mirror and ancient runes under his bed? Was he mad or did he really believe that a ghost inhabited the cavities of the walls, as he said in one of his videos? Did he jump or was he pushed?
The script does an amazing job of constantly revealing little tidbits of truth, without giving away a clear answer, keeping the suspense high. For example, the first things Burton wants are the little cassettes on which Salt registered his thoughts before scattering them across his apartment in a rush of paranoia. Each video slowly but steadily unfolds the backstory of Salt and his neighbours, while purposely leaving doubt about the believability of the man and his ramblings. It’s only during the second day of investigation that a bigger picture starts to form and things are really set into motion. From that moment on, the labyrinthine, unpredictable plot and clever writing kept me constantly beguiled and unable to quit playing, thanks to an almost perfect blend of drama, mystery and hard-boiled sarcasm.
Like in every good TV series, even a brilliant plot and excellent writing are not going very far without a good cast of characters, and fortunately The Watcher doesn’t disappoint. Returning from the first episode, lab technician Pete often serves as comic relief, with his witty comments and sarcastic remarks about every useless photograph the player submits to him. The crew from the police department is enriched this time around by Anna Henrickson, a beautiful, confident agent with a vast knowledge about criminal psychology and a tongue-in-cheek relationship with Burton. But it’s the Skylark tenants that deserve greater praise: from the chain-smoking Beryl Shure, hot-tempered manager of the apartments, to Grib, a deluded ex-choir boy with a predilection toward mannequins, the inhabitants are a wonderful group of unusual suspects. Honorable mention goes to Francis Salt, the paranoid victim, and Marlon Hapman, a sociopathic painter who prefers the company of books instead of men, and quotes with fancy affectation, much to Burton’s bewilderment, authors like Harold Hart Crane, an American hermetic poet, and Alexis de Tocqueville, French philosopher and fervent supporter of the United States’ democracy.
Not to be outdone by the excellent supporting roles, however, is James Burton himself. I’ve left him until last because he’s really in a league of his own: sharp-witted and instinctive, the detective can at times be charming and delicate or rough and tough like a PI sprung from the pen of Ellroy. In this episode, we get a glimpse into his lonely private life and are given a few hints about a darker side of his personality, a sort of obsession that drives him. Burton isn’t the playable character but he is the real protagonist, and Casebook manages to strikingly blend the feeling of immersion typical of first-person adventures with the strong characterization one usually finds in third-person games.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of Casebook: Episode II - The Watcher
Posted by guildenstern on Jun 9, 2013
Slightly worse than the first episode
I actually thought this was a bit worse than the first episode. Sure, there are some exciting aspects to the story, but it isn't developed in enough detail to be really interesting. Many of the characters are largely irrelevant and you almost don't learn...