Investigating your own death throws up some significant challenges that simply aren't there if you're investigating someone else's murder.
The chief difficulty is, of course, the fact that you're dead, and this makes it somewhat difficult to examine evidence, interview witnesses and even apprehend the perpetrator. That doesn't stop protagonist Detective Ronan O'Connor from trying, however, and it's this twist that promises to make Airtight Games and Square Enix's upcoming adventure Murdered: Soul Suspect so interesting.
O'Connor's ghost finds himself trapped in a realm between life and death called The Dusk, which is populated by psychic imprints of human suffering and trauma -- being murdered is, of course, something of a traumatic experience, to say the least, and so O'Connor is stuck where he is until he brings his killer to justice.
As a ghost, Ronan can pass through anything, including people, though he can't freely enter buildings; the residents of the game's Salem setting have placed wards on their houses and places of business that prevent ghosts from entering, though if there's an open door or window, they may pass through the "breach" in the barrier freely, and walk through walls and doors inside without worry.
The initial part of the demo we saw at Eurogamer Expo showed the immediate aftermath of O'Connor's murder. Having been chased away from the scene of the crime, O'Connor returns as the police are investigating his body and attempting to determine what happened, at which point the player takes over and must make use of their ghostly powers to find out what they can.
Being a ghost, O'Connor can't carry any evidence with him, so instead the game's interface reflects his keen detective skills by putting smoky text in the game world over things he's investigated. Examining things closely will occasionally require the player to answer questions or make observations such as picking the three words they think are most relevant to the thing they're looking at; progress won't be stymied if you make the wrong choices in these moments, but you'll receive greater rewards for picking the correct options. It's a little like the "insight" mechanic used in Sweet Fuse.
There's only so far O'Connor can get through his own observations, however; to find out more, he'll have to use his powers of possession. Unlike some other ghost-themed games, however, possessing a character doesn't allow O'Connor to take control; instead, he can simply see through their eyes, listen through their ears or read their mind. The demo showed us examples of how all these things work: possessing an officer on the scene allows O'Connor to read his notebook and see what the police have determined so far; possessing one of two cops having a hushed conversation allows him to eavesdrop on what they're saying; possessing a witness allows him to read her mind and help her remember what she saw. In later scenes, O'Connor also uses his abilities to reveal "memory residues" and see echoes of things that happened in the past that witnesses didn't notice; by doing so, he can piece together a complete picture of what happened somewhere, including discovering some leads that no-one but he knows about.
Once O'Connor's found everything there is to find in a location, he'll have to make some deductions. These take several forms depending on the scene; in the first part of the demo, he's asked a number of questions to check his understanding, somewhat similar to those found in Dr Naomi's episodes in Trauma Team; in a later section, he's asked to put events in chronological order to determine what happened.
It's not just about playing detective, though. There's some mysterious goings-on in The Dusk. Occasionally, O'Connor will come across the spirit of a young girl who appears to be scrawling ghostly graffiti all over the walls -- graffiti that will apparently eventually reveal some of the mysteries about The Dusk -- and there are also sidequests scattered around the place that require O'Connor to use his abilities to unravel smaller mysteries.
The Dusk isn't a safe place, either, as you might expect from a dimension created by human suffering. O'Connor will sometimes come under threat from corrupted spirits: red, hooded demons that can't be attacked head-on, but which he can see through walls. Dealing with these monstrous antagonists involves sneaking around them -- including passing through walls and doors -- and sneak-attacking them, leaping inside them and tearing them apart from within. Presumably the demons' presence will tie in to the whole "mysteries of The Dusk" thing; it was hard to tell from the demo, but their occasional appearances broke up the exploration-based gameplay between the main investigation scenes nicely.
Murdered: Soul Suspect was one of the biggest surprises of the Eurogamer Expo for me. I'd seen very little of the game prior to the show starting, and I came away desperately wanting to play it for myself. Its unusual blend of mechanics and thematic content makes it an immediately intriguing prospect, and the unfolding story looks set to be full of mysteries and weirdness to get to the bottom of -- that and freaking out residents by possessing their stove, of course.
It'll be a few months before we get the chance to see if Murdered: Soul Suspect lives up to its potential; it's set for an "early 2014" release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.