I played through Airtight Games' Murdered: Soul Suspect recently. It's a game I'd been intrigued by since last year's Eurogamer Expo, so I was a little disappointed to see it receive such mediocre reviews. Still, since my girlfriend and I had received a freebie copy with her new video card, I was more than willing to give it a shot.
I ended up really enjoying it. While Bob was spot on in his review's observations that the investigative side of things in Murdered: Soul Suspect is, to put it politely, less than challenging, I found that this didn't matter so much to me personally, since it meant that the story kept flowing in a pacy manner and didn't outstay its welcome. As a fan of visual novels and other story-centric titles where gameplay mechanics are less important than the use of the video games medium to explore and present a compelling narrative, I didn't feel especially short-changed by the lack of challenge in Murdered: Soul Suspect; rather, I found it enjoyable to be involved in the story, and actually quite grateful that the game minimized the number of opportunities to get "stuck."
One of the key ways in which Murdered: Soul Suspect does this is through the fact that opportunities to fail are relatively few and far between. For example, answering the prompt questions during protagonist Ronan's investigations incorrectly does not cause a "game over" or even penalize you beyond providing you with fewer "shields" -- a scoring mechanic which, in the original EGX incarnation of the game, was seemingly intended to feed into some sort of progression system that has since been removed, leaving them somewhat redundant.
More significantly, though, there's no combat in the game -- at least not in the traditional sense. Already being a ghost at the outset of the game means that there aren't many ways in which Ronan can be "defeated," though there are occasional sequences in the game where progression is hampered by angry red spirits known as demons, and these can force Ronan back to a previous checkpoint if he doesn't successfully avoid them or destroy them with a stealth "execution" move. Their predictable movements make these sequences into simple stealth puzzles where you have to figure out an efficient means of either staying out of sight or removing all of the demons from the area. In other words, the game doesn't suddenly turn into a shooter or a beat 'em up when you encounter these enemies; it's still primarily about exploration and proceeding onwards towards the truth.
I found that interesting, and it's something that's still relatively rare in modern games -- at least, those which get relatively high-profile retail releases such as Murdered: Soul Suspect. The indie space, meanwhile, is more than happy to provide completely non-violent experiences such as Gone Home, Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable -- games that don't even feel obliged to include the infrequent, puzzle-like conflicts found in Murdered: Soul Suspect -- while a lot of modern, big-budget retail releases seem to feel that a player will feel naked without some form of weapon in their hands; without a "fire" or "attack" button on their controller.
Shades of Cliff Bleszinski's notorious quote from back in 2007, methinks; the one where he memorably noted that "making games about talking is really hard and not interesting yet" and that "the basis of interaction is, 'what’s the easiest way I can touch this environment?' And when you're using your gun, you're touching. You're touching the walls. You’re touching the enemies. You're touching everything." While the industry has undoubtedly moved on somewhat in the intervening seven years since Bleszinski made that much-derided comment -- and there are many creative, inventive games to prove that -- it's not hard to argue that a significant number of modern games are still seemingly designed with a similar philosophy in mind.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is far from the only game to buck the trend and strip out the "fire" and "attack" buttons from the player's arsenal, however. The absence of a button that makes you fire a weapon or flail wildly at nearby enemies often makes for surprisingly memorable experiences, in fact, as anyone who played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories will attest -- and Shattered Memories is a game I often found myself thinking of while playing through Murdered: Soul Suspect.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was noteworthy in that it was a clear shift away from the earlier Silent Hill titles' survival horror mechanics, which featured frequent combat in the old-school Resident Evil mold. Shattered Memories, meanwhile, has a lot in common with Murdered: Soul Suspect. They're both short, story-centric games that you can be done with in under 10 hours. They both feature a protagonist that perceives things differently from the rest of the world, making for a curious blend of real-world and fantastic environments to explore and negotiate. They're both games about walking around, exploring environments and uncovering clues to advance the plot rather than having to solve particularly devious puzzles. And they're both games in which traditional combat is eschewed in favor of conflict that can either be avoided entirely or resolved through playing stealthily.
And you know what? I really enjoyed both of them -- far more than any game I've played recently where the predominant thing you hear for most of your play session is the dull RATATATATATAT of endless gunfire, punctuated by military men shouting at you. They're games that unashamedly place their focus on their unfolding narrative rather than attempting to be clever or pad things out with action sequences to make the player feel like they have more agency than they actually have. And while that experience emphatically isn't to everyone's taste -- we still have games full of guns because a significant number of players like shooting things, after all -- I for one hope that we still continue to get titles like Murdered: Soul Suspect, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and others like them for many years to come yet.