Frogwares producer and community manager Sergey Oganesyan speaks with GamingBolt about this bold new take on the legendary detective.
There’s no shortage of stories starring Sherlock Holmes across all media, and when it comes to video games, Frogwares certainly have plenty of experience with the legendary detective- but with their next project, they’re looking to shake things up. Instead of playing as an experienced Sherlock Holmes in Victorian London, in Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, players will step into the shoes of a much younger Sherlock in the Mediterranean. Combined with an open world setting, a unique investigations system, moral choices, and more, it certainly sounds like an interesting take on this beloved property.
Curious as we were to learn more about the game, we recently sent across some of our questions about it and its nitty-gritties to its developers. You can read our conversation with Frogwares producer and community manager Sergey Oganesya below.
"We always wanted to go back to the Sherlock Holmes universe, but had the urge to do so in a way that gave us more creative freedom. So the idea of exploring Holmes’ youth gave us just that."
What motivated you to tell a story revolving around the early days of Sherlock Holmes’ characters?
We always wanted to go back to the Sherlock Holmes universe, but had the urge to do so in a way that gave us more creative freedom. So the idea of exploring Holmes’ youth gave us just that. Most of the existing books, short stories, TV series, films etc don’t actually cover the part of Sherlock’s life at all – the era when he is just starting as a young adult, and we realized there is this big blank chapter right there for us to fill in. We could create totally new stories but still keep them aligned to the established lore and feel of the original Sherlock so it still feels like it belongs to the original character.
It’s why now, for example, we can leave the streets of Victorian London and create an entirely new fictional setting all together. Or how we can take what little threads of lore about his family are in the books and create something a lot more intricate and deeper. And finally, it allows us to create a very unique story of Sherlock’s origins that is new but also still lines up really well with the character that everyone knows comes after this phase in his life. Much of Sherlock’s personality and traits are pretty much set in stone for a lot of people, but there isn’t much out there that helps to possibly explain why and how he became this way. That’s where we’re hoping the story of our game will come in.
The premise of focusing on a younger version of such a popular character is an interesting one, but what sort of a balance does the game strike when it comes to his characterization between exploring previously unexplored sides of his personality and portraying him as millions of people know and love him?
Yeah there is definitely a fine line to walk here. Eventually though I think the team came up with a good guiding principle – give people a story of how Sherlock eventually became the person we all know. Pretty much we all know where this part of the story is going, but the “how” is totally up to us and where we can create totally new ideas.
So the books and stories by Arthur Conan Doyle are therefore our main source of lore inspiration and overall guides. Our story and evolution of the character has us basically working backwards, connecting the dots with the existing lore that line it up in ways that both avid and casual fans will feel is plausible and well thought out.
That said, I think at the start of the game people will probably still feel a stronger departure from the Sherlock they’re so used to. Our Sherlock is a lot more volatile and arrogant than his future self. He is already brilliant, but he has yet to learn to control his emotions. He is more open to bending the truth to his advantage, and sees his cases as a way to prove himself. We also took numerous philosophical paradigms as our source of inspiration for Sherlock’s young personality. In the end we made his views deeply rooted in several philosophical doctrines, such as Kantian ethics and utilitarianism.
They contradict each other, creating inner conflicts within his mind. He is only an aspiring detective at this stage, but it’s the events throughout the game that will push Sherlock more and more into that familiar self. And we’ll be making it a point to focus on very specific traits of the character that people know. We’re not just making a story where at the end we give some weak little conclusion as to why Sherlock decided to become a professional detective and that’s it. Rather we want to also cover specific details like how he became so fascinated with the violin, his signature dress style or even his addiction to drugs.
"We agree Watson, or at least the role Watson fills, is vital to the Sherlock story. But since Watson and Holmes are yet to meet at this stage in their lives, we decided we will fill that spot with someone new but still familiar enough. For this reason, I feel there will be some overlap in players’ eyes thinking Jon is just a Watson substitute because he is there to help Sherlock, but hopefully that’s where those comparisons will end."
Many would consider John Watson to be crucial to a Sherlock Holmes story, but for this game, a character called Jonathan will be by Sherlock’s side, which is an interesting choice. How would you describe his character, and what he brings to the table?
We agree Watson, or at least the role Watson fills, is vital to the Sherlock story. But since Watson and Holmes are yet to meet at this stage in their lives, we decided we will fill that spot with someone new but still familiar enough. For this reason, I feel there will be some overlap in players’ eyes thinking Jon is just a Watson substitute because he is there to help Sherlock, but hopefully that’s where those comparisons will end. Since Jon is created entirely by us from scratch, we’re making sure he’s not just a cheap Watson knock-off. They are childhood friends who grew up on the island together. How he and Sherlock met and then how their relationship develops is a major focus of our story so that’s another key element we will be shaping ourselves to make Jon a unique and separate character from Watson.
In a nutshell, Jon is Sherlock’s best and notably only remaining friend on the island. He is not as smart or observant as Sherlock, but he makes up for it by being loyal and brave. Gameplay-wise, Jon is not going to be present with Sherlock at all times – it’s up to the player to call him when needed. Jon will then be able to help point out clues that the player may have missed, draw sketches of crime scenes, call out points of interest in the city etc. We’re still working out the kinks, but our goal is also to try to make Jon’s attitude toward Sherlock depend on the player’s actions in the game. So if the feature is doable, we want to make it possible for Jon to become a person who grows to despise Sherlock should you choose to play that way and make the kinds of choices that go against what Jon sees as justice or fair.
It seems like making tough moral choices will be crucial to many of the game’s quests. Can you tell us a little bit more about this, and how the game approaches these? Do several quests and side quests intertwine with each other as a result? How much of an impact do these choices make on the story and how it plays out?
We’re designing it so that each quest should have at least a major moral choice to make at the end. Players will need to gather their clues, sift through the evidence and finally make conclusions, deciding between law or justice. The fictional Mediterranean island we’re creating is a society built on class divide, corruption and power politics, so the clean picture of what law and justice are often don’t go hand in hand here. Similar to The Sinking City, we don’t want blatant black or white moral choices, but rather the murky grey ones, to a degree. Because this is a Sherlock Holmes game, you will always be able to find the correct wrongdoer, but only if you are observant enough. So we’re looking in a system that will allow you to miss certain clues and still come to a conclusion. But this also opens up the possibility of you condemning an innocent person.
We’ve also penned out multiple endings for the finale of the main story quest, but we decided we want to make these available to everyone, so we don’t want previous choices to wall off the choice of endings. We’ve seen that often when people play morally grey games, they tend to switch sides as they continually learn more about how the game world functions or who it turns out they can and can’t actually trust. So, to punish a player for a choice they have made early on that they may no longer even agree with was something we decided against. Rather, the choices you make as Sherlock throughout will be yours to live with and may have some small effect on certain things, but essentially are there to let you decide what kind of person you want Sherlock to be. So when that big final choice roles up you can take stock of all your beliefs and thoughts on who your Sherlock is and make a final story choice that closes this twisted and complex story in a way that you feel happy with.
"We’re designing it so that each quest should have at least a major moral choice to make at the end. Players will need to gather their clues, sift through the evidence and finally make conclusions, deciding between law or justice. The fictional Mediterranean island we’re creating is a society built on class divide, corruption and power politics, so the clean picture of what law and justice are often don’t go hand in hand here."
The concept of global investigation gameplay is an exciting one, because it sounds like it puts player agency front and center. How much freedom will players have in how they want to approach any given situation?
This is essentially where we want the whole idea of you being a detective to really shine and have it play out this way. The overall idea of the Global Investigation system is to give players a slew of tools to use to get clues and info they need and have them figure when and where to use them. A lot of what we did with The Sinking City worked really well in this regard so we’re mostly building and improving on top of that. It basically starts with the idea of removing the barrage of info and UI elements that players have all become so used to in a lot of other open-world games. So out go the magic quest markers on a map telling you where your objective is. No more GPS points on your HUD or a magic map that tells you where you are all times. No auto-updating checklists on quests that sequentially tell you what the next step is. Instead you’ll have only what you know at the time and you’ll need to figure out what connects with what and what is not relevant. You’ll need to figure out based on existing clues, dialogue and exploration where to go next.
This may sound daunting to some people but ultimately, players need to feel they came to the conclusions themselves based on their thinking and not because the game told them step by step what to do. If the game just magically gives you the solutions and all you have to do is turn up to the spot and vacuum up every highlighted object or clue, then it feels like all you’re doing is a set of chores, not solving a mystery.
So we’re hoping that this approach of giving players all these tools or mechanics to use and then leaving them to figure out when to use what and where will create this feeling best. Tools or systems like interrogation, disguises to get certain information out of characters they wouldn’t normally reveal, a rumours system, labels, a concentration mode, a “pinned evidence” mechanic to focus in on certain clues and see how they match in the surrounding area, drawing sketches, crime scenes sketches etc.
The game will also give you slight hints naturally and it’s up to you to decide if you want to act on them or not.
A totally made up example but it gets the point across – say you overhear a conversation about a certain harbour worker. You suspect he has valuable info, but you’ve tried approaching him once, but he flat tells you to get lost. But while eavesdropping you overhear this harbour worker was recently questioned by the police. Now, the game will never tell you “Find a policeman’s uniform and go question the harbour worker.” It’s up to you to come across this info naturally, find a police uniform and decide to test if talking to the harbour worker disguised as a policeman actually gives your next clue or just gets him to clam up even more.
How large is the open world setting of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One? What can players expect from it in terms of environmental diversity?
We’ve made the conscious choice to keep this open-world more condensed and focused on the core mechanics of the game. A lot of design choices for Chapter One are based on the feedback we got on The Sinking City, and our open world design was a major point there. So this time around we’re making sure the player doesn’t spend too much time just running through the map from one location to another. A big part of our open investigation system relies on the player going where they think they should and starting their investigations from where they see fit. If the size of the map becomes an annoyance to deal with, then we’ve gone and messed up our core mechanic. So our focus is on an open world detective experience where our mechanics are built to be interacting with the world, the people in it and our investigation cases. We are not pushing to create some massive sandbox with lots of different filler activities like gambling, racing, fishing and what not. The focus will always be about the main story and the intricate and twisting cases that are tied to it while the player will also be able to find new side quests, secrets and collectibles if they want to really explore the island that deeply.
The new setting does allow us to create a lot more diversity in the map though. Our fictional Mediterranean island has an established society and hierarchy but it’s not under the rule and influence of one dominant nation. Rather there are a lot of distinct cultures and people from around the world living there and thus influencing its design and feel – British, French, Turkish, Italian, the Middle Eastern, North African etc. So our locations within the main city itself will be quite varied given the multicultural influence happening on the various districts. Then outside the city we’ll have a whole island to explore with more secret or secluded areas such as beaches, outposts, caves, mines, forests etc.
And I think this is one the best changes we have to the series. Victorian London is great and all but using it as a location means we’re stuck with a set type of architecture, layout, landmarks and feel that we’re forced to replicate. With our new fictional location we can create a multicultural city and varying environments around it without making it seem out of place. That’s kind of the case with any real city actually and why we also decided not to set the game in some other real or prominent locations like Paris, Cairo, Amsterdam etc.
"We’ve made the conscious choice to keep this open-world more condensed and focused on the core mechanics of the game. A lot of design choices for Chapter One are based on the feedback we got on The Sinking City, and our open world design was a major point there. So this time around we’re making sure the player doesn’t spend too much time just running through the map from one location to another."
How does the Mind Palace factor into the game as a gameplay mechanic?
We’re still working on this so a lot of the nuts and bolts are still being tested and iterated, but it’s essentially an improved version of the “Mind Palace” that we built for Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. It essentially a system and interface that allows players to pursue several different leads at the same time and have them all collected in one place. You then piece together and connect these clues to try to build a congruent picture or chain of events of the crime you’re investigating. It’s also built with the ability of letting players miss key clues and still make a final conclusion and solve the case. While this is a notable advantage and feels more real in terms of detective work, it’s also an intentional pitfall since your conclusions using partial evidence or connect leads that are wrong can lead you to possibly accusing and condemning innocent people.
It seems like Sherlock’s keen observation skills will also have a role to play in combat- can you speak a bit about that and how that will manifest in the gameplay?
We are not fully ready to reveal too much about combat yet, but I can share a few things. First off, combat is created from scratch in Chapter One, and it more reflects Sherlock’s personality as an agile and arrogant young character. So, for example, he disorients his opponents, hits them in the face and then takes them down.
It’ll also be a more tactical combat system as you saw, where the player will need to prioritize enemies, change positions often and use enemies’ vulnerabilities and environmental hazards to keep from getting overwhelmed in the fights. Our combat is mostly ranged with the above-mentioned takedowns as melee, and we are not working on a stealth mechanic, at least for now. It’s also worth noting combat will only be an option when appropriate. Having Sherlock run around with the ability to shoot anyone and any moment really doesn’t match the character.
Do you have any plans to launch on the Switch?
So we’re extremely happy with the way The Sinking City came out on Switch but a big part of that achievement was because we were able to focus on that version on its own once the game was done and released on other platforms. So as of now, if we do bring Chapter One to Switch, it’ll most likely be after the launch of the PC, PlayStation, and Xbox versions.