After finishing Dissidia: Final Fantasy and Death by Cube, Yosuke Shiokawa went to America. We first heard about Shiokawa’s project in 2010 which was said to be a AAA game and a Japan-America development collaboration. The game was finally revealed this year and it’s Murdered: Soul Suspect, a murder mystery game where you have to figure out who killed… well you. Airtight Games is developing Murdered: Soul Suspect and we spoke with Eric Studer, Senior Design Producer to find out more about the title.
The first thing that came to mind when I saw Murdered: Soul Suspect was it reminded me of Ghost Trick with a hardboiled detective and noire feel to it.
Eric Studer, Senior Design Producer at Airtight Games: I love Ghost Trick, it’s a great game, but we’re not Ghost Trick. Ghost Trick was very heavy on point and click puzzles. It had a slick presentation, but at it’s core it was a hidden object game in the right order. It’s so much fun to figure out the order of events, but I think what we’re doing is much broader. We help drive the narrative through this gameplay mechanic where you come into a crime scene where you make analysis on what’s going on and then taking the next step of finding out where to go next.
We also have this strong exploration component. The player exists in the town of Salem and you get to go into Salem, explore Salem, take on extra cases, and learn about the people who live there living and dead. You learn about Salem, the city itself. The breath of what you can do here in Murdered what really sets us apart from Ghost Trick.
Yeah, during the demo we saw some of the side quests Ronan can do like he had the option to help another lost soul looking for her body and he could watch an arguing family. How do these side-stories fit into the overall plot or help Ronan solve his own murder?
These side stories don’t really help you solve your own murder. What they do do is they help build the characters. And we hope that the players who do the side quests and get invested in them, they learn a little bit about who Ronan is, why he’s doing things that he’s doing. He is a detective. He sort of has this implicit desire to help people. Beyond that the character you interact with they sort of provide color to Salem, they provide context for what the city is like and the types of people who live here. It helps ground our word. It helps give a really good foundation for what we believe is a very strong fictional space for players to be here.
Can you tell us more about Ronan as a character and the town of Salem?
Ronan, as you can see, is a bit of an iconclast. Both in the way he dresses, his tattoos, and things of that nature. That’s absolutely critical to the storyline. Who Ronan is where he came from, where he’s going, why he does things that he does is a crucial component to the path that he takes when he’s trying to solve his own murder and resolve his unfinished business.
In terms of Salem, obviously it’s its own fictionalized Salem, but it’s a town that is steeped in supernatural. I talked about this briefly from a fictional stand point where they christened all the foundation of their buildings because they want to ward off evil spirits. They want to limit their access to their home. This is a place that is steeped into supernatural, it’s a place where ghosts thrive.
Going back to the main case, Murdered: Soul Suspect has points where players piece together clues to move the story forward. When you demoed the game you did it perfectly pointing out that Ronan fell from a window and so forth, but what if I wasn’t paying attention and got this part wrong? How would the game move forward?
All of our investigations are being represented in the mind side. He sees something that he believes is critical to the investigation and he starts making deductions about it. But if he gets it wrong, he’s going to get a sense that he’s not doing it right. You will see that. ‘No, it doesn’t make any sense.’ ‘That’s not helping me at all.’ [are things Ronan will say if you make a mistake]
In terms of investigations, if you fail at an investigation, we want you to try again. We want you to keep moving forward. We don’t want players to get stuck and trapped in this one thing. So there’s no game over state or anything like that if you get things wrong.
Because you’re already dead?
That’s right. We just encourage you to try again. There are rewards for doing exceptionally well, but we don’t do anything else except to ask you to try again if you fail.
Could you just brute force the whole investigation?
If you’re really determined to do it, yes, you can probably brute force your way through it. My hope is, what we are developing is not something that you’d be encouraged to brute force through.
Are you familiar with 999 or Virtue’s Last Reward? We spoke with Uchikoshi-san and one of the things that he really believes strongly is these kinds of adventure game better suited on mobile platforms, maybe on iOS, because it has touch screen, and you can distribute the game digitally since. This is one of the few adventure games on console and it’s a retail title. Why do you think that console is a good place for Murdered?
We really wanted to have a lush, beautiful world. Something that will really help use tell the story better to bring the world alive a little bit more. So putting it on the [Xbox] 360 and PS3 was a natural fit for us. Because it was going to help us create that sort of a detailed world and flesh out of the space with interesting characters. I think that as core from the mechanic standpoint, I think Murdered might work on other platforms, but where it is allow us to give the richness to the world that we want to present to players.
It’s interesting that you mentioned it. For adventure games, I agree I want to spend time exploring the world and talking with characters, but I’m not sure if I want to fight demons and stuff like that. Why did you add combat to Murdered: Soul Suspect?
Keep in mind this isn’t a shooting game. What we’re trying to do is twist the investigation mechanic in an interesting way. The demons are lethal, but if you approach them the same way that you would approach the investigation, you have the upper hand. You are going to come into a space. You are going to see the demons there. You are going to know what your abilities are, what the layout of the space is, you can build a strategy. Then you can execute on that and adapt and make decisions based on your strategy.
They are not one hit kills. If you make mistakes you won’t be punished so abruptly that it’s going to kill you.
Is there a game over if you run into demons too many times?
Yes, the demons can devour your soul if you aren’t careful.
Does that bring you back to a checkpoint or to the start of the investigation?
Just from a checkpoint.
I remember Ronan can possess and hide in people kind of like stalking a patrolling guard or something like that. What other ghostly tools does he have at his disposal?
You can malfunction things. You can interact with pretty much any everyday object that has some sort of electrical power in it.
in one of the missions, we are trying to get a character to a different point and another character is blocking him from progressing. You can interact with a photocopy machine which then produces a bizarre amount of paper coming out from it. And they wonder what the hell is going on. And that gives your character just enough time to the next spot.
Since Ronan is a ghost he can eavesdrop on people and there is kind of a voyeurism component where you can spy on living humans. What parts of Salem or side stories can you see only if you’re patient enough for them to happen on their own?
This is kind of a funny thing. If that apartment, if you’re sitting there listening to the old couple, they start bickering. The lady is like, "Why didn’t you just get up and help people? Why are you so lazy just sitting there doing nothing?" They bicker like an elderly couple would. It’s just a fun slice of life moment.
I imagine you must have had fun writing those kinds of Easter Eggs.
There will be Easter eggs.
Anything from Crimson Skies?
[Laughs] Ok, that’s an idea! I’ll write it down. I’ll give you a hat tip for recognizing the pedigree.
One thing that surprised me was Murdered: Soul Suspect is a project from Square Enix Japan. Of course, Airtight Games worked with Square Enix before on Quantum Conundrum, but that led by Square Enix USA. How did this project start?
The Creative Director, Yosuke Shiokawa. is from Square Enix Japan. This is his idea. He came to us with it and wanted to do a collaboration with us.
Oh that’s interesting. What inspired Shiokawa-san with the idea for Murdered: Soul Suspect?
He was watching the movie Die Hard, if you can believe that. He started to think what if John McClane died and he rounds up as a ghost. It’s sort of a weird lateral direction. It was sort of a kernel of an idea, but if he was a ghost he wouldn’t just quit. He’d find a way to save the day! Because that’s who John McClane is. He’d save his wife. He’d stop the bad guys. He’d overcome the impossible odds and save the day.
It was sort of this theme of finishing off what you couldn’t finish in life and overcoming impossible odds that came from the kernel of the idea he brought to us. And then we started to working on the prototype for the concept. Things like the investigation as a system where you can use gameplay mechanics to tell a story and you can pass through walls. These ideas sort of blended in his initial kernel and it was a really interesting amalgam of the gameplay and his initial concept that he was driving that ultimately became Murdered.
Naoto Sugiyama, Executive Producer from Square Enix Japan: He has been working at Airtight Games ever since
ES: Yes, he’s actually in house with us. He has an office at Airtight. He works there every day. He’s been here for a couple years.
How long has this been Murdered: Soul Suspect been in development?
ES: A couple years. I think one of our biggest strength is we do come from a different cultural foundation. By discussing and sitting down and talking about it, I think what we did is we created this awesome blend of concepts. We got a very strong Western aesthetic and the core of the story came from a Japanese foundation. It actually creates a very interesting world. The collaboration has been incredibly fascinating and great to be a part of. I have never really thought about games this way.
How has Murdered: Soul Suspect changed your view on games?
ES: I learned… when you start working on a game, you tend to fall into a certain pattern. You don’t even realize that you are falling into patterns. When Shiokawa-san came on board, he has his own unique perspective on working on things. It forces you to go, you know what just because I do things this way doesn’t mean that this is the way you’re supposed to do it. It’s the constant back and forth that you had with him in a very positive way that’s inspirational and iterative and come up with interesting concepts and look at solving problems in ways that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Did you take Shiokawa san to see the new Die Hard movie?
ES: [Laughs] That would have been awesome. No, I hope he saw it, but I wasn’t with him when he did.
NS: Ghost are a global concept helped. It’s not like we were trying to make a Western game. We just wanted to make a great game based on this global concept.
ES: Absolutely. That was a really good foundational starting point for us. The notion of ghosts, the notion of spirits that exist at a realm above our own is really cool. And it really gives you a lot of opportunities to play with the lore and create lore of your own along the way.
While ghosts exist in cultures around the world, their reasons for being and what they can do differ. Has your view of ghosts changed when developing Murdered?
ES: I’m so deep in the project now, so I’d say “probably”. What we have done is we have created our own unique world. The truth is the ghosts, generally speaking, is you kinda like “get ghosts” almost immediately. Even with the more subtle distinction among cultures, the idea of what a ghost is pretty universal. It really is aside from a few here and there, where you have certain concepts of it, but generally speaking, a ghost is a ghost is a ghost.
When adventure games are designed red herrings have to be written into the story. Can you tell us the process of adding those in because a detective game story has to have surprises to keep players interested.
ES: I think the process really depends on the story. For us, it’s a top-down process. You have your point A, B, C, and you know where you want to go. And then it comes to layering in different levels of storytelling. Who are your characters? What are they doing? What are their motivation? Why are they doing what they are doing? How does this impact the protagonist? How does it impact their own story arc? And making sure all these pieces fit together along the way. But that’s really what it was. Here’s where we come up with an idea. Here’s a story we want to tell. Here’s how we layer all the mysteries on top of it and weave a web of stories and players now have to decide what to do.
Can you fail to solve your own murder? Can you pin the wrong suspect maybe like Kamaitachi no Yoru? Can you totally screw up?
ES: We have a pretty crisp story line that we want to tell. You are not going to be able to pin the crime on the wrong person. Really what we want you to do is discover as you work your way through investigation. We do have a path that we want you to take.
NS: It’s a more narrative driven instead of a classical adventure style like Kamaitachi.
Square Enix has partnered with Airtight a lot. What do you see your relationship with Square Enix now and the future?
ES: Murdered comes out in early 2014, so for the time being we got a very strong relationship with Square.
NS: We got to make this successful, that’s all I can say!