Sergey Oganesyan, community manager and producer at Frogwares, talked with us about Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One - their upcoming prequel to Sherlock Holmes adventure series.
Sergey Oganesyan, community manager and producer at Frogwares, talked with us about Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One - their upcoming prequel to Sherlock Holmes adventure series. Why did they decide to bring back the younger version of this well-known character?
This is your ninth game from the Sherlock Holmes series. Why did a Ukrainian studio decide to adapt A. C. Doyle's novels?
After the studio was founded back in 2000, we thought about what kind of games we wanted to make. We were interested in telling stories and revealing characters that players could either relate to, or understand and accept. We wanted to create a narrative that would encourage the players to confront themselves and ask the question: “What would I do in this situation?”.
We realized that the detective genre in general and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes in particular are the ideal foundation for these kinds of stories. Where else can the player explore why people act the way they do, if not in a detective game? Playing Sherlock, a detached genius who is all about the truth, is the perfect bridge between the player and the game.
We have been improving our gameplay and narrative formulas ever since, but the goal always remains more or less the same.
In your previous games, Sherlock has been an experienced detective. Why did you decide to bring a prequel with young Sherlock?
One of the biggest reasons we choose to focus on a young Sherlock (around 21 years old) is because the books, short stories, TV series, films etc don’t cover this part of his life almost at all. So it’s this big blank chapter in his life and now we’re allowed to fill in the pages ourselves. It’s why we’re able to for instance leave the foggy, murky streets of London which so many players have become used to and create an entirely new setting. We can take what little is known about his family and create something more intricate around that. And we can create a very unique story that lines up very well with the character that we all know comes after this. So much of Sherlock’s personality and traits are known to people, but there isn’t so much out there that helps to possibly explain why.
Were you inspired by any of the novels or other works with Sherlock Holmes?
The books and stories by Doyle are our main source of lore inspiration without a doubt. And since there are around 60 in total there is a lot to pull from. That said, we are still covering an era of Sherlock’s life that wasn’t ever covered by Doyle, so we have a lot of freedom. The aim is to create a story and evolution of the character that lines up well with the existing lore by feeling plausible and well planned out.
For example our Sherlock is 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 he sees his cases as a way to prove himself. He is only an aspiring detective at this stage, and it’s the events throughout the game that will Sherlock as we know him. And that’s where we will connect a lot of the lore from Doyle with our own story. As I said, we all know more or less who Sherlock becomes in the future, so we want to create a compelling story that interestingly shows players how he became that person. So our lore starts the story and then moves along connecting multiple dots with what Arthur Doyle wrote in a way that makes sense and is interesting to explore - for new fans and die hard fans of Sherlock. And it’s even very specific traits about the character. It’s not just a story about why Sherlock decided to become a professional detective but right down to specific details like how he became so fascinated with the violin, his signature dress style or even his addiction to drugs.
We also looked at 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.
What can you tell us about the story and gameplay of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One?
So the game takes place in the 19th century on a fictional, Mediterranean style island where class divide, corruption and power mongering are the pillars that built this society. Sherlock spent his childhood here but as a young adult, he is now forced to return and uncover the hazy truth behind the murder of his mother - a loss that shattered his childhood many years ago and forced his move to London. So not only is this murder essentially Sherlock’s first case, it’s also one that is personal to him which complicates his decision making, ability to avoid bias etc.
Despite growing up on the island, Sherlock is viewed as an outsider and thus is treated so. He’s not welcome and his snooping around isn’t seen as anything useful either. And that’s where Jon comes in. Jon is Sherlock’s only friend on the island and how they came to know each other, why they are working together and how they both evolve through this investigation is another important thread in our main story.
Gameplay is primarily focused of course around our investigations or cases. So we’re building a series of tools and mechanics that come together as one Global Investigation System. First key point is the “no hand holding” approach. The game will not tell you what to do using quest markers, GPS points or a constant flood of icons on the HUD every step of the way. You will need to use actual maps, info and intuition to figure out where to go next based on what you know at the time. Players need to feel they came to the conclusions themselves based on their thinking and not because the game told them where to go and what to do. Next is all the tools and features coming together that the player can choose from to try gather and analyse clues. Things such as 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. These are just some of the tools you’ll have and you’ll need to decide when and how to use them as the game will never prompt you to do it. The game will rather give you slight hints naturally, like you overhear a conversation about a certain harbour worker who you suspect has valuable info but he won’t talk to you. But now you overhear he was recently in trouble with the police. 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 rumour naturally, find a uniform and then see if talking to the harbour worker disguised as a policeman actually gives you new clues or gets him to shut up even more.
I’ll give you another example. You are trying to find someone. You have a piece of evidence that says your suspect is left-handed. You can “pin” this evidence - pinning it means you are telling the game you want to focus on this evidence - and then, when you turn on your concentration mode, you’ll start analysing the people around you based on this evidence, you’ll see descriptions that say, if someone is left or right handed. If you find somebody who matches your profile, you can then approach them - anyone on the street - and ask them a few questions.
There is also going to be a combat element. We are not 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 of an agile and arrogant young man. 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, where the player will need to prioritize enemies, change positions often and use enemies’s vulnerabilities and environmental hazards to keep up. 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 be an option when appropriate. Having Sherlock run around with the ability to shoot anyone and any moment really doesn’t match the character.
There won’t be John Watson but you mentioned a different character named Jon – Who is he?
Jonathan is Sherlock’s best and only friend on the island. He is not as smart or observant as Sherlock, but he makes up for it by being brave and loyal. He has a good sense of humor, and never misses a chance to poke at Sherlock. Their relationship and how they develop will be a major focus of the game. Both will take this psychological journey together, and both will be very different at the end.
Gameplay-wise, Jon is not going to be present with Sherlock at all times, it’s up to the player to call for him when needed. And Jon will definitely be of help when it comes to investigations - he will point out clues that the player may have missed, draw sketches of crime scenes, spot points of interest in the city etc. And, of course, make sarcastic remarks.
Our goal is also to make Jon’s attitude toward Sherlock depend on the player’s actions in the game. We are still working on this mechanic, but it should be possible for Jon to become a person who grows to despise Sherlock should you choose to play that way for example.
Are we going to meet Mycroft or other well-known characters?
That’s the intention of the team. Like I said, we want to create an original but also cohesive connection between our Sherlock and the one from the books. And naturally a big part of that is also the other known people in Sherlock’s life.
While I can’t really go into specifics as we want to avoid spoilers, we can at least say that multiple known characters will make an appearance or be at least mentioned where the story sees fit. And since we’re dealing with the death of Sherlock's mother, some way or another Mycroft will probably need to be mentioned. :)
Drug use is a significant part of Sherlock’s character but you are working on a young version of this character now. Do you have any plans to include these traits?
Yes that’s the plan. Sherlock’s affiliation with drugs is a strong part of the character and we don’t plan to avoid it. Since we’re using a lot of the stories in SHC1 to connect with the lore Doyle Sherlock's drug use almost needs to be one of those focus points. Again, we can’t give away too much because of spoilers but the goal here is to create a mature and compelling reason as to how this addiction became such a strong part of Sherlock’s life.
Drawing the line between truth and lies is one of the main pillars of the game. Will that translate into new options or endings in the game?
Yes, we’re aiming to have multiple endings and each quest will offer a moral choice at the end. We are drawing a lot of inspiration from Sherlock Holmes Crimes & Punishments here. So we’re attempting to make the Mind Palace feature (interface for deductions and piecing clues together) like it was in C&P with an option to miss a relevant clue, make a wrong conclusion, pursue a wrong lead and eventually, accuse and possibly punish an innocent person.
And the stories of these quests will also be rooted in a murky idea of what is rights and what is wrong. Since the Sherlock universe is more rooted in reality, the “good vs evil” debate we are confronted in the game will be a lot closer to our own reality. When you’re faced by some ominous cult or outer dimensional demon it’s kind of easy to know who to side with. But in the real world, there is a massive moral grey area when it comes to why people do certain things. And players will have to make a lot of choices in this grey moral area. At least that’s the goal, but because the game is still shaping up.
What’s your approach to open-world, since this is mainly a detective adventure?
We’ve made the conscious choice to keep this open-world more condensed and focused on the core mechanics of the game. We looked very closely at a lot of feedback on The Sinking City and our open world design was a major point. So with Chapter One, our goal is to make sure the player doesn’t spend too much time running through the city from one location to another. The 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 a sandbox with lots of different activities like say racing or fishing. Essentially the player will be able to find new side quests, secrets, collectibles if they want to explore the island, or they can just focus on the main story.
The game will be released next year, so you're probably going to release it on the next generation of consoles. What kinds of new possibilities will the new hardware bring (to you)?
Yes, SHC1 is planned for both current and next gen consoles. And since we’re developing the game for both we’re being very extra thoughtful to ensure what we create runs smoothly for all players. So while we will definitely use the strengths of the new consoles (faster loading speeds, extra fidelity etc) - content wise we want to create something that will be just as good on one generation compared to the other.
Thanks for the interview.