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Murdered: Soul Suspect - bucking AAA trends

Phil Owen finds something to love in Murdered: Soul Suspect - a break from the non-stop shooting action requiring a bit more grey matter and few less twitch reflexes.

If you had wandered around the E3 show floor visiting the booths of the major publishers, as I did, you might have noticed the recurring theme: everything is super violent. Or, maybe, because copious amounts of violence in games is so common that you take it for granted, you wouldn't even have thought about it.

But as a critic and columnist, I was most definitely aware of the death-dealing that surrounded me at every turn during E3, and so when on the final day of the show I had the chance to check out a game from Square Enix called Murdered: Soul Suspect – a AAA experience more about working your brain than your reflexes – I was intrigued.

Despite being a game with the word “murder” in the title, Soul Suspect is not just another action-oriented story about killin' dudes. More correctly, it is a tale of one murder, that of the detective protagonist Ronan O'Connor, who is violently killed at the beginning of the game. Like, he is thrown out a window and shot a bunch of times

But while our hero is dead, he isn't gone, because this is a game about a ghost detective who most solve his own murder, and he doesn't kill hordes of people while he's trying to do it. He is a ghost, and he interacts with the world the way a ghost would, by walking through walls and stuff. The twist is that the town in which he lives is intimately familiar with the supernatural and is full of anti-ghost measures that stand in his way, creating the perfect setting for a 3D adventure game in the old tradition. For example, there are homes marked so as to prevent ghost access, and the Ghost Detective must discover ways around these protective measures, such as by inhabiting a living person who crosses the barrier.

Murdered does contain something the developers have described as “combat,” which can occur when Ronan encounters a demon in the ghost world. But these encounters are just another sort of puzzle to deal with, and don't, from what I've seen, devolve into typical killin'-dudes territory. This just is not that kind of game. It's a game about solving murders, not committing them.

But the fact that Murdered was the only game I saw from a major publisher at E3 that did not use violence as its core mechanic really made it stand out, and I couldn't help but ask creative director Yosuke Shiokawa, who is working in a sort of auteur role on this project, why Airtight decided to create this type of experience.

He told me that what he set out to do with Murdered was create a AAA experience that is unlike other AAA experiences, and he bemoaned the fact that so many of the so-called next-generation games being shown at E3 were actually providing current-gen experiences. “We have a next-gen game on current-gen consoles,” he said. “I believe next-gen games should be innovative,” and should not provide the same experiences we've already been receiving.

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But the differences between Murdered and other big games don't end at the lack of violent mechanics. Shiokawa says the concept and story were created before any design began on the game, and he claims sole ownership over that creative aspect of the product.

“I made the major storyline first before making levels or detailed mechanics,” Shiokawa said. “The story is, yeah, more important than gameplay. I created gameplay elements to support this storyline.”

He keeps saying “I” not because he's an egomaniac but because he really is the brain behind the entire Murdered project. He claims credit for Murdered's early game design documents – more or less the bible by which a game is constructed. “This is not design-by-committee.”

Compare that stance with that given to me by an Infinity Ward animator talking about the process of building the campaign in Call of Duty: Ghosts; it's a shocking change of pace, and one that did cause some friction between Shiokawa and the dev team at Airtight Games working on Murdered.

Shiokawa told me that early on in the development process, there were some designers who perhaps didn't “get” what he was pushing on them. But after the team playtested a very early build and was able to see Shiokawa's ideas in action, he says everyone fully bought in.

It should be noted that Square Enix showed only a hands-off demo of Murdered at E3, and so it's difficult to say how good it's really going to be. But it will definitely be a major change of pace from the AAA norm we'll be experiencing in the coming year, and that in itself makes this one worth watching as the next generation begins.

Murdered: Soul Suspect is planned for launch in 2014 for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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Murdered: Soul Suspect

PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC

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Phil Owen