After visiting the Rezzed expo in April, my other-half pointed out how many more narrative games were on display on the show floor than in previous years. It then struck me that many of these had cast the player in the role of a male detective trying to solve some mysterious or vaguely-supernatural case related to a murder or missing person. What was this new obsession with investigating the unknown, upholding the law and bringing wrongdoers to justice?
Not that I was complaining though, because I really enjoy investigative titles where it’s necessary to interrogate suspects and seek out clues to get to the truth. There were a number which caught my eye at Rezzed with one of my favourites being Lamplight City by Grundislav Games. It stood out for several reasons, not least because it was being developed by the creator of Shardlight and was set in an alternative steampunk-ish ‘Victorian’ past; the fact you could move on if a case seemed unsolvable, with the story adapting to your choices, was intriguing.
The title takes place in 1844 and although it seems like the city is a beacon of progress and advancement in the New World, it rests upon foundations of poverty, class struggle and crime. These shadowy corners of Lamplight City are part of the territory for private investigator Miles Fordham. But with the murder of his partner Bill Leger unsolved and his grip on sanity slowly loosening, can he find justice for his clients and track down the killer before his entire world falls apart?
In a recent chance email encounter, I was very kindly put in touch with the team from Application Systems by PR Consultant Emily Morganti and offered a preview copy of Lamplight City. This started at the opening tutorial in which the circumstances around Bill’s death were shared before moving on to the first of Miles’s solo cases. I’ve wracked up almost 3.5 hours with the game so far so if future cases are of a similar length, I’m guessing we can expect around 15 hours of gameplay which is quite substantial.
The thing which surprised me the most about Lamplight City initially is the way it handles inventory. When you start up a point-and-click adventure, you expect the traditional inventory-management system at the top or bottom of the screen along with puzzles where the solution involves combining items. But this isn’t the case here as all of the action is instigated with a single click of a mouse button which is case sensitive – so forget about using every object with every other object in your possession.
For example, when Miles wants to test a theory about how a burglar managed to break into a flower shop after discovering a gap in a window frame, he says he needs something ‘long and thin’ to conduct an experiment. A quick trip downstairs and he picks up a hanging basket hook but this isn’t deposited in an inventory bank; instead, clicking on the gap again results in the action of using it to lift the latch. While this is initially disconcerting for experienced adventure gamers, you can see how it helps streamline the game’s interface, menus and puzzles.
So where does Lamplight City’s core gameplay lie if item-based challenges are essentially done away with? Most of your time in the private investigator’s shoes is spent examining crime scenes, interrogating suspects and getting information by any means necessary. The title is very dialogue-heavy with plenty of people to talk to and questions to get through, but it does a great job at weaving in the characters’ backstory in a natural and conversational way.
It also makes it possible for the player to misinterpret evidence or miss vital clues by throwing in multiple suspects, false leads and different outcomes, but still be able to progress. I’ve read that there’s even an option to mess up so badly you can’t play the final chapter and instead receive a totally negative ending. This freedom means you can follow the law or make your own rules but be warned: the way you act as Miles affects people’s attitudes towards you and can prevent you from accessing certain locations.
At one point during the preview, I interviewed a woman who seemed to be hiding something in her back room so I created a save here to test each option and see how much the outcomes differed. Ignoring the subject meant I could continue to talk to her and left her house on my map. But sending her off to make tea so I could take a sneaky peak before pulling her up on it caused her to become angry – I was thrown out, access to the location was removed, and the woman was added to my list of suspects.
This means your actions carry more weight than is standard for adventure games and can have real consequences. You don’t get infinite tries to convince a character to open up and, if a location is closed off because they don’t want to talk, there’s a chance you could miss an important clue and bring a lead to a premature end. It’s therefore entirely possible to accuse the wrong person of a crime and have choices made during earlier cases come back to haunt you later.
I found that thorough yet sensitive questioning made it easy to figure out who the real criminal was in Miles’s solo outing, although the title presented another possible suspect along with an interesting story element about ‘aethericity’. By the end of the preview I had two people in my sights and three options when it came to wrapping up the case. I could knowingly accuse someone who was completely innocent; I could throw the book at the suspect despite his extenuating circumstances; or I could give them a chance at a future.
In a blog post by creator Francisco Gonzalez (warning: it contains a few minor spoilers), he wrote: “In some cases you might be called upon to make moral decisions and determine if the person who actually did it deserves to be punished for their crime.” He also wrote about the option to declare a case as unsolved, adding: “Failing to solve too many cases will change elements of the story and have a negative effect on Miles’s self-confidence and mental well-being.” It’s all very intriguing.
It’s also worth mentioning how Lamplight City handles some of its themes. While they’re not a primary focus, the city is fractured by class, race and sexual orientation divides and it gives the sense of a society very close to the edge. For example, a conversation with a lowly assistant about his forbidden relationship with an aristocrat of a different race reveals some of the struggles Miles has experienced in getting others to accept his marriage to singer Adelaide.
There’s also the husband of a victim who reveals that his marriage is one of convenience; and although it’s never directly mentioned, it’s implied that it’s his sexual preference which gives him cause for public shame. Add to the city the increasing pressure of machines replacing people in the workplace through the use of ‘steamtech’ and you’ve got a game which seems to effectively resonate with the issues the real world is facing today, while not indiscreetly parading them in front of the player.
Something else picked up on by Gonzalez in his blog post was that we’ve been conditioned to accept that playing a video game means we always have to win, and that ‘winning’ means getting everything absolutely right. Here’s a game which offers something different and more realistic in certain ways, and that’s what makes it so interesting. To quote the developer: “It’s a much more rewarding experience when YOU solved the case, rather than when Sherlock Holmes wasn’t allowed to fail the case.”
Lamplight City is due out on 13 September 2018 so we don’t have long to wait. Visit the Steam page or official website for further details, and give Grundislav Games a follow on Twitter for all the news.