The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. (computer adventure game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Anthony Moses
First, the music: tingling, brooding. Then a slow fade-in: a foggy twilight in London, November 1888. A cab trundles down the rain-spattered street; firelight dances behind warmly lit windows; Big Ben looms dim in the distance. The scene shifts: We're in an alley outside a theater, where a cat, prowling along a crate, knocks off a bottle, which shatters. The murderer, cloaked, crosses the screen and hides behind a crate, his face flickering briefly as he lights a cigarette. Soon, the victim, lovely young actress Sarah Caroway, appears at the stage door, stopping to look in her handbag. The murderer leaps from his hiding place. Sarah sees him, far too late--therehs a dramatic closeup of the screaming girl and then a discreet dissolve to a bobby strolling along Baker Street. The bobby has a message from Inspector Lestrade, requesting the assistance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective.
It's not a movie. It's the animated title sequence for Electronic Arts' adventure game, The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, and it clearly announces that what follows is no standard mystery game but a tour-de-force excursion into full-fledged Holmesiana.
In The Lost Files, you, as Sherlock Holmes, scour various locations for clues and pump witnesses for information. Each time you leave a scene, you're shown a scrollable map of Victorian London with location icons indicating where you can travel. The more clues you find, the more icons appear on the map, and the more labyrinthine the game becomes. Soon, what first seemed to be a simple Ripper copycat murder is not quite so simple anymore.
Fortunately, interacting with the game is so simple that, after the first runthrough, you probably won't need to check the manual again. About the only time you use your keyboard is to save a game; otherwise, you'll need only your mouse or joystick (the cursor pad on your keyboard, though slower, may also be used).
The bottom third of each location screen is the menu, containing game commands such as Look, Move, Talk, and Pick Up. The menu further allows you to check the inventory of items you've gathered and to browse the journal in which Dr. Watson records your conversations with the characters you meet. The top two-thirds of the screen--well, that's where the fun is.
To appreciate a game of this sort, you must understand what constitutes Holmesian fun. Many adventure sian fun. Many adventure games are so preoccupied with problem solving that they leave little room for exploring the world that the adventure takes place in. But people don't read Sherlock Holmes stories just to find out who did it. What we want from these stories is the specifically Holmesian universe: that gilt, gaslit world of hansoms, foggy lamplight, and distant train whistles. Solving the mystery is simply an excuse to play in a world that, after only a century, seems almost as remote to us as the Middle Ages. Luckily, the creators of The Lost Files understand this need: While they do provide problems to solve, they seem just as concerned with re-creating Holmes's world in admirable depth.
For example, moving the pointer around Holmes's headquarters, many of the familiar props in the world's most famous address. The Stradivarius, the initials VR pockmarked into the wall by Holmes's revolver, the gazogene, the lab table (which is not just for show), Watson's unframed portrait of Henry Ward Beecher--all are there, accompanied by detailed, sometimes wry descriptions of even the extraneous objects. The bearskin rug at the hearth in 221B plays no part in the mystery, but if you use the Look command on it, you are told that the rug was "supplied unwillingly by an enormous European brown bear. Its close proximity to an almost constantly burning coal fire has rendered its once-lustrous coat a bit dingy and fire-scarred." Examining the props in other locations will elicit similarly detailed descriptions. And while some of these "useless" details help conceal the clues, they also help develop the feel of being in the London of the 1880s.
This illusion is maintained in the conversations with other characters. The Talk command displays an animated, closeup portrait of each speaker and calls up a dialog box which offers you several conversational gambits. Some characters answer willingly; others need to be threatened. There's even a publican who says he'll talk only if you beat him at darts first (the darts episode alone is a self-contained game). But whomever you speak to, the reply will be couched in a Victorian patois suitable to the character's personality and class.
The descriptions of objects in the game also maintain the Victorian tone. The Look function is properly reluctant to talk about what goes on behind the screen in Sarah's dressing room (that's where the chamber pot is), and even newfangled art sytles get ribbed. It isn't often that a reviewer gets to address prose style in computer games, but the creators of The Lost Files should get credit for trying to make the game sound as if it were created sometime in the last century. In fact, the Mythos Software team deserves applause for having done its Holmesian homework. The setting of the game, November 1888, is exactly when, according to William Baring-Gould, Holmes was actually involved in the Ripper investigations.
The game is filled with characters and locations familiar to Holmes fans. You can meet and interact with Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade, Old Sherman and Toby, and Wiggins, the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars. You can hang around 221B or visit Scotland Yard, Covent Garden, or Bradley's Tobacco Shop, among many other places. There are also inside jokes for Holmes enthusiasts. One character remarks that Holmes looks just like his portrait in Beeton's Annual, where Holmes's first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887. Another character, questioned about someone named James, replies that for all he knows, "your friend there with the derby [Watson] is named James," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the ongoing Holmesian debate over whether Watson's given name is John or James. Such details won't help solve the mystery, but they make the investigation a lot more interesting, and they indicate that the game was designed by people who care about the Holmes mythos.
Be forewarned: The Lost Files is not for the impatient. The game requires careful observation and thought to catch the necessary clues and not become repeatedly stalled. And the farther you get in the game, the more difficult this becomes (Electronic Arts provides a 24-hour hint hot line for those with touch-tone phones and no patience). Also, be warned that if you enable all options at installation, The Lost Files will swallow nearly 29MB of your hard drive, more space than some would want to devote to a game (you can install it at only 15MB, but it will run more slowly). The period-style music and sound effects are effectively atmospheric, but these will be available only if you have a sound board--there's no support for the internal PC speaker.
The manual is worth reading further for its essays on the Ripper murders and the appeal of Holmes. It also includes a hint that this may not be the last lost file we get to peek into. I certainly hope it isn't. The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes is the sort of literate, engaging game that we could use a lot more of.