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Developer Chat: Murdered: Soul Suspect Cinematic Director Matt Brunner

Posted on April 10, 2014 AT 09:00am

To die for

I got my first close-up look at Murdered: Soul Suspect at a pre-E3 event Square Enix held last year. Its ideas were interesting: reckloose detective Ronnan O’Connor is murdered by a killer he’s trailing, leaving him to then attempt to solve the mysteries surrounding his death from the afterlife.

It’s a concept that seems right at home in a Hollywood blockbuster, but something that feels fresh when brought to the medium of videogames. Of course, big ideas require taking big chances, and Murdered‘s twist—Ronnan can walk through objects, people, even the internal walls and doors of buildings—is as interesting as it is complicated to get right.

My recent chance to return to the version of Salem, Massachusetts that Airtight Games is building into Murdered: Soul Suspect allowed me some time to actually go hands-on with Ronnan’s journey. While still early (and quick, given the small slice of the game that was in our demo), I’m intrigued. Our protagonist’s ghostly powers are overwhelming and off-putting at first, but freeing once you get used to them. Better than that, at least for me, is that Murdered is looking to weigh far heavier on aspects like exploration, problem solving, and detective work, with less importance placed on demon-fueled action scenes.

Once the demo was done, I sat down with Matt Brunner, co-founder, owner, and chief creative officer at Airtight Games, and cinematic director of Murdered: Soul Suspect. I wanted to know more about the game’s origins—and the challenges posed by the decisions that have been made about its design since those early days.

EGM: Where did the idea for Murdered: Soul Suspect come from?

Matt Brunner: We co-developed the concept for the game with Square Enix. Basically, they came to us and said that they wanted to hear some ideas that we had for games—because we tend to generate a lot of new IP ideas—and they had some ideas of their own that they wanted to discuss. So, we went over a whole gamut of ideas that everyone had, and one they had brought to the table was the desire to make a game about ghosts. But, the concept was about that well developed at that point. [Laughs] There wasn’t anything more to the idea yet.

EGM: Being Square Enix, I imagine that they were like, “We want it to be about ghosts, but it also has to be a turn-based, menu-driven RPG!”

Brunner: [Laughs] No, it wasn’t even that much. It was literally, “It would be really interesting to play a ghost, what could we do with that?” So, locked ourselves in a room, and talked for hours and hours. We really felt like this was not only an opportunity to make a very unique game—which is something that we all like to do, as opposed to another iteration of something—but it was also a genre that has not been explored very deeply. So, between those two things, we decided that this was a great opportunity to pursue a project like this, and began to develop it from there.

EGM: When you first came at the idea of a game based around ghosts, was the natural inclination to go towards horror? Or did you know from the start that you wanted to do something different with the concept?

Brunner: We did know that we wanted to do something different with this game, and not go down the traditional survival-horror route. But, the amount of horror that we would have in the game was definitely a conversation we had to go through. We decided that it was much more powerful to make something that focuses more on the supernatural, if that makes sense, not so much on the horror elements. There are scares in the game, there are things that keep you on your toes, and dangers that make the experience feel within the horror genre at times, but the core of the game is an investigation game. You’re just having to solve it from the afterlife.

EGM: Not sure how familiar you are with it, but Konami released a game called Metal Gear Rising. When Hideo Kojima first announced the game, he proclaimed that you’d be able to cut through anything—the landscape, cars, whatever. The problem they found, however, was that when you can cut through everything, you can just cut from the beginning of the stage straight through to the end of the stage, with no challenge in-between. When you decided that you wanted to have a ghost character that could walk through walls, how hard was it to get to a point where that actually worked and made sense?

Brunner: The rules of the world were actually one of the biggest challenges that we had in the game. We never had pass-through at the beginning of the experience. We did a number of prototypes, we were playing around with how it felt—literally felt when you were playing through it—and at one point we said, man, this is just not feeling like we are this character, meaning that we are a ghost. What’s wrong? We thought that the missing element was that you couldn’t just pass through the physical world, because that is what sort of defines a ghost in a lot of cultural fiction around the world.

So, we decided to try it. We threw in the ability to pass through walls, and immediately, we went, holy crap, how are we going to do this without breaking everything? [Laughs] And how are we going to do it so that you don’t get totally lost, because even the simplest of spaces becomes a disorienting maze when you can pass through [scenery] without any markers you traditionally and subconsciously use to orient yourself.

We’re using Salem as our fiction grounding space, and it’s a great place for it because they have a supernatural history. The fact that the founders consecrated all of the building gave us a very good fictional base for making the exterior of buildings solid to a ghost. In other words, they’ve already done these rituals to consecrate the buildings, so the exteriors of the buildings can’t be passed through. But, just about everything else in the game can. Now, there are parts of the environment that are part of the Dusk—the afterlife—and those elements are kind of your world. They’re part of your world as a ghost, so the functionally are physical to you as well. A ghost is physical to you, and those elements are as well. We can, through those devices, give you just the thinnest amount of barriers and rules to keep you from wandering off into outer space.

EGM: Was there ever a balance issue of what feels “fair” in terms of giving players this immense power, and then taking it away at times?

Brunner: We weren’t trying to decide if it felt “fair” to the player, whether they could move through a specific object or not. What we wanted it to be was, is it clear to me? Does it make sense in this world as to why I can’t do this? Because, in truth, if it makes sense to you, you get it, and then you understand what your rule set is and you behave within that rule set. If it’s unclear to you, that’s when it feels unfair.

EGM: So, while I was playing the demo, the game tells me to walk through stuff, so I try that, but it’s not long after that I realize I’m still navigating the world the way I normally would in a videogame. Even though I can walk through walls or whatever, I still tend to use the doorways. I still walk around counters. For you, and the team, is there that mental valley that you had to overcome between what you’re used to in games, and what you can do here?

Brunner: There totally is. It is ingrained in the way we orient ourselves and how we think about the world—in relationship to our own physical bodies—that you immediately start behaving, even if it’s spontaneous, to those same rules that you bring into the game. We have to slowly break you into [the concept] through the game, so that by about the fourth episode, you’re freely running through everything without thinking about it. And the weird thing is, when you start playing another game after it, you start wondering why you can’t just run through walls, or why do you have to run around this object to get to the place that you want to go. [Laughs] Which is fantastic, because it means that not only did we incorporate this new way of thinking about moving through the world, but we suddenly realize how liberating it is.

EGM: Obviously I only know a small portion of this game compared to what you know, but if you were to ask me what one thing in Murdered: Soul Suspect I’m most concerned about, I’d have to say the combat. Not to say that combat was bad, but everything around it was far more interesting. I imagine it can be tough for bigger projects to say, we don’t need to have all of this action-y stuff, it can be about the exploration, it can be about the characters and storyline. What are you trying to do with combat, why is it there when it’s there, and what does it mean to the bigger picture of the game?

Brunner: That’s a really good question. First thing you kind of have to rewind with this game is that when you have an enemy encounter, it’s not really a “combat” encounter. Just due to the nature of the gaming world, the way most games go, as soon as you see an enemy, you think, time to fight. That isn’t the case here at all. In fact, we came out at almost a hundred and eighty degrees away from that mentality. An enemy encounter in Murdered is really to put you on alert; it’s to give you a sense of danger in the world; it’s to give pacing to the investigation elements, so that it isn’t all about solving mysteries. It’s also kind of a moment to give a few adrenaline spikes that you wouldn’t normally have in this experience. But we do not think of those encounters as combat—we think of them more as stealth enemy encounters. You have to think very stealthfully on how to get around these enemies; if you go head-to-head, you’re going to lose. [Laughs] There are many ways to get around them, and you have to start thinking very differently on how to do that.

EGM: Not trying to make a direct comparison, but one reason I’m concerned is games such as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The plan there was to go a different route, go very story-based, but they did have those encounters where you couldn’t fight—you had to just run away—and they ended up becoming extremely tedious. Is it tough to say, we don’t want this game to be based around action-oriented combat, but then have them exist in the game in a way that feels fair to the player yet also feels fun. Because, when you can’t just walk up to a monster with a stick and beat on it, there really is a lack of that feeling of empowerment, which can end up making those sections not feel enjoyable.

Brunner: Well, we have given you some tools in case you really want to face a demon head one. Well, maybe that’s not the right way to say it. If you want to take out the enemies, to kill them, you can do it, but you basically need to sneak up behind them and rip them apart. So, it still has a stealth component, but you can take them out versus just trying to avoid them. And then, we’ve given you other things for quickly getting away, so that you can come at them again with a different plan. Really, it is a system of an encounter, it’s just not your classic combat system. It does give the player quite a number of tools for getting away, for moving sort of peripherally around them, or taking them out directly if you want to. You can go any of those three directions.

EGM: Percentage-wise, can you say at all how those demon encounters compare with the detective element in terms of the balance of content?

Brunner: Honestly, I don’t know the answer to this one. I would say that we’re still tweaking a lot of those enemy encounter moments, and in truth, it depends on how quickly the player snaps to what they can and can’t do during them. A lot of times, if they don’t really use their toolset, and look at where the enemies are, and think about which way they’re facing and move around the threat, people die a lot more than they need to die. Then there are other people who kind of snap to it right away, and it takes them two seconds to get around the demons. So, percentage-wise, it’s more your own approach that determines that. In general, though, I’d say it’s maybe ten, fifteen percent enemy encounters across the game, but that’s a total guess.

EGM: I remember when I bought my SegaCD back in the day, it came with this Sherlock Holmes game, and one of the things I realized was how hard it must be to create games like that. In an action game, you know the start of the stage, here’s your boss, and you just decide how big of a path you give the player for connecting the two. But with games where you’re looking for clues and solving mysteries, it feels so much more complex. What happens when? How do we let the player figure out what’s going on, and what the particular answer is? I mean here, it seemed like I could solve some of the investigation sections in the Murdered demo if I knew the right clues, even if I hadn’t found all the possible clues. How tough is it to make a game where you have all of these little variables, and need to determine when a player can or can’t do something based on what they know at any given point?

Brunner: It’s insanely difficult, actually. Trying to build a mystery that you can empower the player to uncover, as opposed to a mystery where they just go to A-B-C-D, and then get the answer, is worlds apart in terms of difficulty. We really wanted a game—and we had to iterate on this constantly—where it felt like you were progressing, and you’re getting what you needed to to move forward, but it wasn’t an immediate, “Oh okay, I was just given the answer and now I can move on.” We’ve always made an attempt to pull together a number of those clues into a moment where you have to make sense of them. And, making sense of them is that moment where you sort of have your own deduction moment, and then it fills in the gaps, giving you what you need to move on to the next thing. I think it’s what really makes the difference between making you feel like you’ve solved the mystery yourself, instead of having simply collected what you needed to solve the mystery.

EGM: Last question: what is the most interesting part of Murdered: Soul Suspect for you? You know, in terms of going from that initial “we’re going to make a ghost game”, to now seeing what the final product will be once it hits store shelves, what is that one aspect where you say, this is the payoff to all of the hard work you’ve been putting in?

Brunner: For me, probably the most powerful element of this game is getting the player into the shoes and fiction of being a ghost, and allowing them to fulfil that fantasy from beginning to end. It all comes down to “who am I,” and when you get to the core of who you are in a game, you really get this satisfying experience out of it, and I think that’s what we’ve done here.

Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got started via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as can realistically be crammed in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk Eric on Twitter: @Eric_EGM. Meet the rest of the crew.

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