Snakes and Ladders

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[Minor spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 3, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments.]

Before I talk about Sherlock Holmes, I’m going to talk about my favourite moment in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It’s the most lauded game in a series a dozen titles long, each one full of the maddest stuff you wouldn’t believe. Comedy ghosts and philosopher warriors and soviet space magic. And the best bit is when Snake climbs up a ladder while music plays.

If you’ve played the game you know what I mean, but for those who haven’t here’s the story. You’ve just finished up this immense sniper battle with The End, the oldest and weirdest of the foreshadowed boss characters. It was spread across several densely-packed forested areas, each one enormous and scattered throughout with viable sniping spots that both you and the old bastard cycle through in vying for an upper hand. You can win in any number of ways – you can poison him, stealth him, outwit him, track him, goad him, outwait him, or snipe him hours before the battle even begins and bypass the whole affair. It is the perfect ‘systems’ moment where all these mechanical aspects thread together in one beautiful tapestry from which the player traces their own narrative of strategy and improvisation.

Once it’s done, the forest exit opens up and you can progress to the next area. You know you still have two more foreshadowed bosses to go, plus the three major antagonistic characters, plus the mechanical behemoth Shagohod that is ostensibly (but not actually) the story’s McGuffin. The End was exhausting and invigorating but, finally, you’re halfway there.

So you enter this small room and there’s a ladder.

Ladders in the Metal Gear Solid games usually offer alternate ways to bridge you from one floor to the next with as little movement as possible and taking up the lowest floor space from an aerial view. The older MGSs positioned the camera top-down a lot of the time, so you couldn’t see what you were running into unless you went through the jaunted motions of stopping, entering a first person viewpoint, exiting it and scurrying forward. On higher difficulties stairways are deathtraps because you’re extremely vulnerable while moving between floors. You’re still vulnerable on ladders—perhaps more so because you don’t have a quick exit and can’t draw your firearm—but the fact that you can climb the length of a ladder rather discretely while only in view of an area you already have covered is somewhat reassuring.

This ladder is different. For one, there’s no danger in sight at the bottom of it (and after such an exhausting boss fight you might sense it unlikely the game would throw in something cheap and dull to sour the mood). For another, it doesn’t end after only a few feet. With the camera pointing downwards to the ground below, you can’t see the ladder’s top without going back down and disembarking. Like the Shinra stairwell in Final Fantasy VII there’s nothing to it but to keep going.

So you keep going. Four stories up, five stories up, six stories up.

Then a whisper glances the walls. The tunnel shaft is an echo chamber of distant howling winds and woodland babble. You imagined it, but it gives you pause.

Climbing again, the voice returns, louder now, more distinct. She sings the theme song familiar from way back at the start of the game, the first time you booted up the disk and waited excitedly through the pre-main menu cinematic. Without instrumental backing, the woman sings it like you’ve never heard before. The lyrics are cheesy but impassioned, to match the title’s inspiration drawn from goofy spy movies of the 60’s. Snake’s rhythmic clunk-clunking on the ladder’s rungs accompany the vocals, and for a minute you can taste the story as a whole. The ground below, slowly falling away, is as our entrance into the story so long ago, suddenly so close, beloved for our naivety and the opportunity it lead us. The rest of the villains, The Fury and The Sorrow and Volgin and Ocelot, and the Shagohod, await us in the story to come, we know.

And just as this eternal, soothing climb is a breather, it snatches our breath in anticipation of the coming tragedy. Snake’s torture, his lost eye. The Boss. For the drop of a moment time is suspended—an embrace; and yet, we fear what comes, what the story will do to us. What we must do to ourselves to fulfil it. The woman winds up the melody, calling our minds back from our trance to the present, and the newly raised anticipation is settled to the edge of thought. Her voice repeats the song’s refrain and holds the final note before collapsing into a whisper. We mount the top of the ladder and continue.

Sherlock Holmes is like this ladder. I’m cheating a little bit as I say this because there is one Sherlock Holmes that is like this ladder and there is one that is most decidedly not, and they offer quite a nice contrast to each other because of the ladder, among other things. The first is Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, and the second is Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments.

Crimes and Punishments is mostly a by-the-numbers point and click adventure: as Sherlock you gather clues by looking at objects and adding whatever they imply to your actionable options or committing them to your nebulous brain. Finding a clue opens up new paths, every single one of which you will most likely pursue during the investigation, making them practically mandatory if you want to conclude with the ‘right’ solution—a normal thing for games where you can Look at things and Talk to People. Sometimes you have to look at objects Really Hard before the clue is revealed and other times again you’ll have to pretend you looked at them, and these are systematized by letting you press a button that has Sherlock Look Really Hard or a different button that has him Imagine. It is Batman: Arkham Asylum’s detective mode, which I wrote about as a design crutch in another article, here being used to supplement given items or events simultaneous to literalizing Sherlock as a superhuman genius.

This is the guts of Crimes and Punishments: it is a product of certain design mentalities that struggle to depict abstraction. How do you represent the pieces of a case in a way that allows the player to pick them up and form them into a picture? How do you stop the player from forming a picture before they have the required pieces, or at least, how do we structure the story to know when they have put a theory together? How do you do this as a videogame?: which is the most important operation for any artefact of this medium when doing anything, I am led to believe.

As it happens, we have our answer thirty five years in the past. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, released 1981, has the same aims as Crimes and Punishments: to involve the player as an investigator in a Sherlock Holmes-esque mystery. That is to say, with all the authentic Sherlock-style cheats and tricks, like his impossibly convenient (and dramatically dull) memory and eclectic talent-base that made him so terribly impressive to readers a hundred years ago, and, for some reason, to television viewers today. The difference with Consulting Detective is Sherlock only plays more of a background role, popping up now and again to show everyone how exceedingly smart and insufferable he is, which works in this sense because the game urges us to compete against him and come up with a solution that shoves his smug attitude right down his throat.

Consulting Detective is not a power fantasy by way of introjected hero worship—you play as a group of street urchins lead by Holmes’ man Wiggins. Instead, investigations are more concerned with depicting clues and deductions in a way that does not call overt attention to Sherlock’s big bloody head, and therefore are allowed the discretion that makes them invigorating to discover. This is important to note because Consulting Detective is a rare entity: a board game which eschews design legacies.

Someone told me once that board games as a medium are considered by many designers the absent father of videogames. Insofar as they prize systems as an emblem of videogame purity, and board games are more often than not webs of systems that players lovingly tangle themselves up in, board games can be viewed as the distillation of processes which make videogames attractive to many thinkers and educators. The most beautiful process in a game, the one which ‘speaks to the medium’, is the player inputting an action and consulting the rulebook to see what the consequences are. In the case of videogames the rulebook is virtual and automated, so when Sherlock performs the action that is look closely at suspicious object, the game does its magic and returns the result of clue unveiled, and adds it to our casebook. It is mechanical; it is performative; it is sufficiently videogames.

Like the ladder, which defies mechanical schema of play and engagement, the play of Consulting Detective seeks systemic engagement through non-mechanization. Structurally, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure book—the box is filled with documents and papers and an address directory, which the players spend part of their time consulting in determining the next step of their investigation. I say ‘players’ because this is actually a multiplayer choose-your-own adventure detective mystery board game. You can play with one person, you versus Holmes, or you can play with up to eight people, collaborating or competing to beat him to the punch. So, with a small group of friends, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is gone about by looking in the directory to see where your next lead lives and finding their reference in the choose-your-adventure casebook, reading aloud the passage, and talking extensively about what you learned. The box contents are primarily designed as a watercooler—the act of congregating and discussing is its formal manner of play and encompass the vast bulk of its runtime.

What this means functionally is two things: first, because the process of solving the mystery is left up to the minds and imaginations of the players (rather than the computer-brain), players are able to go about the investigation by whatever path comes natural to them as a group, even if that path is completely and utterly arseways. Question Number Two which challenges videogame mystery plotting—how do you stop players from leaping forward too quickly—is a non-issue here. You might think, like me and Eugene and Danny and Sarah, that the smartest and quickest way to solve the murder of an arms manufacturer would be to pluck out the most curious possible storyline for the mystery and pursue that. This is how we ended up making the rounds of every single embassy in London, convinced by a too-convenient newspaper report of a gun show that the source of his death was an international conspiracy crossing political espionage with an illicit romantic affair. It’s all in prizing out the details from the given bodies of text. Each lead we visited thickened the plot further and further, growing the mystery deeper and connecting the conspirators ever more intricately. Until, after an hour down this thread, our leads suddenly ran cold with nobody actually being implicated. And this because, so smart were we, we opted to neglect the most obvious lead, the crimescene, until 90 minutes in.

Or you could do what Thomas did and Google Maps-ed a solution to his obsession over the address on an envelope, traced it to our paper map and thus found it in the directory. Which was definitely not cheating because there’s nothing about smartphones in the rulebook (published 1981).

The second thing, which should be clear from the first, is that it moves its model of systemic play to the social space, rather than keeping it firmly within the ‘virtual’ space of rules and internal fiction. Or more accurately, it accepts the social realm as a component in systemic play in normal conduct, and uses its virtual and fictional parts to accentuate this sphere of interaction as the stage where the game’s functions tick and whirl. It’s ‘mechanics’ are Danny’s confusion over who Wiggins is, and Mam’s idle flicking through the casebook’s pages, and Eddie’s sprawling note-taking, and Eugene’s calm and patient explanations of an especially sharp deduction. Materially, the mechanics are reading through books and leafing through pages and combing the personal ads of last month’s newspaper—non-systemic, unless we view literacy as within the system, as well as dexterity, as well as punditry.

But Consulting Detective’s structure is expansive. Its mode of play is not within the moment; it archs through the cultures, histories and communities of its players (“It plays out like a Sherlock Holmes mystery—has anyone read the novels?”). An aspect of play which today, 30 years after Consulting Detective, many still diminish as ancillary to games themselves as a whim of identity politics or as cultural deference. Its ‘systems’ are all about the context of what in whom interacts with what in their buddies: you can’t play it with a highly-focused game-centric worldview since there aren’t the pieces in the box to fulfil those requirements. In a similar system-expanding vein, Snake Eater’s ladder is wonderful in being perhaps the most subtle act of media-bending in any Metal Gear Solid, but which acts its magic through channels which are perfectly ordinary in nature. We see the past, the future, we become absorbed in the moment at the same time as we sail high up above in adoration of its dramatic structure. Yet it is linear and mechanically mundane; its wonder instead is derived from non-diegesis, from the scene’s placement right after this big systemic fight sequence, from the novelty of this perfectly normal thing.

All of which is not to say Crimes and Punishments is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. Only, maybe, a little bit staid. The neuron diagram where players map out and connect clues to form deductions and hypotheses is a kernel of delight. It may be telling that the most exciting part—the only surprising part—was in finding myself controlling Toby the Dog, when upon I wailed like a child.

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