Reach Out

Reach Out
A Murderer Has Your Email Address

Susan Arendt | 15 May 2007 08:00
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Evidence recognizes this mental lapse and uses it to its advantage, building on a game structure that developer Lexis Numerique first tried in MISSING: Since January. MISSING used various webpages to plant information vital to solving its puzzles, so for the player to have any chance of arriving at a solution, he had to hone his Googling skills and comb the internet for the right hints, clues and crumbs of information. It was a brilliant idea; after all, if you want to know something, what do you do? You look it up on the internet. Blending this everyday activity into the gameplay went far toward making players feel as though they really were helping to unravel the mystery of two missing journalists and a serial killer, but it was ultimately a flawed mechanic. Once the game had been released for a few weeks, virtually any search players ran turned up so many walkthroughs and cheats that the emotional effect was lost. That's the problem with the real world: It's devilishly difficult to control.

Evidence solved that problem by integrating an in-game search engine that weeds out such unwanted "help," but simply improving upon Missing's gimmick wasn't going to be enough to win the hearts of jaded gamers, so Lexis took things a bit further by adding in emails like the kind I received from the killer. To further the illusion that the player's puzzle-solving efforts are having real-world ramifications, players will receive friendly emails from other members of the ICPA, the organization they "join" when they start playing the game. Comrades will offer hints for solving puzzles, propose theories of the killer's identity and motivations, even just drop a line to say hi - just like they would if they were real. This creates a fairly well-maintained illusion that you're not just playing a game in a vacuum, but rather working with a team toward a goal. The emails arrive at random intervals, with some puzzles sparking a flurry of incoming messages, while others meet with complete silence, thus giving them an organic feel despite the fact they're being automatically generated as you progress through pre-determined markers in the game levels. More importantly, by extending the gameplay into an area of activity we don't normally associate with gaming, Evidence tricks us into forgetting, even if only for a few seconds, that we're not communicating with living, breathing people.

By invading our personal space, the game becomes more than just an amusing diversion or a way to pass the time before dinner, it becomes an experience. Creating an emotional connection with the player is something classic adventure games, the genre into which Evidence technically fits, have had a hard time doing, because their core gameplay elements force the players into an emotional disconnect. The puzzles in adventure games tend to be fairly esoteric and exotic; when trying to determine the right heroic couplet to recite in order to open a locked vault, the only real emotions you're likely to feel are frustration if you can't figure it out and elation if you can. Those feelings don't have anything to do with the actual story, however - they have to do with personal victory and therefore create little connection between the player and the plot of the game. The puzzles in Evidence are no less obtuse, but its blurring of the line between real world and game world takes the game out of the player's head and makes it feel very genuine and real.

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