In these risk averse times of mass market videogaming, the best we can generally look forward to in terms of innovation is a new engine or more accurately, more powerful technology. The sort that enables developers to basically show off and up the wow factor with more convincing physics, better AI and prettier graphics. It feels like progress of sorts, and the novelty of seeing our favourite gaming styles dressed up in new clothes is perpetually exciting... but it's a quick fix that hides the sad reality that originality is way down the list of priorities. The truth is, sadly, most popular genres have been lacking in genuinely new ideas for half a decade or more - which is why a game like In Memoriam stands out all the more.
Dial Google for murder
Released to zero fanfare a couple of months back via the increasingly impressive Ubisoft stable, In Memoriam is an online-only murder investigation adventure-puzzler that has you on the trail of a mysterious history obsessed serial killer that calls himself "The Phoenix", and it's ultimately your task to unravel the mystery and track him down.
All you have to go on is a mysterious CD-ROM that The Phoenix has mailed to the CEO of news network SKL, following the disappearance of Jack Lorski - the journalist investigating the murders. The game, if that's an appropriate term, involves solving a series of challenges or 'initiations' set up by The Phoenix, who wants recognition for his "Great Work".
In Memoriam commences as it means to go on - as if you're not playing a game at all, but actually working towards finding a murderer that wants to reel you in. All the way through the atmosphere is disturbing, with obscure unsettling sounds and otherworldly morphing animations providing the gateway to each set of initiations. Clicking on one of a handful of challenges takes you through to a static screen - some of which are logic puzzles (of varying degrees of difficulty) that can be solved there and then, and others which might reveal clues to a missing answer that must be tracked down via your Google search engine skills.
24 hour clue delivery
Having created an "account" at the beginning, you're then sent numerous emails that are often crucial to the successful completion of any given task. Fellow SKL staff are also researching into the murders and following up on clues, and their suggestions of websites on a given subject may be the only way to find an answer - unless you happen to know the exact search string in the first place. For example, fairly early on you uncover a girl's name, and it become fairly obvious from then on to type any words and clues you receive into Google and see what come up. Sadly, since the game has been on sale, many adventure sites' forums have become clogged with "how do you do X?" and these often push the real results down the pecking order, as well as providing a jarring desire to cheat and take the shortcut. A flaw in the concept methinks.
It doesn't especially help, either, when some of the clues are so hopelessly obscure that you could waste literally hours trawling through irrelevant nonsense thinking it's the real deal. You know what Google's like. As is often the case, the helpful email doesn't turn up until the next day, and it's more than a little frustrating to see some essential clue provided after you've already painstakingly solved something. For some reason it doesn't feel more satisfying to know that you've done it all by yourself, but annoying that it took so long for the game to help out - as you know full well that the next time you get hopelessly stuck (and you will, all the time), the next clue is going to take an age to arrive.
In Memoriam is undoubtedly at its best when the clues and puzzles are logical. It feels a wonderfully realised concept to have to keep checking your email inbox, surf for a mixture of real and bogus websites and piece together everything bit by bit. But the more the game relies of historical events and nigh on impossible feats of manual dexterity, it becomes a soul destroying farce that is nigh on impossible to progress in. Some of the mini-games are no more than pointless Flash efforts - one terrible example midway through being like hell's mini golf, while another tedious effort has you trying to get a box into a hole (why?) via elasticated ropes that you can hang onto various points. But the worst of the lot has to be a keyboard based nightmare that tasks you with pushing specific letters into the corners of the screen. Anyone who has played this will know how much I now despise the letter "I".
However, there are a few absolutely superb puzzles as well, notably the ones that have you recreating a chopped up movie file, or a creepy song, or the numerous shape challenges that are generally exceptionally well designed. And aside from the masterful sense of achievement/relief that comes from getting through these tasks, the thing that keeps you coming back for more is the knowledge that The Phoenix will show you a little more FMV footage from Jack Lorski's video diary, or maybe some of his own sick voyeuristic shots.
As a concept, it's one of the most fantastically well thought out pieces of game design I've ever seen. At its heart it's fairly simple, containing no more than functional visuals and a succession of logic tests, but combined with the use of websites, search engines and email it's using technology in a way that no-one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted in an adventure game before. It's a totally different type of gaming experience, and on that basis alone makes it something worth investigating.
The truth is, though, for all the truly excellent ideas packed into In Memoriam, some of the challenges are seemingly just tough for the sake of it - and judging by the adventure forums people are all getting stuck on the same things. There's nothing inherently wrong with making things challenging - after all this is a murder investigation - but developer Lexis runs the risk of its audience giving up well before the end, or at the very least cheating (although some of the most heinous challenges are impossible to skip). But now someone has come up with the idea, the way is clear for an entire investigative sub genre to emerge out of this. Imagine a Hannibal-style murder hunt game for example, or one devised by a popular novelist.
As an admirer of the adventure since its genesis back in the early 80s, it's heart warming to see its progression into something genuinely new, rather than clinging onto past text and point 'n' click glories. It's by no means the finished article in terms of being a well rounded and consistently enjoyable experience, and could arguably have done with a little less reliance on obscure historical references, but when it works, it's excellent and marks a crucial watershed in the history of narrative based videogaming. More of it please.