Friday, July 8, 2011

“It needs careful playing, all the same” (SHOS): “Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper”

Frogwares; Publisher: Focus Home Interactive (May 24, 2009)
I recently attended my first meeting of “Watson’s Tin Box,” in Ellicott City, Md.  I was seated next to a woman who had, in front of her, a copy of The Asylum’s direct-to-DVD film, “Sherlock Holmes,” which she had brought along to share with another Tin Box member.  I must have looked surprised or otherwise unimpressed at her choice of film, because she merely laughed good-naturedly and smiled: “You can’t take this all so seriously, dear.  It’s just detective fiction, after all.”  I smiled back.  “Of course,” I said.  “That movie has dinosaurs in it.  If you can’t laugh at that, there’s not much room for anything else then, is there?  No board games, interactive books, or great mouse detectives?”  We were chatting amiably when the other Tin Box member came by to claim the movie.  She was examining the DVD case and chuckled as she said, “Is that… is that a pterodactyl, I see there?” 
“No,” I replied.  “That’s a dragon.  See?  It’s spitting fire and trying to burn down Big Ben.  Isn’t it gorgeous?”
I’ve discussed elsewhere about the importance of not taking oneself too seriously when it comes to all things Sherlockian.  Too much seriousness is a quick and slippery slope towards a straight-jacket and a quiet corner, where one can rock back and forth, and mutter on about chronology, floor plans, and bull pups.  If you find yourself red-faced and furious over a Baring-Gould versus Klinger discussion, or the ever-popular Rathbone versus Brett argument, then perhaps it’s time to step back and reexamine your motives.  Careful, I often think to myself.  That way means madness… that way means madness and an early retirement to Sussex Downs and a couple of feral beehives.  It’s all very well and good to lose oneself in the details and specifics of the canon (this blog being very definite evidence of how often I myself do it), but it’s also important to keep things around that remind us of the fun of Sherlock Holmes, of why we do it, and how wonderfully varied the Sherlockian universe is.
Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper is the most recent outing in the “Adventure Games of Sherlock Holmes” series from the independent game development studio, Frogwares.  Previous adventures include: Sherlock Holmes: Mystery of the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, and Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin (also known as Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis).  A sixth game in the series, currently titled The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, is slated for a Fall 2011 release.  Frogwares also released a title for the NintendoDS in 2010, Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Osborne House, which—while featuring Holmes and Watson—does not appear to be a part of the studio’s “Adventures” series, as it is more of a casual puzzle game than a fully-plotted and complex exploit.
It goes without saying that this is not the first time that Sherlock Holmes has been pitted against the notorious serial killer known as “Jack the Ripper.”  Many authors have attempted to solve one of the world’s most compelling and gruesome mysteries, using the world’s first consulting detective as their conduit, for example: Michael Dibdin in 1978 with The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, Lyndsay Faye in 2009 with Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, and most recently, Bernard Schaffer in Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes.  Likewise, Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper is its own fully formed story, with a complete narrative and investigation.  The differences between the modernity of Baker Street, and the squalid conditions of the Whitechapel district (where the player will spend most of his or her time) are neatly executed.  The cast of characters within the game is vast, and the tasks needed to complete the game often seem limitless.
Game play alternates between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and between a first and third person perspective.  Watson appears to have no compunctions about appearing as himself whether he is in Whitechapel or Baker Street, while Holmes alternates between appearing as himself and in disguise.  Other notable characters include the Baker Street Irregulars, who assist Holmes in one the game’s more amusing puzzles; and Inspector Frederick Abberline, who is a familiar figure in the Jack the Ripper legend and has been played by both Michael Caine and Johnny Depp in various screen adaptations of the Ripper story.  Gameplay requires minute investigation of mutilated corpses, reassembling a damaged gas pipeline, replicating a certain perfume, and other puzzle-based activities, before applying acquired clues to a “deduction board” that allows the player to follow various inferences.
But getting back to the original point, while the story in Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper is thorough and well-written, and game itself is engaging, it is also at times extremely amusing.  An early puzzle requires Holmes to straddle the prone form of Dr. Watson, as they try to replicate a prostitute’s grisly murder, and the player has to wonder if the programmers are winking and giggling off-screen.  Later, Watson’s solo investigations lead him to an appropriately seamy Whitechapel brothel, where he is endearingly flustered by the brothel’s activities and the attentions of its madam.  Holmes encounters a prostitute of his own, a large woman who goes by the street name “The Big Whirly,” and when she asks the Detective if “he’d like a ride,” Holmes response is a brief, deadpan: “No.”  Holmes’s further interactions with “The Big Whirly” involve the Irregulars, a catnip-based perfume, and hopefully a lot of laughter, when the player hears Holmes utter the unlikely sentence: “We’re going to need cats, lots of cats.  To the petshop!”
You can certainly play Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper very, very seriously, going over every puzzle in excruciating detail, and laboring over each clue.  You can frown and cluck disapprovingly when Sherlock Holmes makes an off-handed joke about his iconic deerstalker, and wrinkle your forehead in displeasure at a subtly sexual remark between the Detective and a clinic doctor over a photograph of a syphilis-riddled face.  And there is certainly no denying that the game is very, very dark, with cut-scenes that are gruesome and a climax that is terrifying.  But it’s also fun.  It’s fast-paced, and gripping, and thrilling.  And a perfect reminder of the many shades and flavors in which Sherlockian things are available, especially when they aren’t so serious.
Visit Frogwares’s site dedicated to its line of Sherlock Holmes games, including Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper, here.
Still lots of time to enter the new blog contest!  Share the details of your ideal Sherlock Holmes story, and you can win a prize package of pastiches.  Contest is open until July 23.


  1. Sounds delightful!
    I recently played Frogwares' "The Awakening" and it was also a fun mix of amusing and gruesome, as is appropriate for a Lovecraftian horror piece. I've got 'Nemesis' waiting to be finished, and then I'll have to play Jack. I'm looking forward to 'Testament' as well, it looks promising.

    Video games are such a wonderful way to remind oneself that The Game is, after all, a game.

  2. @KateM: You put it so perfectly: "The Game is, after all, a game." Well said!

    I've got most of Frogwares's Sherlock Holmes games on my computer in various stages of completion. I really like how they've evolved in terms of gameplay and voice acting. Their current voice actor for Holmes is a vast improvement over the gentleman who voiced him in "Mystery of the Mummy."

    The only one I'm missing is "Nemesis," so I'd love to hear more about it from you! And I'm very excited for "Testament" as well--it looks intriguing!

  3. I loved hearing a bit about your visit to Watson's Tin Box. I actually watched The Asylum "Sherlock Holmes" film on cable last week (thus, before reading your post!). It took me a while to realize that it wasn't merely an awful film, but deliberately awful, and therefore wonderful, in its way. Glad I stayed with it till the bitter end!

    I could easily be red-faced in defense of Brett (or Baring-Gould, for that matter), but I see the merit of stepping back occasionally. Therefore, I really enjoyed your coverage of the Sherlock Holmes adventure games now available (I must try one of them!), along with movie tie-ins that touch on the same themes or offer the same adversaries for our detective.

  4. Well, I see the Sherlock Holmes with dinosaurs movie is available to watch instantly on Netflix, further reducing the barrier to watch it. Maybe I'll put off a Jonathan Creek episode on YouTube to watch this. It looks a hoot.

    Incidentally, some of the really negative reviews seem to be from those people who rented it thinking it was the Robert Downey/Jude Law version.

    Also, I miss MST3K and I think this film would be great with robots.

  5. @Lucy: The "Tin Box" meeting was wonderful. The members were very kind and generous with their knowledge. Thank you very much for bringing the group to my attention!

    The Asylum has done a number of "mockbusters" that walk that fine line between clever satire, and merely atrocious cinema. I was most certainly cringing while watching their "Sherlock Holmes," but I was also giggling, which you can't really argue with, in terms of enjoyment. I've definitely gotten red-faced about Brett and Baring-Gould--I think everyone gets defensive about the things they're passionate about--but I don't like to forget what makes it fun for me. If you do decide to pick-up one of the games, might I suggest "Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring"? I think it's a good introduction to Frogwares's method of gameplay.

    @virtualight: I think a "hoot" is an excellent way to describe it, and you've got me wondering what the MST3K gang would have made of it. I can almost hear their commentary now: "Sorry, folks, I picked this outfit up at a half-price steampunk garage sale."

    ...or maybe I should stay away from color commentary! :-)