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Murdered: Soul Suspect strives to strike a balance between narrative and play

More than anything, Murdered: Soul Suspect is meant to tell a story.

Developed by Airtight Games for Square Enix, the game puts players in the shoes of recently murdered detective Ronan O'Connor. The detective finds himself dead on a street after pursuing a lead on a serial killer. When he tries to reunite with his dead wife she tells him he has something to resolve before the two can meet in the afterlife.

That's where the third-person perspective game picks up, with the spirit of O'Connor standing over the body of O'Connor.

"Square came to us wanting to do a collaborative project," said Matt Brunner, creative officer of Airtight Games. "We sat down and discussed all different kinds of projects and we sort of narrowed in a game about a protagonist who is a ghost."

Over the next year and a half, the team turned that broad idea into Soul Suspect, a title Brunner describes as a supernatural thriller and a narratively driven game.

"We wanted a game that was about the characters," he said. "Heavy Rain is not a bad comparison, but it's also a very different sort of game in terms of mechanics. There are similarities to Heavy Rain, there are similarities to L.A. Noire.

In the game's opening sequence, O'Connor returns to his body to find police officers, detectives and a supervisor standing around his corpse within the marked off street that has become a crime scene. After catching a glimpse of a ghost girl, he chases her down to get some explanation of what's happening.

She tells him that he has to resolve the issues that prevent him from moving on soon or he will be trapped as a ghost and that as a ghost he will eventually erode and become a demon of sorts, a thing that feeds on the trapped and lingering spirits of Salem.

That sense of timing running out is a very important element of the game, Brunner said.

I asked him if he had ever played Gone Home, a narrative feast of a game with no real fail state or time crunch.

"I'm a big fan of Gone Home," he said. "They took some risks and it did well. It was an emotional experience in an interactive experience that hit the market it was after.

"I had tears in my eyes when I finished playing it."

But, Brunner said, a purely narrative experience wouldn't have worked for Soul Suspect.

"We pushed it in that direction a little bit at one time," he said. "But we discovered that you need to have highs and lows in your experience. You need to have adrenaline moments. You need time when you are thinking. This is a thinking game.

"Without all of that it is all too much on one level."

The team also played around with making the game's conflict more like direct combat.

"At one point it was literally combat," he said. "Now it's more like enemy encounters."

The result is a game that Brunner sees appealing to people looking for something unique or interesting, not just another version of a game that's already out there. He also thinks the game will appeal to a broader female audience and people who like to think a little bit.

In the demo, players return from their conversation with the ghost girl to kick off the investigation into their own death. Players can possess anyone and then try to influence their actions, read their minds or examine things, like the notes they have been taking. The idea, in this first scene, is to try and unearth the clues that can be found at the crime scene before moving on into the house where O'Connor was thrown from an upstairs window.

Watching the demo played out on the PAX East show floor, players seemed to be deeply interested in the process People leaned forward, stood with their elbows on the table, deeply engrossed in puzzling out the problem.

"It's been really nice," Brunner said, "to see people sinking in and playing the game."

The next level of puzzles.

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