A look at Sherlock Holmes Chapter One

It’s genuinely gratifying to see Frogwares, the Polish developer behind eight previous mainline Sherlock Holmes games, making a bit of a move on things. Rather than going the route it has been treading for almost 20 years now, presenting a tale – or a remix of a tale – of the Sherlock we’re all very familiar with, a man set in his ways, his personality formed, with nothing new to learn, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One presents us with a younger model. It’s young Sherlock Holmes, but not the 1985 film.

This 21-year-old Holmes is still the deduction machine of past Frogwares titles, gathering clues through observation and interaction before bringing them into his mind palace – that’s what the in-game mechanic is called – and linking pertinent points to discover the truth. Or mess up and accuse the wrong person, of course. But this Holmes is also brasher, up for a scrap as much as he is up for noticing the blemishes on an old aristocrat’s face or the scratches on a medium’s wrists.

It’s hard to say this is bold new territory, per se, but it does present Frogwares with something new and exciting: the chance to go off-piste with the world’s most famous detective who isn’t Poirot. And beyond just presenting us with a less grey-around-the-temples main character, it also gives the developer the perfect chance to branch out with how it’s all presented: Sherlock’s going open-world. Sort of. A bit.

We’re not talking Grand Theft Elementary here, but Sherlock Holmes Chapter One does broaden the scope of players’ investigations, taking in crime scenes and surrounding areas, as well as the chance to explore the local area in your quest for all the clues. From a bit of time with the game, it’s unclear exactly how open it will get as things progress, but there’s huge potential here for investigations to become wide-ranging both in topic and in location.

The world has opened up significantly since Frogwares’ last Holmes release in 2016

And just as much, there’s huge potential for the younger Holmes to develop as things progress – something the notoriously stoic detective of his later years doesn’t really bother with. We’re promised a more arrogant, more volatile version of the character, and while that’ll surely rub some purists up the wrong way, it’s a solid experiment to run with – to see what can be done with his story; what developments we can encounter along the way that turn him into the man we know he becomes. That, or it’ll just mean lots of gratuitous gun-fights, who knows?

Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games have gradually increased in complexity and visual quality over the past 20 years, and Sherlock Holmes Chapter One looks like another incremental step forward. It’ll be fun to see how they treat this younger version of the man who’ll soon live at 221B Baker Street.

Investigating items yields clues which can then be followed up on with suspects, or simply linked to other clues you know or later discover

Hoping for at least one answer including the word ‘elementary’, we had a chat with Wael Amr, CEO of Frogwares, to lift the veil on the grand mystery surrounding Sherlock Holmes Chapter One.

Where did the idea for Sherlock Holmes Chapter One come from?

Shortly after The Sinking City’s production wrapped up, we began wondering about our next game. As a studio, we wanted to revisit our old ‘friend’ Sherlock. However, we didn’t know in what way. So we decided to talk among ourselves in the studio, and see what people suggested as possible themes for our next Sherlock game. After a few weeks of brainstorms, presentations, etc, we had a large list of possible new adventures. But hearing the idea of presenting a story about Holmes before he became the world-famous detective, well, that got us really excited. It made us stop and think.

The mystery of a missing owner for an ornate cane soon becomes something much meatier for Holmes to get into

What sorts of things weren’t pursued? Were any elements from these other ideas brought in to Chapter 1?

We had many different ideas being thrown around. Sherlock in the sixties, Sherlock in the future, Sherlock in colonial Australia too! They were good ideas, with the Australia one coming pretty close to being ‘the one’. 

Did we use any of the elements? Well, the ‘Australian’ idea of Sherlock being outside of London, we liked that a lot. With our adventures, we’ve been in London many times before. And it seems recently that London has been a bit of a popular location for games. So why not try something different and be somewhere else? That idea of Sherlock going and being in a new place, that carried over to Chapter One, with him visiting our Mediterranean island, Cordona.

What was the specific motivation to go back to the early days of the detective?

The fact that it’s never been discussed in the books made us wonder what type of person Sherlock could’ve been before he decided to be a detective. As we talked about this idea, we started to feel excited about it. And anywhere there’s a spark, that’s the place from which wonderful things can happen and tend to come out from. So we decided to follow that spark and see where it would lead us. Two years later, here we are, the spark still shining.

Fair to say this hotel is not affiliated with the Ibis chain

Where did that spark come from in deciding to use Sherlock’s early days?

You can feel that spark in the room, when you talk about an idea and everyone seems to be on that same page. Perhaps a young rebellious Sherlock resonated with us somehow on a deeper level? I’m not too sure. We’ve all gone through phases of trying to ‘find oneself’. As individuals, as a group of people, perhaps even us as a studio too. Maybe we’re at some point in our collective lives that we feel drawn to this story? But the spark, that comes from inside. You can see it in the nods of people, and in the energy rising inside the room. It’s a very ethereal figure, like an idea or a far-gone concept. But when it’s there, it’s there. You feel it and it is exciting!

What does this shift in timeline allow you to do that you couldn’t previously?

It allows us to experiment a little bit with the character of Holmes and lets us think about what led him to discover his talents. We all know that Holmes is a talented detective – as an audience, we don’t question this whatsoever. But what led him to becoming that person? Was he always in search of ultimate truth? Was he always this antisocial genius? Or perhaps he was a bit of a rebellious, cocky, and arrogant young man who was still, in fact, trying to figure himself out. By setting the game in this timeline, we can play around with those questions a bit more and provide hypothetical answers.

Since Sherlock is still discovering who he is, and what truth means to him, we can have a bit more freedom in terms of what decisions he might make. This can also impact gameplay itself, which once again opens up our creative juice taps, too.

Figuring out the whys and hows of any mystery is key, and Holmes is already an expert at supposition

You’re coming up with a part of a classic literary character that’s never been seen before – how much pressure is there to do Sherlock justice?

There is a bit of pressure, we won’t lie. We do want to give this character justice, and we also want fans of Sherlock to feel that we did well by him too. Every time you go outside of canon, which we certainly are with Chapter One, you fight with people’s own imaginations of what their favourite character might’ve been, done, looked liked, behaved, etc. We hope people will like our version of a young Sherlock Holmes and that it might align with theirs. And if it’s not, they’ll still appreciate our take on their hero. 

Is it all on you, or does the Sherlock estate get involved at all?

We are the ones making all of the design decisions with our Sherlock Holmes. However, we have to say that it is great to work with the Doyle Estate and the fact they trust us with our creative decisions means a lot to our studio.

You’ve been custodians of the video game version of Sherlock Holmes for a long time now – how has your approach to the character changed?

Each ‘version’ of Holmes is us taking a different take on the character in some way. For example, now in Chapter One, we are working on young Holmes. In our previous Sherlock title, The Devil’s Daughter, Holmes is a paternal figure and we see what type of parent he could’ve been. So each iteration of the character is slightly different. However, there are quirks and personality traits of Holmes that we cannot abandon. He’s the greatest antisocial detective the world has ever seen, and there are reasons why we love this character so much. If we were to leave them out, we’d lose the essence of the character itself, and that’s the last thing that we want to do.

Speaking of Frogwares’ past Sherlock output: is there a specific series high point for you? A title by which all other Sherlock games are measured?

That’s a hard question to answer as we always try to make our next game the highlight of our studio. There have been some games that we feel we broke a ceiling with. Crimes & Punishments is definitely a title of ours that has received a lot of critical praise from both the press and players. It’s still one of our highest-rated games ever. I also feel we achieved something great with The Sinking City, where we as a studio were able to create a true open-world game. That was a bit special to us as it made us feel that we can explore gaming beyond level-based designs. And The Testament of Sherlock Holmes showed us that making a grand, bigger-budget Sherlock adventure can also be a mainstream success.

How have you grown/changed/modified as developers over the years?

Every project we work on teaches us something new. Either about ourselves, about gaming, tech, production, business, design, and so on. We always aim to be better than the previous game we’ve made, yet we try not to stray too far from the boundaries of our forte, so to speak. We make investigation games. That’s our niche, our ‘thing’, what Frogwares is known for. Investigation and mysteries, that’s the common thread in our games. Over the years, we tried to evolve what an investigation and mystery game is and could be. Sometimes our experiments work, such as the Mind Palace mechanic we introduced in Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, while some not so much, such as certain QTEs. It’s all part of growth and getting better at your craft. 

Looking back since our first Sherlock Holmes game from all those millions of years ago, we’ve grown a lot. At first, we were making classic point-and-click types of games. But then, as technology evolved, and player expectations grew, we needed to evolve too. With The Awakened, we took gameplay to an entirely real-time rendered 3D environment. We also introduced a third-person camera to our productions. People’s tastes matured as well, so we made our games more mature, both in themes and showing a little bit more of the gore on screens. We adapted together with the industry and players. Each game is a different lesson for us. Each one holds a special place in our studio’s journey. Each is a stepping stone to the next game.

What’s your favourite feature in Chapter One?

The disguise mechanic. It’s something new that we’ve implemented and it’s another tool, another way to engage that real-life feeling of intuition in players. It also helps us to play around with the idea of how people might treat you depending on how you look. Perhaps a police officer won’t give you any info if you look like a lower-class street punk, but dress up in an aristocratic get-up and who knows what information might flow from the officer. It’s fun coming up with new gameplay mechanics. It’s the part of the creative process that gives you the most joy. It’ll be interesting to see how players will react to it once they play it for themselves.

I’m also proud that we created an ethnically shared world and that we could play our part in having Black or Turkish actors playing characters in the game.

How many are working on the game?

There are over 90 of us working on this game. For a production of this scale, we need a certain amount of people to pull this off. However, we are a nimble bunch, and I’m amazed by some of the tools that our people come up with to make our work easier and more efficient. We base our working relationship on mutual trust and respect. As with any relationships, communication is key.

Since we moved to Agile development in 2016, it allowed us to have a no-crunch policy, and we haven’t worked a weekend for the last five years. While the team is rather modestly sized for an open-world game, our organisation allows us to develop with less stress and tensions than before, which is important for overall mental health and avoiding burnout. 

How has the pandemic impacted development, if at all? What has it changed?

It impacted us and changed the way we work forever.

I’m sure everyone has a similar story, but working from home during a pandemic has its challenges. We were in full lockdown, meaning that we couldn’t leave our apartments except for food and a little bit of exercise. This non-stop sitting at home did impact people, both physically and emotionally. Not being able to see the people you work with, not being able to bounce off ideas in person, that was a challenge too. However, we always had an agile process approach, and that fits well with remote work. Now we have to think about what to do next once ‘normal’ comes back. Do we need to come back to commute time again and forced presence at a designated physical location? There’s a lot that we have to explore, which includes work-life balance, work organisation, social work life, and more. However, the pandemic has definitely changed how we work. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing…

What have you learned from your experiences making Chapter One?

Well, I guess we will find out a lot of our lessons once the game is out; we sit down, take a breather, and think about what has happened over the past two and a bit years. Best lessons are learned after the event, and there’s still a bit of time ahead of us before the release. However, we have picked up a lot of valuable lessons, both from a production point as well as from the business side of making games. Every day you become wiser, and your anecdotes bank gets filled up with new material. But we would love for you to ask us this question again a few months after Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is released. We’ll have quite a lot of anecdotes ready for you, I’m sure!

What are your hopes for the game once it releases?

There are a few hopes that we have deep inside for Chapter One. First, and the most important one, we hope that players will really like it. I know that it’s a bit of a cookie-cutter response, but for a game developer, it does mean a lot when players react well with the game they’ve made. It gives you a feeling of self-satisfaction and a job well-done. Of a purpose fulfilled. We also hope that Sherlock Holmes Chapter One will receive critical acclaim, with awards being thrown at us left, right, and centre! I joke a little bit here, but we do hope that our game will strike a chord with critics, too. And from a practical business side, we hope that the game will be financially successful, and allow our studio to develop the next project, and the next, and so on.

Personally, I hope that the people that are working on this project can be proud of that fact. I hope that they can have their heads held high, feel that they’ve made some wonderful memories during this time, and when the credits roll and they see their name, they will have a smile on their face. I hope for that just as much as all the other reasons above.

Are you confident in your take on the young detective?

I can honestly say that we are doing our very best. That’s all that we can do. If at the end of the day we can say to ourselves that we did absolutely everything we could in the best possible way, then that’s all you can do.

Whatever happens next is outside of your control. And if people resonate with your work, then it’s a blast to feel.

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