The murder’s brutal; the fashions are criminal. It’s 1996, and actress Honor Mizrahi – who plays a detective on TV – is forced to become a real-life sleuth when she’s wrongly accused of murder. Fortunately, Honor has an ally in her quest: a cheerfully glitchy robot named SCOUT, who can scan crime scenes and help locate vital clues.
Such is the backstory for Murder By Numbers, a hybrid of visual novel and puzzler currently in the works at British developer Mediatonic. It sees designer and co-writer Ed Fear (who previously penned the dinky RPG The Swords of Ditto) partner up with Japanese artist and indie developer Hato Moa, the mind behind the fantastically strange visual novel, Hatoful Boyfriend.
Anyone who’s played a Picross game will recognise the cerebral challenges on offer in Murder By Numbers: squares on a grid are filled in by cross-referencing the numbers that run down the side; correctly fill in the right squares, and an image is revealed. The twist here is that each Picross completed puzzle yields a clue to solving Murder By Numbers’ overarching mystery.
So as well as moving between locations and questioning subjects, you’ll also use SCOUT’s scanning powers to hunt for pieces of evidence, which in turn trigger puzzles which need to be solved to progress. The initial idea for Murder By Numbers first emerged about a decade ago, as Ed Fear was playing a Picross game on his Nintendo DS; what if, he thought, there was a narrative reason for solving the puzzles? “I was massively addicted to them,” Fear says. “I was thinking as I was playing it one day – because they were just collections of puzzles, you know – what if solving these puzzles had some kind of gameplay value. That’s where it came from – this idea that they’d become clues in an investigation.”
After several years of pitching the concept around, it finally found traction at Mediatonic where, in early 2018, Fear started making a rough prototype over the course of about six weeks. In the process, he began thinking about the kind of story that could bind all of it together, which is where the detective element came in. “The solution to the puzzle is an image, so the first thing I thought of was, ‘How could that image be usable as a gameplay mechanic?’,” Fear says. “Literally, the first thing that came into my head was, well, what if it’s a clue in a mystery or something? It was there from that point. I’d always been a huge fan of the Phoenix Wright series and Professor Layton and things like that, so it felt like a natural fit.”
Planning and writing the mysteries that bind the game together was itself a logical puzzle, Fear tells us. Early in development, he enlisted the help of fellow Mediatonic writer Murray Lewis (who previously worked on Fantastic Beasts: Cases from the Wizarding World) to help write the individual cases Honor will encounter through the game, while Fear concentrated on writing the overarching story. “Writing a mystery is really difficult, because it’s so much about planning, and because you work from the end backwards in a lot of ways,” Fear says. “For each case, we have a very long flowchart that indicates how things come together – what order the player can find things in, because it’s linear but there’s a degree of non-linearity in what order you do things.”
As for the other elements of the plot – its nineties Hollywood setting, its pairing of a TV actress and a robot – those came from a few disparate sources. “The nineties thing came about because I’d just decided that I was really in love with nineties fashion and how awful it was,” says Fear. “I’d noticed some of my friends dressing up in more kind of nineties styles, and I thought it was amazing… In terms of the TV station stuff – the Hollywood setting – I’d originally thought of some different concepts, but they weren’t really going down well. I’ve always loved really trashy Hollywood-set novels, where there’s lots of glitz and glamour, but there’s a seediness behind it all. That appealed to me. But the idea of having a TV actress and a robot actually came to me in a dream.”
But while the Hollywood setting and its seedy underbelly might suggest we’re in for a detective game with a dark, noir twist worthy of Raymond Chandler, Fear says Murder By Numbers will be “quite the opposite” – instead, he says, it’s a “bright and poppy” bit of counter-programming to the more heavy, philosophical indie games we’ve seen of late. “I felt like a lot of the indie games I was seeing around were very meaningful or very serious,” Fear tells us. “I think that’s great, and I enjoy playing those. But I had the feeling in my heart that I wanted to make something that was primarily fun and enjoyable, something you could play to cheer yourself up if you weren’t feeling great. The tone is the opposite of what noir is, really. I don’t know (quite) what the opposite of noir is: I guess like a blaring light shone in your face or something!”
Murder By Numbers’ nineties setting is brought vibrantly to life thanks to Japanese artist and game designer Hato Moa. With Fear and Moa collaborating from opposite sides of the planet, working on the game has meant a regular back-and-forth of emails, with Fear sending across pieces of story and character briefs, and Moa replying with designs for each member of the game’s cast. “I’ve worked with some Japanese character designers who really only want about two or three words, and then there are artists who like as much information as you can give them,” Fear explains. “I think Moa’s closer to the (latter), so we’d give a bit of information about their background, their personality; we’d suggest what their hair might be like, or what their body shape may be, or what sort of clothes they wear. But then we leave it to her to fill in the gaps to that, or we were even open to her turning around and saying, ‘Actually, I think it would be better if we went with this…’. So it was very iterative and very close.”
Genre: Visual novel / puzzler
Format: PC / Switch
Publisher: The Irregular Corporation
Release: Early 2020