Death on the Nile (Oberon Games, 2007)

Several of the more famous Agatha Christie books have been adapted into computer games: AWE made traditional point-and-click adventure versions of Murder on the Orient Express, Evil Under the Sun and And Then There Were None, with limited success. But AWE either let the licence lapse, or it wasn’t exclusive, because 2007’s Death on the Nile was developed by Oberon Games and is in a completely different style. Like so many casual games nowadays, it’s a Hidden Object game. And like so many Hidden Object games, it’s not very good.

[Spoilers for Death on the Nile, but nothing else]

For those that aren’t familiar with the concept, the meat of a Hidden Object game is a computerised version of “Where’s Waldo?” – players are presented with a cluttered picture and a list of objects to find. Clicking on one removes it from the picture, and when everything has been found you’re free to advance to the next level. Occasionally a minigame or puzzle will be thrown at you to spice things up, and often the piles of junk will be laid out around a town or a spooky house, but the essence is always the same: squint and click.

Death on the Nile is almost as bare-bones as things get. Everything takes place aboard the Karnak. You question characters in the salon, then go off to search three or four of the rooms. Then you solve a puzzle, like reassembling a torn letter and then it’s back to the salon for another round of questions. There’s no navigation beyond clicking on a map to select the next room to visit and no opportunity to use items found in scenes to solve puzzles. I think the kindest thing to call it would be unambitious.

Hidden Object games rarely strive to be realistic. Usually some effort is made to include items which are relevant to the setting or time period, but they’re hardly ever hidden in a normal way. In order to make the items tough to find, they’re often hidden in unlikely places or rescaled so as to be difficult to spot. Often items are reduced to mere designs, hidden in wallpaper or in the pattern of a carpet. Here’s a screenshot from the dining room. The list of items still to find is on the left. Can you spot them? (Clicking the image should enlarge it – it probably won’t help though!)

Death on the Nile isn’t as bad as some games in this respect. There are a few anachronistic items, but mostly everything seems to fit the ’30s vibe. Some items are impossibly small and blurry, but then the five hints per level are more than enough to ensure that these don’t trip you up. What is silly is the developer’s notion of what a passenger’s cabin would look like. Each cabin is a huge room, complete with skirting boards, moulded ceilings and sturdy wooden wardrobes, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that they’d copied over a basic background template from an earlier game set in a mansion. Each room is cluttered with stuff that’s supposed to be ‘relevant’ to each passenger – a sensible enough design decision to help differentiate the rooms – although it often seems like they’ve brought everything they own on holiday with them. Rooms are filled to bursting with trinkets, including infeasibly large things like statuettes, anchors and enormous tribal drums.

So plausibility is out, but at least some of the theming is relevant. Linnet Doyle’s room is filled with souvenirs of her recent marriage. Salome Otterbourne’s room is like the cover of one of her bad romance novels – draped with satin and filled with ornate perfume bottles and oriental tat. But for every relevantly themed room there’s a totally baffling one. Why is Tim Allerton’s room filled with different musical instruments? Poor put-upon Rosalie Otterbourne seems to run a greengrocer’s:

Mysterious vegetables notwithstanding, there hasn’t been much tampering with Christie’s story. But I think an adaptation needs to do more than replicate the original to justify its existence, and this game doesn’t really deliver. In fact most of the game’s saving graces can be attributed to Christie rather than anything the developers have done. Now a large part of my problem is certainly that I really don’t enjoy the central mechanic. Even if the mystery portion was well presented and fun, it would still make up about 5% of the playing time. It’s hard to overlook story issues when the main game isn’t even remotely engaging.

But I don’t think this bias is affecting my judgment. It’s not that I completely hate Hidden Object games. It’s never going to be my favourite genre, but it’s pleasant enough to click through some of the better examples. The Mystery Case Files games are all fun (although they’re not mysteries), as are some of the wackier thrillers. But the developers there understand how to construct an engaging image, probably because they’ve thought about the appeal of the Hidden Object game in print. The Where’s Waldo pictures were full of amusing details that encouraged close scrutiny. They didn’t look like someone had just emptied a skipful of junk into your living room before asking you to help sort them out.

And this game even commits some of the cardinal sins of the genre. Not only do you have to repeat the rooms, but sometimes you have to find the same objects in the same place for a second time. Some objects really aren’t visible at all unless you adjust your brightness settings. Some clues could refer to more than one item in the picture (“Rhymes with three?” come on developers! That’s just feeble). Some objects are obvious but the click detection means its difficult to actually make the game realise you’ve found them. Some objects even have completely the wrong names.

It’s just a bit shoddy, and even though I was trying to give the developers the benefit of the doubt (2007 is a lifetime ago in casual gaming terms) I just wasn’t having very much fun. Did you find those items? Here they are:

No wonder I was clawing at my eyes by the end!

But of course I’m mainly interested in the mystery; how well it survives the transition to computer form and how well it’s been integrated with the gameplay. For an interactive mystery to be worthwhile, it has to actually feel like you’re investigating a crime. The developers tried to tie the gameplay and the mystery together, but I’m afraid they weren’t very successful.

The mystery is presented in four different ways. There’s some use of cutscenes. These are kept to a minimum, which is always good policy in a game, and they’re only used at times when it makes sense to remove control from the player: when Jackie shoots Simon, the three murders, etc. These are times when the case is out of Poirot’s hands. So it makes sense for them to be out of ours as well.

Questioning of the characters is done through dialogue choices, but it’s only nominally interactive. There’s no reason not to just click each character and ask them all the questions in order. New questions pop up as Poirot discovers more clues, but there’s never any reason to think about which person to question first, or which questions to ask. So this doesn’t really feel much like real interrogation. (Also the pacing seems to be broken. Even after the murder of Salome Otterbourne, Poirot still hadn’t got round to questioning some of the peripheral characters about their alibis for the first killing.)

Hunting for evidence takes the form of a Hidden Object game, as outlined above. Each round there’ll be two or three important clues amongst the junk. When you find those items, Poirot will ponder about their relevance to the case. These are mostly the same as clues from the book, although there are a few spectacularly unsubtle additions like a book on caring for alcoholics in Rosalie’s room.

But does it feel like investigating a crime? Not even slightly. I understand that the game designers are trying to draw a parallel between the gameplay and the search carried out by Poirot and Colonel Race in the plot. But it’s almost entirely superficial. Poirot’s task involved judgment and reasoning; he had to look through the cabins and decide which items were and weren’t relevant. The player’s task is mindless; you’re told in advance what to look for, and most of the items on the list are there just to fill it up. Even when you do find a special clue it’s automatically singled out as relevant (in case you weren’t able to decide that finding a bullet-hole was more relevant to the murder enquiry than finding four watermelons and a cheesegrater), and you’re often even told what conclusions to draw. At no point does it feel like an investigation. It just feels like tidying.

Once you’ve found all the items (including the irrelevant ones) you’ll be asked to play a little game. This will either be a unique game based on a particular item, or a special game designed to represent Poirot’s thought processes.

The item games are simple brainteasers, and they’re none of them convincing. Most often you’ll have to reconstruct torn letters (because obviously someone would tear up letters they don’t want other people to read and scatter them about their room, rather than burning them, or throwing them into the Nile) but you also have to open a puzzle box belonging to Miss Bowers, and Tim Allerton’s rosary has a completely impossible locking mechanism to conceal the false pearls. There’s a chemistry game where you try and determine what was in the nearly empty nail-polish bottle, but it’s not very convincing, and the developers should know better than to draw the player’s attention to the red ink so soon into the mystery.

The second sort of game is a connections game. A square grid appears, made up of smaller squares containing either a picture or a phrase. Matching a picture to its corresponding phrase will cause it to disappear, and you can only progress once you’ve cleared the whole grid. You do this several times throughout the investigation, including at the very end. Here’s the final grid:

It’s not a bad try. At least it IS a try. Quite often games resolve themselves by just blurting out the name of the murderer in a non-interactive scene. And it’s more interesting than a straight quiz, which is another common strategy. But there are still a lot of problems.

Firstly there’s no penalty for getting it wrong. All that happens if you make an incorrect match is that the squares don’t disappear. So you can solve it with trial and error if you want. Maybe this isn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, mysteries are supposed to have a surprising solution for a significant proportion of the readership whereas games (at least modern casual games) are supposed to be completed by most players. But then they probably should have made you play Colonel Race rather than Poirot, who isn’t supposed to be surprised and is allowed to have a guess. It’s yet another disconnect which separates the player from the story.

Secondly it seems a bit easy, and not in the right way. The beauty of Death on the Nile is that it’s really quite obvious once you’ve tumbled to the fact that the crime is premeditated, but baffling if you don’t. If the shooting was pre-planned, then only Jackie and/or Simon can be involved. So putting a square that says “proved the crime was premeditated” seems to give the game away too much. But then I’m not sure what grid I would have chosen. Maybe one with more possible wrong matches if the player was barking up the wrong tree. The only reasonable false match is “had an alibi for one of the murders” and “Jacqueline”.

[*EDIT* I’ve pondered it a bit, and I think I would try and construct it so that plausible matches like that were accepted, but didn’t disappear. Maybe they’d just move next to each other or get colour coded to show they’d been selected as a match. So ideally there’s be lots of convincing matches, but of course there’d only one way to clear the whole grid. Rather like the walls in Only Connect. I’m not sure it would be possible with Death on the Nile, but it ought to be possible to construct a brand new mystery with that endgame in mind.]

Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s still nothing like making deductions for yourself. There’s no opportunity to actually have any clever ideas. You’re told what the idea is and you just have to make the connections. Once again it feels more like doing chores for Poirot than actually being Poirot.

So in terms of leveraging the wondrous possibilities of interactivity….. phhhhtttt. The developers didn’t manage at all. But I don’t want to be too harsh. It’s not clear that there is a great way to do this. And they hardly did worse than the competition in this regard.

What else? Well the plot itself is pretty faithfully represented, although it’s very condensed – it starts with the shooting in the salon and all the background is filled in during the questioning. But almost everything that follows the shooting is intact, including both halves of what happened to the pearls. They’ve kept most of the characters from the book, except Richetti (who no-one ever bothers to keep; his only function is to give Race an excuse to turn up. Here Race is supposedly on the trail of the jewel thieves, which seems sensible enough) and Ferguson. All the murders are there, along with most of the requisite dialogue from the book. All the major clues are represented in one form or another and, though earlier I ridiculed some of the unsubtle new clues the developers added, there are also some quite welcome additions which help to make this rushed version of the mystery clearer and which fit in with the searching theme – e.g. the gun now has all three bullets missing, and in the very last level you find the third bullet in the table in the salon.

It’s hard for me to tell whether it would be possible to follow this version if you’d never seen the film or read the book. All the information is there, but it’s a bit of an exposition dump at the beginning. My gut instinct is that it would be hard to keep track of who everyone was. There’s a “clues” tab that lets you recap some information but I didn’t use it enough to see if it would be helpful.

But if the developers understood which bits of the mystery had to be kept to tell it efficiently, they don’t seem to understand anything about pacing and clueing. Again it’s hard for me to tell, because I already knew what to look for, but I think this version was much easier to solve. Cutting the whole beginning section causes huge problems. Christie understood perfectly how to control the dynamic of reader suspicion, and most of her focus in Death on the Nile is directed toward Jacqueline de Bellefort. My edition is 252 pages long and Jackie acts suspiciously until page 128, when Christie explicitly exonerates her. We’re not told about the murder until page 115, which must be one of the longest waits in a Christie. All this effort is directed into making Jackie seem above suspicion. Whether it works or not is down to the individual reader, of course, but I think it’s much more likely to succeed than by starting the plot by saying “how surprising that she didn’t do it!” when we’ve only just learned who “she” is two minutes previously.

It’s not helped by the removal of the first murder attempt – when Pennington pushes the huge boulder over at the temple. That’s Christie’s attempt to exonerate Simon, and without it their plan feels more exposed.

But no mystery can survive being presented this way unless it’s been specifically designed for the occasion. Christie was always fair an above board with her clues – there are usually lots of them and they’re repeated several times. But the text isn’t all clues! They’re hidden in plain sight amongst all the rest of the story. Here’s it’s like someone’s emptied a bag of clues onto the table and said, “here you go!” Look at this, for example, which Poirot plucks out of nowhere as a conversation starter:

The game designers clearly understand about different sorts of clue, but they don’t seemed to have grasped that the timing and context of a clue can be as important as the substance. Christie is careful to put that bit about the shooting in at the very beginning where it seems innocuous (or even exculpatory). Putting it in towards the very end in the game (well after the precision sniping of Salome Otterbourne!) reminded me of a murder mystery dinner party I went to where there were absolutely no solid clues as to who had thrown a knife at the host until someone read out their slip of paper with prescribed conversation lines on it and it said “You’re awfully good at darts! I’ve never seen you miss a bullseye!”

On a more general level, they don’t seem to have realised that the very format they’ve chosen means that the clues have to be more deftly concealed. When you’re reading a book, any given statement can be all sorts of things (or a combination) when considered purely in context of the mystery: a clue, a red-herring, characterisation, exposition, filler, waffle etc. etc. But when you strip a mystery down to a series of bald statements, any given statement can really only be one of three things:

1. A clue

2. A red-herring

3. An uncuttable fact, such as an alibi or something which outlines the conditions of the murder

Once the player guesses that your priority has been to pare down the text as much as possible, it stands to reason that everything that remains is absolutely fundamental.

It’s not that Death on the Nile is too easy to solve. It’s just that it’s too easy to solve when it’s told in this way. Christie really knew what she was doing when it came to concealing clues in text. But when you boil a Christie plot down to the essentials I don’t think it’s surprising that the answer floats to the top. Here about the only thing working to keep the solution a secret is the fact that being presented with so much information at once means you’re liable to miss some of it.

This might seem like a bit of a hatchet job, and I suppose it is. I should point out that there aren’t, at present, any Hidden Object games which do much better at presenting a mystery. And by the standards of storytelling in some non-mystery Hidden Object games this is something of a masterpiece. But the fact that basically everything else is mediocre doesn’t excuse the fact that this is a pretty feeble game when judged on any criteria except “does it pass the time?” I’d be more sympathetic if they’d tried to write their own mystery and found they had difficulty presenting the clues, but the fact is they took one of the best regarded mysteries of the Golden Age and still managed to botch things.

Still, it’s instructional. You can get it here if you want to see if I’m being too harsh. Next time I’ll take a look at a game I think does things better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s