The History of Sherlock Holmes in Video Games

Though he might not enjoy the limelight once heaped on him, Sherlock Holmes has been a permanent fixture in gaming since the mid-eighties.

In light of the exciting news that Benedict Cumberbatch has returned to the BBC set of Sherlock, you may be chomping to get into the mind of the world’s most famous detective. Fortunately, we’re less than two months away from the release of Frogwares’ ambitious game Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, a 2016 release that’s poised to put Sherlock back on top.

Ever since his first appearance in 1887’s A Study In Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle’s shrewd leading man, Sherlock Holmes, has enjoyed an almost uninterrupted presence in pop culture. As one critic put it all the way back in 1891, Holmes is “a shrewd, quick-sighted, inquisitive man, half doctor, half virtuoso, with plenty of spare time, a retentive memory, and perhaps the best gift of all – the power of unloading the mind of all the burden of trying to remember unnecessary details.” Toss in a healthy disdain for the lesser mortals around him and you have, in Sherlock, one of literature’s first great nerds.

Once people grew tired of reading, such a well-established brand couldn’t simply be discarded. So, the pedantic detective was thrust into movies, then television. Even after more than 80 years as a screen character, Sherlock is still popular. Hell, right now there are not one, but two ongoing TV series about the sleuth. His allure as an on-screen character is so widespread that Holmes earned the Guinness World Record for most adapted literary character of all time, having been put on the screen a whopping 254 times as of 2012.

That enduring love for the character has made Sherlock Holmes an attractive (and stable) proposition. According to Wael Amr, the CEO of Frogwares, the studio behind today’s Sherlock titles, “Sherlock Holmes is very versatile. We created 12 games featuring the best detective in the world, and all are rather different from each other. As creators, we never got bored … Sherlock Holmes games allow us to explore gameplay that’s underused or not used at all in other franchises, it’s extremely motivating to create something unique while being backed up by a franchise that guarantees economic stability.”

Holmes is a Gamer’s Refuge

When it comes to video games, though, Sherlock adaptations haven’t fared quite as well. While certainly ‘economically stable,’ the property hasn’t leapt to the forefront of the adventure genre. On television, the character is beloved by audiences around the globe; meanwhile, Holmes stands apart from the video game crowd.

While Holmes can definitely throw down when called upon, it was his immense talent at deduction that has helped the character stand the test of time. He’s a man who will happily let rough necks handle the more violent aspects of criminal apprehension. Holmes spends far more time interviewing witnesses and gathering clues than he does actually nabbing criminals. Yet, that difference has been Holmes’ saving grace.

“‘Action’ in gaming is a generic word and can be as frightening,” says Amr. “As far as Frogwares is concerned, action is to support the investigation, never anything else. It can mean to defend your life or someone else’s.” In short, the staple of video games has, in Sherlock’s hands, become a diversion to support the narrative, not the major draw.

In order to stay true to the sleuth, you have to create a different kind of game, something that requires a little brainpower, not a quick trigger finger. It’s that very trait (and/or gameplay mechanic) that has made Holmes a respite from the never-ending onslaught of zombies and ninjas and alien hordes and kept him in the leading role in a string of video games since the mid-eighties.

There are a small selection of ���Sherlock’ games that have only been released in Japan; we did not mention those because … well, they’re only available in Japan.

A Text-Based Beginning

The beginning of the PC game revolution featured the world’s most famous hero making an early appearance. In 1984, Beam Software’s Sherlock established several important gameplay mechanics for the detective. The most important of these was the ability for Holmes to really interact with in-game characters, asking questions, persuading them and then challenging them with proof.

That title was followed three years later by another text-based adventure, Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels:

That same year, Sherlock got actual graphics for the ambitious Commodore 64 in 221B Baker Street:

The Nineties Got Diverse

In the early 90s, when every video game studio under the sun was briefly convinced that live-action video games were the wave of the future (they weren’t), Sherlock was on the forefront of the non-revolution, appearing in a series of games called Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.

The control your own master detective video game was so popular that it spawned two sequels, remaining popular with a (very) cult crowd of gamers. In fact, a few years ago a Kickstarter attempted to get high-res remasters of Consulting Detective off the ground. It failed, but the games still managed to find their way to the market.

EA also got in on some Sherlock throughout the 90’s with two VGA adventures that were built in the popular point-and-click adventure game format of the time:

The Frogwares Era

These days, Sherlock is in the hands of growing Ukrainian studio Frogwares and his evolution is occurring in leaps and bounds. According to Amr, the attraction to Sherlock was two-fold. Not only would the character allow Frogwares to work within a narrative-driven adventure context, but the established nature of the character allowed his studio to take more risks.

“The economic rules ask developers to present games to publishers that are barely interested into games. Publishers are mostly interested in the money that games can bring. So publishers are interested in the money they invest, and the risk they must take. One factor that lessens the risk is to use stereotypes. By proposing stereotypes, a developer guarantees potential publishers that it is not trying to take some risks or confuse anyone.”

Of course, the benefit to having investors who believe you’re working on a safe property means that Frogwares has been able to push the boundaries of Sherlock’s tales. Taking over the video game license early in their history, Frogwares quickly released 2002’s Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy:

Their early sluggish point-and-click adventure relied very heavily on the work of its predecessors and failed to impress critics. That critical panning was a lesson to the team at Frogwares. In the years since, they’ve released seven more games anchored around the sleuth, each a vast, logical improvement over the last. Along the way, Holmes has encountered old foes in grand, new ways as well as enemies Sir Arthur Conan Doyle probably never imagined.

It was in 2012, though, that Frogwares revolutionized Holmes’ depiction in video games with the release of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. Channeling a darker side of Holmes, Testament explores, “his more questionable methods, his predilection for chasing the dragon, his penchant for keeping poor, befuddled Watson in the dark.” The adventure game told a complex, adult story that stayed true to Sherlock’s literary roots.

“Overall the gaming audience is getting older and wiser and is asking for more mature content,” explains Amr, adding. “Sherlock Holmes is the incarnation of knowledge through analysis and reasoning. And I don’t know any human being who would consider intelligence unimportant. We live an era of “intellectual property”, of intellectual innovation. New world leaders are IT companies … Sherlock Holmes is a fictional version of today’s geniuses and this resonates with today’s world.”

A few years later, Frogwares dropped Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments, a serialized series of cases that provided the most refined Sherlock Holmes experience to date. That leap forward is expected to continue with May’s Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, as Frogwares levies their decades of slowly-built success into crafting, “bigger, deeper��� games.

While he remained suitably cagey about the details of his newest game, Amr did confide that The Devil’s Daughter will follow the same serialized formula as Crimes and Punishments, however, in a first for the series, there’s also “a meta story connecting all the cases together. The story is more personal to Sherlock Holmes.”

In a video game environment that routinely heaps acclaim on the biggest, loudest explosions, Sherlock Holmes remains the same uncompromising intellect he’s always been. His very presence in gaming has helped spur the adventure genre forward over two decades and provided a safe harbor for thinkers who like to pick up the sticks.

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