Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The game is . . . not Sherlock Holmes?

 It is very, very hard to create a game that captures the spirit of Sherlock Holmes.

If you've played many Sherlock Holmes games, you're probably well aware of that fact. And there are a lot of obvious reasons for that, foremost among them that none of us is Sherlock Holmes and our opponent is rarely Moriarty, or even John Clay. As with writing pastiche, there is an element of bottled magic to any Sherlock Holmes experience that is darned hard to catch.

But putting that magic in a game . . . and there have been some really good games based around our guy . . . well, that is an even greater challenge. Why?

Well, what is a game but a little ordered reality where only a set number of things happen in a certain number of ways. It can be as complex as a dungeon master's elaborate story with room for improvisation, or it can be as simple as flipping cards to see what number comes up versus a second number from another flipped card. But rules and limits can kill surprise -- our favorite sports often succeed when they do just due to the randomness of kinetic energy and prevailing winds mixed with the unreliable factors of human performance. Table games do have variables of human performance, but there's only so much variation allowed. You aren't going to pass go and suddenly make three thousand dollars, instead of two hundred.

Sure, you can improv the heck out of some role-playing game. But Sherlock Holmes was not a random and spontaneous creature -- his dramatic successes were built from all that came before by a master craftsman. And here's the finer point when it comes to games:

Suppose one of your fellow players was a veritable Sherlock Holmes and played the game with all the panache and genius of Holmes himself -- are you content to be a Watson and just thrill at being along for the ride at that other player's success? Do we ever play games to enjoy the other person winning?

Maybe you do. I hope you are that rare soul who just plays for the other person's success -- we all do that with children sometimes, I think, but not so much with our fellow adults. The world needs more noble Watsons and a few less wannabe Sherlock Holmes's who don't quite do the job.

Which is the feeling one often gets in the aftermath of a Sherlock Holmes game -- "Well, that wasn't exactly Sherlock Holmes at work!" Or maybe it's just me.

I've enjoyed Sherlock Holmes games that I think I would have enjoyed just as much without the Sherlock Holmes trappings. 221B Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes, The Time Machine, for example, could have used any old time traveler and I think we would have had the same amount of fun, and solving things like the Kennedy assassination might have made more sense. But we do love seeing Sherlock Holmes in things, and games give us new art, new ways of thinking about him and his crew, and a chance to interact with Sherlockians and non-Sherlockians like around the detective.

But capturing that imp in a bottle is trickier in the medium of games than books, movies . . . maybe even anything other than musicals and ballets. (Excepting, of course, for that musical interlude in Holmes and Watson. I have yet to be exorcised of that demon, for those of you whom were concerned.)

But, as the great man himself once said, "We can but try -- the motto of the firm."

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