Casebook Episode II: The Watcher
First posted on 01 July 2009. Last updated on 30 April 2010.
If Casebook could be penned down into a sentence, it would be a murder mystery where evidence would cleverly disguise itself by human hands. It would include the maddening pursuit of an artisan with exotic taste for architecture and human blood. It would also include the romance and madness of a painter who preferred literature to reality. Now, thanks to Areo, developer of the Casebook series, such a definition finally exists.
Casebook is a throwback to Full Motion Video (FMV) games, once raved as the new middle way for future interactive gaming but eventually abandoned due to the conspicuous expense of video production. Part film, part video game, Casebook is the revival of a lost gaming subgenre and the resurrection of a unique interactive gaming experience fused together with real actors and real locations made possible by the Areograph technology pioneered by Aero that can create ultra real 3D explorable environments for video games. Fans of crime fiction will appreciate a video game that is spun around a crime scene investigation where they are the detective solving their own case. Indeed, Casebook is an exception in the lost genre of FMV games where the line drawn between the player and the characters is easily blurred.
Sam Clarkson, creator of Casebook, has once characterized Julian Temple, the actor who portrays Detective James Burton, as a surfer and a musician in real life with an underlying intensity which has made him perfect for the role. It is because of a brilliant actor like Temple, not the makeup of the storyline and the choice of dialog, that makes the scene more memorable. This is why a good cast of characters can make almost any overused plot device seem original. Fortunately, Casebook Episode II: The Watcher does not disappoint here. From the very beginning, the player is immersed into a foreboding environment where its residents scoff at Detective Burton's interrogations and even fancy themselves as Francis Salt's predator, mocking the detective in his new findings. The dual reality of watching Temple act and simultaneously witnessing the graphic build of the narrative is exceptionally well done. As the player searches for clues and taking photos of each crime scene, the player can enjoy rummaging through the delicate quality of the scenery and ponder over the complex case, predicting its possible outcomes.
It is no wonder that the deranged residents of Skylark Apartment, once a mental institution, are far too eccentric and peculiar to help Detective Burton eliminate those who are not suspects. With unhealthy backgrounds bearing peculiar habits themselves, each of the residents may even be involved somehow in the killing. What appears at first to be an open and shut case about the suicide of a lonely paranoid youth turns into a bizarre witch hunt for a serial killer who has comfortably manipulated the victim enough to keep himself in the shadows by not "waking the neighbors". You, as the player, are Detective Burton's assistant and will be his eyes, ears, and intuition as the case unwinds. In the aftermath of the victim's death, only isolated incidents of his increasing paranoia and profound hopelessness on camera will reveal an intricate back story leading to his demise than the face of a simple manic-depressive.
An intriguing and ingenious narrative style used by Casebook is that it never tells the "why" in the straightforward way other games will spoon-feed the player answers. In a pleasant contrast, the room you investigate will almost always speak for itself with its oddities waiting to be noticed, but it is ultimately up to you to read between the lines. Marlon Hapmen's room makes a dumpster look good in contrast to Francis Salt's once immaculate place, but what they have in common is evidence that contradicts itself unless carefully examined. This makes Casebook an earnest game of contemplation and strengthens the air of mystery that duly emphasizes the impression of the dwindling hours you have to solve the case, even though the game is not paced in real time. The power of the story lies in the unknown, and because the game is built around the evidence you acquire as you make round trips examining the data and photographing anomalies, you become engrossed in a world that are filled with secrets.
Among the most captivating features of the game is the music and pitch, which deserves a credit's worth of notice. While it does not necessarily stand in a league of its own, it is the type of music you hear that can and will put you on the edge of your seat. When the victim admits in disarray and confusion that his furniture keeps moving by itself and his pills keep changing, the slow and surreal rhythm of music disarms you; it does a splendidly unapologetic job of sensitizing you to the rising emotions of dread and propels you to listen further. This is important because while Casebook is very simple in its nature—you cannot lose, and you cannot make a wrong decision, which makes the game a very straightforward point-and-click process—the music pulls at your heartstrings, leaving you with the pathos the game needs in order to engross you into its tragic snare. This is especially reserved for the cut scenes. It is only when you take charge of the scene to conduct the investigation that you are left without music, except for the natural sound effects of nature and the voice of Detective Burton offering you advice.
This is also where the first shortcoming of Casebook begins to surface. Because of the player's initial experience with the game's rigid point-and-click interface, it diminishes the latitude in which the player can explore the environment. Indeed, there is so much untapped potential in the room to uncover that the task of picking up objects quickly becomes repetitive and objects that do not add to the case, in which there are many, just wastes time. What is more disappointing is despite all the cross-referencing you can endeavor back in the lab, once you leave a room and advance to the next room, the previous room becomes obsolete. You also do not participate in Detective Burton's interviews and do not explore the outside with him.
The ability to link evidence, however, redeems Casebook from this systematic and fatalistic approach, making the act of collecting evidence in a routine fashion less tedious. The evidence, like the case itself, is inconclusive and requires more information to be understood, such as a chemical stain from the bottom of a shoe or a ripped piece of misplaced fabric in the room. Either Detective Burton will prompt you with an objective or you will piece together evidence to uncover more of the story itself. It is this interaction with the game character and your own curiosity to match the evidence with the crime that will keep you on your toes.
There have been noticeable changes in the gameplay mechanic between Episode II and Episode I. Exploration now follows a more logical, less arbitrary path. The option to move back and forth between different crime scenes adds a welcoming freedom to the investigation. However, once you gather a certain quantity of evidence in a room enough to continue the story and navigate elsewhere, there is no point in returning, and shorter routes are not featured. The core game is still very brief, lasting only 3 to 5 hours, depending on whether or not you abuse the intuition feature. The game includes a number of mini-games, such as footprint analysis and chromosome separation, cleaning and adjusting ruined videotapes, microscopic analysis to locate chemical reagents, and decrypting coded messages.
The developer is keen on targeting a wide audience to reach an equilibrium of adventure gamers and causal gamers. Even so, these mini-games are too simplistic compared to the other mature traits of the series. The case in Episode II is a great deal more involved and assertive than that in Episode I: it presents more suspects and elements to investigate, even though who gets interviewed and how it is conducted is still not at your discretion. As with Episode I, Episode II begins and ends with cinematic grace, making the story all the more impeccably believable in its credibility. The sound effects are always in tune, and the actors always deliver their lines expertly and compliment each other's mannerisms seamlessly.
My only major quarrel with the game is the way in which the serial killer is handled in the story. Other than double jeopardy, the only way a convicted murderer can escape jurisdiction is through an alibi (and an alibi that does not tons of holes in it like the killer's alibi in this game). The story fails to address the killer on many prominent questions that are painstakingly obvious, such as why his handwriting is all over the place (including locations where virtually nobody has access to), why he has countless traces of blood embedded in his paintings, and why there are traces of the same blood in his apartment and in the victim's room. How Detective Burton can allow the killer to walk free after all the evidence that points to him is also left unexplained. What is more bizarre is that his character seems to be cracking inside: he is no longer the suave youth opening and closing another case to be tucked under his belt, but a loner undergoing the emotional turmoil that becomes more and more apparent towards the ending. These truths are even stranger than the mystery itself, as the darkness inside of him seems to come from nowhere. Not that this is entirely degrading, as it is easy to fall in love with his charm and hard to not listen to his words. It is an interesting trait of this character that the developer has chosen to explore and will likely be expanded in future episodes. Unfortunately, this does little to explain why the killer is let loose by him without a second glance.
As a final word, playing Casebook Episode II: The Watcher is akin to watching a movie with a simple narrative. Because so much of this game is chained as a film, once you have finished the game, you have just finished a movie. While it is true that the game integrates FMV with an ardent flair, to play it again means witnessing the same scenes and the same "usual suspects" all over again. Like any video game that follows a single-minded path forward (and no retracing footsteps), once the game is over, it is over. Still, Casebook Episode II: The Watcher succeeds in what it is made out to be—a game that lets you to be the star of an intense crime drama unfolding around you. It is a breath of fresh air to see characters act and talk to you as you move around the room. The developer has clearly found a great ensemble cast that can tell a good story to draw the player's attention. If the cliffhanger at the end of this episode seems somehow to be poorly placed, then optimistically speaking, it will be up to the next episode to redeem itself and live up to the series' full potential. I will certainly "stay tuned".