Santa Fe Mysteries: The Elk Moon Murder
First posted on 14 November 1998. Last updated on 27 July 2010.
Far too many gigabytes have been utilized in various media criticizing the use of Full Motion Video in computer games to be repeated again here. Suffice it to say that except for the odd titles have used it competently to enhance the ambiance and propel the storyline, Full Motion Video has never really found favor with hardcore gamers. Primary amongst the reasons is the forced linearity in gameplay that is intrinsic to the medium and the huge amounts of disk space (and consequently, disc swapping) that it involves. Santa Fe Mysteries: The Elk Moon Murder is such a title that illustrative this point. The game can be solved well within a few hours even by Joe Average. Of course, proponents of this technology say that it adds realism to the gaming experience by having live actors rather than sprites or rotoscoped animations. Then again, if I want to see reality, I rather watch CNN or visit Ethiopia!
In Santa Fe Mysteries: The Elk Moon Murder, you play a rookie detective on the Santa Fe police force. Summoned in by the police chief to solve the murder of Anna Elk Moon, a prominent Native American artist, you have 5 days in which to complete your investigation and nab the killer. Each day comprises of an inflexible shift of 8 working hours (must be a pretty strong police union down in New Mexico) which whittle away by 15 minutes every time you question a character, even if the answer is a one-liner!
Due to the sensitive nature of the case and the fact that the victim as well as several suspects belong to an ethnic minority group, you are accompanied by Detective Night Sky (a Native American) who does all the questioning. As in any notable whodunit, the suspect list is fairly long with plenty of red herrings thrown in for good measure. The usual suspects include the victim's husband, ex-husband, husband's ex-wife, a disgruntled ex-employee and a casino developer whose work has been opposed by the victim. All of them have compelling reasons to get rid of Anna. It is up to you to get an arrest warrant issued for the real killer by backing up your claims with equally compelling evidence and motive.
The Santa Fe Mysteries series is co-created and co-written by Shannon Gilligan who has earlier produced the Virtual Murder series. This game seems to be just a marginally better produced version of the games from the latter series. The slight improvement is attributable only to advances in technology and not to any perceived improvements in storytelling or gameplay. The interlaced video sequences are shot competently enough at authentic looking locations that make good use of the game's 16-bit high color system requirement. The acting is rather amateurish at times, though mercifully it never plumbs to the depths of the Phantasmagoria series. The role of Karen Gordon, a prime suspect in the game, is played by Amanda Donohoe who stars in LA Law and other films such as Castaway and Lair of the White Worm. Apart from Detective Night Sky, Sgt Rebecca Orlando also assists you with alibi checks and other reports. Her messages are played back to you as voicemails on your Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). The Santa Fe Mysteries series is co-created by Sam Egan who is the writer and producer of Northern Exposure.
A simple point and click interface lets you visit locations, examine evidence, and review your case related notes in your PDA. After the introductory sequence, a map of Santa Fe unfolds on your screen with various locations highlighted depending upon your progress in the game. Unlike the process of questioning a suspect, traveling from one location to another takes no time at all. When you arrive at a location, a video sequence plays out in a smaller enclosed window and an array of questioning options is revealed awaiting your choice. While you get to choose which questions to ask, they are asked on screen by your partner instead. You may choose to review any of the video interviews at any point of time via your PDA. The PDA is also useful for compiling clues and evidence, ordering forensic reports and requesting alibi checks. Incoming messages from the boss and Sgt Rebecca Orlando are frequent and are indicated by a flashing light on the PDA interface.
Aside from the fact that credits can be given to the creators who have chosen to film the video sequences using authentic locations in New Mexico, this title is otherwise unbearable. The linear gameplay and uninspiring storytelling simply highlight another failure to incorporate Full Motion Video to enhance interactivity in a game, though a more nonlinear approach is not really possible in using such medium. The familiar storyline is straightforward with hardly any twist in the tale. Once you play the game to the end, you can hardly give yourself any reason whatsoever to play it again in your lifetime. Some of the actors in this game ham it up worse than a daytime soap. Plot loopholes and red herrings can be spotted from light-years away. There is simply no replay value in this title.
Imposition of a 15 minute penalty per action taken over a 5 day limit also seems unrealistic. In a real life murder investigation, multiple teams work concurrently to analyze the evidence and interview the suspects. In a certain amount of time, both the analysis of the crime scene and the initial interviewing of the suspects are completed simultaneously in real life. However, the game forces the player to complete each action in sequence and unfairly penalizes the player by also subtracting off the required amount of time from the allotted time in sequence. This often results in the player to prematurely arrest a suspect simply due to the lack of time to complete the investigation. In order to win, the player must then replay the game over again using the information already gained in the previous attempt. This is a classic example of the "resurrection" fallacy that any game designer must avoid.
Red herrings and multiple suspects are both cornerstones of classic detective fiction, as epitomized by Agatha Christie, as long as they form an integral part of the plot. Some adventure games, such as The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes - Case of the Rose Tattoo, have an unusually large cast of characters (much larger, in fact, than any original work by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever contains). Yet, they never seem to be out of place or squeezed into the storyline simply to fill out space. In contrast, the suspects in this game have motives that are nebulous, and game frustratingly leaves us with very little option to try and resolve their motives to any degree of satisfaction. Essentially each character has a superficial motive to murder Anna, and all of the initial interviews simply do not give enough clues to the player to dismiss anyone. Furthermore, the order to which suspects are questioned does not (but should) affect the line of questions available to be asked or the video responses by the suspect. The reliance on canned questions and answers is illogical as information obtained from previous interviews should influence the line of questioning of subsequent suspects, especially if contradictions are noted in the statements between interviewees. Repeated confrontations of suspects are simply not possible even if conflicting statements are noted by the player early on in the game. Often, it is not until near the end of the game that a crucial piece of information, such as a verified alibi, is given to you—information that cannot possibly be obtained on your own while playing the game in a logical fashion. Arresting the wrong suspects can also lead to instant death since some so-called innocent suspects kill you by either shooting you at point blank range or clubbing you over the head with a shovel if you attempt to arrest them. Even judging this game only as a "whodunit" adventure, it probably rests a couple of notches below the equally uninspiring Virtual Murder series. When judging this game as a "police procedural" adventure simulation, it is simply no contest when compared to the Police Quest series.
Only 2 words are needed to succinctly describe the merit of Santa Fe Mysteries: The Elk Moon Murder—eminently miserable!