Feature Article

The Sinking City Devs Are Tackling Sherlock Holmes Origin Story In A New Game

Exclusive: Developer Frogwares' next game is Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, an open-world prequel to its adventure series.

For nearly 20 years, Frogwares has been the premier developer of games based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Following the release of 2019's The Sinking City, an open-world adventure game inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, the developer jumped straight to work on its follow-up--this time bringing their most well-known character back to his roots in a large setting to explore. In an exclusive with GameSpot, the developers at Frogwares have revealed that is developing and self-publishing Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, a prequel that will focus on the early exploits of the gentleman sleuth.

Set for release in 2021 for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and next-gen consoles, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One takes cues from The Sinking City, bringing players into an explorable open-world city filled with characters to meet, disguises to wear, and mysteries to solve. Set in the early years of the detective's career, the game casts you as a 21-year-old Sherlock Holmes who returns to his Mediterranean island hometown following his mother's death. After reacquainting himself with the island, his family manor, and the enigmatic companion Jonathan--who is definitely not Watson--he'll discover that the town has got some secrets, and he'll use his budding yet still brilliant detective skills to uncover a larger conspiracy at work.

Before the reveal, I spoke with Frogwares producer and community manager Sergey Oganesyan and lead feature designer Yaroslav Martyniuk about what's to come in the next Sherlock Holmes game. As a prequel, Chapter One is set many years before the detective's other cases in games like Crime and Punishment and The Devil's Daughter. Similar to Batman: Year One, Chapter One reframes the early years of the detective and his world, doubling as a prequel to the narrative arc from Frogwares' previous Sherlock games, and a gateway for newcomers to jump into the series.

"What we want to do with Chapter One is that we want to explore this other side of the character, and how he became the great detective that we know," said Oganesyan. "Our version of Sherlock is not a traditional character. He has this raw talent [for discovering the truth] that's sort of untamed. He's more arrogant, and much more volatile in this game compared to [other] versions. He has more fun playing with the truth, and he has no problem lying to somebody to get to the bottom of his investigation. But at the same time, he is still young. He will experience some of the things that a young man, 21 years of age, may not be ready to process in this game. This will have certain consequences on his character. Our goal is to show the events that will shape Sherlock as a great detective."

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Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is one of the rare games in the series that takes place outside of London, which gave Frogwares more flexibility for the story. In the debut trailer, we see Sherlock return to his family manor with his companion Jonathan, but things aren't as they seem when he enters, leading to one of many mysteries in the game that ties directly to Sherlock. The trailer does set the tone for the game, which looks to be something of an emotional, yet surreal journey for the budding detective as he explores the island town where everyone seems to have something to hide.

Frogwares' previous effort with The Sinking City was a departure for the studio, moving away from the fiction of Sherlock Holmes and into a more elaborate adventure game where you explored a city filled with monsters and shady individuals with ties to a dark cult. It was a fascinating experiment in how it brought the developer's established detective gameplay from the Sherlock Holmes games into a horror-filled open world. But in retrospect, the developers stated they learned some explicit lessons on how to approach that style of gameplay going forward, specifically in exploring an open city and making the activities therein more engaging and less of a hassle. Chapter One's setting is smaller in scope by comparison, yet it is much denser, with more buildings to enter and more people to interact with. The devs described Chapter One's setting as an open city; the island town encompasses different districts. Using disguises, you'll blend in and make your way to different areas of the city that you may not be able to enter.

Our goal is to show the events that will shape Sherlock as a great detective.

Building upon the detective work from The Sinking City and Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter, Chapter One has an open-ended approach to solving mysteries that allows you to uncover clues and suspects in your way. Described as "Global Investigation," the developers explained that the city would feature different avenues to discover many secrets and events, all of which can lead back to your current investigation, sometimes in unexpected ways. Using these clues, along with some advice from Jonathan, Sherlock will be able to use his mind palace--an internal nexus of all the clues and research--to piece together the evidence to close the case.

"The main principles that we try to instill and develop in our games is the investigation principle, where all the details, minor or otherwise, are presented to the player," said Martyniuk. "So there are a lot of places in this city which contain different information on different matters. This can be used in the investigation to define and formulate which evidence you want to search for to build your evidence. This free investigation [format] is for you to decide where to go on your own. Our intent is that players who understand [the world] will feel connected to the game's investigation--[getting players] to feel smart and active within the investigation is very critical in getting into the game's story."

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In addition to taking on different investigations throughout the city, Sherlock will also run afoul of some of the city's more unsavory individuals. While combat is a crucial part of Chapter One, it won't be as pronounced as it was in The Sinking City, which featured gunfights in the city streets against eldritch monsters and cultists. Chapter One's combat system has been completely revamped and focuses more on hand-to-hand engagements that lean into Sherlock's particular skill set. In a fight, Sherlock will be able to use his deductive skills to pinpoint weak points on enemies to end battles easily. According to the devs, battles take place where they make sense, and certain areas of town will have individuals looking for a scrap.

Following the Nintendo Switch release of The Sinking City, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One will be Frogwares' next attempt at self-publishing. Producer Oganesyan stated that pushing for self-publishing allows the developers to have more control of the project thanks to the rise of the digital marketplace.

"To be honest, it's all about how we manage the project," Oganesyan said. "Games publishing ten years ago was very different, but as the digital market has caught up to the retail market, things have changed. Nowadays, we can do many of the responsibilities that publishers have ourselves, and we don't see any reason not to do it honestly because now we are in total control of our business, which will help our studio even more. Yeah, basically there is no reason not to do it."

Oganesyan added that the COVID-19 pandemic did create some challenges in the development of Chapter One. With over a year in development at this time, the game is shaping up to be the biggest Sherlock Holmes game to date, however, the producer made it clear that Frogwares has adjusted to the shift in development well, and that the game was still on track for a 2021 release on consoles and PC.

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