Spearhead Games co-founder talks murder mystery and familiarity
Murder mystery games often take us down a deeply constructed narrative path, piecing together clues and bringing out our inner investigator to find out ‘whodunnit’.
The likes of Rockstar Games’ L.A Noire and Bigben Interactive’s Sherlock Holmes series have effectively portrayed engaging murder mystery characteristics, predominantly set within realistic worlds, but a new game has taken these crime-solving elements into a mythical fantasy setting.
In action-murder mystery Omensight, developed by Spearhead Games, you play the role of the Harbinger, a mythical warrior who only appears in the world in times of crisis. Using time manipulation, players will relive the final day of Urralia and lead the investigation – you decide how you spend each day.
Speaking to Fanatical, Spearhead Games co-founder Atul Mehra discussed why the team chose the murder mystery genre and how the game ties into their previous projects.
“When you first appear in the world of Urralia, you see is torn by an epic war between the Pygarian Empire and the Rodentian clans,” says Atul. “But there is worse: as the night falls, you witness the destruction of the world by the hands of a dark God. As the eyes and the sword of Urralia, it is up to you to reverse this fate.
“But all you know is that it started with the mysterious murder of Vera, the Godless Priestess. In order to save the world, you must first solve this murder.
“Fortunately, in a twist to murder-mystery investigations, you can return to the morning of that last day and continue your investigation after the world ends. Every time you restart the day, you can make a different decision, choose who you will follow or investigate during the day, which may take you to different locations.
“You can choose to side with either faction during the day (or betray them and switch side in the middle of the day!) so you will be able to see events from different perspective and hear of opposite sides of the story. For example, in a version of the day, you may be allied with the rebel leader, Ratika, and see the traps they are planning for the upcoming of attack of the Empire.
“But on another version, you may have decided to side with Draga, an Imperial General, and actually take part in their assault. Of course, the knowledge of what the rebels are planning may give you an interesting advantage to tilt the odds on the Empire side.”
We asked Atul what it was about this particular style of game that inspired the team to use it in Omensight.
“Before Omensight, we worked on Stories: The Path of Destinies,” explains Atul. “In Stories, we built a narrative structure that was about embracing the fun of narrative exploration, seeing many varied outcomes of a story, based on a series of decisions (you don’t have to reload the game to see the ‘what if’ of your choice, it’s part of the game to do so!).
“With this approach, we also learned a lot about creating meaningful choices and consequences for our players, as no single choice led to the same outcome as another choice, and we had to make sure that each outcome would be as unique and satisfying as possible.
“Moving on to Omensight, we kept our expertise in choices and consequences, but we wanted to push interactive storytelling in video games a step further. For Omensight, the way we wanted to push forward is to make an interactive story into more than just exploration or flavor and make it much more meaningful in a video game: basically, turn narrative into a gameplay.
“That is how we started working towards a murder mystery, as it is basically a narrative puzzle. Sure, it’s still fun to see the different outcomes of your choices, but now you have stakes. What’s particularly interesting is that, with this approach, dialogues are more than just story, they are potential clues that help you solve the puzzle, so you have to pay attention to the story in a very particular, video game way!”
Omensight and Spearhead's previous projects (ACE - Arena: Cyber Evolution, Stories: The Path of Destinies and Tiny Brains) all appear to have familiar colorful, cartoon-like worlds. We asked Atul whether this was intentional so that gamers can relate to Spearhead games, and whether this be a continuous theme for projects in the future.
“Yes, it’s very likely to be a continuous theme for us,” says Atul. “First because of the team of artists at Spearhead, with Yan Mongrain (Senior Artist and Art Director) in the lead. He has a background as a graphic novel artist and definitely shows in the art direction of our games.
“There is a constant quest in the games we make to convey the feel and warmth of hand drawn art into a 3D world you can explore. There’s also a practical reason we go with stylized art vs realistic art.
“The thing with realistic art style, especially for a heavy narrative game like ours, is that if you go for it, you have to go all the way, because it’s very easy to fall in the uncanny valley. If it’s a bit off, it’s much more obvious and will impact much more negatively the experience.
“We definitely can’t afford motion capture and fancy facial animation. So instead, we go with stylized and more expressive art style. It’s actually harder from an artistic point of view.
“You can’t just copy a photo or capture movement to get a cool result, you need to have a strong artistic eye. But the big benefit is that you can convey a lot with the right colors, shapes and symbols, atmospheres, emotions, etc.
“Our choice to use anthropomorphic animals as characters is along those same line. Animals and their stylized silhouettes are expressive at a fundamental level. You can expect a big bear character to be strong and impulsive, or a rat character to be sneaky, you don’t need to give them super fancy details and acting to convey those traits.”
While Stories falls into a similar category with Omensight for its action adventure gameplay, 2014-released ACE - Arena: Cyber Evolution took the developer in completely different direction. So what are the advantages or challenges of working on an RPG like Omensight compared to sports-based games like ACE?
“Working on a single player adventure like Omensight is totally different that an online competitive game like ACE,” says Atul. “The biggest difference is the multiplayer and the competition. When working on a competitive game, a lot of design decisions are different.
“The biggest one is balancing. For competition to be fair, you need all the powers and abilities to be readable, fair, and fun to play with AND against. In contrast, for a single-player game, you do have to balance powers compared to one another, so that they all feel useful, as well as against the difficulty (something too powerful will make the game boring, and something too weak will feel useless).
“However, the balance is against the game itself, and you only have to care about one player instead of a group. So, balancing single-player is about finding the optimal fun for that player, while balancing for competition is much more complex, and requires a lot of iteration to make it work.
“The second aspect is multiplayer – building features for real time online gameplay is far from trivial. It’s much more complex to code, but also to test (you can’t test it alone, and you need to recreate an online environment to properly validate it works when there is lag).
“Also, it adds some limitations and constraints, because you need to take into account latency. Building the power to launch a projectile in multiplayer vs single-player is several times more complex, because of all the underlying infrastructure to make it behave properly and responsively online.
“On the other hand, the scope of a game like ACE is much easier to comprehend and track. You have a single arena, instead of a whole world, and a single mode of play to work on. Omensight comparatively, has ally and enemy AI, several environments to explore, combat, platforming, some puzzles and a complex interactive story with a time loop element.
“So overall, I would say the challenge is different this way: online multiplayer biggest challenge is technical (handling online), while single-player RPG is more about design challenges, as well as managing the scope of the content.”
Atul went into detail about Omensight’s world, the combat mechanics and powers that the Harbinger can harness.
“There are several locations, and several timelines to explore in the game,” says Atul. “While the main drive is always to solve the murder and save the world, you can always explore choices that you don’t necessarily feel essential to solve the murder, as they are still interesting both in terms of gameplay and story.
“If you focus solely on solving the murder and winning the game, you might miss half the content of the game!
“The combat in Omensight is easy to pick up but has a lot of depth to it. The core of the combat revolves around maintaining a flow of attacks, dodges and counter attacks. We worked very hard to make it as smooth, responsive and impactful as possible.
“We wanted the combat to be more than just simply a ‘hack and slash’. Over the course of the game, you will unlock a variety of special powers, like Delay of Fate, a power that allows you slow down time in a sphere around you for a few seconds. Another power is the Phantom Grasp, which allows to telekinetically pull objects or enemies towards you, and them throw them in the direction of your choice.
“We designed these powers with two objectives in mind. First, we wanted to introduce tactical tools, including leveraging the environment to your advantage (for example, you can grab a bomb with Phantom Grasp and throw it on a fragile column to cause environmental damage in a wide area).
“Second, we wanted the powers to interact with one another, in order for you to be creative and pull off all sorts of awesome combos, such as throwing an enemy while he’s slowed down by Delay of Fate and then dash through him, causing damage.
“As the Harbinger, you also have an Energy meter, that increases as you maintain your attack flow and not get hit. Once you reach a certain threshold, you can unleash some very powerful abilities, such as a big energy blast, on a powerful attack that instantly kills any enemy. And, of course, all the abilities can be mixed and matched for some spectacular combos.
We asked Atul about the key elements in Omensight that makes it unique from new and other similar action-adventure RPGs.
“Even though Omensight has familiar elements that should please fans of action-adventure games, the overall experience and feel of the game are different from other games in the genre, he says. “First, the combat system while taking cues from the best in the genre, pulls off its own personality. It has a flow similar to the Batman games, but it is much more responsive and input driven, more like a fighting game.
“And, as mentioned previously, the combat powers offer a fresh perspective to the combat experience, that is more creative and tactical than many games in the genre. The whole time-loop murder mystery is also quite unique. It creates a narrative context for the action of the game that is more than just flavor, but rather an integral part of the challenge of winning the game.
“Finally, Omensight has a unique approach to immersion that should engage our players in a unique way as they dive in our game. It is not based on how realistic the visuals are – it is based on how we blend seamlessly the story and gameplay, how your actions have an impact on the world, and how the game flow is continuous (even the loading screens are part of the game!).”