Ben Wander, a game developer with experience at BioWare and Visceral Games, has wanted to make a game about the 1920s for a while. After years of ogling independent game makers from afar, he finally dove in with a short demo of his upcoming detective game. The premise is that you have to interrogate the butler of a rich man, found dead in his home after an overdose. The newspaper you read that morning speculates suicide. The butler swears to find his killer. You click around his beautiful silhouetted living room and try to put two and two together to push your witness into a lie, though the clumsy truth/doubt/lie spectrum from earlier period detective simulator L.A. Noire (2011) is luckily absent.
Indeed, a brief look at the demo’s description makes comparisons to L.A. Noire inevitable. Solving crimes? Check. California? Check. Intriguing but not inaccessible period setting? Check. Inspired by Chinatown (1974)? Obviously check. But Ben Wander has no desire to repeat the mistakes that made L.A. Noire stutter. Gone is the realistic motion capture that promised to make interrogations believable, and then made them unbearable. Gone are the randomized holdovers from Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), shootouts that made protagonist Cole Phelps even more of a public menace than he already was. Gone is Cole himself, who I understood and mourned but never particularly liked. Instead we have a measured and competent private investigator—a woman, Wander reminds us!—with heavily stylized artwork and no “doubt” button anywhere.
The Ben Wander Murder Collection (a working title, though personally I hope he keeps it) looks instead to the Phoenix Wright series and recent smash hit 80 Days (2014) for nuance and personality. The colorblock art is as far away from Team Bondi’s work as possible: Wander lists Saul Bass and Olly Moss as inspirations, among others. Agatha Christie and the rest of the Golden Age mystery writers leak into each individual case, though they have been transplanted into the classic noir setting: seedy individuals, dark bars, jazz playing in the background. And lest you forget what America looked like in the ’20s, a newspaper clipping of an arrest reminds us about alcohol smuggling at the height of Prohibition; another muses about the fracturing Bolshevik party, a peripheral sentence in the demo that could be its own case within the full game.
The demo is only a few clicks long, but it’s more than enough to warrant interest. Wander’s devlogs promise much more in the works, with a travel system inspired by the board game Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (1981), as well as a much larger plot that delves into the protagonist’s personal life. A release date is never mentioned, but Wander promises to post updates regularly, so I expect this murder collection is going to grow much larger in the future.
Check out The Ben Wander Murder Collection on itch.io.