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A Poirot Preview: The ABC Murders

As easy as ABC

I've been spending some time exercising my little grey cells with a preview build of Agatha Christie – The ABC Murders [publisher website]. It's a point and click mystery based on the Hercule Poirot story of the same name. But despite the fact the preview is entirely told from Poirot's point of view you aren't actually playing as Poirot. Let me explain.


First let's talk a bit about the game. The preview segment I played deals with the first six or seven chapters of the book. Poirot has received a letter which is part taunt, part challenge. It tells him to watch out for something happening in Andover on the 21st of the month and signs off with the initials "ABC".

That something turns out to be the murder of tobacconist, Alice Ascher.

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At this point you arrive at the scene of the crime (her shop in Andover) and must investigate the location and question witnesses and suspects to determine what has happened. From this point onwards everything is caveated with "THIS IS A PREVIEW AND IT ALSO WASN'T THE WHOLE GAME SO WHO KNOWS WHAT WILL CHANGE".

The interface is a traditional point-and-click. To explore the scene you move Poirot around by clicking and the cursor will also offer up contextual interaction options. You can observe people or scenery to learn more about them, start conversations or interact with objects. I found all of those interactions to be pretty straightforward. They were solid but unremarkable (apart from the voice acting which could be truly grating). I also didn't get any sense of a real challenge or risk of failure.

There was a puzzle box where you slid parts and pressed buttons to unlock it, for example. It didn't feel like a puzzle though as it was just a case of moving the bits around in the only way you could move them and then clicking circles. I'm wondering if these puzzles exist to add a bit of variety rather than as a genuine challenge. Similarly, the observation challenges just have you moving a circle around the scene, holding it in place as it focuses in on a clue. You could finish faster if you knew where to aim it but, if not, enough wafting will see you complete the task.

With the conversations you have options which let you take a different tone with your interviewee. Perhaps I know Poirot too well but I seemed to get the optimal outcome for at least two of them (as indicated by in-game achievements) simply by picking the most sensible replies. It's the same with pondering the clues. You open the Little Grey Cells interface from your menu and drag and drop to connect the correct bits of evidence to support a theory. Thing is, there was no ambiguity about which clues were relevant.

The most interesting touch was that you can earn ego points by behaving as Poirot. That can mean picking the most Poirot-like response in an interaction but can also extend to behaviours like checking your reflection in the mirror. I felt like those touches were the most rewarding because they imbued the game with a little personality. There was a moment towards the start where I carelessly clicked to move across an area and inadvertently irked the detective (I'm being vague to avoid spoiling it) which was a rare moment of delight.

I've been trying to decide how much of a problem the lack of challenge is. I wasn't annoyed while playing, merely jumping through the game's hoops to get more of the story. But I looked on the Steam page and the game info has the line "Your wits will be put to the ultimate test!" so if the level of difficulty didn't change between now and the release and I'd bought it for a challenge I'd be annoyed.

I'm not sure that making it harder would be a great solution for the game itself, though, as getting stuck on unlocking some puzzle box in the first five minutes wouldn't be a great addition to a Poirot mystery. But having it just be an interactive way of telling the story feels wrong too as too much of the spirit and wit has been stripped out of the novel in its reformatting. Perhaps it gets harder as the game progresses? It's impossible for me to say at this juncture.

The things that irked me more were some errors. It's just little things – a spelling error in the subtitles, a mismatch between a spoken section and its written form, a location error, some sloppy triggering that wasn't quite over the right object... Poirot is fastidious and he is accurate so every error felt really jarring. It was the location error in particular which threw me. Poirot talks about the greengrocer opposite the tobacconist. Thing is, the greengrocer *is* opposite the tobacconist in the book but for reasons of layout it's actually next door to the tobacconist in the game. In-game Poirot knows this and has remarked on the shop while I was clicking around in the street and yet he tells me about the greengrocer opposite when we're inside the tobacconist. It's a small thing but so important when you're writing about an observant detective.

One other curious thing to note is that it takes some visual inspiration from the ITV series starring David Suchet. I haven't seen the relevant episode in a long time and my DVD is at home so I can't check the extent of that inspiration, but you can see it in the game's exterior shot of Poirot's home, Whitehaven Mansions. It's a version of the same London building – Florin Court – as was used in the show. The ITV adaptation, and Suchet himself, did an amazing job bringing the Poirot from the books to life without flattening him or making him a caricature so to see that version invoked here seemed a little lazy. The jolt of recognition also throws up the contrast between that adaptation and this generic one.

The generic point is one I want to elaborate on.

In the novel Poirot asks Hastings about his ideal crime for the pair to investigate. Hastings describes an over-the-top murder mystery featuring a stock cast of characters and all manner of theatrical nonsense. Poirot is disappointed and puts forward his own ideal – a bare-bones murder at a bridge party with lots of potential to exercise his little grey cells. He responds to Hastings' vision saying "You have made there a very pretty résumé of nearly all the detective stories that have ever been written."

That's how this preview snippet ended up feeling to me. It could have been a scene from any number of point and click mysteries. I think the plot will ultimately elevate the game because Christie's story is so beautifully crafted, but that's the result of Christie's input not Microids'.

I've been thinking about why this is so, especially when the source material is so wonderful, so I re-read the first part of the book to see how they compared.

What I noticed is that you're not actually playing as Poirot.

In the segment of the game I was given you spend the majority of your time investigating the crime scene (complete with body), determining how the murder was committed and working out the window of time in which the crime took place. In the book all of this has been discovered by the regular police force by the time Poirot arrives. They're unimaginative but they are competent.

Poirot does other things. He instigates a gossip session at the greengrocer. He poses as a journalist and pays one of Ascher's neighbours for her "story". He stays well away from the crime scene until evening in order to get a feel for how the street might be at the same time of day as when the murder was committed (by which time the body is long gone). He does all of these things because they're the better way of gaining information, and he leaves the busywork of basic policing (i.e. the things the game has just gotten you to do as Poirot) to other people.

I can see why it's happened. The basic policing lends itself to a point and click adventure style of deduction in a way that manipulating human nature with precision doesn't. That's why you end up as the competent policeman, using deductive reasoning and a handful of clues to move the game along. From what I played you're only really playing Poirot for a tiny part of the game.

Agatha Christie - The ABC Murders will be released on 4 Feb.

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