A Murderer Has Your Email Address

It was late, and I was tired. The police had requested help making sense of certain computer files they had been sent by a suspected serial killer; they felt my unique talents and skills might see answers, where they merely saw chaos. My eyes were gritty with the need for rest, and my head was throbbing with the effort of it all. I decided to take a break from my labors, hoping that, refreshed, I might better see my way through the apparently random collection of numbers and images that were contained on the CD the police had supplied. I began to rise from my seat at the computer, then as I do whenever I leave the desk, I checked my email for any important messages. My inbox was populated by the usual assortment of spam, forwards from my mom, ads from Amazon and something completely unexpected: a message from the killer I was hunting, telling me the next knock on the door I heard would be his.

There was no killer, of course, not a real one, anyway. The email was just Evidence: The Last Ritual‘s way of messing with my head, of rattling my cage as I sat in my oh-so-comfy computer chair. On a deeper and more logical level, I knew that – after all, I had to enter my email address before I could even start the game – and yet they were not logical thoughts I was thinking, as I read the taunting missive again. It wasn’t logic that sank like lead into the pit of my stomach, and it wasn’t logic that forced me to turn my head and hold my breath as I regarded my front door, awaiting any potential knock. It was unreasonable, undeniable fear. All from an email just a few lines long.

Breaking down the fourth wall to unsettle the player is not a new concept, of course. Metal Gear Solid‘s Psycho Mantis freaked us out by making our controllers shake, and Eternal Darkness messed with our heads so often we needed therapy when we were finished. However, as creeped out as we may have been, it was an easy condition to cure; all we had to do to restore that fourth wall – and our perceived safety – was to turn off our consoles and walk away. The game world and the real world may have bumped up against each other, but they were still two very separate and distinct things. To get better at reaching out and grabbing us, or, more often than not, tapping us on the shoulder when we least expected it, games needed a little help, and our dependence on technology was just the thing.

Our increasing acceptance and dependence on communication technology has accidentally fooled us into thinking we’re more removed from the outside world than we really are. Checking email has become as regular a routine as brushing our teeth or having our morning coffee, a simple fact of life that’s become so commonplace we hardly realize we’re doing it anymore. As we focus more on what communication technology can do for us, how much easier it can make our lives, we tend to forget the door swings both ways, and that anything that lets us look out can let others look in. We may be safe at home, but so long as our cell phones are turned on and our ISPs are working, we’re still connected to the outside. It’s rather a lot like spotting someone picking his nose as he drives to work – mentally, he is In His Car, isolated from the rest of the world, completely forgetting that we can see him just fine through the glass.

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Evidence recognizes this mental lapse and uses it to its advantage, building on a game structure that developer Lexis Numerique first tried in MISSING: Since January. MISSING used various webpages to plant information vital to solving its puzzles, so for the player to have any chance of arriving at a solution, he had to hone his Googling skills and comb the internet for the right hints, clues and crumbs of information. It was a brilliant idea; after all, if you want to know something, what do you do? You look it up on the internet. Blending this everyday activity into the gameplay went far toward making players feel as though they really were helping to unravel the mystery of two missing journalists and a serial killer, but it was ultimately a flawed mechanic. Once the game had been released for a few weeks, virtually any search players ran turned up so many walkthroughs and cheats that the emotional effect was lost. That’s the problem with the real world: It’s devilishly difficult to control.

Evidence solved that problem by integrating an in-game search engine that weeds out such unwanted “help,” but simply improving upon Missing‘s gimmick wasn’t going to be enough to win the hearts of jaded gamers, so Lexis took things a bit further by adding in emails like the kind I received from the killer. To further the illusion that the player’s puzzle-solving efforts are having real-world ramifications, players will receive friendly emails from other members of the ICPA, the organization they “join” when they start playing the game. Comrades will offer hints for solving puzzles, propose theories of the killer’s identity and motivations, even just drop a line to say hi – just like they would if they were real. This creates a fairly well-maintained illusion that you’re not just playing a game in a vacuum, but rather working with a team toward a goal. The emails arrive at random intervals, with some puzzles sparking a flurry of incoming messages, while others meet with complete silence, thus giving them an organic feel despite the fact they’re being automatically generated as you progress through pre-determined markers in the game levels. More importantly, by extending the gameplay into an area of activity we don’t normally associate with gaming, Evidence tricks us into forgetting, even if only for a few seconds, that we’re not communicating with living, breathing people.

By invading our personal space, the game becomes more than just an amusing diversion or a way to pass the time before dinner, it becomes an experience. Creating an emotional connection with the player is something classic adventure games, the genre into which Evidence technically fits, have had a hard time doing, because their core gameplay elements force the players into an emotional disconnect. The puzzles in adventure games tend to be fairly esoteric and exotic; when trying to determine the right heroic couplet to recite in order to open a locked vault, the only real emotions you’re likely to feel are frustration if you can’t figure it out and elation if you can. Those feelings don’t have anything to do with the actual story, however – they have to do with personal victory and therefore create little connection between the player and the plot of the game. The puzzles in Evidence are no less obtuse, but its blurring of the line between real world and game world takes the game out of the player’s head and makes it feel very genuine and real.

Breaking down the fourth wall can be a tricky way to tell a story, however, as developers have to maintain that delicate balance between being a welcome invader of privacy and an uninvited guest. Players provide email addresses and cell phone numbers with a certain unspoken expectation of respect and consideration. We’ll happily accept mysterious text messages or even a chilling email or two, just don’t ring us in the middle of the night. We want to be scared, sure … but not really.

As our lives becomes more and more tech-heavy, it will be interesting to see what other ways savvy developers find to sneak their games into our lives. Perhaps the most popular download on iTunes one day will have a hidden message from a game’s secret agent character, or we’ll find the solutions to puzzles have been downloaded onto the hard drives of our TiVos.

All of this trickery isn’t just about telling a better story, though; it’s also about simple self-preservation. As our gaming palates become ever more fussy, our snobbery increases exponentially to the point that any game not boasting the most accurate physics or glorious graphics is frequently dismissed as not being worth our while. For a small game like Evidence to register on our gaming radars, it has to bring something else to the table, something special that would make us look twice at its satisfying, but somewhat antiquated, puzzle-solving gameplay. Maybe Evidence can’t compete with Oblivion‘s graphics or GRAW‘s multiplayer, but what it can do, just maybe, is make you forget you’re playing a game long enough for you to get up and lock your front door. You know, just in case.

When Susan Arendt isn’t writing the news at Wired’s Game|Life or feeding her Achievement Points addiction, she’s training her cat to play Beatmania.

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