Vicky Nagy, Video games, the Victorian Era and Sherlock Holmes

Although a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, Victoria M Nagy researched female criminality during the mid-nineteenth century in Essex for her PhD which she graduated with in 2012 from Monash University. She is currently an Honorary Associate with La Trobe University and is working on a new project focusing on female criminality in the colony of Victoria from 1860 to 1900. Her book Nineteenth-Century Female Poisoners: Three English Women Who Used Arsenic to Kill is now available from Palgrave MacMillan. Her research interests include crime, violence and gender in popular culture, film and video games, as well as crime in nineteenth-century Australia and England. You can follow her on Twitter @vicnagy83.

Holmes talking to Watson, "Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments"
Holmes talking to Watson, "Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments"

You see a foggy, dark street as you look out your window. Nothing stirs outside, and you slowly turn to your companion; a moustached man who sits in a well-decorated and inviting room and he asks you to stop smoking. He calls you Holmes. You in turn refer to him as Watson and begrudge the fact that he has advised against anything stronger than cigarettes. As night has fallen and you have no case to work on, you and Watson decide to say your good nights and head to bed. Cutting to a new scene and you are suddenly out on the dark and foggy streets, noting that this looks to be a run-down part of the city with dark, narrow alleys and many men and women wandering the streets in rags with a bottle of alcohol in their hands. You head up a back street past garishly painted women, orthodox Jewish men, street vendors, and even a “Bobby”. You hear laughter and you are looking at a man and a woman standing away from the lamplight by a gate. You soon see the woman through your eyes- she is drunk, dirty, and offering you a “good time”. She takes off her bonnet for you so you can admire her hair and that’s when you attack; with hands around her throat you suffocate her before laying her down on the ground and begin to butcher her. Although you don’t see the gore, you can hear the slashing of the knife cutting into her- crunching of bones, tearing of clothes, muscle and sinew. After you are done killing you hold the knife before your eyes and it is covered in blood. You have just murdered a woman.

It is with these scenes that the video game Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper (2009) begins. As both Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper you see the world in first-person perspective (that is through the characters’ own eyes) in the opening scenes and the distinction between good and evil in the game is established. As the game progresses you get to alternate between Holmes, the Ripper and Watson to investigate the Whitechapel murders of 1888. This video game of Holmes and Ripper squaring off against each other is not the first to feature the fictional detective and the infamous real-life serial killer together; there have been at least two others.

While it is true that video gamers and Victorianists do not necessarily make for a natural venn-diagram (even neo-Victorianists and video gamers may not have much overlap), members of the gaming public have certainly taken to playing games set during the Victorian period. Since the advent of video games on home computers and consoles in the 1980s, there have been over twenty video games developed with Holmes as the protagonist. Non-Holmes video games set during the Victorian era on the other-hand number in single digits. Initially at least, game developers chose Holmes as a character for puzzle or text-based video games less because they wished to somehow reimagine the nineteenth-century for the gamers but rather because it was an effective brand that was easily recognisable across the world.[1] Games included The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Serrated Scalpel (1992), or Young Sherlock: The Legacy of Doyle (1987).

Sherlock and Disguises screenshot
Sherlock and Disguises screenshot

In the late 1990s-early 2000s there was a turn to gamers tuning in to games with Holmes as the protagonist not only because of the detective but because gamers wished to see and interact with life from the Victorian period through the medium of adventure games.[2] Game developer Frogwares, who are the current producers of Holmes related video games, have focused on transforming Victorian literary classics by authors such as Verne and Stoker as well as Conan Doyle into ‘faithful recreations’ for the gaming public so they can experience life in the Victorian era.[3] While Rejack notes that ‘clicks of a mouse…do not provide a pathway to historical identification through the body in the way that running across the battlefield might… the most obvious benefit that games do offer…is the visual representation of past events and places’.[4] The gamer may feel connected to the material they are engaging with on a gaming screen far more than if they read a pastiche Holmes novel or watched a film. The continued increase in gaming technology also means that the visual recreation and reimagining of the Victorian home, street or shop is far more “realistic” than ever before. And unlike a movie where one passively watches an actor present an interpretation of a character, the gamer controls the character in the game.

Consumers continued to mature and perhaps appreciate more nuanced aspects of story and setting and were no longer guaranteed to purchase a game simply because it was branded with Holmes. Indeed as Jones argues in his cultural studies reading of videogame history, gamers and game developers have learned to listen to each others’ thoughts and wants from games. As Jones notes game developers didn’t ‘reduce gamers to mere passive consumers, or naively assum[ed] their complete autonomy’ but rather together they ‘constructed [a] “universe” of a game, including its paratextual materials (packaging, game guides, collectable objects, online statistics), narrative elements, story and back-story and imagined gameworld’.[5] Holmes appears therefore to be something that both sides of both the developers and consumers could agree upon, and has in-turn been lucrative in both English and non-English speaking gaming markets.

Sherlock Reading
Sherlock Reading

With the aforementioned Holmes vs Ripper game, and more recently, with Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (2014) and the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, the focus has again shifted- this time to the gamer becoming Sherlock Holmes as they investigate murders around fin-de-siècle London. This makes the medium of video games vastly different to that of film, television, novels, and even comic books starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. Whereas movie-goers wish to see an interesting rendition of Holmes in the nineteenth-century world, and television has in recent years placed him in contemporary London or New York, while stories about Holmes immerse the reader into a new narrative that mirrors those of Doyle’s telling, video gamers not only want to control the character’s movement on the screen, they want to become Holmes. What does becoming Holmes entail? In the video games this has previously meant that the character was the prototypical Holmes: Jeremy Brent-like, tall, slender, middle-aged with sharp features, and clean suits and the obligatory deerstalker and the calabash pipe (the latter two which the literary Holmes was never described with). The more recent incarnations of Holmes though, while still showing a tall, slender man in well-cut suits, are of a younger man, with broader features, squarer-jawed, and with a fashionable haircut who uses not only his powers of deduction but his fists when words fail him.[6] In this latter respect, this is similar to Robert Downey Jr’s interpretation of Holmes. While the player can play as Watson (and on occasion is forced to when talking to some characters) there is nothing outstanding about Watson- he is a perpetually bumbling and naïve sidekick. The interest in these games is in solving the crime and being part of the action as Sherlock Holmes. This means seeing the action through Holmes’ eyes, choosing the dialogue options for him, dressing him, interrogating witnesses as Holmes and even in Crimes and Punishments delving into Holmes’ brain to make the links between his synapses to solve the case.

What the future holds for video games set in the Victorian era is clear- gamers love Holmes. What the future is for Holmes in video games remains to be seen- how can a developer escalate above allowing the player to be Holmes? What it does illustrate is that the Victorian era is one that continues to fascinate the general public who not only wish to read about it or watch movies about the nineteenth-century, but wish to virtually walk through it and live in it as the great detective Sherlock Holmes.

[1] Puzzle games readers might be familiar with include Tetris, Lemmings, and Bejewelled. Text-based games are as their name suggests all text based with the player typing instructions such as “talk” or “look at table” with little or no imagery available for the gamer. These games are not considered very immersive and are instead similar to a novel.
[2] Games that generally have a running narrative throughout and consist of new skills being acquired through the gameplay. Other non-Victorian era based games include Portal, Portal 2, King’s Quest or Monkey Island.
[3] (accessed 16/11/2015)
[4] Rejack, B. (2007). Toward a Virtual Reenactment of History: Video Games and the Recreation of the Past. Rethinking History, 11(3): 413.
[5] Jones, S.E. (2008). The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Strategies. New York: Routledge: 10.
[6] For fans of the North and South (2004) television series and unsure if they want to play a video game, in both Crimes and Punishment and The Devil’s Daughter Holmes looks a lot like John Thornton.

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