The new Sherlock Holmes movie comes out Christmas Day, but before then, fans of the Great Detective have a chance to try out their own sleuthing skills with a slick game promotion put out by AKQA and Hide & Seek in the UK, called 221B.
While I wouldn’t go as far as calling 221B an alternate reality game, it is very entertaining, when it actually works. The game is trying out new space by tethering itself to Facebook. To play, you can sign up as either Watson or Holmes and then invite a friend to play along in the other role. Some people have reported problems with the Facebook interface, but there is also an option to play the game by yourself, switching back and forth between the roles to get all the clues. There is also a special, free version of TweetDeck you can install which gives out hints for the weekly games and allows you to follow some of the characters from the movie.
After you sign up on the web site and link the game to your Facebook login, you can dive into the first chapter. Each story begins with a video of a character explaining what’s going on and what they need you to do. Materials are presented for you to click on and read–photographs, documents, etc. The best thing about this game are the graphics–each item is beautifully designed and rendered to look like an authentic 19th century artifact. After you examine each piece of evidence it’s added to your notebook and you can proceed to the next step. Each action you take in the game provides experience points which are available for use later in the game.
This is where the game diverges based on whether you are playing as Holmes or Watson. The Watson option allows you to interrogate characters with an ELIZA-like (albeit limited response) Q & A, while the Holmes path allows you to explore scenes and look for clues.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about the game are the occasional glitches and technical bugs that interrupt game play. The scene examination is rendered in Silverlight, which has exhibited some buggy behavior, so players need to be patient with their clicks sometimes in order to find all the clues. There are also Flash games for both characters that occassionally refuse to load or freeze. When they do work, you can pursue suspects or try to gain access to secret areas, hiding from policemen or servants while making your way through a maze-like map. These games can be entertaining or frustrating, depending on your personality. For the truly exasperated, you can “buy out” of the games with the aforementioned experience points.
To their credit, AKQA personnel have been very quick to come to the aid of people who have technical issues with the site. A tweet with the #221B hashtag gets their attention. For the best experience, make sure you have the latest versions of Flash and Silverlight installed before playing. Clearing your browser cache and restarting the browser can also sometimes help remove a repeating or stuck site error.
In spite of any misgivings I have about the platform, I am really enjoying the story that’s unfolding, using what I’ve learned to try to deduce the final conclusion. Chapter Five was released this week, and the game will continue each week until the film’s release, so there is still time to jump in and play at your own pace.