I was ready to love Murder from the moment the game opened on a female police lieutenant waking from a rain-soaked cyberpunk nightmare about murderous robots, and walking out on her balcony to smoke a cigarette over the light-spattered skyscrapers of Future Tokyo. "Yes," I thought, "I'm in." Sadly, I spoke a little too soon.
Developed by Peter Moorhead, the creator behind the abandoned astronaut game Stranded, Murder is another brief, point-and-click adventure illustrated with beautiful pixel art. This time around, Moorehead promises players a "short story" that delves into some pretty lofty ideas: "the intersection of morality and sentience, in a future where both are commodities."
The moral crux of the story revolves around the sentient service robots of Murder's near-future world, and whether humans can ethically use them for unpaid labor. If that sounds familiar, it should. It's an idea that has been explored rather extensively by some very talented science fiction writers, and even trickled far enough into the mainstream to inspire a Will Smith movie. That doesn't meant there isn't anything left to say about it, only that the notion of robot sentience and the civil rights implications around it aren't exactly fresh ideas, and the mere mention of them is not enough to carry a story, even a short one.
Ostensibly, the game is a murder mystery; as Lieutenant Motomeru Minori, you're tasked with investigating a brutal killing, the latest in a string of mysterious deaths. But "investigate" might be a strong word—you visit one crime scene, exchange a few one-liners with some other cops, and that's about it. I'm not even sure I'd call it a mystery, because there isn't enough time for it feel like one. Instead, the moment you start to get a foothold in the world and the crime you're supposed to solve, you're catapulted immediately to the culprit and the conclusion, leaving you no time to wonder or wander.
Relatedly, Murder is only 20 to 30 minutes long, though that's not its real problem. Games don't have to be lengthy in order to be valuable, but whether they're a 20-second experience or an 80-hour one, they do need to be satisfying. What bothered me the most was that there was just enough in Murder to intrigue me, to lure me past the cliches, to get me hyped for a deeper dive into the ideas it teased. But just when it felt like the game was about to begin in earnest, the credits rolled. It's a game that feels like its own prologue, the first chapter in a book that never finishes.
It's a lovely game despite it all, so lovely that it almost manages to carry its thin plot on the strength of its striking visuals. But not quite. Although the story draws heavily on the work of cyberpunk visionaries—both Neal Stephenson and Masamune Shirow are cited as inspirations—it remains content to skim a thin layer of familiar tropes off the top of their work and serve them up as an amuse-bouche mislabeled as a main course.
If you're a fan of point-and-click adventures and/or cyberpunk, it's still an attractive Venn diagram of the two, albeit a brief and predictable one. It's also only $2.99 on Steam, with iPad and Android versions to follow.