Image courtesy of Frogwares

Frogwares explains how The Sinking City helped shape Sherlock Holmes Chapter One

Brian Crecente

Viacheslav Kobylinskyi is the Lead Programmer at Frogwares with seven years of experience with UE3 and UE4. He’s worked on Frogwares’ last three titles made for PC, last-gen, new-gen consoles, and Nintendo Switch.
Frogwares has been making Sherlock Holmes adventure games for more than two decades. While each of the eight previous Holmes games has players take on the role of the eponymous detective and his traveling companion Dr. Watson, they have also each pushed the adventure game series forward with better graphics and new features while maintaining faithful adherence to abductive reasoning.

In the upcoming next release in the series, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, the developer takes players to the formative years of Sherlock Holmes. The game has players taking control of a 21-year-old Holmes following the death of his mother, as he explores his childhood home on the Mediterranean island of Cordona with the help of not Watson, but his old pal Jon.

We caught up with the developers to speak with them about how the game has evolved over the decades, the inspiration for building a game built around the previously unexplored years of Holmes’ youth, and what can be expected as the game makes the leap to next-gen hardware.

Frogwares has been making Sherlock Holmes games since its first title back in 2002. What made the studio decide to focus on this particular IP and genre?

Viacheslav Kobylinskyi:
At Frogwares, we love a good mystery and adventure. And we love investigation or “detective” games as they can sometimes be referred to. We’ve been doing this style of game for over 20 years, and they still feel fresh and exciting to us. There’s something about latching on and turning someone's intuition, that feeling of making them feel what the next move should be. And seeing someone guess, or follow their gut and solve a crime, is just as rewarding for us as it is for them. 

When it comes to iconic detectives, well, you can’t get any more iconic than Sherlock Holmes. He undoubtedly is the world’s greatest and most famous detective. So apart from having the name recognition, which certainly helps on the commercial level, being able to relive that little dream of ours, of being Sherlock—well, it’s a bit tough to say no to.

When deciding to create games based on Sherlock Holmes, why did the studio decide to write wholly original stories instead of basing the games on some of those no-longer copyrighted original works?

There are a few reasons for that. One: just because something was a great piece of art in one medium, such as a book, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be great in another like a video game. There have been so many one-to-one direct retellings of books into movies, or movies to games, and they haven’t really recaptured the magic of the original source. Sometimes, you have to think of the medium first and not try to fit the narrative to the medium if that makes sense.

The other reason is, of course, spoilers—people knowing how things end. It’s not that much of a mystery if you already know who did the crime. That’s why writing your own stories can be a much better experience for fans of someone like Sherlock Holmes. Give them a whole new story to experience. It also allows us to share a side of Sherlock that might not have been told in the original canon, allowing us to show the character from a different perspective.
Image courtesy of Frogwares
All told, Frogwares has developed a dozen games and is in the process of finishing up its lucky number 13. How has the studio evolved in its development process and products over the past two decades or so?

Looking back at the last 21 years, it is insane how much we evolved. Not just as a studio, but as people, too. We needed to evolve based on external things that were happening, such as technology changing, consumer tastes developing, and going in different directions (3D graphics, preference for maturity, open worlds, adoption of consoles, new type of players), and, of course, the mentality of the people within the industry changing too—we do not crunch on our games; it is something we feel strongly about. Seeing how tech has leapt in power and functionality is astounding. It is so much easier and quicker now to create high-quality products. The speed of change on that front is mind-blowing. 

The other thing that dictated change is ourselves, the need to get better at making games, both personally and as a collective. You might say we were an internal agent for change, too. One of the things that we wanted to do is be quicker and more agile as a team. So over the years, we worked on implementing processes that allowed us to be more efficient with the tools that we have. When the pandemic hit, and we needed to go remote, this attitude helped us to transition to an all-remote team. We're good at adapting to the situation, like a microorganism inside a volcano ready to evolve.

We also started to learn new sides of the business, too. We’ve started to become a self-published studio, which means we had to pick up other skills and know-how. Marketing, sales, business development: these are some of the new skills that we added to our studio’s skill tree. 

We are becoming wiser every day, but we still have that touch of naivety that helps us create those little bits of individuality, of Frogwares-ness inside our games.
Image courtesy of Frogwares
What made you decide to develop a Sherlock Holmes origin story, and why set his family home in the Mediterranean instead of somewhere more in-line with Arthur Conan Doyle’s hints at Holmes’ past?

Well, to be honest, when we first started prototyping our next game after The Sinking City, we had a few ideas floating around. We knew that we wanted to come back to Sherlock, but we weren’t sure which context to put him in. So we involved the whole studio in brainstorming some suggestions. After a round of presentations, we had a few ideas that stood out. One of them was Sherlock in 1900s Australia for example. However, there was one idea that really resonated with us all. The idea of a young Sherlock; the Sherlock before he became the world's most famous detective. And when you feel this collective buzz around a story, it's a sign that you’re going in the right direction.

In the original works, there isn’t much detail about Sherlock’s youth. So in a way, it’s a clean canvas. We know that Sherlock is this antisocial genius, but how did he become that person? Was he always like that? How was he when he was young? How did he fall into his destiny? This is what Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is about, a possible story about how Sherlock became Sherlock Holmes. And why not London? Well, sometimes to find oneself, you have to take yourself out of familiar surroundings. As corny as it might sound, being lost and in unfamiliar places leads to the greatest discovery of who you are and what you are capable of.

How will a young Sherlock be different than the detective players have grown to know over your previous dozen games?

One of the ways we want to show that Sherlock is still a greenhorn in his field is that he can make mistakes. You can accuse the wrong person if you don’t find all the clues around you. Showing that Holmes can make a mistake might make him feel more human. And if you do make the wrong conclusion, you will have to live with your mistakes. 

Our young Sherlock is also on a path of self-discovery. He still does not know who he really is and his views are still being shaped. It's more difficult for him to stay in control, especially when in an emotionally vulnerable state. Sherlock is being formed as a man and as a detective, and this transformation is going to be painful.
Image courtesy of Frogwares
Why no Watson and how significantly did that impact the design of the game?

Sherlock wasn’t always best friends with Watson. However, we do have a different companion for Sherlock this time around, his best friend Jon.

I guess having no Watson can make some players feel like a little piece of familiarity is missing. However, Jon is also a smart character, very observant, with his own moral compass. We hope that players will warm to Jon as much as we have.

Are there previous Arthur Conan Doyle stories or other literature that inspired the story or setting of Chapter One?

Original Doyle stories are definitely an inspiration to us. After all, we have to have some sort of a similarity to the original character on which our games are based. If we go too far with our own interpretation of Sherlock, we lose the essence of the character, the reasons why people have fallen in love with him in the first place. So, Doyle’s original works are very much a guide block, a benchmark to our stories.

We also get inspired by other pieces of media: movies, other games, and books. It’s hard not to consume all of these creative works and not be influenced by them in some way. We also get inspiration from our own life stories. We remember what it was like to be young and arrogant, thinking you know it all.

What inspirations does Sherlock Holmes Chapter One take from Frogwares’ previous title, The Sinking City?

On the surface, the open world and the no-hand-holding investigation mechanic if you go a little bit deeper with the main character’s troubling mind. With the open world, we wanted to make the island of Cordona feel a bit more alive, with its own districts and people inside of them. We wanted players to feel a social divide in this paradise. To see that depending on where you were born, your life can take a different direction. Wherever there are those that have, there will be the have-nots. We wanted players to feel that through the world that they play in.

We also evolved our no-hand-holding investigation mechanic, which aims to wake up that intuition in players. No quest markers, no objectives; just follow the clues and leads. We also added a new disguise mechanic. By changing your appearance, you’ll be able to gather information from people who perhaps might have not been so keen to share their secrets with you if you looked a different way. A barman at a local sailors’ club might be more willing to give you info on someone's whereabouts if you came dressed as one of the regulars. However, show up in some aristocratic get-up and the only thing you might receive is the directions to the exit. It’s another element that we introduced to make people get into the mindset of a detective.
Image courtesy of Frogwares
This will be just Frogwares’ second game for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X, are there any particular improvements or features you were able to add because of the new tech in that hardware?

Thanks to the new tech, we were able to get rid of loading screens in some cases, and in others improve the loading speeds significantly. Having that fluidity is really impressive, it's just a simple touch and go. Also, thanks to the hardware, we were able to push the graphics quality substantially as well. It’s that one step forward in visuals.

How are the game’s visuals impacted by technologies like 4K resolution?

Well, one of the things for us that’s really noticeable with 4K resolutions is just how much better the game looks on big screens. We feel that recently there is a trend with consumers buying larger TVs, where once a 55-inch TV being big is now considered average. And as you know, the TV is the monitor of console players. 4K helps in keeping up with that trend and giving people that detailed look that they are used to from smaller screens.
Image courtesy of Frogwares
What elements of Unreal Engine did you find most useful in bringing to life your vision for Chapter One?

Among all the other tools that Unreal provides to make quality games, on this particular project, we used Sequencer extensively in order to provide the highest-quality cinematics for SHCO. It’s a really good editor, and it allowed us to create quality cinematics, cutscenes, and dialogues. For a story-driven game like ours, it’s a godsend. It helped us raise the bar in that area.

Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game’s design you’d like to call out to explain how it was achieved? If so, please do.

One of the things worth noting is our new dialogue system that we created inside Unreal Engine. It was first used in The Sinking City and became a stepping stone for a new, enhanced tool. It takes a multitude of previously prepared camera, light, and animation presets and automatically applies them to spoken lines in accordance with certain tags, assigned to words. These tags can be anger, frustration, joy, disagreement, and so on, and they help the system identify the emotional tone of the conversation and apply the correct presets that fit that tone.

There is the main animation, idle, that is different for each character archetype, and on top of that idle animation, the system automatically adds these specific presets, that includes gesturing, color correction, eye movement, lighting, and even montage. We have probably hundreds of dialogue lines in the game, and this system saved us a lot of time.
Image courtesy of Frogwares
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

We find the new World Partition system very promising. It makes for a lot easier open-world creation with a big team of artists. And the Nanite polygon system sounds very exciting for easing optimization pains and making the worlds we create look better overall. It’s hard not to be excited about new tech.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Frogwares and Sherlock Holmes Chapter One?

To find more info about the game, you can visit the Sherlock Holmes Chapter One website. You can find all the details and social channels right there. Come on by, we would love to have you there.

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