In the early to mid-1990s, full motion video games introduced actual filmed actors, not computer rendered characters. Tons of titles were released during that fad, some of which are now considered classic, but perhaps predictably, the majority of studios used cheap sets, B-movie (or completely unknown) actors, embarrassing dialogue, and obvious green screen backgrounds, all of which was compounded by the low quality of FMV in general at the time. As a result, this era of gaming is usually looked back on with derision now. For the longest time, live-action titles became quite rare, but recently they’ve been making something of a comeback.
D'Avekki Studios, a UK-based developer that designs murder mystery parties and decided to delve into the gaming world, launched their first adventure in 2017, and The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker turned out to be one of my favorite games of the year. Now they’re back with The Shapeshifting Detective, another FMV thriller that follows the same “cast good actors, write good dialogue, use real sets” formula that really should have been obvious to more game companies decades ago. Although more ambitious than its predecessor, this game didn't quite reach the same level of enjoyment for me, but the high production values, replayability, and original premise still make for a very fun, if occasionally confusing, time.
The Shapeshifting Detective begins with you being assigned to a murder case by a very stern and mysterious man whom the credits refer to as “Agent X”. A young cellist named Dorota Shaw has been strangled in her bed in a quaint town called August, and it’s your job to investigate. Agent X gives you your new identity, “Sam”, raising the question of who you were before the game even began. You don't get a description of what Sam looks like, and the game very cleverly never reveals if Sam is male or female. The police chief in August is pretty sure that one of a group of three tarot card readers visiting the town is guilty, which is a reasonable guess as they predicted Dorota would be killed before the murder took place. You are booked into a room at the local inn, known as “The Guesthouse”, where these suspects conveniently are staying. Of course, in this game not all is as it seems, and you’ll soon discover that there are a lot of weird things going on.
Actually, one of those weird things is you. As the unseen first-person protagonist, you have been endowed with the ability to shapeshift into anyone you've met (besides children for some reason). How or why you have this power is never explained, at least not in either of my two playthroughs, but it sure comes in handy. If one of the tarot readers is not telling you, as Sam, about what happened before they came to August, try morphing into one of their friends and encourage them to tell this Sam person all about it, before trying again in your own identity. Someone refusing to talk to you because you acted a little too dodgy when you first met them? Turn into the police chief and order them to cooperate with you. It's an interesting mechanic that puts a whole new strategic spin on information gathering.
Other than whose skin you’ll wear, your other decisions come in the form of dialogue options. When talking to someone, choices of what to say or ask appear in the bottom-right corner of the screen. You'll often get the chance to go through all of them one at a time, but sometimes they will lead to a dialogue branch where you only get to pick one answer, and there is no rewinding or save options in this game; one chance per playthrough is all you get. Some dialogue options that may be riskier to try have a small trash can icon beside them. Hold the mouse button down over this icon and you can essentially choose not to ask that particular question or make that accusation, which is sometimes essential to your progress.
The rest of the interface is just as straightforward. In between interviews, you can select the next suspect you'd like to talk to or head to your room for a little privacy while you slip into something a little less you. Fortunately, you aren’t likely to forget who you are at any given time, as the different dialogue choices are read in the current actor's voice when you mouse over them, which it obviously never does for the mysterious Sam. In case you do lose track, there is a portrait of your present form that appears on-screen whenever you need to make a decision (again with the exception of an indiscernible Sam).
Some of my choices didn't seem to change anything, dialogue or otherwise, but others clearly led to different outcomes. In addition to playing through the entire game twice, I finally watched the trailer after the fact, and was very surprised to see that almost half the footage in the video wasn't seen in either of my sessions. Apparently it's even possible for some of the suspects to catch onto the fact that you're a shapeshifter, which astounded me because my second time through I was trying to be as obvious about it as I possibly could. The game claims to have over 1600 film clips, which sounds about right when I think about how much I obviously missed. The variety is especially noticeable in that the murderer is randomly assigned at the beginning every time, meaning the killer in your first game may well be innocent if you play through again.
Other than deducing the murderer, there aren't a lot of puzzles in The Shapeshifting Detective. This is essentially a game about gathering information and choosing the right options (and personas) to get the suspects to talk as much as possible. After chatting with everyone as Sam, you’re prompted to choose if you want to go onto the next chapter or keep investigating, with each chapter representing an in-game hour. I suspect it's possible to simply move through continually without shapeshifting even once, not that you'd want to take that route. At the end of the game, you are asked by the police chief to accuse the killer, and you'd better get it right because you will definitely be killed if you're wrong. I was a bit hazy on the culprit in both of my runthroughs, but the designers must have been doing something right because I went with my gut and was right both times.
The challenge in subsequent playthroughs lies in revealing as much new info as possible. I learned a lot of things about particular characters my second time through that I never saw during my first, and certain things shift when a new murderer is selected, of course. I only ever earned half the available achievements, and I get the impression there is a lot about the murdered cellist, Dorota, that I never came close to finding. I can't decide whether I like this feature or not. On one hand, I'm left even after two complete playthroughs with a few questions and a bit of confusion about certain aspects of the story. On the other hand, the ambiguity makes for a unique challenge and definitely makes the game replayable. This last aspect is important, as a single playthrough will only take you about 3-4 hours, but I promise there’s plenty more left to see after that.
What really made the game click for me were the production values. Doctor Dekker worked just fine for me with only a single interview couch, but here the sets expand to different places with different couches, ranging from the various rooms at The Guesthouse to the police station and even a radio station booth later in the game. FMV has come a long way since the ‘90s, and The Shapeshifting Detective’s images are crisp and sharp. There isn't a lot to look at; the scenes are mostly just filmed from a single angle, with a few exceptions of the camera moving if something more exciting is happening, but the sets all look great and it really helps that the actors are all actually there.
Crucial to any live-action adventure, the acting is convincing all around, and although there are a few subtly over-the-top moments, they really fit in with some of the over-the-top aspects of this mystery that I don't want to spoil. The characters are memorable, from the proprietor of The Guesthouse, Violet, who freely admits she can't remember where she was the night before but is fairly sure she didn't kill anyone, to the extremely creepy local photographer, Zak, who implies he's banging pretty much every redhead in town, to the mysterious trio of tarot readers themselves. It was also interesting to see my relationship with some of them subtly change on my second playthrough based on the decisions I made, though admittedly few of them made for earth-shaking changes in the overall plot.
One of the most intriguing aspects to me was the radio station that plays whenever you are in between suspects at the inn, or in a cab heading to the police station or visiting another suspect. It features a number of creepy short stories read by different actors, and the whole program is hosted by a man and woman who eventually join the cast of characters as potential suspects, or even victims. (Yes, victims, as Dorota may not be the last person killed if you aren’t careful with your choices.) Between these stories and the eerie background music the station plays, it really sets the mood in a surprisingly effective way. The game gives the option to turn the radio off if you're getting sick of it, but I was never tempted to do so even once in my eight hours of playing.
The Shapeshifting Detective is certainly an unusual game, which means it won't appeal to everyone. It focuses much more on conversation and characters than solving puzzles, but cleverly employing multiple identities to uncover new pieces of information carries a satisfaction all its own. Compared to its predecessor, I preferred Doctor Dekker a little bit due to its more challenging gameplay and longer story, even if it is far less replayable. Still, between the excellent acting, additional sets and tone-setting background music, I really enjoyed this one all the way through as well – twice. It's really nice to see full motion video making a resurgence, especially since the technology of today suits it far better than when it first became popular. Let's hope more of today’s developers take D’Avekki’s cue and continue to hire good writers and actors and take it easy on the green screens.