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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Murder on the Orient Express Review

This is the addendum to my Murder on the Orient Express Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Murder on the Orient Express yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe the Agatha Christie designers will read it and decide to add a few puzzles to their next game! Ah, well, a girl can dream, right? Here's all the news about Murder on the Orient Express that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

I genuinely enjoyed playing this game. Oddly, I think I enjoyed it more than I did its predecessor, And Then There Were None, even though Murder on the Orient Express disappointingly gave up on the interesting steps towards interactive gameplay that the first game had taken. Partially that's because MOTOE had a better script to work with (And Then There Were None relies on a lot of coincidence to keep the murders rolling, whereas Murder on the Orient Express features a brilliantly planned murder cover-up thwarted by the unexpected presence of an investigator.) The Orient Express story is also more compelling -- the conspirators' grief and anger over Cassetti's unpunished crime evokes a real emotional reaction from me, whereas Wargrave's (or the new villain's) generic desire to murder criminals is more abstract and less affecting. And the streamlined interface (featuring skippable lines of dialogue, movement shortcuts, and even a partial automap!) made this game a lot more pleasant to move around. I didn't mind the melodramatic end twist, either-- Agatha Christie was notorious for sticking slightly contrived extra bits onto the end of her stories to cheer them up a little for stage production, and this felt very much in the same vein.

It was disappointing to see the game designers give up on their moves towards interactivity, though (which were the very best parts of the previous game.) And the ridiculously easy gameplay featured in both mysteries is a real drawback in my book. Seriously, my kids' Nancy Drew games are more challenging than these Christie games. I think I'm going to give this game to my 7-year-old once he's done with the latest Nancy Drew, actually. It's not violent, there's nothing you can do wrong, and there's nothing much to solve in it but pixel-hunting, which he's better at than I am anyway.

So overall, this was another good Agatha Christie adaptation; not great, but good. A few steps forward from the first game, and a few steps back. Hopefully the next game they put out will include an efficient interface AND some interactive gameplay. If they put anything into it that would challenge an adult player's mind, that would really be the icing on the cake.

Plot Holes

Generally this plot held together pretty well, but I'm left scratching my head over four things:

1) During the endgame, Helena says that the red kimono was hers. But Helena was the one conspirator who did NOT stab Cassetti. So what was she doing in the hall then? Just trying to distract Antoinette's attention (Poirot's in the book)?

2) Poirot makes a point that Cassetti did not know French, so he couldn't have been the one to answer Michel in French ("Ce n'est rien. Je me suis trompé.") However, the only other people on the train we found to be fluent in French, besides Michel, were not part of the conspiracy (Poirot, Antoinette, and Lucien.) So who DID respond to Michel there? And why?

3) If Cassetti only took a half-dose of sleeping draught the night of the murder, then what was the reason he didn't fight back during the attack (he was, after all, a seasoned gangster who was armed at the time)? I think we must be meant to assume that Masterman lied about how much sleeping medicine Cassetti took and it really was a large dose, but if so, it would have been nice to discover this at some point.

4) Perhaps most importantly: why did the group choose to murder Cassetti rather than turning him over to the American authorities? Cassetti was wanted for multiple counts of kidnapping and murder when he disappeared, including one very sensational and scandalous case, so he would surely have been sentenced to death-- even one of his accomplices during the notorious kidnapping was executed. So once Hardman had proof of Cassetti's identity, why did the group take matters into their own hands instead of simply turning him in?

I think these questions may have been answered in the book-- it's been a long time since I read it-- but if so, they really should have been resolved in the game version, as well.

Murder on the Orient Express Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) The rollaway automap at the top of the screen was a brilliant idea. Not only did it work smoothly and save lots of pointless clicking, but it had no difficulty at all accomodating the fact that there were some areas you couldn't use it to access. More graphic adventures should do this. The less uninteresting, repetitive traveling a game can saddle you with, the higher the gaming-to-tedium ratio goes, and the more fun the overall playing experience seems.

2) These are pretty standard in computer games by now (thankfully), but a surprising number of games ignore them, so I'll repeat them here: there should be a mechanism for skipping every line of dialogue and animation present in the game, savegames should always be nameable, and if it's possible to leave a scene by clicking on an exit, then double-clicking should transport you there immediately without waiting to watch your character walk first. Murder on the Orient Express, happily, picked up on all three of these important interface issues.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Murder on the Orient Express a 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, the game design team has cleaned up a lot of the low-hanging fruit already, but they could still improve the interface by streamlining the fingerprint and item-combining screens. With 18 different suspects, proving to Poirot that a particular fingerprint belonged to none of them took up to 40 mouse clicks BEYOND the time spent gathering prints, which is really ridiculous (especially since this had to be done multiple times.) A single "comparison" click would have been perfectly sufficient. And as for item-combining, having to drag each item over to a separate screen to try adding it was a frustrating and unnecessary waste of time. Most games let you just click one item onto another to try using them together, and Murder on the Orient Express should have done this too.

Those are minor issues though. More serious is the overly simplistic gameplay. There really is NO way to make a mistake in this game-- if you choose a wrong course of action at any point, Poirot simply tells you to choose again. A monkey with a good clicking finger could get through most of this game-- all you need to do is keep choosing options until none is left. The Agatha Christie games would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of some genuine puzzles. (Hint: "Give the dentures to the engineer" is not really a puzzle.) Reassembling the pieces of the torn letter was a good start. Murder on the Orient Express has a plot that would have been well-suited to deciphering a few coded messages along the way. The puzzle box was a bit of a wasted opportunity-- the only way to solve it was through trial and error. A real puzzle could have been substituted there, or in a few other places along the line. I have a high tolerance for pixel-hunting and clicking rotely through dialogue trees I have no real input into, but when that's all there IS in a game, it starts to feel very dull indeed.

It was also very disappointing for me to see the game designers give up on their previous moves towards interactivity. Granted, it would have been nearly impossible to work an actual second ending into this plotline-- it would have been nonsensical for Michel to bring Daisy on board the train unless he intended to introduce her to the others after the murder was past, so making that dependent on how well the player sleuthed things out would not have worked. However, there were subplots that could have been resolved or not depending on Antoinette's actions. The underdeveloped romance between Mary and Arbuthnot would have been an excellent candidate. Perhaps something more could have been done with Dr. Constantine as well-- in the novel, he played Antoinette's role (assisting Poirot as an amateur sleuth), so if the fact that he was a veterinarian was uncovered earlier in the game, Antoinette could have made a decision to involve him in the investigation or exclude him from it at that point, and that could have had some repercussions for him. Surely some such resolutions could have been found. And what happened to the interrogation system from And Then There Were None, in which NPC's would share better information with you if they had reason to trust you more (if you'd previously helped them with some task, or if they didn't catch you snooping in their things?) That would have been an excellent addition to this game. Perhaps Antoinette could have been "graded" on how much information she learned from the suspects instead of how many times she managed to avoid being given an unwanted hint by Poirot. Maybe if she learned enough, Poirot would praise her and she could conduct the denoument cutscene herself, and if not, she would have to be content to sit back and watch Poirot do it without her.

Ah well. Hopefully in their third game, AWE Games will manage to combine the best features of the first two. If they do, it could be a real tour de force indeed.

Best Quest: Probably tracking down the owner of the handkerchief. I'd forgotten the solution to this, and it was a good one.
Lamest Quest: Stealing the dead man's dentures so the engineer could put them in his own mouth. That is the single grossest task I have ever encountered in almost three decades of computer gaming right there.
Best Plot Twist: Learning that the loud American tourist, Mrs. Hubbard, was in fact a front for the vengeful actress Linda Arden. I remembered this from the book, and still found it a satisfying development this time around.
Lamest Plot Twist: The kidnapping. It was so badly done and non-dramatic that the only emotional reaction it got out of me was irritation about ending up in a place I didn't want to be from which I would have to walk back again before I could get on with what I was trying to do before being kidnapped.
High Point: The final endgame sequence, where all the passengers confessed what they had done and Antoinette and Poirot decided to look the other way, was very affecting.
Low Point: The introduction sequence. After a few minutes of Antoinette tottering helplessly around Istanbul trying to catch the oblivious Poirot's attention while strangers got in her way and whined at her to do brainless chores for them, I had very poor hopes for this game. Luckily it was all uphill from there.

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