Are you a big fan of shows like Poirot, Wallander, Columbo and Emma åklagare (OK, non-Swedish readers probably don't know that last one!)? Do you like to play Cluedo? Well, have I got a game for you then. It's called The Invisible Hours and it's a VR game that'll warm the very cockles of your hearts. For a few hours. Until it ends. At that point, being a fan of Swedish crime drama might definitely help you out a bit more than you think.
I was surprised to find very little information about The Invisible Hours online at all. Apart from a few press releases and a YouTube trailer, it seems to have sneaked out virtually unnoticed. There is a physical release of it, but I've never seen it on the shelves in the United Kingdom. I found it by just randomly looking for new PSVR titles on eBay one day and bought it blind. It certainly looks different though - a murder-mystery game in which you're not a detective? A game in which there are seven suspects to a murder, and seven interconnected stories, any of which you may choose to follow? That almost sounds like one of those films of the same type (Love, Actually being a good example) and I was curious as to how this would "work" in a game.
And, to be honest, I'm not entirely convinced that it does work.
Let's start with the "good things" though. The Invisible Hours opens with you, as you, standing outside the ticket booth to a traditional theatre. You buy a ticket and enter the auditorium, take your seat and you're told "This is not a play". Haaaaa, nice try, it very much is. A play is exactly what it is, and it's so much of a play that two of the characters spend a love scene reciting Romeo & Juliet without it feeling in any way odd. The Invisible Hours is certainly a different type of play, for sure. Because you can fly around it, ghostlike, and choose which bits of it to watch. It's a completely new idea and, as a big theatre lover, this is compelling stuff. Take your VR headset and watch a play in the comfort of your own home. Not only that, have the best seats in the house. Stand on the stage. View the enveloping drama from any angle. Set aside an afternoon and get totally immersed in what's billed as an "old fashioned murder mystery".
Plays, like films or novels, succeed or fail based on the strength of their plot. The plot in The Invisible Hours is superb. And I don't use that term loosely. This plot is genial. It begins with the Swedish detective Gustav Gustav ("A detective so good they named him twice," as one of the characters later retorts) arriving by boat on a reclusive millionaire's island. He opens his umbrella, walks up the stairs and encounters a crying woman in the grounds of the mansion. After a bit of introductory chitchat they walk into the mansion together to discover... a body. The body of that self-same millionaire that Gustav had come to see. And not only that, Gustav quickly determines that the victim has been struck to the back of the head "and the blood has not even congealed yet, meaning this crime took place less than ten minutes ago".
The roll call of potential killers is suitably intriguing. The victim's butler, who claims to be blind, has just admitted four other guests to the mansion. An impossibly sexy Frenchwoman (Humma humma!) and three men: a famous inventor, the son of a railroad property magnate and a violent ex-con. It won't be giving away too much to state that none of these characters are exactly what they seem... For example, none of them seem particularly concerned that their host has just been murdered. They don't even try to feign shock or surprise. Gustav takes charge of the scene and, initially at least, decides to focus on what seems like the obvious prime suspect, the ex-con double-murderer who he escorts into a study to interrogate. And thus you, as the player, may choose to sit and watch the interchange, or stalk one of the other guests, or head outside again. You can't alter the unfolding events in any way whatsoever - you see, it really is a play! - but you're invited to see every scene from one of innumerable angles.
The Invisible Hours is oozing with atmosphere. There are multiple plotlines, all happening simultaneously, all of which start to converge as you float around the mansion observing the characters and how they act, speak and react to each other. The voice acting is incredible - the animations of the characters likewise - making for incredibly realistic, if perhaps sometimes a little melodramatic, scenes. Each character draws you into his or her own story. You learn exactly why he or she is there at the mansion, and what the victim promised them in return for their attendance. You find some characters are in danger, and it's gripping stuff. It has the feel of the old Tim Curry movie Clue about it.
The play is in four parts (with an additional part zero that reveals the murderer on completion of part four). And, with my sincerest apologies, the format of The Invisible Hours (i.e. being plot-driven rather than action-driven) means it's impossible to really criticise it without giving away major spoilers. Indeed, my biggest criticism of the game is just how well it all plays out only to throw it all away in its final denouement. Because The Invisible Hours, as its name suggests, takes playing with time that one step too far, and ends up being roundly stupid.
Let's study the format in a bit more detail. Firstly, as I've already mentioned, you can glide around the mansion, watching characters talking (and even flirting) with each other. You can note the subtle changes in their voice and whether they act differently when no-one else is around. Essentially, each 'part' of the play runs from beginning to end. Rather than the traditional 'acts', you get a message on-screen 'Part One' and 'End Of Part One'. So, you're watching a scene and it ends and the 'End Of Part X' appears. When it does, you are returned to your seat in the theatre (Yes, remember that you start the game by entering a theatre?) and you can choose to proceed to the next part, or replay one of the proceeding parts. Typically, you might follow Gustav for the majority of part one, because he's the first character you are introduced to. But perhaps you're curious as to what Bernadette (the sexy Frenchwoman) was up to whilst Gustav was disembarking and making his way towards the front door? Well, no problem, you can replay Part One, find her and watch her every move. Does she look like someone who has just coshed the victim over the head with a metal bar?
What if you can't find her? Well, again no problem because you can, like a DVD, pause, rewind or fast-forward time itself. So as long as Gustav will encounter Bernadette at some point, you can find that scene, then rewind time to see which room she came from, then rewind time until she entered that room.
In that early scene in which Gustav finds the body, you'll see a furtive man peering in from a neighbouring room. You can glide over to him, rewind time and see how much he has seen, and how he reacted to it. That blind butler, what was he up to? Glide over to him too, rewind time and you'll find out...!
This is certainly unique, but actually I do think anyone with a brain will quickly dispense with all this gliding about in favour of a different approach. I know I did. Once I worked out that, to understand the story as a whole, you need to see it played out for everyone's perspective, I just highlighted each character in turn and 'followed' them throughout the entirety of each scene. None of this reversing and fast-forwarding time necessary at all if you do that! And a heck of a lot easier to understand too.
Except that, um, it isn't because... the final denouement of The Invisible Hours reveals... the murder was committed using time-travel.
And, yeah, that's really as lame as it sounds. Because it makes all the smaller irks of the game pale into insignificance. Oh, there are some - teleporting around doesn't really feel like how we should be playing VR games at all, and some of the controls are a little unintuitive. But, with that reveal right there, I'm sure GameTrust will lose every Poirot, Columbo and Swedery-weirdy detective drama fan at a stroke! It really is one of those "Oh, f*** off*!" moments when you realise this is the direction the game is going. Doubly so, because it's a game that is so firmly rooted in psuedo-reality from beginning to almost end. It's really like being punched in the face. It doesn't 'fit' at all and, worse, it means that there is absolutely no resolution... In effect, the characters will continue to just go around in circles indefinitely. Indeed, to see the final credits of the game, you have to escape back to the theatre and view the credits on a projector in the hall. The play remains unfinished...
And there's something else that I should also mention. In the UK and the USA, we're used to crime dramas playing out a certain way. Someone is murdered, the detective unmasks the murderer by piecing together the clues and apprehends him (or her). The murderer either dies as a result or gets carted off to prison, and the audience gets an expected resolution that "crime does not pay". In Sweden and other Nordic countries however, crime dramas are made more realistically - the murderer is often unmasked, but has been too clever for the detective to be able to punish him. When I first saw Swedish films like Jagarna (The Hunters), and saw the murderers unpunished, it was a real shock to the system.
With no resolution in The Invisible Hours, you're in for something very similar. Indeed, you've got a lack of resolution coupled with time-travel, and, when you think about everything you discover about the plot, it's all very sad indeed. A lot of the characters don't make it through to the final frame through no fault of their own, and they all die or get killed trying to "correct" their past mistakes whilst making wholly new ones. Yes, it's marvellous storytelling. Yes, it's different. But why is it all I can think is "No, No, No!"
With that, The Invisible Hours, which I could have been praising as a landmark game that I would recommend to every armchair detective, instead turns out to be just very, very annoying. It's such an amazingly complex plot and so engaging to watch... and yet, that ending is so disappointing on so many levels that it cannot help but ruin everything that went before it. Like too much sugar in a cup of tea.
I truly hope for a game of this type without such a stupid ending in the future. But I can honestly say I will never replay this ever again. Herregud, GameTrust!