April 12, 2023
D'Avekki Studios Ltd
D'Avekki Studio Ltd
FMV games have been making a bit of a resurgence lately, as we can see from the incredible drama Immortality and the slice-of-life Ten Dates. But the genre has a bit of a gameplay problem: can it really be called a game when all you’re doing is watching clip after clip? I believe the answer to be yes, for the record, but I have been looking forward to a bit of evolution from the genre — a game with more watching than playing can get monotonous even in the best of FMV games. Murderous Muses is a short, procedurally generated mystery game that keeps its FMV content fresh by pairing it with first-person puzzles and a bit of exploration, making it stand out from the competition.
In Murderous Muses, you play a night security guard tasked with keeping watch over a gloomy old art gallery that currently houses an exhibition of the paintings of Mordechai Grey, an artist who has been murdered. By day, the gallery is normal, and you can browse Grey’s various paintings to learn a bit about the rich and extremely strange history of the fictional island of Mirlhaven. By night, the gallery transforms into a strange, mazelike building that invites you to uncover the mystery of the painter’s murder. Over three nights, your goal is to determine which of Mordechai’s six latest subjects was his devious killer-at-large. The culprit, clues, and layout of the art gallery are randomised with each playthrough, so no game is going to be exactly the same.
How to catch a killer
On your first night, a mysterious television program, hilariously styled after an overdramatic conspiratorial true crime documentary, tells you that Mordechai Grey’s murderer was never found, but that the likely culprit was one of six people Mordechai had been painting prior to his death. These six portraits are here in the gallery with you, and they are the key to uncovering the truth. Each night, the television will reveal one randomised clue about the circumstances of Mordechai’s death. On one playthrough, he was drugged before being stabbed. In another, he was tied up with rope. As of yet, I have encountered more than 5 different clues in different orders, which keeps things fresh on multiple playthroughs.
Each of the six muses are eccentric in their own ways. The suspect lineup is: Professor Myers, Vice Justice of Mirlhaven; Domenique Serrant, a wannabe actress who lost her chance at fame; Otto Pipistrelle, a womanising comedian and his ventriloquist puppet Pip; Lilith Rendell, Mirlhaven’s only undertaker; Xavier Haan, a disgraced surgeon turned clockmaker; and Sunday Finch, local tennis champion and the world’s first cloned human. To weed out the killer, your goal is to unlock each suspect’s taped police interview, which will reveal gaps in their alibi.
Your first playthrough of Murderous Muses will likely be experimental, as there is functionally no tutorial. The game teaches you how to play it only by cryptically demonstrating its main mechanic, a strange process of hanging up the six portraits around the art gallery above various plaques. Doing so will bring the painting to life to play an FMV clip that shows pieces of a conversation between Mordechai and the portrait’s subject. You need to hang the portrait above the right plaques in the right order to unlock the police interview for each suspect and compare their testimonies to find the odd one out.
The clips are all of the muses talking to Mordechai about their lives, Mirlhaven, and other bits and pieces. The discussion starts off friendly and light, but as each night goes by, things take a turn for the dramatic. The more clips you see, the more you can infer about what has upset Mordechai’s muses, and the more you come to realise that every one of these people had the motive to commit murder.
“Even when you’ve found the killer, you’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg.”
Murderous Muses is at its best the less you know about the mechanics so the lack of a clear tutorial is for the best. Figuring out the puzzles and mechanics is honestly the best part of the game. The creepy old art gallery combined with the tension of finding a murderer made the air of mystery thick, and figuring out what I had to do felt like real detective work. Once you know what to do, though, the game essentially becomes a checklist.
Each night, the procedurally generated gallery will unlock a new set of rooms and plaques for you to use, as well as a literal checklist that tells you which plaques you need to use for each portrait. It’s a truly odd set of mechanics, and I feel that there’s a lack of logical progression here; the plaques required to unlock each interview are randomised, so there’s no sense that seeing any of these clips in particular should reveal a police interview.
A procedural murder
Murderous Muses is a short game. One playthrough of the game will take you less than three hours, and once you know what you’re doing, you can complete it in under an hour. Given that, it’s a pretty genius idea to randomise the murder, because it’s a great and easy way to stretch the content of your small-scale game to its fullest. The map of the nighttime gallery, the killer, and the new clue you receive on each of the three nights are all random, so it’ll be several playthroughs before you’ll see everything there is to see.
I am in love with this concept. With that being said, I believe the small scope of Murderous Muses limits how far they could take it. there are only two or three varieties of each clue, which means it’s very possible to end up with the same clue multiple playthroughs in a row, defeating the purpose of the entire enterprise. It also limits the complexity of the murder itself, which now has to squeeze itself to fit multiple possibilities and culprits. This leaves no room for the mystery to have complexity or detail.
This tripped me up several times before I realised I was simply looking for complexity and nuance where there was none. No matter what the suspect says in the police interview, you are expected to take it at face value as the truth. So if they say they have an alibi, you can mark them off your Cluedo card without a second thought.
Luckily, there’s more to Murderous Muses than just the murder. Even when you’ve found the killer, you’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. Hidden within the gallery is a greater mystery: the mystery of Mordechai Grey. Over multiple playthroughs, there are mysterious collectibles to find that, if you know what to do with them, carry over to subsequent playthroughs. You can find these collectibles by completing extra puzzles each night. I love stuff like this, and I was once again thankful that the game had given me no tutorial; I found it on my own.
As exciting as I find uncovering the truth piece by piece, the gameplay itself is exceedingly simple. Once you understand the mechanisms at play, it’s really just a matter of planning and prioritisation; taking stock of what frames are available to you and which characters require those frames in what order. It’s not difficult to wrap your head around, but there is a lot of luck involved as each time you activate a frame, its plaque changes at random to another one. If you find yourself unlucky, you can use up all your limited tries just trying to cycle through to the title you need.
The extra puzzles are required to unlock all secrets and hidden scenes, but are not worth doing for their own sake: there is only a grand total of 4 varieties of puzzles, 3 of which are childish memory games and the 4th of which is just Mastermind. Some more complex and varied extra puzzles might have really lifted the game up.
The performances of the actors are unfortunately somewhat inconsistent, with some being genuinely convincing and others giving high-school-play vibes. The dialogue, likewise, is mostly serviceable, but not always. The camp atmosphere prevents the performances from dragging down the experience though; the story is too delightfully ridiculous to worry about such things. The main story of a murdered artists is peanuts in comparison to the stuff that is going on behind the scenes; Murderous Muses has crafted an enormously rich world behind the scenes, hidden out of sight. We see glimpses of it in the lives of the muses as they talk about the strange island of Mirlhaven as if it’s all perfectly normal. It strays into the paranormal and even eldrich is small and subtle ways.
- FMV and first person puzzles is a naturally fun combination
- Random elements help keep the game fresh
- Art gallery containing Mirlhaven's strange history is suitably atmospheric
- A deeper, dramatic mystical story is hidden underneath the surface for those who want to look
- Extra puzzles are childishly simple
- Main murder plot is skin-deep
Murderous Muses is a bite-sized mystery with an entertaining gimmick and a lush background of lore. It’s a taste of what might be the next frontier for FMV; puzzle exploration. The overarching mystery is enough to keep players engaged for the 10-15 hours it takes to unlock everything, though the simplicity of its puzzles otherwise limits its replayability. The video performances are a bit hit-and-miss, but the camp vibe of the entire experience makes it all part of the show.