When We Made: Behind the development of Mediatonic’s Picross Detective adventure Murder by Numbers

Ed Fear, lead creative at Mediatonic

Before there was Fall Guys, there was Murder by Numbers. The visual novel/Picross hybrid game is the sort of title that was once synonymous with the Mediatonic name – following the tradition of their leftfield, fan-favourite titles such as Hatoful Boyfriend.

A lot has changed at the company since Murder by Numbers first released in March 2020 – A month in which nothing else of note occured, I’m sure. Just a few months before Fall Guys’ Beans charmed the world (including Mediatonic’s new owners Epic Games), Murder by Numbers delivered an exceptional blend of 90’s nostalgia, a heartwarming story rife with LGBTQ+ representation and a talking robot, all packed together in a Picross game.

It’s definitely a novel and eye-catching idea – Combining the best of Phoenix Wright’s camp melodrama with relaxing and satisfying Picross puzzles, two concepts that blend together far better than you’d ever have expected.

The game’s narrative follows the adventures of actress-turned-detective Honor Mizrahi and her robot companion SCOUT as they tackle a series of murder mysteries, all to a remarkably nostalgic backdrop of the 1990s. As we’ve discussed in previous issues of MCV/DEVELOP, combining a puzzle game with a strong narrative, especially such a high-concept one, is a tall order. So we’re intrigued to know how Ed Fear, lead creative at Mediatonic, first pitched the idea to the studio.

“I’d had the idea in my back pocket for about 10 years,” says Fear. “When I applied [at Mediatonic], I was asked to provide some game concepts, and a Picross/detective game was one of them.  No one ever said anything about it. So I just assumed that no one was interested.

“And then, years later, I was working on some stuff that got cancelled and I suddenly didn’t have anything to do. So my boss asked me to prototype the idea, so I spent six weeks building the game. I mean, a horrific version of the game with everything cobbled together from Google Images and my terrible programming. But I submitted it and immediately went on holiday.

“The next day, at the departure gate at the airport, I got an email saying that they’re approving it right away. The leadership team really liked the prototype, and we started figuring out a way of putting a team together.”

The game’s Picross elements blend surprisingly well with its visual novel aspects

GET THE GANG TOGETHER

And put a team together they certainly did. Of the numerous hands involved in the project, one that is particularly of note is Hato Moa (director of Hatoful Boyfriend), who stepped in to handle the character design, much to Fear’s delight.

“It was huge when she came on board to do the characters. Obviously, we’d had success working with her before on Hatoful Boyfriend, so getting her buy-in was a huge moment for us. And that kind of thing kept happening as development went on. It suddenly grew into like, ‘wow, this is really happening,’ rather than just this… thing we’re doing in the corner.”

The big-name talent didn’t stop there however, with the legendary Masakazu Sugimori (of Phoenix Wright, Viewtiful Joe and Ghost Trick fame) stepping in to handle the game’s soundtrack. Which, for a game inspired by Phoenix Wright, is a tremendous bragging right.

“The original idea for the game came about when I was playing Picross DS, which is around the same time I was playing the Phoenix Wright games. I didn’t quite realise how much fans would draw that line with it.

“I mean, Phoenix Wright is a terrifying thing to live up to, right? Especially the original trilogy, they’re just really amazing, wonderful games. The structure of Pheonix Wright was always a part of Murder by Numbers, and then it just gradually became more that way over time. “So obviously, when we got Sugimori-san on board, it was a real ‘oh shit’ moment. It was great, but also like okay, we’re definitely going to get compared to Phoenix Wright now!”

Sugimori’s involvement inadvertently resulted in my favourite aspect of Murder by Numbers: its opening theme song. When I first played the game just before its launch last year, I was wholly unprepared for its opening cinematic: an animated theme tune to the game, evoking the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood. It’s a damning indictment of the limitations of print media that I can’t share it here, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek it out – it’s beautiful.

And, it turns out, it nearly didn’t exist at all.

“To be honest with you, I only had the idea of doing it with about six months to go,” Fear reveals. “There were a number of origins to the theme song. The main one being, as the game got further along, I started thinking more and more about like… how am I going to pitch this game to people? Because I used to be a journalist, and I know that if you can’t deliver the elevator pitch, it probably means that your concept is a bit too woolly or whatever.

“I’d tried describing it like ‘oh, it’s a detective Picross game that is set in the 90s, where there’s an actress and a floating robot…’ and just oh god, it wasn’t working. I couldn’t get the tone of the game across.

“At the same time, Sugimori-san mentioned to me that he really wanted to write a vocal theme for the game, and I couldn’t work out how I could make that work. The game deliberately ends on a really positive note, so an emotional song at the end isn’t going to work. And what would we display over this four minute song? The credits are only like a minute long, so that’s three minutes I’d have to fill.

“So I was uhhming and aahing, but I was thinking that I’d probably have to tell him no. But then I suddenly realised I could solve both of my problems. If we made the opening movie like the start of a TV show, and we did the vocals as the theme tune to that TV show, then we could have something that was short but got across the tone and the setting of the game.

“All of these things coalesce together, and when that happens, it becomes a really difficult thing to push back on. Because suddenly we’re solving all these problems, we’ve already got all these people… If I’d gone to them with one thing, say I’d only solved the pitch problem, It might have been a harder sell. But the fact that so many things had dovetailed together really just made like: ‘well, we kind of have to do this now!’”

Fear concedes that the opening animation and theme song might have been an expense Mediatonic hadn’t considered, but he (rightfully) has no regrets.

“The reaction to it has been so overwhelmingly positive that I actually think the intro movie was the best thing I contributed to the project. That was the best decision I made, I think.”

Development on the game was, as Fear tells it, quite smooth – with little, if any pushback from the leadership team at Mediatonic. While he recalls challenges of juggling Murder by Numbers alongside other projects, Fear describes the game’s development as “pretty clear sailing.”

The LGTBQ+ representation is a large part of what makes the game so beloved

A WARM HUG

Which seems appropriate, given Fear’s motivation for making the game in the first place. There weren’t any ‘design pillars’ in the traditional sense, but Fear had a number of goals he was working towards regardless.

“There were a number of principles that I tried to go by,” he says. “For example, I didn’t want there to be a fail state. I didn’t want to make it so that you could get it severely wrong and have to replay things. One of my guiding stars was that I wanted to make a relaxing game – a game that I’d want to play when I was feeling low, and it would be comforting and reassuring. The idea of doing anything that punished the player was a complete no-no.

“Beyond that, we always knew we were essentially combining two different audiences, and we’d have to balance the game between the two. It couldn’t become too much of an adventure game with pixel hunting and combining every item, because that would be irritating to Picross players.

“But then at the same time, you had to think about the adventure game players. There were times where we considered having more involved adventure game aspects, but I was very keen on boiling the idea down to its absolute core essence.

“And just doing that rather than getting distracted about putting in other things that we could do, because I felt that that would have thought that given our resources and our time, that was our best route of action.”

One of the most well-received aspects of the game is how it portrays diverse groups, putting LGTBQ+ characters front and centre of the narrative, with the gang even making a visit to a drag club as part of
their adventures.

“This was the first opportunity I’d had working in the industry where I would get to set what was going to happen in a lot of ways,” says Fear. A lot of games I’ve worked on in the past have been with publishers. And I felt, in a lot of instances, unable to pitch a gay character for certain reasons. I just didn’t want to upset the boat in a lot of ways.

“I suddenly realised that this was my chance to do what I want, and so I immediately knew that I would have a prominent gay character in it. That was always a big thing. I think some of the other stuff happened by accident, like the idea of setting a case in the drag club. But just in terms of the tone, it’s a very camp game.

“I remember once speaking to my boss, and I was like, ‘I think I’m really gonna make this quite, quite gay. Like, quite camp.’ And he just turned to me and asked, ‘what do you think you’ve been doing for the last year?!’ It was just… oh yeah. You’re right!.

“So yeah, it really was a mix. It was some degree of wanting to do something, some degree of chance… And then there was the team we had, which was very LGBTQ+, and had a lot of women on it too. We just kept on egging each other on, without recognising it. It is definitely a product of its team as well.”

The game’s camp, comic tone will be familiar to any Phoenix Wright fans

LGBTQ+ IN GAMES

While LGTBQ+ representation in games is slowly improving, it’s still refreshing to run into a title, released by a major British studio, that takes the effort to put diversity at the core of the game’s experience.

“I definitely think [LGBTQ+ representation] is getting better,” says Fear. “The indie scene is doing a really great job in that. The AAA scene is…. not doing a great job. Yeah, there are exceptions, The Last of Us Part II and stuff like that, But the thing with indies, and this is very much what I experienced with this project, is that you get to set your parameters. But when you’re working with a publisher, it’s an entirely different thing. There’s so many more people in the decision making process that can have, even well meaning, trepidation towards that.

“I wouldn’t say that things are better until AAA is also generally better, because that’s where you’re dealing with ‘oh, are we going to be able to sell this game in China?’ Or ‘are we going to be able to sell it in Russia?’ Whereas, with indie you can just follow what you want to do. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.
“There are a lot of good people really trying, and I think we’ll get there, but it’s definitely a work in progress.”

While there’s work to be done, there’s no doubt that Fear and the rest of the Murder by Numbers team more than achieved their ambitions with the game – to create a comforting experience in times of need. Good thing too, considering when it was released.

“The thing that’s meant the most to me, and something we never could have foreseen during development, was that we came out about two weeks before the pandemic hit. We started getting messages from people saying that Murder by Numbers made them feel calm, and helped them to get through this really weird time.

“That to me was like, the most amazing feedback I could ever get, that it helped people. Because I wanted something that was comforting. I wanted an experience that felt a bit like, and this sounds really lame to say, but it’s a bit like a hug in game form. So to hear that it was doing that, in circumstances that we never could have predicted, was just wonderful.”

Releasing at the outbreak of the pandemic puts the game in an interesting place. It released at the perfect time to provide comfort when it was most needed. But now Mediatonic, and the world at large, has changed drastically since March 2020. In a post Fall Guys, post Epic Games world, does Fear still feel able to pitch niche new ideas like Murder by Numbers?

“So obviously, things have changed a lot. In many ways, the pandemic, Fall Guys, being acquired by Epic… But Mediatonic has always been a company that is made up of people who are driven by people who have those kinds of ideas. That’s not changed at all. So I’m pretty confident that you will see new weird things out of Mediatonic in the future. If I didn’t have that confidence, I wouldn’t still be here.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

Check Also

[From the industry] Develop:Star Awards 2022 finalists announced as industry vote opens

Event organisers Tandem Events have announced the finalists for the Develop:Star Awards 2022, with the winners to be selected by an industry vote open to previous Develop:Brighton attendees and anyone who has already registered for this year’s event.