For years fans of the world’s greatest detective have been enjoying the adventures of Holmes and Watson in Frogwares’ games, with recent entries like Sherlock Holmes Chapter One surprising and delighting me. With the latest instalment Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (a remake of one of the earlier Frogwares titles) just around the corner, I had the opportunity to talk to Frogwares about the upcoming title, Sherlock as a character, and how the war in Ukraine is affecting game development.
You’ve been very open with how the war is complicating game development at Frogwares on social media, how is the situation for your team currently?
We’re pushing on as best as we can. We’re around 80+ people working on the game. The bulk of us are of course in Ukraine and a handful are spread around countries in the EU.
We have been working remotely for most of this. In a way this is the one maybe the silver lining of COVID. We’d already been working remotely for 2+ years so a lot of our work process was at least in place when we needed to get the studio up and running again while the war raged on. We’d started working on the game by the end of March 2022, so about a month after the invasion. I honestly cannot fathom how long it would have taken or even if we’d have managed at all had we not had this work-from-home experience and setup already in place.
We are now finishing up the work on Sherlock Holmes The Awakened and slowly trying to organize the team for the next project. Prior to the war we were working on an open-world horror game that we had to put on pause. The situation was too chaotic and difficult to make any progress on such a large game. But we’ve learnt what we can and can’t do working on The Awakened and so we’re going to apply those lessons to see how to best restart work on our unannounced horror game.
Sherlock Holmes The Awakened is a ground up remake of one of your older titles. What made you decide to revisit this game?
We never planned to do this remake at this point to be honest and there was never a sequel planned for Chapter One. The idea of a remake using young Sherlock was there in the background as a maybe. But at the time the war broke out we all were working on the pre-production of a bigger, open world horror game. But that proved impossible to work on at the time, so we put it on pause and pivot the whole team onto an idea that was smaller and had some groundwork already in place so we wouldn’t be starting from scratch.
So we picked to remake The Awakened for a few reasons. First we knew it was one of our most adored titles from our earlier Sherlocks. So if we were being made to work on something where we at least had some groundwork laid, best do it with an idea where we knew the foundation was solid.
The original story of The Awakened worked extremely well as a story that could help us easily continue our young Sherlock arc that held true what we established in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One.
The focus of our young overall Sherlock idea is about creating stories that could explain why Holmes turns out the way he does in the books. So what could he have experienced in those early years starting out as a detective that would make the broken genius we all know he becomes. Chapter One didn’t touch on the relationship of Watson and Holmes, so now we almost felt obligated to do so and The Awakened made that really easy. The overall story here is one that is centered around severe trauma and a loss of sanity, which we thought would be a very good way to portray why Holmes and Watson are so bonded. They experienced something unspeakable and so they alone can understand one another.
How much does the remake deviate from the original? Did you make many changes to the narrative side of the game?
The overall plot of the game is pretty much the only thing that stayed from the original. So Sherlock confronts a Cthulhu worshiping cult that takes him through London, the Swiss Alps and New Orleans. So the most memorable key cases + characters are still there. But that’s about it. Everything else has been remade from scratch. Visuals, gameplay mechanics, soundtrack, VO etc.
The easiest way to look at it is we took the story from the original and started recreating it using the tools, designs and character we’d come up with for Chapter One. Then along the way made any and all changes needed so this felt like a genuine follow up in terms of story and character arc.
When it comes to narrative changes, the biggest was adding a genuine focus on how this case is forming and impacting Holmes and Watson’s relationship. So all the dialogue from start to finish was vetted and rewritten to make sure this was present. We also had to make sure a lot of the interactions came across as this being their first case together. And then of course most of Sherlock’s dialogue was rewritten entirely so it’s him as a younger, more arrogant and slightly naive Sherlock like we created for Chapter One.
The insanity sequences were added to create some totally new gameplay mechanics but also to really drive home the idea that this case of unfathomable supernatural origins was really shaping and breaking Sherlock’s mind which wasn’t that present in the original. And with that the burden that Watson must endure to see this happening. We’ve also made some tweaks to certain characters or added entirely new ones in some places. Added side quests with all new plots. And of course a few references here and there to what Sherlock experienced in Chapter One. You don’t need to have played Chapter One to enjoy The Awakened but we also didn’t want to leave fans feeling like there was zero continuation in young Sherlock’s story.
I was really happy to see the Sherlock Holmes Chapter One version of Holmes return in The Awakened. Are you planning on sticking with this design long term?
The absolute honest answer is we don’t know. We never even had concrete plans to do a sequel to Chapter One, let alone one right after release. The young Sherlock now has a much firmer place in the stories we’ve created, so we may use him again. But at the same time a major force of what drives our young Sherlock is the vision of creating stories that could explain what events could have transpired that lead Holmes to become the broken genius we all know. I feel at a certain point we can’t keep doing this and not run out of smart and well connected ideas that tie together the two versions of Holmes we are juggling here.
The combination of Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraftian horror feels like a match made in heaven. How did this outside of the box idea come to fruition?
In a way you’re asking what was the inspiration for a game that first came about 17 or so years ago so it’s hard for me to say XD But the existing team knew this combination works because we’d all at least played the original and felt it was a solid story. If I recall correctly, the original game still today even gets listed in pieces talking about the best Lovecraft inspired stories in games.
And so when we knew we were going to continue down the road of stories that explain why Sherlock turns out they way he does, we needed a setting or idea that would work. Sherlock encountering something that puts into question the very idea of his existence and through entities that make common mortal people lose all grip on reality worked really well. In Chapter One we didn’t have any real mention of Watson so now we also had that to deal with. What could possibly have happened between the two at the start that bonds them so much in the future. A shared trauma so deep that only they can understand each other.
Throwing Sherlock into new and unique situations is nothing new for Frogwares. How do you decide on the direction of the series for each new game? Could we get any hints on what’s next for the world’s greatest detective?
The inspiration of the situations in a way ties back to what I said earlier about us always wanting to connect our Sherlock to the one that exists in the books. Our games have never been about making a carbon copy of any stories in the books. But they have also never been about putting Sherlock in situations or worlds that are so out of character. Rather it’s the balance of creating original plot lines with Sherlock at the heart that make sense for him to be there in the first place.
As for the future of our Sherlock, I feel I may have torpedoed your question a bit with my earlier answer about us not having actual plans for the next installment. Sorry! So I guess at this point all we can really say is, we highly doubt Frogwares are done with the Sherlock character. He is the reason we are a studio today so at some point we’ll probably come back to him and Watson. But in what shape or form there is no answer right now.
This question is a little silly but I have to ask it because I loved dressing up John as an Ice Cream Man in Chapter One. Will there be more wacky outfits in Sherlock Holmes The Awakened?
Haha. That’s really nice of you to say. Thank you so much. Yes, The Awakened will also have a few outfits to unlock and pick from, some being a little more on the flamboyant side even though the game is meant to be all doom and gloom.