Usually the death of a game’s main character sends things back to a menu screen, or at least to the last checkpoint. Not so with Airtight Games’ Murdered: Soul Suspect – instead, the player character's death signals the beginning of what looks to be a twisting, atmospheric story. A supernatural thriller, Murdered casts the player as Ronan O’Connor, a Salem thief-turned-detective who is thrown out a fourth-storey window and then shot by a shadowy figure who has invaded his apartment.

The first twist: O’Connor rises as a ghost – slightly more transparent than before, and with his natty tie, vest, and trilby combination still regrettably intact, but with seven glowing yellow holes burned all the way though the right side of his dress shirt. His cigarette has also made it through to a limbo realm called The Dusk, as have his belt holding his gun and handcuffs, although we suspect these are simply cosmetic touches.

Detective-turned-ghost detective, O’Connor quickly gets over the shock of being ethereal and sets out to solve his own murder. Although he is able to walk through walls, that also means he cannot directly interact with objects in the environment, and so other approaches are needed. However, the game’s creative director, Yoshuke Shiokawa, tells me it was difficult to know what sort of powers O’Connor should have.

Murdered: Soul Suspect preview

“Everything in the game has to be in line with what people’s notions of a ghost are about," he says. "So we did research on what people think a ghost should be able to do, and we got so many answers that were the same: ‘pass through walls’, ‘peek in the girl’s locker room’,” he laughs. “We didn’t have enough ghostly things – finding those ideas was tough."

The reason for this difficulty is simple: "Even if something is ghostly, it doesn’t mean it works in a videogame,"says Shiokawa. "And even if it is ghostly and it works, it doesn’t mean it’s fun.” Determining what worked was often a matter of prototyping as ideas were hard to explain on paper. “The survival rate for those ideas was so slim,” Shiokawa recollects.

Murdered: Soul Suspect preview
Murdered: Soul Suspect preview
Murdered: Soul Suspect preview

His attention directed by blue-tinged artifacts in the air – leftovers of a traumatic event, we are told – O’Connor walks to where his body is lying in the street and takes a closer look. As the camera zooms in, half a dozen selectable words float up on screen, including “fell”, “shot”, “injured”, “stabbed” and “buried”. Here the player must select the most relevant terms that best describe what they see, and after “fell” and “shot” are selected, a brief cutscene is triggered that gives us a flashback of what really occurred.

If incorrect words are chosen the game still proceeds, says Shiokawa, but choosing the right words grants the player more experience points, and those allow O'Connor to upgrade his ghostly powers faster. “It’s not about punishing the player, but [getting things wrong] does make the game more punishing,” he says.

O’Connor then uses another trick at his disposal and possesses a nearby police officer which allows him to hear and see as that person, as well as listen to their thoughts. These NPCs are not controllable, but we are told their thoughts can be influenced in some instances. This time we merely look at the officer’s notebook and again are called upon to select information pertinent to the case: we discover that O’Connor was killed with his own gun, and therefore that his killer probably didn’t arrive at his house with the intent to kill him.

Possession allows O'Connor to read the thoughts of a witness too traumatised to speak with cops, and he accesses her memories to learn that she saw the killer. Then, with several pieces of information at his disposal, he is able make a deduction about the scene which will enable him to move on. This minigame again tasks us with selecting the relevant information: this time it's what the police know, followed by the stuff they don’t know, and this allows O’Connor to progress into his apartment building to search for clues.

Murdered: Soul Suspect preview

As intriguing as the game is, it’s hard to know what to make of the gameplay – or lack thereof – on display here. It all actually feels like a tech demo with incomplete mechanics rather than a full, cohesive experience. However, it’s clear that the narrative and dialogue will be one of Murdered’s strong suits and that things will be nicely ambiguous, which really makes the game stand out among all the grim shooters so endemic to E3.

Inside his apartment building, the weirdness continues. O’Connor discovers a young ghost girl is making intricate markings on the wall and floor, which she then erases with a annoyed wave of her hand. He touches the wall and they return causing her to flee, before the appearance of a demon at the top of the stairs grabs his attention. Demons in Murdered are visible through walls and look like shadowy versions of the Grim Reaper with fire burning where their mouths should be. Corrupted ghosts who are able to permanently kill O’Connor, they present a great threat, but should he manage to sneak up on them, O’Connor can possess and kill them. This is as close to traditional gameplay as Murdered gets: “We don’t want to create action-packed run and gun style combat,” says Shiokawa.

You see most innovation coming from indies, mobile, but I still believe there can be innovation in triple-A.
Yoshuke Shiokawa, Airtight Games

Invisible to demons when inhabiting a human body, O’Connor jumps inside a patrolling cop to walk past another demon, and then a teleport ability is showcased that allows him to blink behind another undetected. The development team are tight-lipped when it comes to outlining other talents O’Connor can unlock, although Shiokawa hints at a hover power and shows the detective blowing out a gas hob using a poltergeist power, which brings the home owner running in to investigate. It’s a small ability, says Shiokawa: “the player cannot throw cars or tables – it is limited”.

The rest of the demo introduces some more characters and ghosts that provide optional quest content, but the gameplay remains hazy – perhaps deliberately so at this stage so as not to spoil anything. “I love JJ Abram’s TV shows like Lost, Fringe, Alias,” says Shiokawa. “Those shows have a bunch of mystery twists to drive [the] audience, and also small supernatural experiences like a mysterious island or time travel things, or redemption things. I really love that mixture. So I would like to make a strong mystery in a similar structure.”

Murdered: Soul Suspect preview

Amid the unfocussed gameplay, the game's aesthetic really stands out – it has a gothic, noir-ish feel and a downbeat – but not depressing – tone. I assumed the game was running on next-gen hardware but Shiokawa corrects me: “Of course we thought about the possibility [of next-gen versions]. But I really wanted to make a great game and use our resources for that rather than on working out the new pipeline.”

Shiokawa also hopes that this dark horse will inspire others to take risks in larger budget games. “I really wanted to make a unique innovative experience with triple-A quality in the triple-A genre,” he says. “You see most innovation coming from indies, mobile, but I still believe there can be innovation in triple-A.”

Murdered: Soul Suspect is expected to release on Windows PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 early next year.