London Studios’ Diggs Nightcrawler isn’t designed for adults, forcing lofty old folk to physically get down to a child’s level and sit cross legged on the floor. This isn’t a point of criticism however, as such unabashed commitment to the entertainment of our little’uns is commendable and, in actual fact, the gumshoe adventures of book-worm Diggs Nightcrawler prove to be surprisingly endearing, even for those of us who are a little long in the tooth.
Diggs Nightcrawler is the second title for Sony’s augmented-reality based Wonderbook which, for the uninitiated, is a QR-code imprinted book onto which the PlayStation 3 casts computer generated images via the use of the PS Eye camera. It’s all very clever, but the most impressive thing about Diggs Nightcrawler itself is that it manages to transcend the technology on which it is built; it is the story and the characters that stand out, not the technical wizardry of the Wonderbook. This is hugely important, as were we to be constantly reminded of the artifice of the whole situation (the pages are blank…you’re not reading a book in the traditional sense but viewing yourself reading book on your telly…), the illusion would be instantly shattered.
Murder…it’s no yolk.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few technological bumps on the way; as has become traditional for Move/PS Eye based games, you must go through a relatively short – but no less intrusive – set up procedure when starting the game as well as ensuring your room is well lit. In practice, once this is completed the technology is pleasingly robust and the illusion of a living and breathing world springing from the pages of the Wonderbook feels genuinely magical.
But what of Diggs’ himself? Aside from a certain Jim and occasional bouts of blowing each other up on 2D battlefields, worms have had a low profile when it comes to videogames, often only rearing their eyeless heads as mutated end of level bosses or grotesque scene-decoration, a sign of putridity. This makes the fact that Diggs Nightcrawler is one of the more charismatic leads to cross our path in some time all the more impressive, with this charisma drip-feeding down into the rest of the game. Though in many ways an entirely derivative stereotype of private investigator ripped from the noir fiction of Raymond Chandler, Caroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett, Diggs oozes personality from his hat right down to his trench-coat and his six arms (four of which are usually tucked into four of the six pockets in his coat). He also delivers dialogue with the dry, world-weary monotone typical of the genre, underpinning a game world that successfully straddle’s child-friendly frippery and noir-grittiness.
See-No, Hear-No and Speak-No the Monkeys might life hard for Diggs.
Diggs is also the fulcrum for the entire game, the centre-point around which its world, characters and joyous logic are spun; he’s a P.I. and a bookworm, so the tale he has to tell is inevitably one of murder and mystery within a book-themed world by the name of Library City. The game opens with a murder or, as Diggs himself puts it (in a line of dialogue that typifies the high-standard of writing throughout): “My old pal Humpty, got himself bumped off the wall. Hump the Dump we called him. He was a tough egg; hard-boiled…but, somebody wanted him cracked.” It’s Diggs’ job to hunt down the culprit and bring them to justice, using nothing but his wits, detective skills and the assistance of you – the reader/player.
The game proper combines linear story-telling with interactive elements to create something that fits in the gaps between literature, movies and videogames. In any given scene, your must follow the plot and assist Diggs in his investigations; this can be in interacting directly with the world or characters, manipulating and rotating the Wonderbook itself to reveal previously hidden items and areas or, in a number cases, completing more action-orientated mini-games. For the most part the pacing and distribution of these various elements is well handled, holding your attention and imbuing the turn of the Wonderbook’s physical pages with the same sense of intrigue and wonder that you get from reading a decent book.
Diggs and Hump the Dump in happier times.
Though Diggs Nightcrawler requires no actual reading, its structural roots lie in fiction, and its cast of characters are as much a love-letter classic children’s stories as hardboiled noir, a move that provides the hook to appeal to children who, if we’re honest, probably haven’t read The Big Sleep… Many familiar faces show up, each having been given a noir make-over; there’s Hump the Dump, the three little piggies (here, policemen) and Itsy Bitsy the Spider to name a few, and the interactions between the lovingly rendered and animated cast is a joy throughout. Dialogue is snappy and humorous, and always delivered with enough conviction to make a drama in which a book-worm attempts to unravel the mystery of a murdered egg entirely believable.
It is in the interactive elements that game’s weaknesses show. Though the illusion that you are holding beautifully rendered vignettes in your hands retains a degree of magic throughout, the Wonderbook itself is a little limited (not to mention cumbersome) as a means of control. It is functional, but its limitations are highlighted by the number of interactive elements that require you to tilt the book to guide Diggs through rolling levels. Sadly, such sections occasionally outstay their welcome, dragging on for longer than they should and leaving you itching to get to the next bit of dialogue. The PlayStation Move controller is used to some extent but takes a backseat to the Wonderbook, its main use being as investigative tool with which to explore scenes when replaying the game. The implementation of this is technically impressive, with the Move functioning as virtual-camera within Library City’s virtual sets, but it doesn’t actually add much to the experience.
Rotating the Wonderbook plays a big part of the gameplay.
London Studio had obviously hoped to encourage you to revisit Diggs Nightcrawler multiple times but, from a gameplay perspective at least, have largely failed to do so which makes for a somewhat fleeting experience (the story can be finished in a few hours). With that being said, this isn’t a game in the traditional sense, being more of a cross-media experience; should the cast of characters and plot grab you or, more importantly, your children, then Library City is a location worth revisiting.
Sony’s Wonderbook project came under a fair amount of criticism when it was first revealed at E3 2012, with commentators bemoaning the amount of air time it was given. Such criticism was undoubtedly unfair – there’s nothing wrong with attempting to appeal to a younger audience or for such titles to sit alongside their more hardcore brethren. In Diggs Nightcrawler Sony have definitely hit on something, even if whatever it is doesn’t fit comfortably within any particular art-form and it will be interesting to see whether or not the high production values on show here can be sustained for future Wonderbook releases.These are things for Sony’s number crunchers and jaded videogame writers to worry about though; Diggs Nightcrawler’s target audience won’t be thinking about the future of Wonderbook…they’ll be too busy solving the mystery of who bumped Hump the Dump.
(This review first appeared on www.dpadmagazine.com)