It’s a comedy about unending grief. It’s a puzzle game about illogic. It’s absolutely unlike anything else.
Second Opinion is not a show about games you haven’t heard of. Except when it is. These are the games whose first opinion declared them “Dead on Arrival.” These are the games in need of a Second Opinion Spotlight.
Hang in there, guys – Second Opinion Season Two is coming. But first, we’re covering a Spotlight request by longtime subscriber Blu Skye, a game I reviewed earlier this year, and a game that’s already become something of a cult classic in its own right: Tequila Works and Cavalier Games’ The Sexy Brutale. Tequila Works has made two other games since their founding in 2009: mediocre horror game Deadlight, which you probably forgot even existed until this exact moment, and RiME, one of those heavily-stylized indie puzzle games that are so popular nowadays and which was so mediocre and derivative that even IGN gave it a 6/10 (as did our own Jay Petrequin.) Which is why it’s so surprising that sandwiched between these two releases, they managed to make a game that is absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It’s a point-and-click adventure game in real time. It’s a walking simulator with brain-twisting gameplay. It’s a…well, it’s a Sexy Brutale, and it’s a game that anyone with even a passing interest in interactive storytelling owes it to themselves to play.
Here’s the premise: every year a man known as “The Marquis” opens up his casino mansion – the titular Sexy Brutale – and throws a masked ball for his closest friends. But this year, something’s gone wrong – the Marquis and his beautiful wife are nowhere to be found, and the gas-mask-wearing staff are murdering all of the guests one by one. Well, not quite all of the guests – one, an aging priest named Lafcadio Boone, is contacted by a creature of mysterious form and purpose and is given the power to rewind time. This, as you may have guessed, is you, and your job is to stop the slaughter of your friends with what can only be described as the power of Groundhog Day.
Solving each murder should be a simple task – after all, it’s not like it’s a mystery. You already know “whodunit” – the closest staff member, and you’re allowed to wind the clock back as many times as you like to prevent the victim’s passing. But there’s a problem – Lafcadio seems to be trapped in an existence outside of the mansion’s rules. Neither the guests nor the staff can see him, but the masks they’re wearing do, and they’ll attack and kill you if you stay in the same room as someone else for too long. This means that you can’t just tell someone “Hey, you’re going to die in an hour, don’t go into the conservatory” – instead, you’ll have to influence events from the shadows. You’ll have to slip a vial of antidote into a poisoned man’s pocket, or take the hanged girl’s rope from her room, or replace the knife with a prop fake. None of these are things you actually have to do – the actual murders are far more creative and far stranger than the usual tropes of a dinner party murder mystery – but you get the idea.
Now, that premise is cool and inventive enough that plenty of lazy studios would have left it at that and called it a day – in fact, I might argue that Tequila Works did just that with RiME. And the game’s core mechanic and setup are inventive enough to easily earn the game a 7/10 no matter the execution. But to my surprise, this is really only the surface of what The Sexy Brutale has to offer. Every element of the game has clearly been crafted with an insane amount of love and attention, and even if it’s only six hours long, every one of those hours is brimming with more excellence and care than a thousand cookie-cutter triple-A experiences – oh, Destiny 2’s launching this week? You don’t say.
The most obvious of these details is the design of the mansion itself. I’m not just talking about the graphics – although now that you mention it, sweet Carmack, those graphics. What happens when you get a bunch of people who used to work at Blizzard and Weta Workshop’s digital effects division and let them work on a passion project? You get something that makes “gorgeous” feel like a totally inadequate word. I mean, look at these paintings. Somebody took the time to paint these beautiful little works of art, and then they got shrunk to the size of postage stamps. They’re not even the coolest thing in the room! And this is one of the least interesting rooms in the house! And everything has such a cool visual style, despite that visual style being almost inexpressible. Here’s my best try: “The Great Gatsby meets the 1925 Phantom Of The Opera in an art deco fever dream casino from hell.” Wait, shoot, I forgot the Voodoo influences. Suffice to say that the artists at Tequila Works somehow found an art style where giant gaudy casino machines, creatures made entirely of blood, and top-hat-wearing spell-casting deep-sea fangly fish somehow fit seamlessly together, and somehow all look great.
But the design of the mansion itself is also something special. See, open-world games are the current triple-A “thing” right now, just like realistic gray n’ brown military shooters were the “thing” last decade and God of War clones were the “thing” before that – the “thing” that the games industry is going to run into the freaking ground before it moves on to the next “thing” just long enough for the old “thing” to feel fresh again. And while there are plenty of good open-world experiences, it’s nice to see games that can remind us of the power of the single, oft-backtracked location. Like the town in Pathologic, the Spencer Mansion in Resident Evil, or the Arkham Asylum in Arkham Asylum, the amount of time you spend trapped in the Sexy Brutale means that the building itself feels like an old friend by the end of the game, a singular location trapped out of time, a place I’ll remember forever despite having never visited, the scene of our characters’ greatest joys and deepest failures.
Ah, yes, about those failures. Though I reject the idea that story is all The Sexy Brutale has going for it, there’s no denying that it really is the game’s trump card. Fantastical stories like these often seem out-of-touch with real human experiences – or, to put it more bluntly, the biggest mistake any time travel story can make is being about time travel. Back to the Future is a movie about the fact that teenagers and their parents often forget that the latter were once teenagers too – time travel is just a comedic way to get that idea across. Looper is a movie about “hey, isn’t time travel cool and weird?”, and even though I like Looper a lot more than most folks, there’s no denying that it’s the weaker film. It’s exactly what I was talking about earlier – there’s a temptation to get caught up in an intriguing premise and forget the fact that the sort of stories that humans really care about are the ones that are still, at their core, about humans.
The Sexy Brutale is very much a story about people. There’s the guests in the house, fully-realized characters who each feel like they need to be saved from their own desperate misery as much as from gas-mask-wearing psychopaths. There’s the Marquis and his wife, nowhere to be found and yet seemingly ever-present, whose choices have led us down this terrible path. And there’s Lafcadio Boone, the Marquis’ dearest friend, reduced to a ghostly apparition, saving people from a threat he doesn’t understand for reasons that aren’t his. One of the game’s most absolutely horrifying aspects – and we’re getting into medium-sized spoilers for the sake of analysis here, nothing too awful, but you should definitely close the article now if you want to go in completely fresh – is the fact that you can only save each character once. As you’re wandering around the mansion trying to solve the latest puzzle, you’ll see the people you helped before die again, and again, and again.
You see, The Sexy Brutale is a game about something we all have to face at some point in our lives: grief. To tal, overwhelming grief. When you’re faced with the loss of the things that are most important to you, the first thing you try to do is make sense of what in the hell just happened. The human brain is programmed to think in stories (we call them “schemas” in psychology) and we have a hard time dealing with the fact that sometimes evil is just truly random. When the grief hits, the human tendency is to sit there in shock, turning the events over in your head over and over again, trying to figure out what you did wrong, and what you should have done better. Hey, doesn’t that sound familiar?
The Sexy Brutale is a story about trying to impose order on chaos, and as every repeating death reminds you, that’s an impossible task. It’s not a game you can win, because there is no win state for grieving – what’s happened has already happened, and it will always happen. Even from what I’ve told you of the story you probably have your suspicions about who the big villain turns out to be, but you’re wrong, because there is no big villain. Not exactly. Not in the way you’re thinking. Because you can’t beat grief with a sword, or a well-placed puzzle solution. You can only beat it by moving on. And even then, you haven’t exactly won – the horrors you’ve faced will be your constant companion, repeating over and over again. In this country, we associate time loop stories with Groundhog Day, a comedy, but the good in our lives never really lasts – it’s the darkness we face that we’ll carry forever.
But this isn’t a hopeless story! Not at all. Because the game does end, and it ends well – beautifully well. Yes, you never forget the people you lost. But there are always new people, new experiences. And every day, you can choose to be joyful. You can choose to seek out the things that make you happy. You can – and you will, because you must – break the loop. And that’s what The Sexy Brutale is about. It’s a brutal tale, so brutal that by the end your only goal is the hope that there will be an end. But then it comes. And you can breathe freely again.
And one thing that really needs to be celebrated is not only what a remarkable story this game has, but how well said story is told. Like all the best games – certainly all the games I’ve chosen to highlight here – it weaves its story into its gameplay so seamlessly that the two are really one and the same. As a player, the time travel mechanic is exciting and thrilling at first – like our grief-stricken protagonist, you cling to the unhealthy coping mechanism with gusto. And then things start to go wrong.
Brutale also has almost Edgar Wright levels of tying up loose threads, to the point that I’m sure I’ve missed some crucial points on my first playthrough. Even minor UI details, like the fact that characters become wreathed in flame when you get too close, turn out to have far-reaching implications. Things that you thought were plotholes are deftly closed up, and the very existence of plotholes becomes a part of the narrative. But I really have said too much now, and sometimes you just have to take a seat at the table if you want to see how the river lies.
But before we go, we would be remiss in not discussing Brutale’s brilliant gameplay. At its core, it’s a point-and-click adventure game in the classic style, which means lots of inventory puzzles. The loop mechanic adds an element of time management to the game, with each in-game hour equivalent to a real-world minute, and it certainly feels excitingly original, but when you get right down to it it’s just an interesting way to present the “no permadeath” rule these sorts of games have (rightly) had in place for years. Again I have to emphasize – in the wrong hands, this game could have been an unplayable nightmare. The logic of the titular mansion is so twisted and surreal that the logic of the puzzles could easily have been likewise, especially once the game starts subverting its own rules. Instead, the gameplay is so well-designed that the solutions almost all feel natural, while still being enough of a challenge to stimulate the ol’ frontal lobe.
I think part of it has to do with how much the puzzles are based on observation. On your first playthrough, you’ll probably just sit and watch the death happen to understand the situation you’re dealing with. At most, maybe you’ll make one or two obvious changes just to understand why the simplest solution won’t work in this case. But on consecutive runs, after making your “best guess” changes, you’ll start to wander around nearby areas of the mansion. And that’s when you’ll start to notice things. Conversations in the corridor. Things that have moved since the last time you saw them. You’ll rewind time and see how they got here. Once you’ve got the full picture, the solution is typically obvious, so solving a puzzle is more about having good intuition than banging bits of inventory together until sparks fly.
Oh, and the music is damn near miraculous. Not only is the toe-tapping electric jazz just great to listen to, but it changes depending on where you are and what events are happening in the mansion at that time, flowing from room to room so that it sounds like one seamless piece of music. Even if you’re on the other side of the mansion, you’ll know what’s happening to the victim because you’ll recognize the music. It’s an impressive technical feat, and deserves at least as much credit for the emotional strength of the story as the writing does. Composers in this industry never get half the respect they deserve, so a huge shout-out to Matt Bonham, Tim Cotterell, Tom Puttick, and Phil French.
To wrap things up not even half as well as the game does: The Sexy Brutale is a remarkable achievement, an easy game of the year contender that’s inevitably going to be passed up for games with four times the polygons and less than a quarter of the heart. It’s a story about love, pain, and mental illness wrapped in whodunit intrigue and dark comedy. It’s a game that proves point-and-click adventures don’t have to be frustratingly illogical. And its art, music, and general presentation are so far beyond anything else on the market that it honestly feels unfair to the rest of us mere mortal game designers. And though I still can’t say too much about its ending, it really is quite possibly the best any game’s ever had – neither a happily ever after nor a game over, a perfect mix of happy and sad that feels real and puts to bed every minor plot detail that’s been buzzing in your brain over the past six hours of play. It’s a brutal tale, brilliantly told – and yes, I might even go so far as to call it “sexy.”