My brother has a dinner theatre project where the play takes place from room-to-room in a house, and the audience essentially has to follow the actors as their story progresses throughout the multi-floor set. The exercise has always fascinated me because it makes me reconsider how artificial the narrative structure of playwriting and screenwriting are. We are typically told a story in a contained fashion, with events being told sequentially by characters whose conversations must always be streamlined into a select amount of linear scenes. Even my brother’s experimental project has limitations: of course the actors corral audience members into a predetermined set of rooms to serve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and it is unlikely the director would stage two conversations happening in multiple rooms at the same time. I’ve always wanted to see a performance that broke these narrative limitations, and if anything I’ve seen comes close, it is a recent PS4 release called The Invisible Hours.
The Invisible Hours begins by explicitly stating that it is not a video game, but rather an interactive film with a number of interweaving narratives that can be experienced by following different characters, and rewinding and fast-forwarding time. The Invisible Hours picks the perfect genre to stage this narrative mechanic—the early 1900’s big mansion murder mystery. Developer Tequila Works ups the intrigue by centering the mystery on some real life characters that have fascinated us for more than a century.
Along with fictional characters like the detective Gustaf Gustav, uninvited guest Flora White, blind servant Oliver Swan, and young heir Augustus Vanderberg, a number of notable historical figures accent the cast including inventor Thomas Edison, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Nikola Tesla, whose grisly murder becomes the first mystery for the collective of strangers to solve. The The Invisible Hours was originally only available for the PS VR and I played the newly released standard version.
Most of the reviews of the game have focused on PS VR, I am one of the many who has decided to wait until the next generation to invest in VR. I worry that other non-VR gamers will miss out on The Invisible Hours, and I am here to ensure skeptics that this game is a remarkable experience even played with just a controller and TV screen.
In The Invisible Hours the player has a first-person point of view of the story unfolding around them, playing as a disembodied eavesdropper. At first I thought my role was similar to the anonymous narrator in A Heart of Darkness, but as the story developed with mentions of ghosts and Tesla’s odd Spirit Radio (an actual invention), I began to wonder if I am meant to be some type of nosey specter.
The story begins on the peer of a secluded island: the mood is very Gothic and rainy, as a small boat slowly approaches out of the fog. The first man I meet is inspector Gustaf Gustav, and as he steps onto the dock I notice that his umbrella has a gold luminescence. I click on the umbrella, and the HUD notifies me that the umbrella is 1 of 19 clues to collect. Suddenly, the wind takes the umbrella and sends it flying to the other side of the level. Gustaf ascends the staircase and happens upon the distraught Flora White, who is crying in the rain outside of a big mansion in the distance. She informs me that she is Nikola Tesla’s former assistant, and that he banished her from the premises.
At this point the HUD informs me that I can rewind and fast-forward time, and as I play with the mechanics—following Flora this time—I see Gustaf’s umbrella flying in the distance, which serves as one of many visual anchors in the game to help the player calibrate shared time between characters.
Gustaf and Flora head toward the mansion where they find Nikola Tesla dead in the entranceway. A pistol and a blunt tool lay next to him, both glowing gold. One-by-one Tesla’s guests wander into the foyer to investigate the commotion, except for Victor Mundy, who is seen eavesdropping from the library while mumbling to himself and sharpening a shank. The first of four chapters ends in a dramatic fashion: Mundy attempts to escape out the window, but his exit is foiled by a pistol-drawn Gustaf, who marches him into the dining room to begin questioning all the possible suspects. Though the chapter ends here, I know I have only experienced a portion of the story, and I must subsequently replay the chapter following several different characters to unlock the entire narrative.
At first this seems like an absolute chore, but as soon as the narrative ramps up in Chapter 2 I become glued to my screen, pausing and rewinding scenes over and over to find all the little details. In addition to clues, the player is tasked with collecting newspaper clippings, letters, and excerpts from Tesla’s diary scattered around the three-story mansion, which of course includes numerous secret passages and hidden rooms in murder-mystery fashion. I was initially concerned about the Agatha Christie-inspired setting, because to be honest, I have played a number of love-letter games like this that have turned out to be absolutely dull. However, The Invisible Hours doesn’t solely rely on its influences to prop up the story. Each character has a large secret to hide, and it feels rewarding to see a character you’ve come to love step away from the group and reveal their true selves behind closed doors.
The writing is impeccable, the voice acting is superb, and the writers of the script are not afraid to interject genuine conflict and violence into a setting that is typically reserved for the most vanilla storytelling conventions. While Tequila Works could have played it safe with the historical figures, I very much appreciate seeing Edison interpreted as a jealous and obsessive character, which makes him fit perfectly into the murder mystery genre.
Considering the innovation behind The Invisible Hours, my critiques are nominal. Though the characters are written to be autonomous entities that intersect with one another, there are still moments of following a character where they are seemingly “offstage.” This is only an issue because the clue-collecting mechanics task the player to collect all the scenes—so sometimes the character takes a break from murder-solving to inexplicably look at books on a shelf or stare at a painting in the hallway. Also, since the narrative is meant to be played over-and-over again, there is never really a culminating moment in the game to arrive at.
My favorite part of a game is when the credits roll and the emotion of a journey completed washes over me, and I never really got to experience a moment of such finality in this game. The only thing close to achieving finality in The Invisible Hours is a hidden scene when you collect a secret trophy from Tesla. This brings me to my final critique, which I admit is entirely personal. In my past few years as a gamer I have tried to get away from my obsessive tendencies to be a completionist in every game.
I’m proud that I recently walked away from Horizon Zero Dawn with 88% complete, but the collect-the-clues and watch-every-scene gameplay got me back into that compulsive mindset I’ve been good about staying away from. Fortunately collecting every trophy and seeing every scene only takes about six hours, but still, I would like to see more interweaving digital narratives that get away from the “collect everything” mechanic that drives too many of our stories. But these are tiny gripes for an absolutely intriguing experience all gamers should try for themselves.
Tequila Works’ interactive film puts such a unique spin on historical fiction that I predict you won’t see the twists and turns coming. I don’t believe a “playable film” has resonated with me since the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, so I am hopeful to see more games like The Invisible Hours in the future. Pick it up and enjoy this fantastic murder mystery narrative for yourself.
The Invisible Hours is out now, available for PS4 with Playstation VR support, Xbox One, as well as Steam to play with Oculus Rift and Vive. This article is based on a PS4 copy provided for that purpose.