Murder by Numbers is a murder mystery point-and-click adventure game (think Ace Attorney or Famicom Detective Files) but instead of any complex manipulations of evidence, you’re solving nonogram puzzles. (Warning: there’s no major spoilers, but if you like to know Absolutely Nothing before you play a game, then this post is not for you.)
Let’s solve a puzzle! Solve a nonogram puzzle! at the gay bar, gay bar, gay bar~
First off, let me clarify that this isn’t really a review of the game. This post will focus on my thoughts about just one heavily advertised aspect of the game. But while I have you here, I wouldn’t recommend this game to either murder mystery fans, or nonogram enjoyers, let alone put some kind of score or rating on it. Why?
When something shocking is revealed, the screen flashes. When a character has a dramatic reaction, the screen flashes. When you solve a puzzle, the screen flashes. I played the Switch version of this game, and as far as I could tell, there was no option to Turn Off Screen Flashing. Not only does excessive screen flashing mess up my vision, but being subjected to enough of them can potentially trigger a migraine so bad I would have to immediately go lie down in a cold, dark room and dissociate for several hours in order to recover. I was able to persevere by both limiting my playtime as well as the ol’ “brightly lit room sitting back from the screen” advice that’s a staple of anime openings. But it was definitely an accessibility issue, and I know multiple people for which this would be a dealbreaker.
The Game is Okay, Though
Now that we’ve dealt with the blinding elephant in the room, let’s talk about what Mediatonic did right. Both the individual case stories as well as the overarching plot are written fine, though there is one case that could have definitely used another draft. The nonogram puzzles also pass muster, though I do wish there was a high contrast option to make the numbers easier to see against the background. They hired Masakazu Sugimori, of Viewtiful Joe, Ace Attorney, and Ghost Trick fame to score this murder mystery, and that was money well spent.
Viewers on my stream seem to unanimously agree the soundtrack was one of the strongest parts of the game, eclipsed only by your robot sidekick (and cute mascot) SCOUT.
The character designs were done by Hato Moa (yes, from Hatoful Boyfriend and other projects) and they are also well-done…without any further context. To be absolutely clear, I think Hato Moa did an excellent job, but this is the beginning of “What was Mediatonic thinking?”
I Have Questions
Murder By Numbers makes it a point early on that the game is set in Los Angeles, in 1996. And it also makes a big point of their characters wearing “90’s fashion”.
Some of you may know I was born and raised in what is largely considered “the LA area”. Bonus: I was alive and dressing in clothes I picked out myself in 1996. And very few of the character designs strike me as totally 90’s.
Mid-nineties Kelp in mid-nineties fashion
Right from the get-go, there’s the question of “what do you mean by 90’s fashion”? Part of the problem here is that we’re dealing specifically with 1996. A lot of ‘iconic fashion’ of the early 90’s can be easily traced back to iconic fashions of the late 80’s…in other words, there’s a thru line of bold colors and prints, big shoulders, and just a lot of overall maximalist designs. To illustrate this, I’ve selected a few red carpet looks from the 1988 and 1992 Emmys.
From left to right: JoBeth Williams, Jackée Harry, and Deidre Hall at the 1988 Primetime Emmys
Left to right: Rosie O’Donnell, Cindy Crawford, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the 1992 Primetime Emmys
Already by 1992 we can see The Shift. Cindy Crawford’s look is definitely bold, but it’s also black and white. And while there was certainly no shortage of Little Black Dresses in either year, Julia Louis Dreyfus’ relatively plain black gown (and the others in the background) to me signal a clear shift to the time period allegedly represented by Murder by Numbers.
Before we get to 1996, however, let’s take a quick detour to 1995. If you ask me what is an iconic representation of bold, LA area fashion, I have one word: Clueless. Unfortunately(?), what is often considered The Outfit from Clueless nowadays is the yellow plaid ensemble Cher wears in the opening scene of the movie.
Shoutout to Dionne’s pleather lapels and cuffs
I want to also give credit to the famous red Alaïa dress she wears later on to a house party. But there’s one classic scene that epitomizes mid-90’s fashion.
That’s right. Calvin Klein. For those of you unfamiliar, her step-brother (and future love interest- yes I know. It’s based on Emma) Josh, aka Paul Rudd, nudges her dad. “You’re not letting her go out [dressed] like that, are you?” Her dad calls her over and voices his objections:
“What the hell is that!?”Clueless (1995)
“It looks like underwear!”
This my friend, is 1996. Neutral solids. Slip dresses. Minimalism. I grabbed some red carpet photos from the 1996 Golden Globes, as one case takes place at basically that. The boldest look here is likely Fran Drescher’s, and even then it’s the headpiece moreso than the dress.
Left to right: Alicia Silverstone, Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, and Courteney Cox, and Fran Drescher
What’s that you say? The real standout looks would be at the Grammys? Well, I have bad news.
Left to right: Shania Twain, Naughty by Nature, and Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey wins here, but notice this was taken backstage? Because she performed in this outfit. That’s not to say there weren’t some bold looks present.
Is that…sheer shantung?
Right from the get-go, you can see that sheer fabrics were definitely on trend. But I highly doubt any readers here read ‘1996 LA fashion’ and thought “sheer fabric over a solid base layer”. But wait, it gets worse.
There’s that button-up cropped knit vest deal again. I guess that was a thing.
You see, despite attending an awards show at some point, all of our cast isn’t ever in red carpet looks – they’re in everyday outfits. And these are going to be even blander. Even if we look at designer ready-to-wear collections from around this time, they are again defined by beiges, greiges, and slim silhouettes with minimal tailoring or embellishment.
Calvin Klein 1996 Spring RTW collection
Prada 1996 Spring RTW collection
On a whim, I checked out a spring ready-to-wear collection from Alexander McQueen from 1996, and besides the hair and makeup (and the copious amount of exposed breasts), I think readers will agree there’s still not much here that screams “punk (circa 1996)”
Alexander McQueen 1996 Spring RTW collection
So did Hato Moa flub the prompt? No, I don’t think so. Rather, I think that the decision-makers at Mediatonic have very little knowledge about Los Angeles, let alone the fashion. They went with a highly specific milieu despite vast ignorance, and didn’t hire any sort of consultant to check their work. And they basically got away with it too!
All of Murder by Numbers is set during the ‘90s, and developer Mediatonic has done a fantastic job of capturing and then intentionally exaggerating the iconic look and feel of that decade.IGN’s review of Murder by Numbers
Alright Kelp, but What Are They Wearing?
For the purposes of this post, I’m only going to focus on 12 characters. People that are clearly wearing work uniforms, or had otherwise uninteresting ensembles were left out. Ah, some contrarian says to themselves, but didn’t you just show that 1996 fashion should have been kind of boring? True, but I’m also including every main recurring character with the exception of Detective Cross. I’d also like to thank Mani Tokkigo for providing her feedback, which both helped solidify my thoughts as well as make some important points I forgot to consider, like the cuts being off. Let’s start with the protagonist, Honor Mizrahi.
Honor’s ensemble, while eye-catching, is an ahistorical pastiche, with her open flannel button-up tunic layered atop a purple Memphis pattern crop top. (Shoutout to Mani for using the term Memphis pattern in her critique, which I knew but forgot.) The latter would have been fairly out of fashion by 1996, especially for a 29-year-old actress.
“This is how you would layer a big checked button-up in the nineties, fellow Full House stars.”
We’ll continue with my top three passing grades: Becky, Bobby, and Kathleen.
Becky’s outfit reads both a little earlier and a little later than 1996, but I immediately thought of some Iconic 90’s Looks when I saw it, so I give it a pass. Bobby also seems a bit too early here with the hi-top fade and bold jacket (also I feel like his pants need to be baggier), but this too is A Look I Recognize From The 90’s.
Some even louder jackets modeled on DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, circa 1991
And, you guessed it, Kathleen is also a little early here with her chunky gold jewelry and bold blazer. Mani noted it needed ‘a boxier shoulder’ and I agree. (I also personally love this outfit.)
Left, Chanel circa 1986. Right, undated Chanel suit.
Honorable mention goes to Sharon – she’s one of the few characters that would make sense wearing an ensemble that’s more ‘five years ago’. I have a few nitpicks about the blouse, but the use of argyle is period-accurate enough.
Is this from the 90’s or is she just wearing her old stuff?
Next, let’s get the blazer boys out of the way: K.C., Crispin, and Ryan.
First off, none of the cuts are right. Pants should be higher-waisted to come off as 90’s, and the blazers are also too slim. Since we already seem to be shooting more for early 90’s, I would also throw in some double-breasted looks for good measure.
Some early 90’s Armani suits
I think K.C.’s outfit is very interesting, but nothing about it says 1996. I checked to see what sort of stuff Prince or David Bowie were wearing around this era, and couldn’t find this sort of print blazer that I associate with contemporary menswear looks. Crispin gets the same notes for the same reason.
J. Ivy, Donald Glover, and Harry Styles in floral-print blazers
Ryan’s muted pinstripes, on the other hand, with the V-neck tee…this is ostensibly a look that could have been purchased from The Gap in the 90’s. But in 1996? I dunno, and I’m too tired to dig thru online archives to find out. Once again, there’s nothing really iconic about it. (Mani said that Ryan looks “exactly how a guy named Ryan ought to” and she’s not wrong.)
Next we have Jena and Ray, aka “this is supposed to be something but what?”
Jena is a punk? A goth? She’s an engineer, hence the lab coat(?), but that doesn’t explain the very drab button-up and pants combo underneath, especially when her colleague wears a loud Hawaiian shirt under his.
Which Murder by Numbers character did you find easiest to design and why? Which one was the most challenging?
Hato Moa: Most characters had a concrete direction in their brief. Particularly, Jena’s appearance occurred to me as soon as I read the brief. SCOUT needed a long time to design, since he’s the important symbol [for] the project.Siliconera interview with Hato Moa
What the heck was in that brief?
Ray, on the other hand…it’s a cool outfit! But I don’t get it. He’s also a very serious guy, so the harlequin is unexpected.
We end with a pair of best and worst outfits: Eirin and John.
Eirin’s outfit is definitely outside the bounds of Fashion Time, let alone 1996. But this alternative kimono look is so spot-on I was quickly able to find a ready facsimile of it for sale. The layering over an oversized sweatshirt is a bit odd, but not unheard of – there’s plenty of examples of Japanese kimono wearers layering with hoodies.
A similar gothic kimono look by Royal Princess Alice
John, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. He does read as a certain time, and that time is Way Before 1996. Now, to be fair, that photo of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with the fanny pack is apparently from 1994. But that wasn’t this pink and teal affair, no – it was black. Again, I have other nitpicks but they don’t really matter.
Am I making too big a deal out of this?
Again, I cannot state enough – I think Hato Moa did a great job with the character designs. In fact, it’s because she did such a great job that I am convinced that those character briefs she was given didn’t emphasize the whole “set in 1996” aspect, let alone provide accurate reference material. And I was ready to give Mediatonic a pass too, until I went to their website and saw that ‘90’s fashion’ was a specific talking point in their ad for the game.
Literally the first thing they mention.
As I said earlier, I find it absolutely baffling that a developer would make such a point of setting a game in 1996 Los Angeles, advertise the characters as wearing fashion of that era, and yet seemingly have made little to no effort to actually make that happen. But hey, it’s just the clothes, right? There’s not any other core aspect of the game that is completely at odds with the Southern California setting, right?
…to be Continued…
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[…] 2 of my non-review of murder mystery nonogram puzzle adventure Murder by Numbers. First, I spent an entire post explaining why the game’s so-called “90s fashion” not only didn’t reflect […]