A Sherlock Holmes TV Show for the Video Game Era

Sherlock, the BBC's modern-day Sherlock Holmes reimagining, is a heck of an enjoyable TV show. In addition to the solid writing, strong acting, and un-cheesy modernizing of Holmes, I'm struck by the many ways that Sherlock uses the visual language of video games to place viewers in the mind of the master deducer himself.

Sherlock returns to the BBC this week for its second series after airing three 90-minute mini-movie episodes last fall (as with the first season, the episodes will air in America on PBS at a later date). All three of the first episodes are viewable via Netflix instant watch. I'm a bit late to the party, and have only just now been watching the first series.

In Sherlock, Holmes makes the transition to modern-day London with surprising ease. He is a self-described "high-functioning sociopath," a freaky genius of observation, with almost superhuman, X-Man-like deductive abilities. He is also a whiz with computers, quick to turn to the internet for assistance, and entirely addicted to his cell phone. Played with an appealingly alien weirdness by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (actual name), Holmes is able to immediately observe and put to memory thousands of tiny details about a given person or scenario, then combine those observations with his apparently bottomless memory banks to make superhuman deductions.

Upon meeting Dr. Watson (played by The Office's Martin Freeman), Holmes lets fly a volley of seemingly impossible deductions about Watson's family, personal history, war injury, and mental state. He then walks us through how he made those leaps; the camera does a series of snap-cuts as Holmes mechanically deals out his observations. It's the sort of thing we've seen before, usually on shows like House and CSI which, at least in part, were influenced by the original Holmes' deductive show-offiness.

A Sherlock Holmes TV Show for the Video Game Era

But in later scenes, it becomes clear that Sherlock showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat aren't afraid to appropriate video-game language to convey information to viewers. My friend Jay even included this as he pitched the show to me: "You'll love it! It's got all this great video game stuff!" (He may have been more eloquent than that.)

As Holmes inspects a crime scene in the first episode, we see what can only be described as a Heads-Up Display inserting text over items as he examines them. He looks at the word "Rache," scratched on the floor. Immediately, text pops up identifying it as a German word for Revenge. He blinks his eyes and the text vanishes, replaced by an unfinished scrawling of the name "Rachel." Clearly Holmes thinks this seems more likely.

He touches the murder victim's umbrella: DRY, the HUD informs us. He feels under her lapel, and looks at his fingers: WET. He examines her jewelry, deducing via the cleanliness of various items that she regularly takes off her wedding ring and is likely an adulterer. We viewers learn all of this from the text that floats over the items he conducts his examination.

A Sherlock Holmes TV Show for the Video Game Era

Plenty of crime shows would simply show Holmes going about his business and finally have him sit down and explain his findings. In fact, the "explain your genius process to your dullard sidekicks" sequence has become something of a detective-show cliché. As it happens, Holmes does explain his findings to his sidekicks, but he goes one further, quickly explaining the deductions he can make from the facts that we the audience already know.

The scene calls to mind detective video games like L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain. Games have so many means with which to "cheat" to convey additional information to players—gamers have gotten used to pop-up text, detailed inventory, HUDs, mini-maps, and the like. Sherlock's use of the same tricks is a smart way of giving viewers insight into the mind of a genius whose brain doesn't work like the rest of ours. I'm reminded, in fact, of what Brad Bird pulled off in Ratatouille when young Remy attempts to explain his genius palate, and how he "sees" flavor: colors bouncing around a dark room, interlocking and forming new combinations.

A Sherlock Holmes TV Show for the Video Game Era

In a chase sequence a bit later on, we get a look at the mini-map that resides in Holmes' head. It's even more video-gamey than the pop-up text—Holmes has a photographic memory of a London city map stored in his head, and the show's directors let us in on that, keeping us aware of Holmes' and Watson's progress while tracing them in relation to their quarry.

The idea of the mini-map is actually something I've written about before. In games, mini-maps can sometimes provide too much information, pulling me out of a world that I'd actually have no problem navigating on my own. But it makes sense that a genius like Sherlock Holmes would have a perfect mini-map of London in his brain, and by tossing it into the scene, the director gives the audience a perspective on the chase that we wouldn't have had otherwise. (It also may be a clever way to work around the fact that they didn't have the budget to show a lengthy, coherently edited chase sequence.)

Of course, Sherlock isn't the first show or movie to do this kind of thing. Off the top of my head, Edgar Wright's adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World used many of the same tricks, and to great effect—in fact, Wright's work has long been influenced by similar ideas, all the way back to his and Simon Pegg's TV show Spaced.

One of my favorite things about the "mainstreaming" of video games isn't how games have been incorporating aspects of film and television, but how film and television have been incorporating elements of games.

Eeexcellent, Smithers. Slowly but surely, we're taking over.

(Top image photoshopped by me—there isn't actually an on-screen mini-map in the corner of the show.)