Doctor Watson's having a bad day. Over the past hour, he's been beaten to death, choked on poison gas and seen Sherlock Holmes murdered in broad daylight. And it's all my fault.
I've been playing The Great Game. It's a choose-your-own-adventure-style Alexa skill written to accompany The Voice of Treason, a new Sherlock Holmes drama from Audible (available now for $22, £20 or about AU$40). Both the skill and the drama are co-written by comic book and audio drama veterans George Mann, author of steampunk mystery series Newbury and Hobbes, and Cavan Scott, author of Star Wars audio drama Dooku: Jedi Lost and upcoming comic book series The High Republic.
This is the first Alexa skill Audible's produced, and I have to admit I wasn't sure who it was for. I love interactive fiction, but I like to take audiobooks and podcasts on long walks and listen to them on public transport. You don't have to play The Great Game on an Echo device — it works on the Alexa app — but it's still not exactly portable. You control Watson's choices by speaking to Alexa. And I wasn't sure if I wanted to walk the streets giving orders to an invisible AI assistant.
As it turned out, that wasn't a problem. Audible gave me access to the skill just around the same time as the coronavirus pandemic reached CNET's office in east London. The spouse of someone on a different floor tested positive for COVID-19. All of a sudden I was working from home — and spending all of my free time at home, for that matter. So when I needed a break from the 24-hour news cycle of disease, financial turmoil and increasing uncertainty, I'd retreat to my bedroom and spend some time in Victorian London, trying to keep Holmes and Watson alive.
Both The Great Game and The Voice of Treason see London in crisis. In the game, the city is terrorized by a mysterious figure, while the Voice of Treason sees Holmes tackle a plot to kidnap Queen Victoria. As in Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's original stories, the adventures are narrated by an impeccable, occasionally exasperated Watson, played by Kobna Holbrook-Smith (Doctor Strange, Paddington 2). His co-star Nicholas Boulton (Game of Thrones, Doctor Who) is on fine form as an acerbic Holmes. As the drama unfolds, leading them to cross paths with the detective's nemesis Moriarty, we see their relationship under pressure as Watson does his best to keep pace with Holmes and the unfolding mystery.
A word of warning: If you're playing through the Great Game and can't seem to survive, it might be because you've hit a dead end. Like in a classic adventure game, it's possible to reach a point where there's no escape because you made the wrong decision in a previous chapter. There's nothing to indicate this in the gameplay or description, so it can be a frustrating experience. Audible tells me there'll be an update to address this in the coming weeks. If you're totally stuck, in the meantime, you might be better off starting from the beginning.
The Great Game lasts an hour from beginning to end, but it can take longer to solve depending on your choices. It's free to play on Alexa whether you're an Audible member or not. Enable the skill to play and then say, "Alexa, start The Great Game."
Authors George Mann and Cavan Scott spoke to me by email about what it was like to bring the great detective to life. Here is my Q&A, lightly edited for clarity.
What's the most important thing to get right when writing about Holmes and Watson?
George Mann: First and foremost, I think it's important to stay true to the characters as Conan Doyle envisioned them.That's not to say you can't take them in new and interesting directions, but that the core of their characterization is recognizable. I also think it's really important to get the tone right. There's a particular feel to a Holmes and Watson investigation.
Cavan Scott: I agree, and at the heart of that is their relationship. For me, a good Sherlock Holmes adventure is as much about the interplay between two friends as it is about the case in hand. Holmes and Watson are the original dynamic duo. They need each other to function, bringing the best out of each other's characters.
How do you find the characters' voices?
CS: Again, it's all about returning to the source material.
GM: Exactly that. Doyle created two of the most distinctive voices in English literature when he devised Holmes and Watson. That was the obvious starting place. We both went back to the original stories (in both print and audio form) and spent time in their company, listening in to their conversations and getting to know them all over again.
There have been countless incarnations of Holmes and Watson over the years. Do you have a favorite film or TV version of Sherlock Holmes?
CS: I have a deep love for the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movies which obviously played fast and loose with the canon (and indeed the timeline, updating Holmes and Watson long before Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman), but they remind me so much of discovering the characters when I was a kid. The Secret Weapon is always going to be my favorite, featuring one of the best Moriartys you will ever see in the form of Lionel Atwill.
GM: Jeremy Brett is the absolute stand-out. Those dramatizations played such a huge role in bringing Holmes to life for me as a child. I even bought the TV tie-in editions of the books (which I already owned), just because having Brett on the cover made it feel more authentically "Holmes".
He's a very flawed hero, and that's the main reason he needs Watson, to ground and humanize him George Mann on Sherlock Holmes
CS: It has to be said that when I read Holmes, I hear the voice of Clive Merrison from the 1990s BBC Radio adaptations. Next to Brett he's definitely the most authentic Holmes to my mind.
GM: Yes, I love Merrison too. I'd also add that Peter Cushing, in Masks of Death, does a fabulous job of late-period Holmes.
Do you have any adaptations in mind when writing a new Sherlock Holmes adventure or do you just focus on Arthur Conan Doyle's stories?
GM: Part of our brief from Audible was to deliver something that felt authentically Doyle, so we stayed as close to the original source material as possible.
Moriarty plays a surprising role in the audio drama. Without giving away anything you consider a spoiler, can you tell me a little about the way you developed his character and what inspired you to use him in the story the way you did?
CS: I think most people are surprised how little Moriarty actually appears in the canon, largely because of his prominence in film and TV adaptations. We knew we wanted to include him, but didn't want to go down the old route of simply making him the villain of the piece.
GM: Yes. We wanted his reappearance to feel like an event, but not as a cackling villain. There's something deeply interesting about Holmes and Moriarty's relationship — the fact they see each other almost as equals, are inspired by each other's mental feats and secretly enjoy going up against each other. So we wanted to delve into that, to put Holmes in a position where he has to work side by side with this criminal mastermind to solve this urgent case. In doing so, we were able to explore another facet of Holmes's character, and put pressure on his relationship with Watson.
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The Voice of Treason explores real-life historical figures including Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. What made you want to tell this particular story? Did any details surprise you when you were researching the time period?
CS: We knew we wanted to tell a very particular story with Victoria at the center. The question was when to set it.
GM: We looked at the original stories to work out when Moriarty could feasibly return to London following his apparent "death" at the Reichenbach Falls. He's barely mentioned again until one of the later stories, when Holmes confirms he's dead. This gave us a window of about seven years in which we could place our story.
CS: The Silver Jubilee was too good an opportunity to miss. However, this was also a turbulent time for the Royal Household. We asked ourselves how the main players at court would have responded if the queen had disappeared at that time and what fractures it would caused at the heart of the British Empire.
The story plays with some aspects of Sherlock Holmes' world we often take for granted — there's some criticism of Holmes' treatment of Watson and the Baker Street irregulars. Would you say Holmes is a morally ambiguous character?
CS: That's what makes him so endlessly fascinating.
GM: Precisely. He's a very flawed hero, and that's the main reason he needs Watson, to ground and humanize him.
CS: And likewise, Watson needs Holmes. Without Holmes, Watson would never fulfil his yearning for adventure and justice.
You've both written comics, novels and audio dramas for existing franchises including Doctor Who, Star Wars and Star Trek. What's the appeal of writing new adventures set in these big fictional universes?
GM: It's the same appeal as writing a new adventure for Sherlock Holmes — you get to contribute to the wider story of the characters that have been important to you. It's a very different experience to writing your own characters and settings, in some ways, but very much the same in others.
CS: There's an inherent responsibility to treat the material and characters with the utmost respect as they mean so much to so many people.
What are the logistics of making an audio drama with its own tie-in skill? Did you write the drama first and then build the skill out of it? Or did you write the drama with the Alexa skill in mind?
CS: We came up with the basics for the drama before the Alexa skill was first mentioned, so the choose-your-own-adventure element gave us the opportunity to effectively write a prequel to the main story as well as offering the listener the chance to delve deeper into Holmes' world.
GM: An Alexa skill takes a lot more planning than a traditional drama. We both had experience writing interactive fiction, and really wanted to make sure the investigative elements of the game worked.
CS: While you don't have to listen to the drama to understand the game…
GM: Or vice versa.
CS: …the idea always was that they would complement each other, enriching the experience and deepening the characters' journeys.