I've been thinking a lot about video game recommendations recently. Specifically, things like, "What game would you recommend to someone who's never played a video game before?" and, "What kind of games would you recommend to people who read a lot but don't necessarily play games very much?" My answer to both questions would probably be What Remains Of Edith Finch in the first instance, mostly because it has a really good story and its controls aren't too intimidating. But this week I realised I rarely think about the inverse of that last question: "What books would you recommend to people who play lots of video games but don't have much time for reading?"
Happily, I now have two solid answers, and they both come from the highly talented Stuart Turton: "The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle" for fans of Outer Wilds, The Sexy Brutale and Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries, and The Devil In The Dark Water for The Return Of The Obra Dinn likers.
Alice Bee and former RPS vid bud Matthew (RPS in peace) have spoken about Evelyn Hardcastle before (both on the site and on the RPS podcast), and I, too, have now joined the Turton book brigade after reading them in very quick succession this month. To say much about any of them would be to spoil the many surprises and twisty-turny plot points of their ingenious locked room mysteries and impossible murders, but there's some undeniable video game logic present in both of them that, I feel, make them great picks for game players who never quite know what to read next.
The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle is a Groundhog Day-style timeloop mystery where the protagonist has to solve the murder of the titular Evelyn Hardcastle. After waking up with no memory of who or where they are, they must use the knowledge they gain each day to further their investigation. The setup itself could be the start of a video game (and it kinda is, if you've played The Sexy Brutale). But the thing that makes it feel the most video gamey is that you and the protagonist learn everything at the same time, allowing you to piece together the clues in your head while they're being relayed to you on the page. Here's a brief summary of it in Turton's own words:
The twist, as Turton explains above, is that rather than re-living the same day over and over and again, the protagonist wakes up each morning in the body of a different guest, and he's constantly bumping into his past and future selves who all have different agendas and levels of knowledge. To me, this structure feels very Outer Wilds-y. Instead of following a breadcrumb trail of clues across multiple planets, you're hopping from one host to another and piecing things together as they come at you. As in the game, events and clues are all jumbled up in Evelyn Hardcastle, and juggling them altogether on a kind of mental corkboard was one of my favourite parts of reading the book.
Even better, the protagonist in Evelyn Hardcastle doesn't appear to be alone. Other people seem to be trapped in this timeloop, too, and that's where the Deathloop connection comes in. As you may know, Arkane's next game is a first person timeloop 'em up that sees you hunting down eight targets all the while being hunted yourself by another timeloop assassin. We also saw earlier this week that Deathloop is less about being a roguelike and more about becoming a master of your environment - which is precisely what the protagonist has to do in Evelyn Hardcastle.
It's kind of uncanny how much Deathloop has in common with Evelyn Hardcastle, although as I said earlier, it's hard to talk about it without giving away major spoilers (everything I've mentioned above is either in the book's blurb, or you learn it very quickly in the opening chapters of the book). If you read it, you'll see what I mean. But I think part of the reason why Evelyn Hardcastle feels like it's been constructed from a lot of video game logic is because Turton himself has been playing games "since the Dragon 64, this old shitty, pre-Spectrum computer," as he told our pals at Eurogamer a couple of years ago when Evelyn Hardcastle first came out. In that interview, he also acknowledges the striking resemblance it bears to Cavalier Games' The Sexy Brutale, too.
"I tell you what, when that game was announced, I shit myself," he said. "I absolutely shat myself. Bits of that, bits of Maniac Mansion..."
Indeed, Turton seems to have a bad (good?) habit of releasing his books around the exact same time as games with very similar themes and settings. His second book, The Devil In The Dark Water, is more of a historical crime novel set on a Dutch East India Company ship in 1634. It's based on a real-life shipwreck, but lemme tell ya, it has big Return Of The Obra Dinn vibes, and not just because it all takes place on a boat.
There's also a Holmesian style detective duo on board, only the Sherlock Holmes-alike character, Sammy Pipps, is a prisoner on this ship being carted back to Amsterdam where he'll stand trial for crimes even he hasn't been told about. Instead, it's up to his hulking, Watson-style sidekick Arent to solve a series of impossible murders in his stead. It doesn't jump around in time like Obra Dinn (or, indeed, Evelyn Hardcastle), but it works the same deduction muscles in your brain as you try and solve this series of strange goings-on. It's a gripping read, taking you through all same kind of nooks and crannies of the ship and introducing you to all the same kind of dastardly crew members as Lucas Pope's nautical masterpiece.
All this has me very excited for Turton's next book, which is supposed to be out in October. He's not confident he'll meet this deadline, admittedly (Matthew and I went to see him talk about Devil earlier this week at our local book festival, which you should be able to listen to in podcast form from May 28th if you're interested), but he did tell me over Twitter that the 'similar game' for his next book is actually already out this time - which is such a deliciously thrilling prospect that it's almost like its own mystery cliffhanger. I have been wracking my brains over what this game might be for weeks now, and trust me, both Matthew and I tried our best to pry it out of him at his book event, but he didn't let his guard down for a single second.
My ideal scenario would be something like Heaven's Vault or maybe something else space-y like Outer Wilds but without the timeloop aspect, but honestly who even knows. Turton's always made a point about doing something different with each of his books, so I don't think he'd go for another timeloop again, but cor... it would be good, though, wouldn't it? In any case, if you're a fan of crime, mystery or time-travelling puzzle games, I would definitely urge you to read Turton's books if you have the time. They're incredible bits of work and some of my favourite books I've read this year - and hopefully you'll like them as much as I did.