Platform: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Switch, Xbox One,
After the opening title card in Rhinotales’ FMV thriller She Sees Red, you are boldly told that EVERY CHOICE MATTERS. I could have done without the fourth-wall breaking advice, especially since this declaration turns out not to be true. A pure example of an interactive movie, the game offers no puzzles or even any real player agency; nevertheless, it’s slickly filmed and a fun if sometimes confusing ride.
The basic premise is that there’s been a murder of a nightclub security guard, and a detective is sent to investigate. As the player, you aren’t physically involved in the action, but rather an unseen overseer, akin to a television showrunner; you ultimately guide the main points of the story, then sit back and let the writers and actors do their thing. While the detective interviews people and pores over clues (with help from an assistant and some serious inductive reasoning that would make Sherlock Holmes blush), you are intermittently sent back thirty minutes into a visual re-enactment of the past to watch more of the crime and subsequent escape attempt being carried out and make choices on behalf of the murderer. Once you see a decision play itself out, you then return back to the present to watch the detective analyze what happened. After making a half-dozen or so choices for the killer in this way, the story reaches a conclusion. You are then encouraged to replay to make different decisions to reach a different outcome.
Filmed in Kazakhstan and written in Russian, She Sees Red offers you a choice of watching with English dubbing or the original voices of the Russian-speaking cast. Of these two options, I can confidently advise that subtitles are the way to go. (An impressive twenty-one different languages are available.) Not only does dubbing present the usual problem of voices not matching lip movements, the dubbing itself is laughably bad. Most of the voice actors (including the detective) do not have a Russian accent, which is quite distracting considering all of the characters are Russian. Hilariously, the person portraying the nightclub owner sounds fresh out of a Spaghetti Western, ruining all the tension the game is trying so hard to establish. While the English subtitles unfortunately have some typos, they are at least able to effectively convey the dark mood throughout.
Thankfully, the live-action performances are excellent. The lead investigator is played to perfection by Belarusian actress Veronika Plyashkevich, whose wry bravado encapsulates the lack of intimidation her character feels from the nightclub staff. Boris Polunin (the club’s owner and her primary adversary) matches Plyashkevich step for step, being appropriately bemused and defensive without the over-the-top performance sometimes seen in this type of story. The two have a delicious chemistry that carries the narrative.
After the initial investigation of the murder scene, the detective searches the dark back halls and offices of the nightclub following clues left by the killer, her assistant and nightclub staff in tow. All the while the club remains fully packed with a thumping bass filling the air. The back of the club is appropriately seedy, with flickering lights, broken doors, and a dirty kitchen that contrasts well with the owner’s office which is garishly opulent.
The atmosphere is supported by high-quality cinematography, with transitions between the past and the present done seamlessly. One scene that stands out shows the murderer from the back entering a hallway. As they do so, the camera reverses to show the investigator peering down the same hallway, fresh on the trail. You also may see the fleeing killer engage in a fight scene or two depending on choices you make for them, and the professional camera work helps intensify the action. Never once while playing did I feel a scene contrived or clichéd.
There’s a warning from the outset that the game is for mature audiences only and that you’ll see plenty of violence and gore. In a few instances it is indeed unavoidably graphic, and those who are squeamish or don’t have a taste for realistic violence should steer clear. Otherwise there’s surprisingly (and refreshingly) little cursing, and only one scene that contains brief nudity. For those interested in some behind-the-scenes footage, there is a gallery that fills up as you make progress.
What keeps She Sees Red from the upper echelon of full-motion video games is its choice structure. Most scenes are a few minutes long, and afterwards you are presented with one of two options and given about five seconds to pick before a decision is made for you. Then you passively watch another scene unfold, make another choice, and so on. Unfortunately, not all of the choices matter. Some don’t affect the outcome at all, merely offering up a slight variation on the ensuing action.
Even more disappointing is that it isn’t always clear what each choice means or why it matters. For example, at one point you are asked if the murderer should look at the wall or search a desk. The game offers no reason to make one selection over the other, nor is there any indication why the character can’t do both. Sometimes when this occurs, the result is trivial, while other times it makes a significant impact on the ending without any way to predict how. There is one choice halfway through the game that ultimately decides if you will be seeing a good or a bad ending; while the “correct” choice can be deduced, it is disappointing that a seemingly minor decision impacts the finale so significantly.
After playing through a couple of times, one begins to realize that the game isn’t so much concerned with choice as it is showing you several permutations of the story. This hearkens back to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, where decisions and consequences were mostly random. Unlike a book, however, here you can’t hold your finger in a page and easily flip back to see the results of a different decision. With its automatic save system that records your progress as you go, She Sees Red must be played over again from the beginning each time to see different iterations. While you are allowed to skip scenes you’ve already seen, tedium sets in around the third or fourth playthrough.
I could more easily forgive this design choice if the story itself was better. The detective learns early that the killer left a symbolic message for the nightclub owner on the dead man’s body, and the owner asks if he should call his lawyer. This message seems a lot clearer to those in the room than it is to the player, and while the introduction is intriguing, it takes far too long before any further backstory is revealed. By the time you learn anything more of consequence, the game is just about over, so saying any more is impossible without spoilers. Frustratingly, this makes it hard to follow character motivations, especially since there isn’t time to really get to know any of them. And what results is an endgame that feels more like whiplash than a well-earned plot twist.
There are four major endings overall and sixty-two separate scenes, but I stopped caring after seeing two-thirds of the latter. Once you’ve seen the four finales, you can adequately piece together the plot and everything left is just a slight, generally insignificant variation. The first time I played, I saw what was presumably the “best” ending; bizarrely, this conclusion is completely baffling without seeing the bad endings first. Everything made a little more sense as I uncovered the other three, but by that time the story had lost some of its punch. And even after playing through a dozen times, I’m still not confident I understand the full narrative. The first time through the game should take you around thirty minutes, and subsequent playthroughs get shorter and shorter as you skip scenes you’ve already seen. I was able to find all the endings and most of the alternate scenes within a couple of hours.
If you can stomach a bit of gore and are a fan of decision-based games and full-motion video, She Sees Red is certainly worth playing despite the imperfect choice format and confusing plot. The acting is just that good, ably complemented by high-quality cinematography. This is the first game by Rhinotales and given the talent on display here, let’s hope they are able to continue producing new live-action adventures, preferably with increased player agency next time.