Welcome to the Murder Hotel
“Clue: Murder Hotel”
For a game about murder, Clue is decidedly light-hearted. The rulebook has little to say about the scene of the crime, and the colorless cast lacks motives, alibis, and personalities. Every player – including the apparently amnesia-stricken culprit – acts the hero, and the game ends as soon as the villain is uncovered. All treachery, it seems, took place before the players arrived at the board. My hack, a sort of “board game dress-up kit,” ramps up the intensity of Clue by changing the game’s location from a fictional mansion to the real-life “Murder Hotel” of 19th century serial killer H.H. Holmes.
In her chapter on board games in Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Mary Flanagan briefly explores the history and effects of re-skinning games. Flanagan offers as an example the wartime conversion of many carnival and board games into propaganda pieces. Some games were simply updated with patriotic artwork, while others – like the shooting range game Chicken Sam, re-christened as Hit the Dirty Jap – were given makeovers that radically altered and politicized the meaning of the game (96). These re-skinned games served as the primary inspiration for my own hack, Clue: Murder Hotel. The hack consists of nine removable pieces to be fastened (via the magic of Velcro) to the original Clue game board. Each piece matches up with one of the board’s nine rooms, and attaching a piece transforms that part of the mansion into a room from H.H. Holmes’ murder emporium, with new room names taken directly from the actual floorplans. The Library becomes the Asphyxiation Chamber, the Conservatory transforms into the Dark Room, and so on. Rather than illustrate the contents of each new room, I opted to leave them empty, both to more closely mimic the actual floorplans of the hotel, and to underscore the mysteriousness of the building. Applying this re-skinning kit transforms Clue from a game that merely suggests thoughts of treachery and murder into one that demands them.
Flanagan’s Chicken Sam example is especially potent in that the transformation is a purely physical one, with the original rules and mechanics left untouched. As Flanagan points out, the simple masking of the game’s once-harmless assets with ones that resemble a stereotyped, propagandized war enemy is enough to politicize the entire game. Players are no longer hunting wildlife, they are hunting a human (or, in the minds of many 1940s Americans, sub-human) enemy. The core gameplay stays the same, but the meaning of the gameplay changes drastically. Adopting this same methodology to my re-skin of Clue proved an early challenge. In order to seamlessly maintain the original gameplay mechanics, all visual mentions of the original nine rooms would need to be replaced with their new renditions – meaning that the cards, notepads, box, and rulebook would all need to be re-skinned. In the interest of both time and simplicity, I took a different route from Chicken Sam and decided to extend my re-skinning to the game’s rules, as well. Using a fan-created alternate ruleset for Clue as inspiration, I altered Clue’s gameplay experience from a game of deduction to one of survival horror. The new rules do away with the notepads, confidential envelope, and indeed, the entire mystery-solving element entirely. In their place is a new system where characters can “die” and be kicked from the game and where the only way to win is to slay Holmes using the weapons scattered throughout his castle. While the rules are completely different, most of the original game’s assets, from the cast to the cards to the weapons, remain unchanged. Critical play thus emerges from this psychological tension of knowing that quite literally beneath this game’s new and incredibly dark surface is the same old Clue, familiar and family-friendly as ever.
According to Flanagan, part of play’s meaning comes from “the social and cultural context in which [it] takes place.” (95). Whereas Chicken Sam’s transformation offers an articulation of a population’s “fear of the other an its taking of sides” (96), Clue: Murder Hotel elevates hidden desires and curiosities regarding death and foul play. In the original Clue, these desires are buried just beneath the surface, in sight but out of reach. Players may enjoy the game and its G-rated crime scene without confronting the uncomfortable questions of “Why are we so obsessed with death?” and “Why do we love stories about torture and murder?” Clue: Murder Hotel does away with these barriers, all but forcing players to consider these very questions. Typically, games that encourage mimicry, roleplay, or dress-up demand a certain degree of willingness and dedication from the player. Children dress up as superheroes and princesses because these are roles supported by societal norms; meanwhile, taking on roles marked by society as unacceptable – whether that be a murderer, the “enemy”, or just the opposite gender – is far less common. Clue: Murder Hotel and other re-skinned games lift this burden of masquerade from the player and place it on the game itself. Players need not fear the repercussions of voicing their desire to play as a social deviant because the game now handles this articulation on its own. For re-skinned games, role-play is more than just an element of play – it’s a ticket for entry.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 February 9, 2016.