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Sleuth is a text-based murder mystery simulator that is far scarier than it has any right to be

(Image credit: Norland Software)

As a survival horror fan, I pride myself on being somewhat fearless. I say somewhat because it is possible for me to become frightened by in-game happenings – a recent romp through one of Phasmophobia's haunted houses proved as much. It's just that nowadays, I'm rarely ever caught off guard or made fearful during play. That wasn't always the case though. 

Like a great many of you, I've felt the impact of jump scares over the years – some more harrowing than others. Everyone who played the original Resident Evil remembers the dog leaping through the window; it's a genre classic and easily one of the scariest moments found in the game. I personally remember panicking, sending bullets everywhere and hitting nothing. It nearly ruined my night. Thankfully, it didn't ruin my love for the genre. I'd go on to play the Silent Hills, Clock Towers, Outlasts, and so on. Facing each jump scare like a champ. 

At some point, the jump scares became predictable. Like knowing when a killer is going to appear in a horror film, I just knew what to expect. Which is why one particular jump scare – found in a game positioned slightly outside of this genre – nearly knocked me out of my chair. I didn't see it coming at all. Despite clear signs that something terrible was going to happen. 

Like a great many things in life that leave a mark, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was hanging out at my girlfriend/future wife's dorm room back in, like, 2003. We talked about everything, including video games. At some point, she introduced me to Eric Miller's 1983 classic Sleuth – a text-based "whodunit" game in the vein of Clue. She told me how she enjoyed playing it years prior and how it can be scary at times, before eventually asking if I wanted to play. "Sure," I said, not understanding what I was getting myself into. 

A murder mystery simulator


(Image credit: Norland Software)

"She hit me with the "did that scare you?" line, as if it was impossible for me to be toppled by a loud beeping noise"

In Sleuth, players take on the role of an investigator who's tasked with solving a murder at a large estate. You'll need to search for clues, interrogate survivors, interact with objects, and so on. The goal is to find the murder weapon, learn where the murder took place, and then confront the killer in front of the other residents. Again, it's like Clue. The thing is though, there is a timer of sorts. After a certain amount of moves and interrogations, the murderer will become suspicious. This will result in them following you around before eventually trapping and killing you, ending that session prematurely. 

Looking at the game as my girlfriend booted it up via DOSBox (an emulator for DOS games), I didn't really expect much gameplay wise. Sleuth seemed mediocre, even by text game standards. There weren't many sounds or images – I was just a little square that moved around, sometimes able to interact with objects and/or ask questions. Things started to change once I got into my role as the investigator though. It happened pretty quick. I found a magnifying glass, which allowed me to examine items. "Oh, look. A bloody knife." Wandering around the estate, I eventually stumbled into a room where a shifty sounding individual was staring at a pool of blood. Nice. I got the murder weapon and located where the victim was killed. That's when the killer took notice. 

Given Sleuth's minimal aesthetics, the absence of sound (sans a beep or two), and the fact that I had played games like Resident Evil by now, I didn't expect to be bothered. Maybe it was because of how the alert was worded. Or maybe it was due to my own imagination. All I know is that my anxiety spiked when I read that I was being stalked. With each step, I grew more uncomfortable. Since the killer's actions were tied to my moves, every misstep – forgetting what each person said or accidentally picking the wrong room for something – spelled doom. I got especially worried when I'd enter a room and before leaving, would run into someone who wasn't there before. Most of the residents stayed in on room or another. So, to see some of them moving around… I had to hurry. 


(Image credit: Norland Software)

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to solve the case in time. Which brings me to the jump scare. After walking into a room, in hopes of reinterrogating a suspect, the game screamed a notification at me; text explaining that I had been cornered by the killer flashed across the screen. The loud "beeeeeep" cut through the silence, resulting in an embarrassing display of fear. The only reason I didn't fall backwards out of the chair and violently kick over the monitor was because I held onto my future wife, who at the time seemed just as shocked as I was. She hit me with the "did that scare you?" line, as if it was impossible for me to be toppled by a loud beeping noise. And who could blame her? I had spent a decent amount of time explaining how much I loved playing survival horror games. Zombies, ghosts, ghastly knife carrying nurses – I had seen 'em all. 

Sleuth's non-jump scare was surprising because of how unimposing the game is. It was void of scary images and eerie music. Just text detailing what was going on and a few sounds. And still it was able to get under my skin – so much so, that when the killer finally made its presence known I jumped out of it to escape. Given that I didn't expect it to release a high pitch squeal at any point during play, there was no way for me to predict/see that moment coming. Sleuth is unremarkable by today's standards, though it's interesting how well it stands the test of time in its own little way. I doubt anyone else would react the way I did now, especially after reading about it here, and it'll never scare me again, but it's still fun to pretend to be an investigator trying to solve a murder. Even my kids have gotten into playing it. Of course, none of them seem to be as frightened as I was. They get that from their mother! 

In the run up to October 31, GamesRadar+ is exploring some of the most effective scares that video games have been able to deliver. Click through to GamesRadar's Halloween 2020 guide for more.