The ruthless killer had made a critical error, leaving behind a one-word clue in the ransacked office that held the key to cracking the entire case. All I needed to do was retreat to my mind palace, assemble the facts and boom: another case solved. Oh, the triumph! Oh, the glory!
Oh, my fast-approaching deadline. Seriously, Bryn. Step away from the game. Now.
As a kid, I often imagined myself sleuthing with the pros, whether Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. When the BBC began selling its “Sherlock: The Network” app in January ($4.99 on iTunes), I jumped at the chance to do my own virtual detective work. And I’ll cut to the chase: it’s worth every penny, especially for science writers looking to hone their own powers of observation.
OK, let me be completely transparent in my bias when it comes to “Sherlock”: I love the BBC’s modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories with a nerdy passion. I’m far from alone, however, in delving into the links between the famous detective and the craft of science writing.
In a post on The Last Word on Nothing, Fellow SciLancer Michelle Nijhuis (bio) likened Dr. John H. Watson, narrator of the Sherlock stories, to a science writer “dealing with (not to mention living with) the world’s most exasperating source.” It’s a rich vein that she mined again in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times on the science and art of science writing.
Recent books have explained how Sherlock uses science and forensics to crack his cases and how to think like the mastermind. On Smithsonian.com, Sarah Zielinski writes about the fascinating science and history of Sherlock’s mind palace, a memory trick that plays a prominent role in the show and also dates back to ancient Greece. And psychology also gets a winking nod, courtesy of Michelle’s personality test on The Last Word on Nothing called “Which Sherlock Are You?” (I’m apparently Benedict Cumberbatch, in case anyone’s wondering).
But back to “The Network.” Cracking virtual cases, as it turns out, depends upon many of the same skills as successfully telling a science story: careful observation, attention to detail, the ability to sift through a mound of facts and the wherewithal to assemble a coherent and accurate narrative. Scientists have repeatedly suggested that playing video games also can improve your decision-making, memory and multitasking skills, so why not hone your reporting chops by solving mysteries throughout London?
Oh, and like science writing, bad things may happen if you don’t meet deadlines. Did I mention that every case is timed?
After an abbreviated opening sequence featuring some of London’s landmarks, you find yourself on a map of the city. Various characters then begin to appear, giving you instructions or offering bits of information and leading you into a series of mysteries that gradually increase in complexity.
Like any resourceful reporter, I quickly jotted down notes on whatever piece of paper happened to be nearby – the back of an envelope, a bill, a printout of the partially completed story that I really should have been finishing instead. More importantly, when I really needed to have my wits about me, could I be depended upon to save London – or at least a client?
Er, sort of. My first assignment, The Case of the Weeping Bride, got off to a bumpy start when I couldn’t even seem to find my way out of the London Underground. After bumbling around for way too long – and wasting precious minutes! – I finally got the hang of the puzzle.
Part of the challenge, and fun, is working your way through the variety of ciphers, numerical codes, scrambled audio and other puzzles (from a manual dexterity standpoint, some would be undoubtedly easier to solve on a tablet than on a smartphone). Some require deductive reasoning, some rely on trial and error and some reward the same sort of speedy cognitive skills as the video game Tetris.
The reward is often a memorable message from one of the show’s central characters. Watson’s directive to me in the second case was a spot-on moment of concerned bemusement. Sherlock’s deadpan message at the beginning of the third case made me laugh out loud. And the scornful imperiousness of Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother, was, well, priceless. Along the way, you earn points and British pounds that can be traded in for all kinds of helpful detective accessories (yes, even your own deerstalker hat!).
Of course, it’s also particularly satisfying to put everything together in your very own mind palace. In this case, the memory aid is a screen with a slowly revolving word cloud that invites you to pick the three most relevant clues – as Sherlock himself seemingly studies something just out of view.
After arriving at one “Aha!” moment, I was feeling rather pleased with myself – until I was stumped by part of the next case and humbled into remembering that sometimes it’s possible to paralyze yourself through over-thinking. “The Network,” however, allows you to replay scenes to jog your memory and even redo games to improve your score, which kind of feels like cheating. Yes, I may have done this once or twice. OK, exceedingly often.
I’ll get back to you on whether my science writing skills have grown from playing the game. I have, however, learned at least one invaluable lesson: never accept a new case from Sherlock when you’re on deadline back in the real world.
Photo credit: Alterego via Wikipedia Commons.