Creator of hit game Murder By Numbers explains how its LGBT+ representation ‘just sort of happened’
When he was writing Murder by Numbers, Ed Fear didn’t set out to create an LGBT+ game. Instead, it just sort of…happened.
“It wasn’t until quite near the end where I was like this game is really really gay!” he says. “It just happened slowly… it just leaked out of me into the game over the two years.”
The detective-puzzle game for Switch and PC became a sleeper hit in 2020, thanks to sharp writing, a clever mix of nonogram puzzles and storytelling, and a big dose of campy fun.
“I am really interested in making games that are just queer flavoured rather than queer-centric,” he says, noting the prevalence of indie games exploring queer themes. “What about just putting more queer stuff in more games rather than being ‘this is for a specific market’?”
Murder by Numbers centres on Honor Mizrahi, a TV actor turned detective who solves murder mysteries with the help of a flying robot named S.C.O.U.T. While its story isn’t inherently queer, side characters like gay stylist and best friend K.C. and a murder case set in a drag bar add more than just a bit of personality.
“I’m also interested in getting aspects of queer culture across to people who wouldn’t necessarily experience them otherwise,” says Fear, who was surprised at the reception from straight fans who appreciated the game’s subtle education on drag culture and LGBT+ language.
“I didn’t set out to do that, but…there definitely is value in also just making things generally a bit more queer rather than going specifically for that.
“I’m just interested in giving a nice fun campy queer vibe to things that I do.”
That vibe emanated from the team at Mediatonic who worked on Murder by Numbers. It something of a smaller side project for the developer, with Fear initially given just six weeks to develop a prototype as part of his pitch. The final team was a mixture of people from across the company who just happened to be predominantly LGBT+ and would egg each other on, pushing for more representation in the game.
“We used to spritz ourselves with make-up setting spray every day, I don’t know why but it just became a thing that we did as a little ritual!” jokes Fear.
“[The game is] a product of the environment and the nice thing about that is that I now have firsthand experience of what it’s like when you get diverse people on a team. Without even trying they end up making something that is a lot more diverse than it otherwise would have been even though nobody sits down and goes ‘my agenda today is to get this in a game’. It just happens because of the environment.”
The representation extends to the theme song, performed by gay popstar Bright Light Bright Light. The game’s composer Masakazu Sugimori was keen to write a vocal song and Fear eventually realised it would fit with an animated introduction to set the tone of the game from the start. Listening to Bright Light Bright Light’s Choreography album provided the final nugget of inspiration.
“I suddenly thought his voice would be perfect, it would be cheesy but knowingly cheesy which was exactly what I was going for,” he says.
Within a matter of hours the singer had responded to Fear’s request with a quick demo.
“It was amazing, it was so great to get him on board because I’m a fan, but also it felt really great to get another LGBTQ artist involved in the game. Once we got his vocals back it was perfect and it fully helped sell the vibe I was going for. I was so grateful that he did it.”
Japanese character artist Hato Moa is a big fan of Drag Race and was keen to design drag characters – the perfect excuse for Fear to set part of the story in a drag bar. And a big inspiration for the character of gay stylist K.C. was Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness.
“I made her watch Queer Eye because Jonathan Van Ness was quite an inspiration for me for the character of K.C.,” says Fear. “Obviously they’re not completely the same as K.C., but I wanted someone who had that unapologetic – very much not ashamed and living life out loud. I found that really inspiring watching the show.”
A key challenge for Fear was balance: balancing the opposing elements of story and nonogram puzzles for a satisfying experience for both nonogram newcomers and veterans. But also in terms of representation, ensuring there’s enough representation without it feeling stereotyped.
“I was very worried about how people would feel about the representation that is in the game,” says Fear. “It was very nerve wracking writing a gay character [K.C.] and thinking are people going to hate him? Are people going to say this is terrible representation? And am I going to feel like if I’m a gay writer and I can’t write a gay guy, am I literally useless?
“If I don’t do this character as he has come to me, because I’m worried what other people will say, am I in some way invalidating these parts of me that are K.C.? Am I saying that being a fem gay man is a bad thing?
“Eventually I came to the realisation, similar to the gameplay, that I’m not going to please everyone and you can’t ever expect one character to fully encapsulate the gay experience… No one is a full representation of the huge spectrum of our community.”
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Fear chose to set the game in the 90s, partly for gameplay reasons – modern day smartphones would negate the need for much of Honor’s sleuthing – but also for the vibrant and “atrocious” fashion that would ensure the game stood out among other visual novels.
And stand out it did. Despite not marketing Murder by Numbers as a specifically LGBT+ game, it’s been embraced by the community and been nominated for multiple gaming awards.
Fear is surprised at the positive feedback the game has received, both from the LGBT+ community and straight players. Despite his worries at including representation in the game, particularly with K.C., it was ultimately worthwhile.
“I’ve never worried so much about something in my life! I’m really happy that I did take that chance, brave the possible storm and be true to this character that I saw in my head and fly a flag for the fems!”
Murder by Numbers is out now on Switch and PC (via Steam).
Related topics: LGBT gaming