Not for the cavalier detective of Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes Chapter One are the eerie, fog-swallowed streets of London. Instead, Holmes is on the vibrant Mediterranean island of Cordona. A corrupt, parochial (and fictional) island governed by the British, Cordona is also the home of Frogwares’ youthful Sherlock Holmes. Now he’s back to investigate his mother’s death.
Making a break from Frogwares’ previous Sherlock Holmes games, the detective is a 21 year-old given more to volatility and arrogance than discretion. Players will continue to question suspects and assemble evidence in Holmes’ Mind Palace, while the other big change is its open-world setting.
Cordona is filled with crime scenes and deductive catnip that provide for a more sandbox form of sleuthing. Disorienting in its artistic influences, Cordona takes cues from across the 20th century Mediterranean. With the team at Frogwares, Lead Narrative Designer Antonina Melnykova explained to History Hit how history inspires Sherlock Holmes’ Mediterranean home.
It seems like Cordona has Venetian and Ottoman history and is now a British protectorate. Why did you make this choice?
While we never blatantly state it in the game, when we set about making Cordona we had this idea that if we absolutely had to place the island somewhere on the map, it would likely be somewhere in the Ionian Sea.
Cordona is a strategic island that would likely have changed hands multiple times, between powers with a strong naval presence over the centuries. From there we started making our own little history of who could have been here. We have the Venetians to the north, then the Ottomans to the east, and by the 1880s, the British.
The British element comes from a few points that made it necessary. Firstly, we wanted our story to take place somewhere new, as the streets of London had been done to exhaustion. We also knew we wanted this new place to be Sherlock’s childhood home, so some connection to England was needed.
Since we are trying to keep our story theoretically in-line with the timelines from the books, a young 20-something Sherlock would be around at the height of British colonialism and power.
It also means we can give fans some smidge of familiarity. Sherlock is an English character through and through and fans will want some of that British-ness to be around him. If we threw him into the heart of 19th century Russia or Mongolia, it would likely just feel like a fish out of water ordeal.
Cordona looks like an attractive place to visit. What will players find in Cordona’s open world?
There is a fair bit to be honest. The island itself is divided into five distinct districts, each with its own main cultural source of influence. Each district that Sherlock will frequent, like the City Hall in Scaladio or a bazaar in Old City, is hinting at the history the island has gone through.
If I had to pick, my two favorite locations are the Caravanserai hotel, now used as an art gallery, and Sherlock’s abandoned family mansion which we can restore to its former glory. Another peculiar area are the Old Ruins and digging site – a reminder of a long-lost civilization.
I think our artists put together more than a hundred unique landmarks, both small and grand, that dot the island. In terms of gameplay, there’s a lot to do in Cordona. There are quests linked to its citizens that give us a bit of insight into the island and its ways.
Then we have quests linked to Sherlock’s past on the island where we can discover more about him, his childhood, and his family. There are also other smaller activities, such as collectibles, lore quests, treasure hunts, danger zones, and so on, all nicely written into the story.
We can also unlock new outfits or furniture for the family mansion – it’s quite something seeing it transition from an old decrepit house to a majestic residence.
Who are the citizens of Cordona?
The majority of the citizens in Cordona by the time we write ourselves into its history are mainly of European, Ottoman, and African descent. In all, there are about 20 ethnicities or nationalities named in the game.
And we have these for a reason. One of Sherlock’s tools at getting the answers he needs is a system that lets you pin a certain bit of evidence, clue or rumour you’ve come across. You can ask any NPC or bystander about it.
In order to have some sort of logic as to why one person might know something and another won’t, we created a system that procedurally assigns three traits – nationality, profession, and social class – based on a few set variables like how they are dressed and where they are located.
For example, you have a clue that’s a box of matches with the logo of a secret underground tavern where sailors hang out. If you approach someone down by the docks dressed like a sailor, the system likely assigns them something like “working class, Swedish, sailor”.
Ask about the matchbox and you are likely to get a hint about the location of the tavern. Approach someone assigned as an Austrian diplomat or a Turkish merchant and you’ll likely get rebuffed. This is something you have to decide yourself. The game never holds your hand and tells you where to go next.
Do real historical locations inform the different districts of Cordona?
In a way, yes. We used existing real and historic locations as references to create the urban fabric of Cordona. We intentionally didn’t set about making replicas or near rip-offs so that it looks like an obvious match. The last thing we wanted was to make the place feel like some 19th century Vegas or something!
We looked at places like Ottoman-ruled Greece; places like Corfu or Aegina. Gibraltar was another reference point given its own Arabic, European and British history. Some colonial influence in India was also a reference. Oh, and Malta was also a huge influence on the team, especially the capital Valletta.
What inspired the look of the game?
I think the biggest decision that explains so much of why the game world looks and feels a certain way was our choice to leave England behind as a setting. Setting the game in 19th century London, or pretty much any part of England, comes with a certain list of givens.
Notable British landmarks, set architecture, the evident prosperity and scars that the industrial revolution left on the land and its inhabitants. A certain expected level of gloom, grime, and claustrophobia. The almost mandatory scene of a foggy London street at dawn.
And to be honest, we’d already done all that with our previous games. So a new setting, while still feasible in the Sherlock timeline, but totally fictitious in origin, was the biggest creative relief for our team.
How have you achieved the detail on aspects of the game world?
Our team actually has three former architects. They each have the insight and obsession to carefully analyse architectural elements from the eras and locations we were referencing, and to put them into the game with a sense of place and purpose.
They studied oriental, Venetian, Ottoman, colonial, and industrial architecture of the 19th century in order to recreate so much of what is now Cordona, from the planning of the streets to the architectural details of the buildings.
Once you’re deep into those worlds looking at just buildings, things like the outfits or decorative elements easily follow. They get shared with other teams who are in turn researching and obsessing over their contributions.
What cues (if any) does Sherlock Holmes Chapter One take from the original stories?
We do use the books as a guide, or rather an endpoint, but not to the extent that we replicate them. One of the biggest reasons we choose to focus on a young Sherlock of around 21 years-old is because the books, TV series and other adaptations don’t cover this part of his life.
Our Sherlock is more volatile and arrogant than his future self from the books. He is already brilliant, but he has yet to learn to control his emotions. He is more open to bending the truth to his advantage, and he sees his cases as a way to prove himself.
He is only an aspiring detective at this stage, and it’s the events throughout the game that will shape him into the character that most of us already know. And that’s where we will connect a lot of the lore from books with our own story.
We look at those notable quirks or traits and try to create an origin story there too – like how he became so fascinated by the violin, or his signature dress style, or even his future addiction to drugs.
We all know more or less who Sherlock becomes, so we want to create a compelling story that explains how he became that person. Our story is the start of this potential origin. It connects with what Arthur Doyle wrote in a way that makes sense and is interesting for both new and die-hard fans.