The Invisible Hours is not a game.
It’s a strange sentence to start a game review with, I know. But The Invisible Hours is not a game. At least, not in the traditional sense. You’ve no overarching goal. There are no levels to beat. No combat, no dialogue options. Hell, you don’t really even have a character. In The Invisible Hours you’re merely an invisible spectator, watching a tense and gripping drama unfold around you.
Not a play, not a player
It’s not a typical drama that you’ll sit watching from a static position, though. While the game’s loading screens and menu setup suggest you’re watching a play in a theatre, the experience of The Invisible Hours is rather different. You’re free to wander around a large mansion, exploring rooms as you see fit, and simply watch as action unfolds. You’re not really there; you can’t interact with any character in the game, and their actions are not influenced by you in any way. You’re merely an observer. For a “video game” that sounds utterly bizarre and a little bit alien, but somehow, it works.
Originally a VR experience, The Invisible Hours is now available in non-VR for those who don’t want to don a headset. While its passiveness is evidence of an experience designed for virtual reality, it still works well played in the traditional way, too. There are a couple of leftover VR controls still in the game – like the ability to press the right trigger to teleport to a new location rather than walk – which feels a little lazy not to have been removed, but it’s hardly going to spoil the experience.
A gripping mystery
The Invisible Hours is set in the early 20th century, on a private island that houses Nikola Tesla’s mansion. A number of people have been invited to the island, including Thomas Edison, a detective named Gustaf Gustav, and actress Sarah Bernhardt. The setup initially reminded me of The Council – apparently games about Tesla’s gatherings are all the rage these days. Both games might be swathed in mystery, but despite having similar settings and themes, they’re very much unique.
The first thing you discover when you begin The Invisible Hours is that Nikola Tesla has been murdered. There’s his body, lying motionless in the entrance to his mansion. Along with his guests, his blind butler Oliver Swan and his ex-assistant Flora White, there are seven people left in the house. And any one of them could be the murderer. After all, they’re all suspicious in their own way, and all have their own reasons why they might’ve wanted Tesla dead.
Since The Invisible Hours doesn’t take place on a fixed stage, it means different scenes will be happening concurrently in different areas of the house. Detective Gustav could be grilling the common criminal Victor Mundy in the drawing room, but upstairs in an office, Edison and the young millionaire Augustus Vanderberg might be having a heated discussion. It’s entirely up to you which characters you want to pay attention to, but the more conversations you’re privy to, the more deep and interesting The Invisible Hours becomes. The death of Tesla is far from the only mystery that will unravel.
Pivotal to the experience of The Invisible Hours is a robust pause, rewind and fast forward function. Seen one conversation, but want to know what else was going on in the house at the time? Simply rewind to the point in time you want, move to a new location, and continue from there. There are also a number of journal entries, photographs and newspaper clippings that can be found to give a greater understanding of the characters, and using the pause function can be a great way to hunt for these without missing any pivotal moments.
The game is split into four chapters, and once a new chapter begins you can’t rewind past that point. You can eventually jump to any point in time from the menu though, so really it’s up to you how you experience it. That freedom is nice, and it gives you a little bit of ownership to the narrative. Perhaps you just want to follow one character, or see everything that happens in one particular room. There’s no right or wrong – it’s all down to you, and how much you want to experience.
The idea of interactive narrative is something that’s pervading video games more and more. Not every game has to put you at the action-packed helm. Sometimes, it’s okay to sit back and let everything unfold around you. Telltale Games has been doing it for some time, and more recently Wales Interactive with its FMV games, The Bunker and Late Shift. The Invisible Hours takes it one step further, though, by taking you out of the game altogether. Not having a character of any description is strange, for sure, but it allows you to focus completely on the narrative that’s unfolding around you. And what a narrative it is.
While its visuals aren’t exactly cutting edge, they’re perfectly adequate. Characters are designed well enough to have their own unique identity. The house, too, is brought to life with plenty of detail. It’s a worthwhile environment to explore, with interesting nooks and crannies that tell their own story of Tesla’s life. It’s the voice acting that truly shines, though. The delivery of each character is stellar, packed with emotion and personality. The voice work of each actor really brings The Invisible Hours to life.
It may only take a couple of hours at most to experience everything that The Invisible Hours has to offer, but it’s a couple of hours well worth investing. Its narrative, complete with twists, turns and sideplots, will keep you gripped from start to finish; and you’ll be hitting that rewind button with gusto, keen not to miss anything. It’s something different, for sure, but certainly not in a bad way. Tequila Works has done a standout job of bringing to life a wonderful story in an unusual and accessible way, and I’d love to see more like this.