Sharing much of the style of Punchdrunk’s 2011 play Sleep No More, The Invisible Hours is more immersive theater than it is interactive fiction. You exist as a ghost in each scene, and you can follow any of the characters at any time, rewinding, fast-forwarding, and pausing as you please. But you don’t act on anything; you just observe, gathering pieces of a larger story along the way. That story draws heavily from classic mystery novels, and even though its twist isn’t as original as it initially might seem, it’s intriguing to watch things unfold from every perspective and learn more about its shady characters.
Set in an alternate version of the late 1800s, The Invisible Hours takes place at inventor Nikola Tesla’s mansion, where an assortment of guests–including a very arrogant Thomas Edison–have gathered at his behest. When the first chapter begins, Tesla is already dead, lying in a pool of his own blood in the entryway. If you pause as soon as the chapter opens and wander Tesla’s island, you can find five of the guests in their rooms and one outside in a gazebo–and no indication of who the murderer is, of course. In true Agatha Christie fashion, among the guests is a detective who supposedly can help the process along.
That detective, Gustaf Gustav, is the first character you meet and the only person at Tesla’s isolated mansion who arrived after the murder. You start out on the docks of the rocky island just as Gustaf’s boat approaches, though you can go anywhere at any time rather than sticking by his side. But following Gustaf through a scene gives you the most straightforward perspective, since he’s the only one of the seven suspects who almost certainly didn’t do it and is simply looking for the killer. Effectively making him the protagonist for your first playthrough of each of the four chapters is the easiest way to get your bearings, and it’s a strong anchor for the rest of the story.
That said, The Invisible Hours works regardless of the order in which you experience different events. The game is structured so that one revelation or detail won’t ruin any other scenes in the same chapter, so you can follow whoever interests you the most and go from there. You can listen to a character discuss a murder trial and then find a newspaper clipping about it with new details, or you can find the news story first–each instance works in isolation with the bigger picture. For the most part, there’s something going on at any point in time. There are stretches where characters, when left alone, aren’t doing much–looking out windows into the storm, reading books, or sitting and staring into the distance–but there’s always a lead to chase somewhere, if not more than one.
The characters and their sordid backstories turn out to be far more interesting than the murder itself. The real mystery is not who killed Tesla but why Tesla invited these people to his mansion in the first place, and as the story progresses, those reasons become more and more clear. The depth of each side story makes rewinding and revisiting scenes rewarding, rather than the chore it could have been. The game also tracks who you’ve seen and at what time during each chapter, so it’s easy to find exactly whose perspective you’re missing and track them down–and find out what they were doing when you weren’t looking.
Because it shares a lot of the same DNA as classic mystery novels, The Invisible Hours can initially come off a little campy. A few over-the-top characters–especially Edison–and some convenient explanations for their behavior feel like dinner theater fare at times, but there are significant reasons for those apparent missteps to appear the way they do. The Invisible Hours’ performances are reflective of that, and the more you learn about each character, the more you can appreciate the acting that goes into all of them. The stage actress in particular is impressive, with shifting body language and changes in her speech revealing the different sides to her.
The Invisible Hours works regardless of the order in which you experience different events.
In the same vein, every plot hole I thought I’d found turned out to be solid once I saw it from every angle. That put me in the position of the characters in mystery novels that frustrate me the most: the ones who jump to conclusions, make assumptions, and cause more problems than they solve. It was a reminder that my job wasn’t to figure out whodunnit, and I appreciated The Invisible Hours most when I stopped trying to solve the mystery and instead just watched as it unfolded. Once I did find out who the killer was, I wasn’t even concerned with it anymore, for better or worse (though a hard-to-find secret ending makes the killer’s reveal more interesting than it is on its own).
The Invisible Hours shifts depending on how you approach its story; scenes take on different meanings as you see them from different perspectives, and as a result, finding every detail in the bigger picture is rewarding. It strikes the same tone as an Agatha Christie novel and at times feels campy for it, but the characters are interesting and well-acted, making each trip through the same few minutes worth it just to see a different character’s side of things.