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Can games solve the problem of detective stories?

Gaming

Can games solve the problem of detective stories?

The genre is hard to replicate in playable form, but some games are succeeding

‘L.A. Noire’ casts players as a cop in 1940s Los Angeles

My love of video games, Pokémon cards and manga were all pretty normal for a child of the 1990s; less so my obsession with Murder, She Wrote, endlessly rerun on daytime TV, in which Angela Lansbury politely solves murders without ever getting her cardigan dirty. Returning to the show as an adult seeking pillowy comfort viewing, I realise what I loved at eight years old was not the show’s characters, all cosy stereotypes, or its garish 1980s outfits, but rather the cold logic of its mysteries, the puzzle-box satisfaction when the murderer is revealed at the end of each episode. 

While detective stories are an enduringly popular genre in TV and film, they are less common in games. This is because the process of investigation is difficult to create satisfyingly in playable form. While adventure games often feature mysteries in their storylines, most of the player’s time is still spent brawling, shooting and leaping across chasms. When game developers do attempt to forgo action and base gameplay around observation and deduction, they are faced with a delicate balancing act. They must seed enough clues to enable the player to solve the case, but not hold their hand so much that they feel patronised. Players want to feel like Holmes, not Watson. 

The first detective games I loved were the Ace Attorney trilogy, in which you play Phoenix Wright, an impossibly earnest lawyer who solves a series of outlandish murders. The tone is decidedly zany, with anime-style graphics and supernatural story beats, but the sharp characterisation makes them deeply affecting. Each complex case is split into two parts: the first has you talking to witnesses and gathering evidence from the crime scene, while the second takes you to court, where you cross-examine witnesses and poke holes in testimony using the information you’ve gathered. In the Nintendo DS version, you can even shout “Objection!” into the microphone to launch your counterargument with dramatic flair.

‘Crimes & Punishments’ offers a twist on the detective game format

One of the few detective games released by a major studio was 2011’s L.A. Noire, published by Rockstar (of Grand Theft Auto fame), which casts players as a cop in 1940s Los Angeles and was dipped in the monochrome tones of classic film noir. The game boldly offered set pieces in which you scrutinise suspects’ facial expressions to catch tells that reveal they’re lying, but the graphic fidelity of the time was not advanced enough to execute this convincingly. It also stretched the bounds of believability — not every perp suffers involuntary eyebrow twitches when they lie about their whereabouts on the night of a murder.

Perhaps the secret ingredient to a successful detective game is allowing players freedom to find the solution by themselves

Detective games in the intervening years have offered unique twists on the format. There has been a series of middling Sherlock Holmes games, but one of them, Crimes & Punishments, injects a sense of jeopardy by enabling the player to get their accusations wrong and having to deal with the consequences, rather than simply facing a “Game Over” screen and restarting. Disco Elysium dresses up its political intrigue with razor-sharp writing and a fictional world built with voluptuous detail, while Hypnospace Outlaw trades in the garish aesthetics of the mid-’90s internet. A particularly unusual example is 2006’s The Shivah, which can only be described as a rabbinical detective game, your cursor shown not as an arrow but as a star of David.

Despite their gripping plots, these games fail to live up to the unique promise of detective stories in gaming form because of their linearity. There is only one answer to each mystery, and you must find each clue sequentially to progress. This is the great dissonance between gaming and the detective genre: mystery novels need to be tightly plotted, while games tug the other way, towards open-ended exploration and meaningful player choice. A few standout indie games such as Return of the Obra Dinn, Her Story and Telling Lies rise above the pack because of clever innovations which allow players to solve mysteries in non-linear fashion. Perhaps the secret ingredient to a successful detective game is allowing players freedom to find the solution by themselves. 

In ‘Return of the Obra Dinn’, players solve mysteries in non-linear fashion

These qualities are best exemplified in last year’s indie hit Paradise Killer, which sets its supernatural mystery across an open world, allowing you to investigate at your own pace. The game never tells you where to go next and you can start the final trial at any point, no matter how much evidence you’ve gathered. Newcomers may be alarmed by the game’s high-concept fantasy, which tells of a group of social elites constructing a utopia by sacrificing the working classes to resurrect a pantheon of vanished gods, and by the characters’ bizarre names — you play “Lady Love Dies”, and interrogate islanders with names such as “Witness to the End” and “Doctor Doom Jazz”. Yet once you find your footing, the story resolves into a fantastically imaginative, richly compelling narrative with a superb soundtrack to boot.

Thinking back to my childhood watching Murder, She Wrote made me wonder why people find detective stories, which are often bleak and violent, so comforting. Perhaps it’s because they straighten the chaos of the world into narrative, explaining away the worst capabilities of humankind with neat cause and effect. Detective stories suggest that the world makes sense, which is soothing during periods of uncertainty.

Paradise Killer reaches for something more ambitious: when you reach its climactic trial sequence, you may accuse anyone of each crime. You are instructed by the judge not to “show the truth” but to “show your truth”. You might not be sure you’ve accused the real culprits, but they are put to death anyway, and you must live with this. Truth is depicted as a malleable tool wielded by the privileged. Despite its profoundly eccentric aesthetic, the game’s explosion of linear storytelling points to how games are finally beginning to make the detective genre truly their own.


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