Autopsying the cold corpse of the detective videogame
We don’t often look to mainstream videogames for the quality of their writing, but they have found their niche in action-driven templates, even if a game such as The Last Of Us is only bold enough to explore its character dynamics amid a cacophony of shotgun blasts. Read the reactions to Murdered’s critical mauling and there’s evidence of fatigue for this form of storytelling. Why be so down on a game trying to do something new?
The problem isn’t the message, it’s the medium. The detective fantasy implicitly promises much that the structures bred by years of shooter iteration are ill-evolved to deliver. Yes, Murdered tries a new-ish remix of a defined tale and freedom of movement, but opening up the world and emptying it of the usual distractions only emphasises how bound you are to passively absorbing its tale.
You don’t need to be Poirot to figure out why the same old activities dominate game fiction, either. In an industry that increasingly differentiates itself through providing agency, there has to be something meaningful to do. That doesn’t mean just the power to act, but to perform actions with consequences in each virtual world. Overcoming a bad guy or making it to a waypoint are among the simplest expressions of meaningful agency, because these are binary states. There’s no room for ambiguity, so you can flip the switch and have the next cutscene alter the world, translating action into reaction.
That’s also why detective fiction is so hard to make into a satisfying modern videogame: there are no such easy get-outs. If you examine a clue, most of the changes of state ought to go on in your head, not onscreen. Likewise, if you interrogate a suspect, you want more control than pressing a button and hoping the summary text near it equates to the query and the tone you wanted. Unless developers ruin the mystery by presenting solutions, true certainty comes mostly in the final revelation, but scripted story beats are much harder to present when you can’t be sure of where the player’s reasoning is up to.
In short, deduction is the bedrock of any detective roleplay, but in an era of mass accessibility and limited AI, developers can’t rely on you making the correct connections yourself, give you the freedom to question as you like, nor model well-realised story paths for every possible investigative tack. The result is minimal control, minimal room for deduction and disappointment.
Other detective games work by either embracing their nature as predetermined stories or masking their lack of plot agency with other activities. Cult classic Ghost Trick, for instance, is ostensibly driven by a murder, but asks you to figure out Rube Goldbergesque chains of object interaction, not the mystery at hand. Jon Ingold’s Make It Good, meanwhile, is unabashedly interactive fiction. It is the kind of choose your own adventure that would be too confusing and complex for a book to contain, but every page is written, and every response mapped out. LA Noire is a fusion of both approaches, couching its scripted story in gun battles and driving.
If detective videogames are to advance beyond bolt-on brain work, they’ll eventually need to be able to model the one thing all detective stories are predicated on: human nature. And there is hope. Versu, Façade and Prom Week all offer glimpses of systems complex enough to offer at least the illusion of nuanced human response. But to succeed, a freeform detective game mostly just requires the bravery to let the player figure things out. Perhaps the genre’s great hope, then, is The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, with developer The Astronauts determined to strip away all handholding. Murdered’s advocates clearly want a modern realisation of interactive crime fiction, but getting there will be more than a case of transplanting a mystery story into a 3D engine and turning on noclip.
You can work out Murdered’s plot fairly early on, but you’ll have to guide O’Connor through the painstaking process anyway