Post Script

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

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