IN­SIDE DE­VEL­OP­MENT

The devs build­ing the de­tec­tive games of to­mor­row.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - Xalavier Nel­sonJr. By Xalavier Nel­son Jr.

De­tec­tive sto­ries are a sta­ple of fic­tion, but de­spite ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy and nar­ra­tive am­bi­tion, games have strug­gled with the genre. That is chang­ing, and it’s par­tially thanks to philoso­phies adopted by de­vel­op­ers like Ben Wan­der of pulp mys­tery game Case of Dis­trust. “An in­ter­ac­tive mys­tery should evoke great de­tec­tives, mak­ing the player feel part of that es­teemed club,” says Wan­der. “If the game al­lows play­ers to solve the mys­tery them­selves, it res­onates with play­ers’ sense of pride and ac­com­plish­ment.” Play­ers want to feel like a de­tec­tive, and de­vel­op­ers are try­ing in­ter­est­ing new meth­ods to fa­cil­i­tate that. But that is eas­ier said than done. One dif­fi­culty de­vel­op­ers face is the im­plied free­dom of the mys­tery genre— bal­anc­ing the sense that a clue could be around any cor­ner with the pro­duc­tion re­al­i­ties of game de­vel­op­ment. Frog­wares’ open-world in­ves­ti­ga­tion game The Sink­ing City ap­proaches this is­sue in a pe­cu­liar way: Build­ing the neigh­bor­hoods, in­fra­struc­ture, and his­tory of the tit­u­lar city first, and en­gi­neer­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tions to play out across this deep foun­da­tion.

While the tra­di­tional start­ing point for a case is a crime scene, Frog­wares CEO, Wael Amr de­scribes the city it­self as a big crime scene. Play­ers ex­plore us­ing a process Amr calls ‘open in­ves­ti­ga­tion’. He gives the ex­am­ple of a clue in the form of a rit­ual knife. “Once you get the knife in your hand, all you get is a brief de­scrip­tion of it and it’s up to you to de­cide where you will start the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” You could keep search­ing the place you found the knife, chat to a cult leader, check the records at the po­lice sta­tion, or maybe read up on rit­u­als de­scribed in an­cient manuscripts at the li­brary. “We want the player to think where would be the most promis­ing place to search for in­for­ma­tion in real life and ap­ply this de­ci­sion to the game.”

Luis Diaz Peralta of up­com­ing open world ad­ven­ture A Place for the Un­will­ing has en­coun­tered a re­lated prob­lem: How to seed mul­ti­ple, per­haps in­ter­con­nected mys­ter­ies in an open en­vi­ron­ment where play­ers could eas­ily feel lost or frus­trated. “Good de­tec­tive games tend to have many mys­ter­ies that have dif­fer­ent rhythms. Some are re­vealed read­ing one sin­gle piece of lore, oth­ers are solved af­ter col­lect­ing lots of smaller clues,” Peralta says. “If you want to cre­ate a deep mys­tery you just need to make your clues sub­tle. ... You can also play around with how many tips you place in your game and how ex­plicit they are.” For ex­am­ple, to re­veal a CEO that is black­mail­ing em­ploy­ees you could of­fer a sin­gle de­tailed email, or per­haps it would emerge if you talk to sev­eral work­ers. “You ba­si­cally tweak your vari­ables, chang­ing how strong a clue is and how rare it is in or­der to cre­ate dif­fer­ent types of puz­zles.”

The puz­zles play­ers solve don’t have to be ex­plicit. Ac­cord­ing to Sam Bar­low, cre­ator of Her Story and the up­com­ing Telling Lies, some of the most ef­fec­tive prob­lem-solv­ing in a de­tec­tive game oc­curs in the mind of a player as they re-ex­am­ine their as­sump­tions and cor­rect mis­takes. “Of­ten we call these ‘twists’—but this re­set of your men­tal model of a story can, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, strengthen it and cre­ates en­ergy for the sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief,” says Bar­low. “In a lin­ear de­tec­tive story of­ten the cre­ator is try­ing to de­lib­er­ately en­gi­neer these in­cor­rect as­sump­tions for that ef­fect, but in a game, we can al­low it to hap­pen more or­gan­i­cally. When you cre­ate ver­sions of the story and then tear them down, re­build­ing each time, you con­struct a ver­sion of that story which feels ro­bust and which you are deeply in­vested in.”

“If you want to cre­ate a deep mys­tery you just need to make your clues sub­tle”

Fail state

One ef­fec­tive (and po­ten­tially ex­pen­sive) way to build in­vest­ment in a mys­tery is to al­low for fail­ure. Fran­cisco Gon­za­lez’ de­tec­tive ad­ven­ture, Lamp­light City, uses this to make the player feel they’re on the same page as the de­tec­tive at all times. “If he reaches con­clu­sions be­fore you do, and pulls feats of su­per­hu­man in­tel­lect while you’re still sev­eral steps be­hind, the ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t as re­ward­ing,” says Gon­za­les. Mak­ing it pos­si­ble to be bad at de­tec­tive work and have to face the con­se­quences of that is part of build­ing im­mer­sion. “If you want to show that your de­tec­tive is flawed, or hu­man, I think it’s es­sen­tial to make sure that they don’t al­ways get ev­ery­thing right, or don’t al­ways make the cor­rect de­ci­sion. ”

De­vel­op­ers have tried to con­coct com­pelling de­tec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences for decades, to in­ter­est­ing but mixed re­sults. But the most ex­cit­ing part of this mys­tery isn’t what’s gone be­fore—it’s what comes next.

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