Once, Twice, Three Times a Detective

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar of Gamasutra writes about non-linear adventure games:

As I was on vacation, I picked up my sister’s copy of Sherlock Holmes stories, and quickly I got caught up in the really really beautifully narrated and well thought-out plots. As I had my phase of obsessively playing the classic LucasArts adventure games, the very first Holmes story “A Study in Scarlet” led me to think about the adventure game genre.

In “A Study in Scarlet”, Sherlock Holmes is first introduced to the reader by the narrator and companion Dr. Watson. It is through his eyes that we perceive the story and Holmes’ actions, not counting in the second part that explains some of the necessary background of the plot.

It’s almost always the question of “What did the game designer want me to understand so that I can find the trigger to advance the narrative?”. It’s trigger that sometimes puts me off, because in a badly designed game, it can end up in senseless actions being asked of the player and therefore he/she gets stuck for no valid reason. With good puzzle design, this can be minimized, but still, it all puts the player’s range of action into an uncomfortable corset.

This design paradigm consists of the basic idea that the player should be able to solve a problem by using their own brain power instead of hunting for triggers. Triggers are a more primitive way of the designer forcing the player to think, sadly resulting in use-everything-with-everything orgies if badly done.

A non-linear approach allows the player to make mistakes and encourages the player to make their own conclusions and gives them the power to execute on them. Of course a autonomous world to do that in is awesome already by itself and it should allow for pretty new motivation to replay an actually linear plot line if it was not for the player :D.

Of course, as a gamer I’ve run many detective games. These range from the high thrill, high horror, low schlock games like SLA Industries to the low key, psychic conspiracy thrillers like The 23rd Letter.

In the 80s, I remember playing Consulting Detective with the older kids and thoroughly enjoyed the level of detail, the requirement for immersion and visualisation and the reliance on observation and deduction. But it was not a popular game because to the average teenager, the game was hard. We were smart kids (most of us anyway), and yet we seemed more stupid in a group. Smart as we were, we were no Sherlock Holmes.

It is my belief that when running a detective game, you have to remember that the players are often less than the sum of their parts (due to confusion, interrupted narrative, last night’s football results and the imminent arrival of spicy food and naan bread).

This means that even smart individuals may miss important clues, may not see the allusions and the inferences in the newspaper clippings, fag ends and hastily scrawled dying notes which litter the genre. We all have day jobs and families and we’re not the super-obsessive compulsive consulting detective that the game might assume so the designer has to take the step of telling us once, telling us twice and telling us a third time to make sure we get the clue. We might misremember small facts, forget to keep copious notes (which, in my opinion, spoils the enjoyment of the game) or simply we may not be wired to think that way. Kevin Beimers of Straandlooper spoke about this aspect of game design at an event we held at Belfast Metropolitan College earlier this year. Clues need to be logical and discoverable.

There is also the problem when this translates into a video game that the game will often, by necessity, highlight items which are important. Games like Myst and Hector: Badge of Carnage thankfully escape much of this but it can be maddening to be tapping around trying to figure out exactly how to get something to work as a fan belt.

But we enjoy the discovery, even as it frustrates and confounds us. I’ve had almost as much fun watching someone play an engaging game as I have had playing it. So, why are there so few multiplayer detective games?

Are there any?

About matt

Gamer. Writer. Dad. Serial Ex-husband. Creator of The 23rd Letter, SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis XDO, ZOMBI, Testament, Creed. Slightly megalomaniac
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