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Playing Detective: How Mystery Games Crafted An Industry

/ May 23rd, 2013 No Comments

Watch_Dogs sees a new era of the Detective game.

Watch_Dogs sees a new era of the Detective game.

In the world of games there are many careers. Among the soldiers, sages and super heroes, which players commonly personify with, another occupation continues to hold the employment and attention of gamers. Since the earliest PC games, players played as a detective. From early ground working entries such as the 1982 command based Snooper Trooper titles from Spinnaker and the 1983 BBC computer game Granny’s Garden (which was commonly used in schools across the UK as a teaching tool) to the 1987 multi-platform Police Quest series from Sierra games. Console wise, the detective genre was having a more significant impact in Japan during this time. Early system based efforts such as the Famicom Detective Club games and the Kyotaro Nishimura mystery novel games of the late eighties were striking a chord.

Towa Chiki produced a string of Sherlock Holmes games  in the mid-eighties for the Famicom, but adaptations of detective stories form other popular media are just a small part of detective games as a creative genre. What is really significant is the sheer amount of original creative detective works that are unique to games. There are so many games that some glaring omissions are bound to happen while examining the direction the genre has taken and what is next for mystery titles. This is due to there simply being too many to cover fairly, which is further proof that detective games are a significant part of gaming today. They may even be the most important.

Cinematic Dramatics

[adsense250itp]There has been a constant evolution of the detective genre. It has been a linchpin for the industry and continues to change. When Lucasarts took their point-and-click games through the 90s from Sam and Max right through to Grim Fandango, they had progressively installed more cinematic approaches to their investigative games. It makes sense, after all this is the studio created by and named after the man that gave the world Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Nowadays, many games with a detective theme at its core will use what works in films to act as a device in the game. Not only do the script and characters need to be compelling but also the finer points; cinematography, lighting, scenery, music and many other elements are needed to involve the player. In the look of recent games that use the detective theme, traditional filmic fare like L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain (and its precursor Fahrenheit [indigo Prophecy in North America]), gamers are taken to the movies. Probably the most ambitious advances within the mystery medium in games have been made in a genre, which still remains cultish in cinema and literature – horror.

Investigating Horror

DeadlyPremonScreenHorror lends itself well to games, particularly within a detective mystery format, as it adds a level of jeopardy that wills the player to continue with their investigations. If the player can die then there is more of a vested impetus to crack the case. SNES era platformer Clock Tower had set requirements for the player to meet in order to reach certain endings and had cinematically referenced Dario Argentino much in the same way that Resident Evil would reference George A. Romero years later. The early Resident Evil games perfected this notion of clue collecting and mystery uncovering coupled with gun play and fear. Giving the industry such a shot to the arm that they helped pave the way for Silent HillAlan Wake and a significant number of revolutionary entries in this field.

Cult DS mystery ‘The game with no name’ (Nanashi no Game) had a realistic first-person perspective laced with a haunted 8-bit RPG throughout, a stylistic reference to both the Ring (Ringu) and the Grudge (Ju-on) film series. A concept that Tecmo Koei would take a step further in Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir for 3DS which would introduce 3D and Camera elements. Rather than relying solely on horror, more pulp and cult mysteries like oddball slasher Deadly Premonition have developed their own following due to their more unique and polarizing aspects. Such ambitious mystery games that went against the grain of the industry such as Hideo Kojima’s neon noir Snatcher and Suda 51’s Flower, Sun and Rain would lead to their respective auteurs gaining celebrated notoriety within the industry with later games.

A Novel Approach

Hotel Dusk appealed to a new type of gamer.

Hotel Dusk appealed to a new type of gamer.

While films have had a huge effect on detective games, mystery titles need to be clear to follow for the player, which is likely why so many have been created within a heavily text based format, just as the original mysteries were in novels. Handhelds are the mystery books of the games world. International hit properties like Professor Layton, Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney and to a lesser extent Shu Takumi’s spiritual (in more than one way) off shoot Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective all combined puzzle elements with story based narrative. Mystery games have also been used to attract new consumers to gaming. In 2009 Nintendo showcased Women’s Murder Club: Games of Passion amongst its E3 DS lineup in a conscious bid to attract an older female audience to its system, which was considered mainly for a younger audience.

Another drive into the broader market came in the shape of Hotel Dusk. Hotel Dusk Room 275 was billed as a ‘mystery novel for DS’ in ads, promotions and on the game’s website. The intention was clear; if you read mystery novels you’ll like this game. It was a solid introduction to mystery fans that may have been computer game skeptics and it worked. The title spawned the sequels Another Code: Two Memories (Trace Memory in North America) and Another Code: R – A Journey into Lost Memories on Wii.

As recently as this week gamers will see another entry to this format in the vein of Guild02 eShop game The Starship Damrey. This is the follow up to 1994 SNES mystery; The Night of the Sickle Weasel, which was written and co-developed by Kazuya Asano and famed mystery writer Takemaru Abiko. If you want to create a game that feels like a mystery novel, who better to hire than a mystery writer.

Case Findings

Remember Me involves the player manipulating events, just as Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective did.

Remember Me involves the player manipulating events, just as Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective did.

After all these years and differing play styles, it is rather hard and unfair to pin-point a single aspect that has always been at the heart of the appeal of these ‘detective’ games. Rather, the reason mystery games work so well is due to a number of very different and constantly evolving aspects.

Commonly detective games address a sense of curiosity, accomplishment and a worthwhile conclusion while delivering an effective dramatic narrative. On a psychological level, they play to the inherent and instinctive nature of human curiosity. In short, the attraction is already installed within us. Uncovering discoveries also presents a number of rewards which keep the player motivated while ultimately exposing the overall mystery is in turn its own reward.

Finding clues or discovering new information is an equivalent to getting any difficultly obtained amour, weapon or star coin/chaos emerald. The challenge of striving towards these ‘level ups’ pushes the player along the game. The final verdict or conclusion stands in place of a final boss, and has little difference in game scripting structure or the traditional culture of game design to most action/adventure/puzzle/fighting games.

Just as literature crafted into the common psyche the immortal characters of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, so too did Television take its own turn in showcasing every sleuth from Columbo, Quincy, Murder She Wrote, Magnum P.I. to C.S.I and Dr House. Comics too have given the world Batman, Dick Tracy, Rorschach and TinTin, with many more besides. Cinema is too rich in detective films to do due justice to in this feature, but undoubtedly games still feel the significant cultural effect of the Film Noir era of the 40s when screen legends like Humphrey Bogart rooted the viewers perspective firmly in the detective’s raincoat and shoes. Games are no different. Alan Wake, Detective Cole Phelps, Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright are the detectives of this age and of this medium and there will be many more characters to guide gamers through future mysteries.

All this adds up to the future of detective games. Watch_Dogs and Remember Me present a challenging new array of detection methods for the technological near future. As these games and others of their ilk enter the market the industry will continue to evolve how players play detective. The future is bright ironically.

Olly Jones
Olly Jones is a contributor to the editorial team at Gaming Illustrated. As an artist, Olly has created artwork to publicize games for Capcom, Ubisoft, Arc System Works and Grasshopper Manufacture.
Olly Jones

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