I’ve bullied point and click adventure games in this space a few times and partly that’s because I think they’re a bit primitive, design-wise, a bit underevolved
I’ve bullied point and click adventure games in this space a few times and partly that’s because I think they’re a bit primitive, design-wise, a bit underevolved.
Picking up stuff and sticking them in stuff.
But I acknowledge them as an important part of the DNA of more advanced game design, the same way I can appreciate that mankind evolved from apes without wanting to meet one in a zoo and try to get a conversation going.
If one were inclined to map out a family tree for
video game genres, point and click adventure
would be pretty high up and have a bunch of lines
linking to action-adventure, survival horror,
walking sim, basically anything with dialog
and there’d also be a link to one specific
offshoot that I’m particularly fond of, and
that’s detective games.
There are any number of wildly different games
that one could argue are detective games, from
Tex Murphy to LA Noire to Jack the Ripper on the
Commodore 64, but the way I define them is that
they’re a lot like classic adventure games except
instead of hunting around for inventory items to
combine until you can unlock the door that leads
out of the escape room, you instead hunt around
for pieces of information that you combine to
help deduce a sequence of events.
In order to unlock the door of your own
It’s like inventory puzzles but the items are
facts and the inventory is your big clever brain.
This is usually applied in gameplay in the form
of some kind of quiz.
Maybe there’ll be a little form where you have to
put the correct answers in or you have to pick
the correct answer from a few dialogue options.
And when I put it like that it sounds a bit lame,
doesn’t it, like a school comprehension test, but
it can be done well and it can be done very
Done well, it’s that rare thing in games: an
actual test of logic and reasoning skills and I
relish the feeling of cleverness that comes from
Done poorly, it’s just another kind of game that
lets you mindlessly brute force through it like a
roomful of space monsters with guns.
So, what’s a good detective game RETURN OF THE
OBRA DINN oh thank god.
I’d gone almost two hours without praising Return
of the Obra Dinn, I doubt I could have held it in
Lucas Pope’s wonderful maritime mystery where the
central gameplay task is to fill out an insurance form.
But I love that about it, I love that it
frontloads the mechanics of the puzzle and pieces
out the story in little nuggets for you to
mentally piece together in the background.
It illustrates that detective games are really
good for storytelling because their function
basically demands that the player pay attention
to every slightest detail.
So the story can be absorbing in spite of being
told through single moments playing out without
context in random order.
It’s the simplicity I admire.
It tells you just enough to let you fill in the
rest of the blanks.
Which is in stark contrast to what I’m about to
cite as a bad example of a detective game: LA
Noire, just about the only example of a detective
game in the modern era of the triple A space.
LA Noire had the typical triple A problem in that
it’s main objective was to be spectacular and
make sure the player saw the spectacular bits.
So its cases focused on cinematic moments and
players were somewhat handheld through the
In the crime scenes the main character would walk
straight past fifty cigarette butts to zero in on
the one relevant one.
The focus was more on interrogating characters
and picking on them if they looked like they were
lying, and the problem with that was they always
did, because they were acting.
So in fact you were going on how badly they were
acting at any given moment.
And even if you did fuck up all the
interrogations, the game would find a way to
railroad you to a climax anyway, ‘cos it’d be a
shame if you missed something they’d worked so hard on.
In the end LA Noire’s cases didn’t make me feel
clever because success seemed to hinge more on
correctly guessing when to believe and when to
doubt rather than how well you’d interpreted the facts.
See, the key to making a detective game fun to
puzzle out is that you have to give the player as
many opportunities as possible to be wrong.
If you steer them through finding the clues and
give away the answer anyway then they can never be wrong.
If you give them three dialog options to pick
from then it’s pretty easily brute forced.
Meanwhile, Obra Dinn has you fill in multiple
blanks that all have multiple possible entries,
and there could be hundreds if not thousands of
And you can’t brute force that, your only
recourse is to actually be smart enough to figure it out.
If detective games have a weakness, it’s
Or complete lack of same.
The full impact of the “aha” moment of deducing
the truth behind a mystery or logic puzzle
absolutely cannot be had more than once if the
answer never changes.
You could try replaying it after you’ve waited
long enough to forget everything, helping the
process along with alcohol and head injuries.
Or get someone else to play it for the first time
and try to vicariously live through them.
Giving cheeky hints every time they look stuck.
But there is another way to make detective games
replayable that I’ve observed in more than one
game in recent years.
I’ve observed it in two games.
Which you’ll grant me is more than one.
It’s something I’ve decided to call “the choices
matter detective game.”
How it works is, there’s a mystery, there’s
multiple possible solutions and the game just…
never tells you which one’s correct.
This happens in Pentiment, Obsidian’s medieval
multiple murder mystery where there are several
suspects, any of whom COULD have done it, and
you’re never told which, if any of them, was the
Similar thing happens in Sherlock Holmes: Chapter
One by Frogwares.
Every case has two possible interpretations of
the facts, you pick one, and the game goes “Hm,
that certainly is A plausible explanation.
Welp, see you later.”
Honestly I don’t know how to feel about this.
On the one hand, yes, the reason why games like
Obra Dinn aren’t very replayable is because at
the end the case is closed and you can stop
thinking about it, and if the game doesn’t close
the case properly then theoretically you can keep
thinking about it.
You can agonize over whether or not you made the
right decision and it’s very much in line with my
philosophy that interactive narrative helps us
explore new, hitherto unknown ways of appreciating story.
Does a murder mystery have to end with the
mystery being answered?
That’s a perfectly valid question to ask in this
brave new world.
But then again, “yes it bloody well does” is also
a perfectly valid answer to that question.
Without the reveal at the end how am I going to
feel clever for figuring it out?
Which is, as established earlier, the whole
reason I like playing detective games.
Sure, maybe I shouldn’t have made assumptions.
Pentiment isn’t really setting out to be a
detective puzzle game, it’s more an exploration
of setting and characters, but then again, again,
can I really be blamed for going into a game
centrally about a murder investigation, with the
expectation that I will get to solve a murder investigation?
So the problem of making repeating gameplay that
can continually create the “aha” moment of
solving a mystery, remains.
Could one procedurally generate a detective
I attempted something like that in my Lovecrafty
roguelike game, The Consuming Shadow, which I
increasingly feel I should remake at some point
with less dogshit graphics, in which you had to
deduce the identity of a Lovecraftian god by
collecting clues from dungeons, but that was less
about clever thinking as it was about eliminating
possibilities until only one remained, like those
logic puzzles that go “Mary, Bob, Steve and Alice
are standing in a line, if Mary is on one of the
ends and Bob is not standing next to a woman, how
old is Alice’s cat?”
Not really the same thing.
I suppose the only recourse left is to just hope
they bring out another one.
I mean, you watch an episode of Jonathan Creek
and it’s not so bad that the mystery’s been
solved now because you could always watch another
episode of Jonathan Creek you haven’t seen yet.
Kicking the can down the road, perhaps, but you
know what, if Lucas Pope put out a new game every
year that had the exact same puzzle structure as
Obra Dinn but a different story and setting
and mystery – I’d definitely subscribe
to that service.
I mean, the New York Times gets away with putting
out a new crossword every day without mixing up
the gameplay mechanics.
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