choice design · Detectives · Narrative Design

Choose Your Own Mystery: Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?

The growing interest in choice-based stories in games and television, as well as my own interest in the perennial popularity of mystery and detective stories led me to finally read Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? (1981) by Edward Packard, an early title (#9) on the original Choose Your Own Adventure books.

How do you make a choice-based whodunit interesting? One of the things that keeps us reading or watching a whodunit is that, after the crime is discovered at the beginning, the reader / audience is given snippets of information, which they try to piece together to be able to anticipate the solution to the crime before they reach the end of the story. Reportedly, this is what led Agatha Christie to write her first mystery novels, challenged by her sister to write a story that the readers could solve before reading the solution. But how does giving the reader choices change the challenge? (Partial spoilers ensue.)

Turns out that Packard was actually pretty smart when writing his book. The mystery itself is a paint-by-numbers mystery (millionaire gets poisoned in countryside house, and all the suspects are people who could benefit from his death), and the reader can choose different places to go to, different people to talk to, or different stories to pursue, as the blurb of the book describes. More interestingly, at a certain point the reader can actually give up on the investigation, thus forfeiting the chance to learn the solution to the case.

My battered second-hand copy of Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?

And that’s what makes the book compelling–a whodunit in the end tells the reader / audience what the solution to the mystery is, which can be satisfying even if one did not get anywhere near figuring out the solution. But here the reader has to pursue the solution, and in order to get all the details of how the murder happened has to actually re-read and choose different paths in order to get all the information that they’d traditionally get by just continuing to read or watch. At a certain point, the reader is told “if you’re sure you’ve solved the murder, go to page 122”, which would seem to be a shortcut for them to learn the solution even if they don’t really know it. But it is really a red-herring – the paragraph just tells them that they’re calling the police inspector Prufrock and say they have the solution, without providing any additional information or solving the case. The reader must actively pursue all the pieces of information.

For my first read-through, I figured out who one of the culprits was (there’s actually more than one) and then the protagonist was immediately killed, which was not very satisfying as a reader, but it was a very clear message telling me to try again. And this is one of the achievements of the book – it does encourage re-reading in ways that choice-based games don’t often encourage – the recent Overboard being an exception – at times because of their length, at times because there is not a sense that what the player may be missing is that interesting at all.

The book also manages to make some of the choices very dramatic – one of the early choices involves joining the victim to the dinner where he will be killed. This allows the reader to witness part of the events directly, including hearing Harlowe Thrombey’s last words. In one of the branches, one of the culprits misrepresents those last words, which makes the reader realize they are lying – but the reader has no agency to act upon that information, it is a revelation for us instead of the detective protagonist. One of the options leads the protagonist to say he has a recording of Thrombey’s last words, which feels wrong if the reader has actually read the passage with Thrombey dying on the protagonist’s arms. This is also not a choice – the protagonist does it for us. But it leads to a satisfying ending – the culprits reveal themselves and get arrested, while the reader learns that the recording was a bluff. While the reader does not have agency in this resolution, the gap between the reader and the protagonist gives way to a compelling dramatic moment.

The book thrives on this gap – while the protagonist keeps trying to solve the case in each potential branch, the thrill for the reader is to collect and contrast the information with every read-through, carrying out an investigation of sorts while exploring the different choices in the story. The detective work takes place at the meta-level, outside of the story, which turns what is otherwise a trite murder mystery low on characterization into and interesting and charming read. The book creates a loop for the reader, in consonance with the fashionable mysteries on a loop that we have seen in traditional fiction as well as games, but in a work written almost four decades ago.

Adventure Games · Detectives

Ace Attorney: The Perry Mason of Videogames

After 6 years of waiting, the Great Ace Attorney games finally get a release outside of Japan, to the delight of fans and many narrative designers who don’t speak Japanese (and are also fans). The release will mark the 20th anniversary of the Ace Attorney series, which has spanned 13 games, a bunch of novelizations and manga adaptations, an animated TV show, a movie version directed by Takashi Miike, and three musicals by the Takarazuka Revue. The popularity and longevity of the series around the globe is undeniable, and the release of the Great Ace Attorney games, set in 19th century japan, was long overdue.

Poster for Gyakuten Saiban: The Truth Reborn, the first adaptation of the Ace Attorney series to a musical. Source: Ace Attorney Wiki

The formula of the Ace Attorney series is the following: the player plays the role of the attorney, who has to defend someone who appears to be guilty of a crime. At first glance, the circumstances and evidence all seem to demonstrate that we’re defending a lost cause, although our defendant says they’re innocent. Our goal is to turn around the story–the “turnabout” is the core motif of all the Ace Attorney games. It’s up to the player to find the evidence that will exonerate our client–and here’s where the game proves to be a really a detective game. Our lawyer, alongside their assistants, visits the crime scene, finds pieces of evidence that go into the case report, cross-questions people, and when they have found all the information they need, then they go to court. The game will not let players progress until they have found all the materials that will help them make the case in the courtroom.

The courtroom is where the player must fight for justice, though this courtroom is very peculiar–we only have three days to solve our case, while all the arguments that our lawyer can make are based on depositions from witnesses rather than appealing to specific laws. Apparently, one doesn’t really need to go to law school to be a lawyer in these games. Witnesses tell their stories, and we have to find the contradictions and the lies by pressing them on specific statements, or offering evidence that proves that their statement is not correct. The courtroom scenes are a fight for truth and justice, almost literally. When the interrogations get heated, the music speeds up and pumps up, just as it does in the fighting games by the same publisher, Capcom. The sound effect whenever the player raises an objection or marks a contradiction, with a loud “Hold it!” or “Objection!”, has become as iconic of “hadouken!” in the Street Fighter series, also developed and published by Capcom. (It’s no surprise that Phoenix Wright appears in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (2011) as a playable character.)

The Ace Attorney games are not really about being a lawyer, but being a good detective. None of the lawyers who are protagonists or the prosecutors that they face doesn’t need to know the code of law, but has to be able to rewrite the story by finding the lies or inaccuracies and provide the evidence that will set it right. This is what a detective does – a detective gathers evidence and information in order to solve a mystery, figure out how a crime has happened, which is what the attorneys in these games do to begin with. The goal of the detective is to be able to reconstruct the story of the crime by looking for fingerprints, broken glass, traces of blood, and a variety of depositions. In mystery novels, how the crime has happened is often baffling – for example, there is a whole subgenre of detective stories where a murder happens within a locked room. The Ace Attorney series starts with a crime where the explanation seems evident, and so the story that the lawyer-detective has to tell has explain the crime in a way that will exonerate their client.

The model that the Ace Attorney games are followed actually comes from a long tradition of detective stories, particularly the Perry Mason series. The character was originated in a series of novels, which are the third best-selling book series in the world, but he rose to worldwide popularity thanks to the 1950s-60s TV show with Raymond Burr. The formula for each episode may sound familiar to the Ace Attorney fans: at the beginning, the audience is introduced to a potential victim, and the people who surround them, including someone who has very clear motivations to kill them. Then the potential victim becomes the actual victim of a murder, and all points to the most obvious subject, who immediately becomes the client of Perry Mason. The second half of the episode consist of courtroom scenes, where things look really bad for the client as the district attorney presents evidence that first allows the judge to send the case to trial. With the help of his trustworthy assistants, PI Paul Drake and secretary Della Street, Mason gathers evidence that demonstrates unethical and even criminal behaviors on the part of other characters and at times even law enforcers. In the end, it’s one of these pieces of evidence that makes the actual culprit break down at the stand, and confess the crime. Thus the client is found not guilty, something that is celebrated by the client and the team, who do a short debriefing after the trial.

Opening credits of Perry Mason (1957).
Source: Wikipedia

If you’ve played any of the Ace Attorney games, this formula will feel terribly familiar, because it’s exactly the same as the structure of a typical case in the games. Continuing with the parallelisms, in the original TV adaptation (there have been others) there is only one instance in which the client is actually guilty, as is the case (to my knowledge) with Ace Attorney, which also gave way to one of my favorite moments in the whole series.

There have been previous game adaptations of Perry Mason, all inspired on the Raymond Burr adaptations. The first one was a board game tie-in with the original TV show from 1957, where players are driving around to gather evidence, interrogate suspects and be the first to bring the evidence to court. A second board game from 1987, probably a tie-in with the TV movies that Burr starred in at the time, focuses on the court case, where players have to cross question witnesses and obtain the answers that will allow players to find the culprit. Both games come with a variety of cases that can be replayed, and use detection as one of their core mechanics, a common feature in many detective board games.

There is also a videogame also directly inspired by the 1950s TV show, Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder, which reproduces beat by beat the structure of one of the TV episodes. It is a graphical text adventure where the player controls Mason, who meets the victim and the prime suspect, then examines the crime scene, and then sends his assistants for different information while the court case is going on. Again, a formula that will be very familiar to the players of the Ace Attorney games. You can play the DOS version here, although if you speak Spanish and have access to an MSX emulator, the MSX2 version of the game used scanned photos from the original show.

This is all to point out that, even though the game series has “attorney” in the title, the Ace Attorney games are really detective games, not only because the player does a lot of detective work to gather evidence for the case file, including fingerprinting and examining objects in detail, but also because the texts that inspired the games were also detective fiction to begin with.

Detectives · Reviews · Thoughts

Mysteries Stuck in a Loop

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is the latest example of how time-loops and detective stories are a compelling combination–I hope it becomes one of those “must read” novels for game designers and interactive storytellers soon. Evelyn Hardcastle brings together Agatha Christie and Groundhog Day drizzled with a bit of David Lynch. The protagonist of the novel relives the day a murder takes place in an English manor. He controls one person at a time, and the only way to break the loop is to solve the mystery; to do that, he has 8 days / lives to find the solution. If it sounds like a game, it’s because it is a wickedly complicated story puzzle, delightfully put together.

Coming from narrative games, I particularly enjoyed how the protagonist notices the friction with his hosts–what he wants to do may be at odds with their impulses, while the intelligence or insight of the person he’s controlling allows him to notice certain details or have specific realizations. This is not dissimilar to how the stats of a character in a role-playing game can determine what we can do and what we cannot. Although the author does not list videogames as one of the inspirations for the game (he mentions the TV show Quantum Leap in the Q&A at the end of the book), the storytelling takes advantage literacies that games and complex TV shows foster these days. Audiences can follow stories with multiple points of view, gaps that are steadily filled out (or not), so that as they read / watch / play they’re assembling the story puzzle.

A protagonist stuck in the same sequence of events until they get something right is a story structure recreates how we navigate digital storytelling, where the interactor explores the possibilities of a story until we get the “right” version, as Janet Murray breaks down in her analyses of Groundhog Day or Run Lola Run. The pervasiveness of videogames, which often involve trial and error, has turned this structure into a commonplace in other media. The manga All You Need is Kill, adapted to film as Edge of Tomorrow, both thrive on the tropes of combat videogames, so the journey of the main character depends on him remembering his mistakes and learning from them for the next loop, just like a videogame player would. The structure of the time loop has also been long embraced by videogames, starting with The Last Express (1997) and The Legend of Zelda: Marjora’s Mask (2000), neither of which have got the attention and recognition they deserve. Now there’s a whole slew of games recently released or coming up in the next few months: The Sexy Brutale (2017), Elsinore (2019), Outer Wilds (forthcoming), 12 Minutes (forthcoming). The metalevel of the knowledge of the player now becomes part of the game mechanics. And let’s not forget interactive fiction, where there’s already a sizable collection of examples in the last 20 years.

What interests me of the time loop as a narrative / game structure is how combines with mystery, which is what initially drove me to read Evelyn Hardcastle. In a mystery narrative, the initial goal of the detective is to reconstruct the story of the crime. One of the challenges to design a mystery videogame is figuring out how to let the computer evaluates whether the player got the solution right or not–something that is easier to do in non-digital games. Questionnaires are a common device, while letting the player fail can also be a productive approach–maybe players want to replay the game until they get it right, making the loop something that takes place at a meta-level, in the time and space of the player.

Time loop mysteries make the trial-and-error part and parcel of the world of the story / game. Thanks to Groundhog Day, many storytellers and game designers do not see the need to explain why that loop is happening–Evelyn Hardcastle does, in what seems to be a seed to tell further stories with a similar structure (I hope!). The time loop mystery structure is alluring because each loop allows the player / audience to get more information about what happened, and then use that information to solve the mystery or change the events. Some events take place simultaneously, so they require making choices and revisiting the story over and over in order to reveal each piece of the puzzle–where and when people are at each moment. While traditional media have used the loop as a way to structure the story and keep the audience intrigued until the end, the game player needs to actually solve the puzzle and use as many time loops as necessary to get to the end.

Bonus: If you’re into time loop mysteries and science fiction, you may want to listen to the Doctor Who audio story The Chimes of Midnight.

Detectives · Papers · Resources

Game Narrative Through the Detective Lens

At this year’s DiGRA conference, I gave an overview of my work of the last few years on detective stories and games.

Here’s the abstract:

The paper examines detective games as a corpus to understand the relationship between gameplay and storytelling in games. Detective fiction is a narrative genre that is already playful by teasing the reader to figure out the solution to the mystery before they get to the end. By exploring the narrative nature of detective games, how detective stories have been turned into games (digital and non-digital), and how genre expectations and conventions shape gameplay, we can gain a better understanding of the integration between gameplay and narrative. Contradictory as it may sound, this paper uses inductive methods to infer general approaches to game narrative by concentrating on a specific corpus of stories and games. It is not within the scope of this paper to cover all aspects of game narrative, nor go into all the implications deriving from the comparison. Rather, this paper will be limited exploring two key aspects to demonstrate the kinds of insight that we can gain through this method.

The slides of the presentation, including references to my sources and my own work, are here: DiGRA 2018 – Game Narrative through the Detective Lens