You Should Play This Procedural Detective Game

My enjoyment of Black Closet [official site] is an easy case to crack. There are red herrings, for sure: the anime art, the brief sugestion that it might be a visual novel. But investigate beyond the screenshots and the evidence is clear: it’s a procedural detective game in which you direct a team to question, harras, stalk and detain suspects, hoping to uncover nefarious plots, and to prevent scandals before they emerge in an all-girl school for the wealthy elite. I’ve been playing the demo and I’ll explain why you should too.

The fiction needs some explaining: you’ve just been elected student council president. A teacher tells you at the start of the game that this happened essentially because you come from ‘new money’, and so you can be used as a scapegoat for any scandal that happens without that scandal affecting the rich old families that make up most of the attending pupils.

It’s your job to stop those scandals from happening, to protect the school’s reputation and your end. To that end, you use the rest of the council as your minions, sending them off to investigate rumours of potentail scandals.

For example, a case might begin with you hearing word that a student has painted something inappropriate for an approaching gallery event that will be attended by teachers and parents alike. It’s your job to discover what the painting is of.

That’s easily accomplished – your team have stats for stealth, social ability, strength, and the outcomes of the jobs you send them on is determined by those stats and a dice roll to introduce an element of chance. I send two of my stealthiest students to search the painting pupil’s room, and they spy a look at the painting – which is of a baby surrounded by pills and needles. Then I send my burliest my most socially adept and strongest students to persuade the painter to make something else, to which they duly comply.

A quick case easily solved, but if I had chosen my team members less appropriately or been less lucky with the dice, then I could have been caught searching the room or been resisted by the painter. That might have forced me to use stronger tactics, to receive a lower grade at the resolution of the case, or to fail it entirely and take a hit to both my karma and reputation. Those two resources determine your overall success or failure as president.

These cases are procedurally generated, in the sense that there are limited story elements to them – school property to be stolen, friendships that are falling apart – but the names, stats, guilty parties, objects and the order in which you receive the cases are different every time.

As far as generative games go, this is pretty simple, but it solves a great number of problems with developer Hanako’s last big game, Long Live The Queen. That game was compelling because of the wild and varied ways the story could fork as you attempted to guide a young princess towards the throne, but it was frustrating for exactly the same reason. It became a case of trial and error, as you played it for an hour, died because you hadn’t studied naval warfare, and then played again with this one new piece of knowledge folded in. Black Closet feels as narratively alive as Long Live The Queen, but the tests by which you live or die are different every time and therefore navigated by strategy rather than foreknowledge.

Part of the reason it retains its narrative strengths are that the procedural elements are paired with scripted stories involving the members of your own team. When the working week is done, you can choose on a Saturday and Sunday to invite someone for tea and optional shortbread. You do this in part because it improves their morale and makes them less likely to become stressed and skip school during the week, and in part because the potential for romance is a part of the plot, but also because, as you’re told at the start of the game, one of them is a traitor. If you don’t work out who – through conversation and monitoring who seems to fail more readily during missions – they’ll destroy you come a certain date in the school year.

The results of these systems is that, despite the narrative strangeness, Black Closet offers the fantasy of being a police chief, with tension derived from choices that matter mechanically and narratively.

The demo is generous and you can download it from the game’s site. Case closed.

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22 Comments

  1. Dareg says:

    The last link of the article is a link towards the article itself. I think that it should point towards:

    • Dareg says:

      Sorry, it seems i have got a problem. So the good link is: hanakogames.com/closet.shtml#demo

      • Llewyn says:

        Thanks, Dareg. I’m curious to try this out; despite the somewhat silly premise it sounds like an interesting prospect.

  2. caff says:

    Narrative strangeness?

    It’s bonkers. It’s totally flipping bonkers.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Clearly you didn’t go to an all-girl school for the wealthy elite…

      • caff says:

        I think maybe if I had hooked myself up to some laughing gas and then wrapped myself in sellotape, whilst snorting huge lines of crystal meth, I might have gotten into it.

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          kfix says:

          Certainly worked for me. Although I won’t touch Sellotape. Pervert.

  3. Det. Bullock says:

    In the first paragraph there is “harras” instead of “harass”.

    • Meister of Articulate Statelments says:

      and “sugestion” in the second sentence. ah, but we can forgive a few typos in a procedurally generated article, can’t we?

  4. IonTichy says:

    OK, I give up….everytime I finish a rough draft for a game, a somehow exact realization is being released :(

    • Renmazuo says:

      Realistically, there’s nothing new under the sun!

      I mean, if you want to look at Black Closet in very general terms you could say that it’s an unreliable worker placement game with investigation (if you’re looking only at the gameplay and not the setting). There are many worker placement games, but I wouldn’t say they’re all the same! Viticulture and Lords of Waterdeep work differently and I love playing them both.

      I saw a quote (that I’m going to butcher, curse my memory) about art styles which essentially said that you should attempt to copy your favourite art style and fail miserably, then rinse and repeat a fair few times and there you have it: your style! It might be that it works for gameplay as well.

      That is all to say: go for your draft anyway – you’ll find that, as you’re working, you’ll change stuff around and balance things in such a way that it will be a lot different from what you thought was a similar game. I’m saying this partly because I’ve tested a fair few boardgames that my partner made as a hobby and whenever he tells me what he was inspired by I always think “I can *kind* of see that, but this is a completely different thing, now!”
      And, apparently, the first few prototypes actually play a lot more like the inspiration than the later ones do and, after some rounds of feedback, the games always end up changing a bit more.

      I hope I get to see your game, one day!

    • jgf1123 says:

      Here’s an idea: a SimCity that’s about people instead of logistics. If you take a look at what mayors talk about, it’s people matters like job creation (tax incentives, minimum wage, education), crime (violent crime, drugs, excessive force by police), civil rights (race, LGBT, gender), gentrification, appeasing the local sports team, finding the city’s cultural niche in the state/nation, etc. Ultimately, humans find other humans more interesting than simulations of traffic and sewage.

  5. Malkara says:

    This reminds me of the classic ‘Floor 13’. Except, instead of supporting the government as a shadowy government, you’re supporting a high school? If you fail, do you get thrown out a window?

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      Mungrul says:

      Defenestrated.
      Which for the longest time, I thought meant having one’s trousers forcibly removed in public.
      I have no idea why.

      • sleepisthebrotherofdeath says:

        Window in German is Fenster. I’m guessing there is a connection somewhere in the dark murky past of languages.

  6. Lacero says:

    “So good I forgot about the sunday papers” – G Smith

    *stares*

    ;)

  7. bill says:

    I have to admit that I find the anime stylings and tropes of both this and Long Live the Queen very offputting.
    It’s hard to tell whether it is aping or parodying such anime tropes.

    Given that the developers are western and the games are supposedly designed by and for women/girls, I may just be letting my disdain for the way such anime tropes are usually designed to appeal to middle aged men influence my judgement. Icky.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Well, Shoujo and Bishounen are pretty much the quintessential made-for-girls/women animation formats, so I’d say it’s a very justified art style. Furthermore, the style is considerably different than that of made-for-adults (Seinen) anime, and primarily characterized by eyes which are massive even by anime standards, and Hanako Games’ art style is definitely Shoujo.

  8. Narol says:

    Thanks Graham, I tried the demo and loved it, getting the complete version now….

    Procedural detective investigation is a great idea, I hope it’s the start of a trend !

  9. kentonio says:

    You really should play Black Closet. It’s awesome, and I never usually play games like this.

  10. ryke says:

    It really is very good, and I must say, as someone who’s also kind of put off by the stereotypical anime aesthetic, Black Closet is much better in that regard, once you get past the all-girl school setting, which isn’t even an exclusively anime thing. And gameplay-wise, it’s more interesting than Long Live the Queen.

    Hanako Games has this thing where they make games that are kind of uncomfortably anime but end up being really good anyway so that it’s worth powering through it? This game isn’t bad in that regard but still has a couple of moments that seem like they were put in only because as a sort-of-visual-novel-but-not-really it has some mandatory tropes it just has to get out the way.