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You Should Play This Procedural Detective Game

Her And Her And Her Story

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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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Graham Smith

Editor-in-chief

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