Pause with me for a moment, if you will, to ponder on a question: why is the murder mystery such a rare and poorly delivered genre in gaming?
Murder mystery/crime procedurals are a mainstay of television and books. Libraries and bookshops have entire sections devoted to the solving of homicides, somehow putting this incredibly specific branch of fiction on the same level as entire sweeping genres. Heck, even science fiction and horror get confusingly put in the same place, while working out who it was that done it has shelf upon shelf all to itself.
Then look at your TV listings! The biggest shows are always about the untangling of many a murky killing, from the international success stories like The Killing and Luther, to daft murder-of-the-week offerings like NCIS, CSI, Castle and Elementary. Never mind the gleeful fun of iZombie, in which a psychic zombie helps a cop solve crimes. Or the recently started Lucifer, where Satan himself gets bored of hell, comes to Earth, and – yes – helps a cop solve crimes. (The last two are based on comic books, of course.)
But in gaming, the murder mystery seems to be entirely confined to very occasional, usually very dreadful point and click adventure games. As a narrative device, it’s all but absent from our gaming lives, and I find that confusing.
It is true that Rockstar attempted to address this with LA Noire, a game that received astonishingly positive reviews despite being absolutely bloody awful. (A game seemingly developed in an alternative universe where adventure games hadn’t ironed out every ridiculous mistake during the 90s, so they could all be made again.) But after that, what have you got? Instead of solving murders, mainstream gaming seems to obsess on the “Hero’s Journey”, and ignores pretty much every other narrative possibility.
Her Story came close, in some ways. It certainly pushed open a very interesting door, through which I wish so many would follow. Last year’s other noticed FMV release, the poor Contradiction, took a swing at it but missed. Um, 2013’s The Raven was almost a good Poirot-esque murder mystery, that then fell spectacularly apart in its second and third parts. Oh, and those god-awful Sherlock Holmes games. It’s not exactly a section at Waterstones, is it?
And yet what a perfect structure the whodunnit is in which to set a story, and most especially, one with a satisfying ending. This doesn’t need to be a point-n-click – it could be anything, from FPS to space sim. You just need to have a dead body at the start, a bunch of suspects along the way, and eventually a path of clues that leads you to a successfully solved crime. Whether you get from one to the next by stealthily chopping the heads off armed guards, or negotiating trades with alien races, really doesn’t matter.
Perhaps the fear is “linearity”. Not the fear of being linear, since the vast majority of games are, but the fear of emphasising it. If there’s just one right answer to your arching mystery, then it’s made clear to the player that you’re inevitably heading that way, and progress is defined by correctly finding the intended path. It’s presumably far harder to give the impression of possibility. And yet that’s just an interesting obstacle to overcome, the sort of challenge that should drive a development team to think, think bigger, be more imaginative. (And no, the answer is absolutely not to let there be different possible murderers, because that means you’ve written a pile of plops.)
There’s a reason so many people are transfixed by the genre, why it dominates shelves and schedules – it’s because it’s gripping, confusing, involving, and ultimately, satisfying. You go from not knowing to knowing, and at some point along that journey, you solve it. Gosh, that’s a rewarding moment, and a moment gaming could allow to flourish.
So why not? What is it about the genre that doesn’t translate? Why is it so rare in our field? You tell me.