Clickuorice Allsorts: Making good detective games

Detective games are a strange genre because it’s so rare they manage to conjure up the feeling of you being a great detective. They fail for a range of reasons but my solution to the genre’s struggle has tended to be that you should play as Watson not Sherlock or Hastings not Poirot – there’s a reason the books are often from the perspective of a bystander – and yet that’s still a cop out. Mark Brown (formerly of Wired and Pocket Gamer, now of YouTube) has poked at the subject in a video* which was a good prompt to think more about the things which do work. If you like it, you can support Mark’s work via Patreon.

*Slight spoilers for Life is Strange. The Shivah and Discworld Noir.

26 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    The perfect detective game is my holy grail, and he nails my sentiments about the current state of the art pretty much to a tee. It’s good to see Phoenix Wright, Her Story, the Wadjet Eye games, and poor unfinished Detective Grimoire get their dues for handling investigative gameplay so well.

    I’d add Orwell, the Danganronpa games and Kathy Rain to his list as well. They aren’t perfect, but they each have some good ideas and refinements for future games to build on and finally hit that goal of feeling like a real detective.

    Orwell does lots of prompting, but its investigation play is excellent at “failing forward”. If you implicate the wrong person or submit faulty evidence, the story still moves forward- opening up the possibility of deliberately sabotaging your investigations to protect certain characters.

    Danganronpa is bat-shit crazy, and the “Truth Bullets” mechanic is part and parcel of that weirdness. But it’s very good at stressing the importance of character development, motivations and relationships in an investigation. While most investigation games treat their characters as case-by-case disposables, Danganronpa carries those characters through each case, and their histories and relationships build on what came before.

    Kathy Rain didn’t really do anything new, but it’s a great example of the refinement of “traditional” point and click investigation in the Wadjet Eye vein. It’s pure comfort food for detective game fans.

  2. dontnormally says:

    Is “Clickuorice Allsorts” supposed to be a play on something that I’m supposed to be aware of…?

    • Premium User Badge

      Big Dunc says:

      Yes, Liquorice Allsorts, which are sweets that have been made in the UK for over a hundred years.

      • BooleanBob says:

        I’m British but for some reason I can’t read it as anything other that ‘cuckuorice allsorts’, which definitely isn’t in this site’s wheelhouse..

        • Darloth says:

          Cockatrice Allsorts?

          They’d probably turn you to stone if you ate one, cannot recommend.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    I still see “Serrated Scalpel” as the turning point for detective games. I replayed it recently and the amount of tropes it introduces (a diary in adventure games!) is huge. Pity it was considered too “light” when it was released.

  4. beleester says:

    Other good examples I can think of:

    La-Mulana, which proves that this isn’t just restricted to detective games. In that game, you play an Indiana Jones-esque archaeologist exploring ruins. The ruins are littered with stone tablets with the answers to different puzzles, but you don’t know where in the ruins that puzzle is, and you have to actually apply that knowledge in the world (since the game is a platform adventure).

    For instance, the Mausoleum of Giants has a bunch of giant statues, and a tablet that says “There is power at the feet of Futo.” Reading more tablets will teach you which giants are which (they have poetic hints like “Abd holds up the pillars of heaven”), and when you know which statue you need to find, you put a weight on his feet, and get a powerup. The “answer to the puzzle” isn’t a question or even a particular word, it’s an action in the world that you wouldn’t have known to take. And that opens up a tremendous amount of design space, like a clue that tells you which path to take in a maze, or a clue that depends on the level layout.

    (The remake gives you a note-taking app so you can easily copy down the tablets you think are important, which is super handy.)

    Another way of inputting the solution that I really liked is Danganronpa’s “Climax Inference.” Basically, when you’re almost done with a case, and it’s time for the Sherlock Holmes “And now I shall tell you exactly how the crime was committed…” moment, the game gives you a little comic with all the panels out of order. Some panels show the setup for the murder, some show the crime itself, some show how the killer disposed of evidence, etc.

    So to solve the puzzle, you have to explain, step by step, how the crime was committed. And when you solve the puzzle, your character does exactly that, with the requisite narration and dramatic accusation. It’s very cool.

  5. GenialityOfEvil says:

    LA Noire does a decent enough job of “figuring” things out. You had an entire list of potential clues to choose from instead of a handful of ones specially selected for that question. If you get it wrong you just get it wrong, though the game then twists itself into knots to allow you to progress.
    I don’t see any way to resolve that other than procedurally generating clues to re-open avenues of inquiry after you bugger things up. At that point it’s up to the developers to decide how lenient they want to be. They can just hand you a clue or they can make you retrace your steps. Hell you could even tie that to difficulty levels since it’s procedural.

  6. beleester says:

    Forgot about one of my other favorite hobbyhorses: Covert Action.

    That game had the best system I’ve seen for simulating “hunches.” Sometimes, when you discovered a clue, it wouldn’t be a concrete clue like “The payoff is in Berlin” or “Agent X is the Organizer.” It would just be a brief glimpse of a name or organization – “Berlin” or “Red Battalion.” But that could be enough to put you on the trail – “I’ve been seeing a lot of mentions of the Red Battalion, I wonder if I should wiretap one of their buildings and see what I find?” Or you could end up thinking “Hmm, I’m positive the Mafia is involved, but everyone here keeps talking about the KGB. I think I’m in the wrong place.”

    Basically, there were places where you never got a solid clue, never got something that could put a criminal in jail, but you still managed to get a sense of where to look. It would get you a little bit closer to the truth, and maybe let you jump ahead of the plot a little. And you feel super clever when one of your hunches pays off.

  7. Vandelay says:

    I haven’t watched the video yet nor have I much to say about the idea of playing the detective in gaming (other than, to echo the sentiment that I haven’t seen it working.) I do want to give a big thumbs up to highlighting Mark Brown and Game Maker’s Toolkit though. Excellent series of videos that really shine a light on some of the thought processes that go into making games.

    Highly recommend people check out his other videos.

    • subprogram32 says:

      I can ditto this, Mark’s vids are great – including this one for sure. I would be very happy to see more highlights of other vids like this too.

      • welverin says:

        I too shall recommend his video, all quite good.

        As a Zelda fan I’ve particularly enjoyed the Boss Keys series.

  8. floogles says:

    My favourite detective games were:

    Deadly Premonition for the atmosphere

    Blade Runner because it was incredible for so many reasons

    Law and Order Legacies not as cheesy as you’d think, interesting court scenes

  9. Fachewachewa says:

    Best detective game for me was In Memoriam / Missing since january. It lacked the hypothesis part, but you really felt smart doing detective work by finding clues in videos and searching through websites

  10. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Maybe/definitely I’m a little slow, but after four editions, I still don’t understand what these “Clickuorice Allsorts” articles are all about. The only thematic or stylistic link between them is that they’re all about a paragraph long.

    Are they just supposed to be a way of drawing attention to something you guys find interesting without having to write a full-blown article? If so, isn’t that what the Sunday Papers are for?

    • welverin says:

      Someone else asked above and got a response.

      • subprogram32 says:

        That was just about the name though. :P

        • Cederic says:

          All sorts of things to click on. As well as the tacky pun.

          That reminds me, I have a 400g bag of liquorice allsorts downstairs. brb.

  11. kameradoktorn says:

    Read until I reached the part about about watson and thought: didn´t rps link to an article exactly the same as this one a few weeks ago, only written by someone else?? The idea of being a bystander, hitman being great because of it? Cant remember, too drunk. Should probably read more before commenting. Note to self. Blah!

  12. Velthaertirden says:

    Deja Vu is the best detective game there is.

  13. West44 says:

    Mark Brown makes such great videos.

  14. Catchcart says:

    I think Else Heart.Break() nailed detective gaming.

    You’re not pointed/pushed/checkmarked towards solving the mystery. You’re left to your own devices to figure weird stuff happening out. It feels very noir.

    You’ve got clever tools at your disposal to help you in your quest. You’re working out how to use those tools yourself. This makes you feel clever when you progress. Just like a real fictional clever clogs detective.

    Most detective games just make me feel lucky-clever becuase I happened to click the ‘right’ option. Or frustrated with the game because it tricked me into clicking the ‘wrong’ one.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    I really wanted LA Noire to be more like Phoenix Wright, where you can experiment a bit and try different approaches without instantly failing. The investigations in Noire worked well enough, letting you explore and find evidence, but the interrogations, while impressive at the time, were way too linear. There was basically a single correct thing to say to get the information you wanted. In a better detective game you would be able to try different angles if one does not get a response, or even come back later with new questions if the witness or suspect is not yet willing to talk… this would also be a much better application of detailed dynamic facial expression… if you could actually tell how you were doing in a conversation (and adjust accordingly) based on the faces the character is making. Like there would be more than one step before a witness clams up and refuses to talk further and you could see it coming if you pay attention to their body language and back off…

    So much potential going unexplored there.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      Recent Have-You-Played entry Laura Bow – The Dagger of Amon Ra should probably also have gotten a mention. It has you detectiving around New York and an old museum as people are getting offed around you. You use your notebook for dialogue options and in the finale the game doesn’t actually reveal who the murderer(s) are or why they did it and tests you on how well you figured it out by asking you a bunch of questions. I totally cheated and used a hintbook when I played this but it was a neat mechanic.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      I once tried to make a game that attempted some similar mechanics to a detective game but it was about the deciphering of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs:

      link to ninjadodo.itch.io

  16. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I watched this video the other day and thought “I bet you Pip would be interested in this.”

    VALIDATION!