Within the various medium wars game developers seem to wage with other forms of expression, writing and narrative are the most bitter of enemies. Even if we’re past arguments about whether narrative and play can even be in the same room, writing is by far less integrated into design processes than visuals and even audio. Writing workshops for games are often trying to apply fiction skills in spite of the commercial game making process instead of being a natural extension of creating the experience. Gamemakers begrudgingly acknowledge narrative is at work but cordon it off as if it is a disease, while the writing styles of popular sci-fi and fantasy bludgeon themselves in because of genre convention rather than actually being useful. As long as game design and narrative are seen as completely different tools, we will continue witnessing games at conflict with themselves, and even at the most conservative imagining, rarely have what we would call good writing.
We can find a useful link between design and narrative through the literary mystery genre, specifically around murder mysteries and the ‘whodunit.’ While mystery is often used in theming throughout all mediums, the genre dedicated to mystery has particular practices and form that focuses on how to craft a good mystery experience above all else. The structure of the murder mystery shares tenets of entertainment game design: the reader expects the truth of the mystery to be hidden away from them but with a fair sprinkling of clues so they could reasonably figure it out, in a battle with the author to sift through red herrings and plot twists, and feels equal amounts of surprise and accomplishment when they get to end of the story. This is a game, where a writer deliberately sets out to deceive a reader while creating a path of success for them to find along the way. Advancing in the story is like racing against the clock to figure out the mystery before it is revealed to you at the end and you assess how well you did. It is no wonder we’ve seen a lot of murder mysteries adapted into game format, because the design logic is pretty similar.
However, many of these mystery games don’t fully combine mystery writing with game design. Usually we see a mystery put onto an adventure game or hidden object format. What was design-like and writing-like in these games are still separate, or rather, conventional game design imperatives steamroll any narrative deception. Instead, I want to look at how murder mystery is handled in some experimental for their time yet well received visual novel games (with one exception) to find examples of how to better approach writing in games, with the possibility of the mystery being the starting point for game writing rather than optional flavor.
Mystery is typically handled by players scouting out information in the environment and using tools or interrogations to move forward in the story. It’s a strategy that relies on brute guessing and gaining tidbits of writing from scenes after solving a mini game of some sort. In the games I’m looking at, a lot of the information related to the mystery are given to you up front, yet the figuring out part comes in a scene of the player versus the game verbally mucking through the logic of the problem to eventually get to the answer. The most well-known example of this is the Ace Attorney series where the clues are not really that hard to find, but the real solution comes out of a trial where the player (and main character) aren’t at all sure of what the answer is until they piece it through debate. Through argument, the player is working all the information available to them, usually weathering many conventional mystery writing tropes that both lead them to the answer while constantly trying to knock them off course. The game trusts that the player is actively thinking through the problem as the trial plays out instead of relying on planted objects to eventually lead them through the mystery. Related is the Danganronpa series that also uses a trial format, though it uses mini games as a method to evoke the feeling of inventive and deductive thinking. With varying success these minigames help manipulate the energy and direction of the player’s thought process, and in a way, simulates the frustration of being mentally blocked pretty well. These trial systems are evoking immediacy and trying to get the player to be in a sort of crisis mode that forces them to piece things together on the fly instead of methodically trying every possible combination. Where in other more traditional mystery games the main solving is in finding the evidence which unlocks more of the story, in these trial sessions players are taken through the actual feeling of solving a mystery, planned deception and all.
Playing With Time
Time is already a weird subject when it comes to games, particularly video games, and I’ve noticed that time features strongly in the murder mystery games I’m looking at. I think it’s to simulate the ‘race’ against the author in mystery novels, the rate at which you figure things out versus how close to the end of the story you are. But more specifically there’s a pattern of using time as a device to further reveal and twist the narrative, most notably in Virtue’s Last Reward. In VLR, the player has a menu screen where they can move across the various nodes of the game’s narrative tree to figure out the mystery of the game. As with all mystery work, this has the a strong thematic focusing on ‘truth,’ what we assume it is and how much more complicated the topic is than black and white facts. This also has to do with genre conventions of the visual novel, where players are used to playing the game multiple times to see the entirety of the story rather than one shot through. Video games have a clear strength in depicting these themes, playing with possibilities and alternate realities that allow us a Rashomon-esque view on a scenario to build on narrative layers that further deepens our imaginations and the mystery. Another use of time is in Ghost Trick, where failures and partial successes act to both complicate and progress the mystery. Time isn’t just an incidental detail of how you get through Ghost Trick; you reverse time, you watch the passage of time, you erase times, and you race against time. The story brings up time-related themes such a grievance, regret, and memory. Like VLR, time travel works on a meta-level that makes us aware we are accessing another world through a device and the game’s creators want to use that relationship as a narrative device in the experience. This shared link of unique relationships to time between video games and murder mysteries asks for further investigation.
Game Within a Game
If we take that the murder mystery narrative itself is a game, then a pattern of actual games featuring prominently in the game we’re playing follows well to further tighten writing and design. Both the Zero Escape (999, VLR, and soon Zero Time Dilemma) and Danganronpa series have characters trapped in a game against their will that will result in many of their deaths until they can solve the mystery. This echoes the mystery tradition of sealing away a set of suspects so the player can feasibly figure out who is the mastermind (a prominent preoccupation of the characters’ in fact) while processing through the smaller events of the game. This is the most literal example of how naturally murder mysteries and games relate to one another by manipulating the structure of these ‘death games’ to bring out the detective in the player while not relying on literally making them a police officer. It should be pointed out how different these experiences are to games as theming, as in, typical adventure game that takes place in a video game themed world with such easter eggs, instead of characters playing by very strict rules in their own diegetic sense. Most importantly is the wide cast of characters, for murder mysteries are more character-driven than they are plot-wise, since the relationships between characters eventually produce the possible endings or solutions. Character development in this case isn’t then just for embellishment, but active sources of narrative and design tension seeing that they must be designed in a way that makes them equally guilty of the crime yet also competitors for the same prize against the player. This leaves open an interesting possibility for an AI-based murder mystery that could be generated by procedural character development and thoughtful situation design.
This is all to say that murder mystery novels on their own qualify to be to included in games conversations since the very structure of the narrative and the method in which it involves a reader is extremely playful. Seeing that there’s a difference between mystery as flavor and mystery as a narrative design methodology, we could use the latter both as a tool to create better writing in games and to interpret games as critics. It is not a leap to see the game developer as mainly deceiving the player along their path to solving the final riddle at the end, for which many games that involve narrative in any meaningful extent tend to structure themselves. It’s a possible method to continue bridging the gap between design and narrative practices and get at producing other experiences than we most commonly see.
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