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It's a Mystery!

What should you, the detective, do now?

That's one of the first prompts for interaction I ever saw in a mystery game: The Witness by Stu Galley (although modern accreditation would likely say "directed by" rather than attributing the whole thing to him) and  published by Infocom in 1983 for just about every home computer platform then in existence. I acquired the Commodore 64 version from a yard sale and immediately rushed up to my room to try it. I've loved detective stories for literally longer than I can remember - it's simply always been. The complete collection of Strand Sherlock Holmes stories I received for my seventh birthday was one of my most prized possessions and I frequently hauled the massive tome to school with me... even if I never made it past the first few stories. Encyclopedia Brown, a little closer to my demographic, was a hero of mine and I think I had every book in the series (along with the adjacent series Encyclopedia Brown's Book of Weird and Wonderful Fact, which were collections of what would later be term "factoids" and almost certainly full of now-disproven urban legends and hoaxes). Heck, I even introduced myself in this blog by sharing my youthful goal of being a "Magician-Detective" someday.

But while there were certainly detective games available in both digital and analog formats (I demanded my family upgrade our copy of Clue to the "Master Detective" edition, and I had a copy of of 221B Baker Street but not  the foggiest idea of how to play it), these mostly used the trappings of mystery stories as flavor text for token collection and probability-based logical guesswork, in a sense closer to games like poker or blackjack than the books, shows, and movies they all referenced. One friend whose family invested in modern computers had a copy of the deluxe edition Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and I'd later receive my own copy of the original for C64, but the "deduction" in these really came down once again to token collection and knowing how to look things up in the (helpfully included) almanac. Closer to a true mystery game was that same friend's copy of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, a live-action (!) CD-ROM game that was mind-blowing to see, but also rather obtuse - the novelty of actual actors onscreen ultimately wore off before we were ever able to finish the first case.

Witness, then, while pre-dating these games by nearly a full decade, felt complex and real in a way those later games couldn't. I already had plenty of experience with other Infocom titles: the Zork trilogy, Planetfall, Enchanter and its sequel Sorcerer... my very first exposure to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was through its adventure game adaptation by Infocom. But a mystery was something different entirely. You weren't solving puzzles to acquire treasure like in the Zorks, or working your way to find and defeat a great evil like Enchanter, or even the "stay alive and get out of unfortunate situations" approach of Planetfall or Hitch-Hiker's. This was about reconstructing a series of events and motivations through locating clues and asking questions. And all this was done consciously by you, the player - you weren't simply handed tokens like Clue. Of course, I didn't end up solving the mystery... I guess not every ten-year-old gets to be Encyclopedia Brown.

It's telling that mystery was the second genre Infocom tackled after the D&D-inspired treasure hunts of the Zork games.  Witness was their second mystery title, following 1982's Deadline. While the inherent qualities of mystery stories may seem to be at odds with puzzle-based dungeon crawling (where, after all, the player is essentially a thief), the text adventure toolset was perfectly suited to the investigative format. After all, each clue or necessary bit of testimony was something to acquire, and the player working their way to these was just as much a puzzle as anything in Zork. And they had another thing in common, something separating these early games from nearly all they inspired: the protagonist. Just as your character was simply "Adventurer" in the fantasy titles, a description that summarized your relationship to the game and its setting, in the mystery games, you were simply "Detective." And this, intended or not, is something quite notable.

A detective character, aside from the obvious narrative role they occupy (they are given problems and attempt to solve them through investigation and deductive reasoning), tends to possess some traits in common, regardless of genre or setting. They are, generally, outsiders by circumstance or nature: they could be uninterested in standard dealings of humanity like Sherlock Holmes, or suffering from a physical or metal affliction like Adrian Monk, or an oddball that intentionally clashes with the expectations of those around him like Lt. Columbo. Alternately, they could have a (non-detective) job that keeps them at a remove from other people, like any number of detective characters who make their living as authors or journalists. Even if it's simply a matter of a quirky or prickly personality, the detective character can't be a popular or accepted member of society... at least not if they're going to be memorable. They operate at a distance, from which they gain perspective an objectivity, to take apart a scenario, learn the intricacies, and formulate and test hypotheses. Is any of this starting to sound familiar? The relationship of the detective to their setting and the people they interact with is remarkably analogous to the relationship between a player and a game. In a sense, the nameless, faceless detective of the early Infocom mysteries is the perfect mystery protagonist - their remove is that of the player and the material they're engaging with. There's no better position for objective analysis and deduction.

Of course, as anyone who's read Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! as much as I did as a kid could tell you that the problem with perfection is that it gets pretty dull. And so this era of the Perfect Detective Game Protagonist didn't last. Fortunately, as mystery games drew from their inspirations, many creators understood what makes a memorable detective character (and many, unfortunately, thought the only thing they needed was Chandler-esque monologs without bothering to understand why Raymond Chandler was the father of hardboiled detective fiction). To have a named detective character, with personality and backstory as the protagonist of a mystery game while still keeping enough of a remove from the world around them to act as a stand-in for the player, requires a complex and tricky balance - a dance that each notable game and series performs differently. Ace Attorney's Phoenix Wright, to pick one of the most well-known examples, operates at a level of endearing obliviousness that keeps the player comfortable with testing the particulars of a case without concern for crossing social lines And there's a reason that people have been making Sherlock Holmes games for about as long as electronic gaming has existed: the character's cold, calculating distance operates as a stand-in for the screen that divides the line between player and game.

Over the course of the next year, I'm hoping to delve more into mysteries, interactive and otherwise, and look more closely at the process of creating a game that's fun, engaging, and still a good mystery. And I'm looking forward to sharing any clues that find or theories I want to postulate here at Never Say Dice. Even more than thirty years since I first booted up The Witness, the genre still fascinates and excites me, and, stereotypical or not, I look forward to emulating many a detective protagonist by externalizing my thoughts... just in blog form, not in a closed drawing room or pacing around a crime scene. So, dear readers, the game is very much afoot!

Send questions, comments, and who you think dunnit to neversaydice20@gmail.com or Tweet us @neversaydice2.


 

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