Building a Mystery: Gaming's Crime Investigation Mechanics and the Beauty of Being Unsatisfied

What satisfaction do you really get from being the Batman, when his gadgets do all the detective work?

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Jul 6 2015, 10:30pm

(Deep tissue) scanning for clues in 'Batman: Arkham Knight.'

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

When I was 11 or 12, I had a game for my Commodore 64 called Murder on the Mississippi. The goal, as you might have guessed, is to solve a murder that happens on a steamboat as it chugs down the Mississippi River. And I never did it.

The thing about the game that I didn't know back then is that it's possible to miss a chance early on to get vital information from characters; the game still progresses, and you're not told that it has become completely impossible for you to succeed. So time and again, I'd get to the climax, which employs the old dramatic device of having all the suspects gathered in one room so that the hero may theatrically unveil the killer's identity in front of everyone. But my crime-solving escapades always ended in an embarrassing whimper. I didn't have sufficient evidence to pin the killing on anyone. Again and again, I failed. Two mysteries remained unsolved: the murder mystery within the game, and the meta-mystery of "How the hell do I even play this game in order to successfully solve the mystery within the game?"

And even though I hated it at the time and believe now that my frustration with the game was, to some degree, a result of bad game design, the truth is that if I had been able to solve the mystery, I probably wouldn't even remember the game today. The reason why it still haunts me is because it remains forever unsolved, a manila folder stashed away in a file cabinet in my mind, but never truly forgotten.

Today, I could just go on YouTube and watch someone complete the game, but why would I want to do that, and deprive myself of that little nugget of frustration I carry around inside me over it? When I want the comforting pleasure of watching someone solve a mystery and impose a little bit of order on our incomprehensible world, I read a crime novel or watch Columbo. If a game wants me to care about solving the mysteries it presents me with, it needs to take advantage of its own interactivity and let me try to do some of the intellectual legwork myself. That means letting me draw conclusions based on the evidence, or letting me decide what's relevant and what's not. And that means allowing for the possibility that I might fail.

A screen shot from 'Her Story.'

Sam Barlow's new game Her Story is great largely because the experience of playing it is one of piecing together a mystery in your own head. Watching the video clips, I jotted down notes—actual notes!—as I tried to figure out which threads in the suspect's statements might lead me to more information. There is no in-game mechanism to test whether you've gotten it right, whether you've found all the pieces and deduced how they all fit together. It's entirely up to you to determine whether or not you adequately understand the crime that occurred.

This approach contrasts so sharply with how most games approach investigating crimes that some people couldn't quite wrap their heads around it. Giant Bomb's Austin Walker tweeted images from a message board discussion of Her Story in which one person told another that in this game, "It's up to you to decide when you are satisfied with the information you have found," and the other person replied, "How do I decide when I am satisfied?"

I think I understand exactly why that person was so confused by the expectations Her Story places on the player. Far more often, we see the process of investigating a crime handled in ways that more closely resemble the approach taken by Batman: Arkham Knight. Batman is often referred to as the world's greatest detective, but at least in the Arkham games, this isn't really the case. Instead, it's more like Batman has used his tremendous financial resources to acquire amazing technology, and that technology is, collectively, the world's greatest detective. All Batman has to do is point his deep tissue scanner at a body and hold a button down for a few seconds and voila! Instant detective work! As we go through the motions, a completion percentage fills up. When it's full, Batman tells us what the technology has revealed. And thus, we know that we should feel satisfied.

The Witcher 3 handles crimes very similarly, with hero Geralt's "witcher senses" filling the role that Batman's gadgets do in Arkham Knight. We follow tracks, we select prompts to examine corpses, but we don't ever have to figure anything out for ourselves, or take a guess at something and risk being wrong, and experiencing all the dissatisfaction that might entail. These games play it safe, and give us bits of positive reinforcement to make us feel good about ourselves when we haven't really done anything. I'm so tired of sections in games that feed me little pellets of content that require me to do nothing more than respond to contextual button prompts and then give me a little pat on the back and a bit of narrative as a reward. This process, to lift a line from Morrissey, says nothing to me about my life.

Geralt's witcher senses make the things you need to poke at, pick up, or follow turn red.

My favorite crime novels of recent years are Swedish novelist Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander books. I love them because police officer Wallander lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction and uncertainty. In his personal life he has problems with his father and his daughter; he struggles with loneliness and dreams that didn't come to fruition. In his work, investigations often hit months of dead ends during which he and his colleagues can only drink endless cups of coffee and continue poring over the same few scraps of evidence they've gathered. The answers, when they do come, are fleeting and limited in scope. Wallander may solve the crime but he can't solve his life. Ultimately, the process of investigation is less about that moment when the crime is solved and more about facing the reality that in the larger mystery of our lives, we may never hit 100 percent completion and be satisfied. There may always be pieces missing.

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I got a Steam achievement for seeing 75 percent of Her Story's database of clips, and I feel like I have a solid understanding of the game's central mystery. But I know I haven't seen it all, and there's a nagging sense that maybe I'm still missing an important piece of the puzzle. It eats away at me a little bit. The other night as I was trying to get to sleep, the thought popped into my head: "Have I tried running a search using the word 'daughter'?" When I tried it the next morning, it didn't lead me anywhere. For me, the case may never be completely solved. And that is so wonderfully unsatisfying.

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