Video Games and The Digital Detective

Mystery Case Files 10: Fate's CarnivalNow let’s be clear what I mean by “Video Games” here. I’m not talking about MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games) like World of Warcraft. For me, its the MM part of that equation that’s the problem. All those other people. God. What a nightmare. And Call of Duty? No thanks. The learning curve on those kinds of games is so steep that I just keep getting yelled at for not knowing what to do.  Neither am I interested in any game where my success depends entirely on how fast I can push the X button.

But with the games I’m talking about, you don’t have to find energy packs to stay alive, no one’s waiting in the next corridor to shoot you, and you can never EVER die (without immediately coming back to life at exactly the same place). Which is a relief, to say the least. In the games I’m talking about today, all this is swept aside so I can do what I’ve loved to do since I was a kid with a Nancy Drew book: Solve A Mystery.

I’m talking about Casual Games. Casual Games, that I play quite Seriously as a matter of fact. I’ve been a member of Big Fish Games for years. And the 7.99/month I pay them is two dollars less than I pay for unlimited eyebrow threading, and believe me when I tell you this stuff is way more fun.

Nightfall Mysteries: Curse of the Opera

What I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that these types of Casual Games have gotten so much…BETTER. The graphics, the interface, the game play…but most of all The Story. Casual Game designers like Elephant and Blue Tea have finally “gotten” that what they are really doing is creating a new storytelling vehicle. And you may (or may not) be surprised that many of these stories rely on mystery plots and tropes as the engine to drive the game.

Death on the Nile video game based upon a Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha ChristieBut some of these are even based off of actual mystery book series. Her Interactive has made an entire business out of the Nancy Drew mystery series, and for my money these reign as the Queens of Mystery Games. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stars in games based on And then There Were None, Evil Under the Sun, and Murder on the Orient ExpressJames Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club has their own series, as does Marjorie M. Liu’s Tiger’s Eye. Even Charlaine Harris had a game come out featuring a minor character in the Sookie Stackhouse books, Vampire Dahlia Lynley-Chivers, called Dying for Daylight.

Other types of game series started off years ago as Hidden Object games. There’s a little bit of story (“Oh No! Someone has stolen the jewels! I must investigate!”), then you’re presented with a jumbled-up scene of objects piled together in a bathroom or a kitchen, and you have to find all the items on the list. The telephone, the cigar, the boomerang, the umbrella—somehow, there is ALWAYS a boomerang and an umbrella. Back then, the most exciting part of the game was figuring out if the “Bow” on the list was a violin bow or a bow tie.

Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull

But those times, thankfully, have passed. The Hidden Object scenes are still there (though not always), but now your time is spent gathering items and solving puzzles in order to find the key to get into the old abandoned movie theater, or drugging the bad guy’s coffee so you can search his stuff while he sleeps. Now you can fill in your evidence board with clues, match blood samples in the lab, and uncover a global conspiracy. (Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.)

It should be no surprise that so many of these games feature the player as a Nameless, Genderless Detective. Mystery plots are puzzles, and the puzzle is king in Casual Games. Many have a serious gothic nature to the mystery—castles and manor houses abound in these games, as do run-down and abandoned movie theaters, opera houses, and amusement parks. Others are more police-Oriented, with lots of fingerprinting and lab work and evidence boards.

They often have titles that speak to their serial nature, with the series title, a colon, then the title of the game. Mystery Trackers: The Void and Nightfall Mysteries: The Asylum Conspiracy, Mystery Case Files: The 13th Skull. It borders on silly sometimes, but the best ones know when to camp it up. The Mystery Case Files, like some others, have taken using live actors instead of animated figures for their characters. Real Actors! Like Leah Thompson from Caroline in the City. Some players don’t care for this tactic, but personally, I love it. It brings a sense of urgency and immersiveness, and also gives me the feeling that I’m getting a higher production value.

These games are not like “reading a book come to life”, they are more like “being the book.” Now, it's true that the stories are never as complex as in a Peter Lovesey novel, the characters not so well-developed as Jacqueline Winspear's, nor are their surprise endings ever as much of a surprise as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  But they are immersive in a different way, and I feel a kind of autonomy that is not in the nature of books or television to provide. Even though the story is laid out beforehand, I *feel* like I have more control over the environment, when I’m the one picking the lock or comparing the fingerprints.

If I had one critique of some of these Casual Mystery games, it would be that they do not make use of professional writers and storytellers like they should (Are you listening, Elephant Games? I’m your gal, for reals. Call me.) They often don’t “get” the importance of character development, or see how it can be done swiftly and efficiently. But I don’t have a lot of “feelings” about Hercule Poirot either, and I still read Murder on the Orient Express when I go on vacation. So I’m pretty forgiving on this front in games, whereas I may not be as forgiving when engaging with other media like books or television.

There’s a lot of talk bandied around these days about “New Media”, but this is something I don’t see a lot of people talking about. This is a truly NEW storytelling venue. And the games that are the best, for my money, are the ones with a really good story, a good mystery, a good set of twists.

I’ll be talking about some of these games in more depth in other posts, but this was to whet your whistle, if you will, to pique your interest if you haven't tried this new way to get your Mystery Fix.


Amy Eller Lewis is a writer and Library Fairy in Southern New England. She works at one of the oldest libraries in the country, www.providenceathenaeum.org which is definately haunted. Follow her on Twitter @amyellerlewis or on Tumblr: scriptoriana.tumblr.com.

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    Loved reading your article. I am a 66 year old retired woman and I love these casual type mystery games. I also am happy to see these beautiful graphics improving and I agree with everything you wrote. Will be looking forward to more of your thoughts on this genre and continued improvement of these games….not everyone enjoys violent blood & guts games. I would love to see more investment in the casual games.

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