Two Computer Games

In my ongoing quest to find a mystery computer game that doesn’t mangle the mystery side of things, last week I played two: Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull and Special Enquiry Detail: Engaged to Kill. Both had good and bad points, and neither really hit the sweet spot in terms of difficulty, but they’re both genuinely attempted to provide a mystery plot. So things are looking up! Towards the end of the post there’s also a discussion about misjudged plots where characters seem to be aware they’re in a cliché and so leap to conclusions before they’ve got any real evidence, which is relevant to all types of mystery fiction.

[No real spoilers for the Nancy Drew game, but massive spoilers for Engaged to Kill]

Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull

One of the many Nancy Drew adventure games released by Her Interactive, this time Nancy and her friend Bess are visiting New Orleans when they get involved in the mysterious death of an eccentric old inventor. (Eccentric old inventors are ten a penny in adventure games, because they’re the only way to even remotely justify having a house full of ridiculous mechanical locks and puzzles.)

The beginning is surprisingly atmospheric. I’ve played a few of the Nancy Drew games and there’s a tendency for her just to be plonked down in the lobby of a hotel somewhere. But Legend of the Crystal Skull begins with Nancy being attacked and knocked unconscious by a sinister figure in a skeleton costume as she shelters from a storm in the hallway of a creepy New Orleans mansion.

After she comes round you’re introduced to two of the game’s three suspects and given a few of the details regarding the death of the owner of the mansion. After that you’re pretty much on your own. As Nancy, you have to investigate the mansion, the grounds and the adjacent cemetery looking for clues to the old man’s death. You can interrogate the suspects and call up people on your phone for leads. Calling up your friend Bess switches the action to her perspective but it plays much the same.

The plot isn’t great: there are a lot of themes that sort of peter out and the culprit is revealed when they try to kill you, rather than through any sort of logical deduction. Also the Crystal Skull is pretty much a MacGuffin, and one that feels a bit at odds with a New Orleans theme that never really gets more subtle than gators and gumbo. But the three suspects are each very different and well handled, with suspicion bouncing between them in a way that never seems artificial (three seems like the right number for this sort of thing, actually).

And, unlike most mystery games I play, it does feel like an investigation. That’s a pretty major achievement. I think it’s due to the fact that you aren’t held by the hand and led through the plot by the game. Once you’ve opened one of the crypts in the cemetery to reveal a vital item, I think you can probably solve any of the remaining puzzles in whatever order you please. As well as enhancing the feeling that you’re leading the investigation, rather than just being dragged along by the game designers, it also means that if you’re stuck there’s something else to do. Which is a good thing, because contrary to any expectations the Nancy Drew brand might give you, these games are far harder than anything else being produced for the casual adventure market nowadays. Even the Junior Detective mode designed for younger players seems to be much harder than the second game I’m reviewing today.

Right, other things I noticed. The phone conversations you can have cleverly change to keep track of what you do and don’t know so far (I only found one bug where Nancy referred to a previous conversation that never happened) which must have involved a non-trivial amount of extra work, but really enhances the idea that you’re not only making progress, but you’re doing it in your own way. There are also real choices in the conversations, with options that you don’t choose often disappearing forever. I don’t think it’s possible to make a bad choice, so it’s probably mainly cosmetic, but it’s much better than the usual adventure game dialogue trees, where I’m sure 99% of players just pick the top option and then work their way down the list until they’ve all been exhausted. There’s no surer way of making a conversation seem unrealistic.

There was a nice mix of puzzles, although some of them were a bit too stupid for my tastes, not least re-arranging the items on the shelf in a junk store to make a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that would spray sneezing powder at the proprietor! I think I’d have either liked some of the puzzles to have been easier, or for them to have been a bit more elegant. Struggling to solve something that feels like a chore isn’t much fun. There was an enjoyably tough Sokoban puzzle, though, one which was genuinely satisfying to solve.

What else? The graphics were alright, and the character animations were much better than in the other game I tried from the series. The navigation is still Myst-style, which I don’t think I’m ever going to like, but I never got too disorientated. The voice acting and the writing were both extremely competent, which in computer game terms is like saying they deserve Oscars. Nancy was nowhere near as annoying as I expected, although she’s a bit of a goody two-shoes. But I don’t imagine Her Interactive can do much about that. I’ve not read any of the books, but I expect it’s an accurate reflection of the character.

Overall I’d recommend it, but don’t expect to have your socks blown off by the plot.

Special Enquiry Detail: Engaged to Kill

This is a Hidden Object Game, like the version of Death On the Nile which I reviewed here. Unlike Death on the Nile, you also have to use items from the Hidden Object scenes to overcome obstacles, point-and-click adventure game style. Like every Hidden Object game ever made, it’s really insultingly easy. But that’s how people seem to like them, so I can’t blame the designers for giving people what they want. But it seems a shame to program the engine for a puzzle only to present the player with something they can solve in fifteen seconds.

The plot is firmly in the TV Movie Serial Killer mould. You play as detectives Lamonte and Turino, a male/female cop team brought in to investigate the disappearance of fashion model Marcy Templeton. (Chapter 1 is called “A Model Abduction”. Can authors please stop picking models as victims just so they can use that pun? At no point in history was that a hilarious joke worth telling.) Marcy quickly shows up dead, the fifth victim of the so-called Engagement Killer, who seems obsessed with killing married blondes.

This doesn’t go anywhere unexpected. You follow up leads, find clues, and begin to whittle down the suspects. Or rather, the characters do; at no point do you actually have to make a logical deduction of your own. Occasionally you head back to the forensics lab to play a little minigame that simulates analysing evidence. To give the designers their due, these are far more convincing than in similar games of this sort, and the general flow of puzzles made for a much more realistic game than Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull. In general, though, this isn’t noticeably different from other games that feature Police Procedure, Hidden Object Style (“Search for clues, Detective! But also pine cones!”)

Like the Nancy Drew game above, the writing and acting here is streets ahead of the usual casual game dross. Not only is it in proper sentences, with proper English idiom, but the characters have personalities that enable you to tell them from each other or, say, a brick. Again, it’s a shame, but this is high praise for computer game writing. The acting is also good, and though the games isn’t fully voiced, it sounds like the actors might have been given the script in advance and actually all been in the same room when it was recorded. (That sounds obvious, doesn’t it, but you’d be surprised how rarely that happens.)

Plot-wise, there’s really nothing original here at all. Naturally the serial killer has been leaving taunting clues, naturally he has a creepy shrine to the victims. Turino puts herself up as bait, but the killer manages to get round your surveillance cameras somehow. The team decide it must be their forensics guy, who mysteriously and conveniently calls in sick during the second chapter. But it turns out to be the other forensics guy, in a twist you’d have to be asleep to not see coming. At the end there’s a confrontation in a church involving the real target of the killer’s hatred, a woman who jilted him some time before. But obviously you get there in the nick of time and arrest him.

This makes it sound like I hated it. Actually, it’s by far the best example of this sort of game I’ve played. I enjoyed playing it, but only in that mindless way where it’s occasionally fun to complete tasks that are totally undemanding. Still, there are some real attempts to make this work as a mystery: the solution is fairly clued, and the red-herring is well foreshadowed and properly integrated into the plot, which I think might be a first for this sort of game. That none of the clues were subtle doesn’t detract from the fact that they were there.

Although it is a real mystery, it isn’t an immersive one. There’s no sense of finding clues, because if you wait a few seconds the important things in a room give off a tell-tale sparkle. And because the game is entirely linear, there’s none of the sense of investigation that the Nancy Drew game had. It feels much more like watching a mystery than solving one, and unfortunately that lack of involvement tends to make the plot-holes stand out. In the Nancy Drew game it was easier to gloss over the sillier moments because there was a genuine sense of discovery and progression towards a goal. In Engaged to Kill, all the puzzles feel like artificial hurdles which are stopping you from seeing the next segment of story. There is one puzzle late in the game which is an attempt to marry the story and the gameplay, a minigame where you have to arrange evidence on a whiteboard. But it’s really just a test of whether you’ve been paying attention to a lot of the specific details, rather than a test of any conclusions you might have drawn from the evidence, and the fact that I couldn’t remember all the victims’ names and had to apply some trial and error seemed like a failing on the game’s part for not making the details memorable, rather than it being my fault for not paying sufficient attention. I’d be surprised if many players could complete the puzzle from memory.

Sigh. I’m still not doing a good job of making it sound like I didn’t hate it.

I think this might be down to the fact that I really did hate one of the two main characters. Detective Turino is supposed to be a strong, confident policewoman. But, as unfortunately tends to happen when mediocre male writers try to write strong, confident women, she comes across as a callous monster. She’s also bewilderingly unprofessional. None of that would be a problem (there’s no reason why a callous and unprofessional policewoman shouldn’t make a good protagonist), but it wasn’t abundantly clear that we were supposed to be sympathetic with her.

Part of the problem stems from the unoriginality of the plot. It’s clear to the player from the beginning what sort of killer we’re dealing with. It’s that kind of serial killer that only exists in fiction – a sexual predator who is able to hold down a professional job with no-one suspecting and is determined to taunt the police by sending riddles that even a child could solve. But whilst it’s fine – but not ideal – for the player to be ahead of the plot, it’s a real problem when the characters are too. Turino has this guy profiled as a pervert before she’s even read the case notes. They find Marcy in a fitted wedding dress, she decides the killer must have “stalked her to find out her size”. Her engagement ring is missing, the killer must have “taken it as a souvenir”. All these are real possibilities, but no others are ever considered. Turino leaps on anything and everything as reinforcement of this theory, which she could only justify if she’s somehow realised she’s the heroine in a piece of bad fiction who gets carte blanche to draw whatever conclusions she likes. To a player trying to suspend disbelief, she comes across as a reckless idiot. Later, when the main characters stumble upon the frame-up of their colleague from forensics, Turino quickly renounces him as a “sicko”. They visit his home, which she declares must “never have seen a woman”. Later, it turns out to have been a frame, she makes feeble amends for her gross betrayal by declaring that he’s “strange, but not that bad”. I don’t think I’ve encountered a more obnoxious protagonist in a long time.

I’ve run into this problem a few times with modern detective thrillers. Characters make deductions like there’s about to be a world shortage of conclusions to leap to, and I can’t tell whether it’s trying to make a point about terrible police work, or if I’m not suppose to ever question the actions of the main character because they’re the hero and what they say goes. Stuart MacBride’s Cold Granite was a good example of this, with Logan McRae and his team accusing people on the flimsiest of evidence and then apparently being genuinely shocked when it turned out to have been a mistake. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to make of it. (I don’t think Cold Granite is supposed to be commentary, because there was overt commentary in the book which was mostly along the lines of “Look! A woman in the supermarket is fat and has a trolley full of frozen food!” Subtle, it wasn’t).

In Engaged to Kill, Turino wasn’t even balanced out by her partner, who not only failed to pick her up on her bullshit, but had another common failing of modern fictional policemen: he was completely stupid, except when he was a genius. For most of the game he wasn’t able to make even the simplest connections between pieces of evidence, but towards the end, when presented with a box which once contained lemons, he immediately intuited that a message had been written in invisible ink on a wedding invitation which hadn’t been mentioned since near the beginning of the game! I tried my best to play the game in good faith, I really did, but I defy anyone not to roll their eyes at developments like that.

Still, I think it’s a very good sign that a computer game made me feel this way. Although I had a negative reaction to parts of it, that’s a reaction that shows I was thinking of the game as a piece of fiction, rather than a collection of puzzles with some words attached to it. That’s actually a pretty huge step. I’ll certainly play the next game in the series. I think a different sort of mystery plot might alleviate some of the problems I had with the characters.

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