Cold Cases: On Framing, Freedom, and Failure in Mystery Games

What does it take to make solving crimes not feel like solving systems?

When it comes to solving a mystery, I think Persona 4 distills the idea into the purest form I’ve seen it represented in a video game.

After a murderer has killed two women in the small town of Inaba, Yu Narukami and his friends have spent the past few months gathering clues, evidence, and data to try and figure out who could possibly have been responsible. The facts you know are laid before you, then the game gives you a list of every character in the game and asks who you think is responsible.

You can certainly get it wrong, and doing so will result in the game’s bad ending. But there are basically no barriers here between you and how you’ve interpreted these things, as Persona 4 doesn’t ask you to make your deduction process fit within any framework. This isn’t a test where you’re asked to show your work, all it wants to know is your answer.

Note: Just in case anyone here is spoiler sensitive, this is not an image of someone choosing the true killer.

I spoke with a handful of friends about this moment, trying to find out if there was a common clue or plot point that led to the correct conclusion. But there wasn’t one. Speaking personally, I assumed the culprit had to be someone the game would require me to meet, meaning side characters were out of the running, and by that point the list had become small enough to make the killer’s identity pretty clear to me. Others, however, told me about specific moments that tipped them off about this individual, or how following the usual parameters of a “Whodunit” story narrowed it down. 

It’s interesting that, despite a singular truth, everyone comes to this conclusion in different ways. There’s a problem and a solution, but Persona 4 doesn’t do anything with all the thinking and deduction that happens in between. Whereas dedicated mystery games have systems in place to allow the player to communicate this reasoning, but more often than not require you to adhere to a developer’s perception of events, rather than your own.

There have been plenty of different approaches to the mystery genre in games over the years. Something like Danganronpa requires you to solve a mystery through a trial where evidence is presented in just the right way, counteracting false statements and lies until the truth is revealed. Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments makes you literally connect the thread between plot points that brought you to a conclusion.

This is a conflict every mystery game has to contend with. How do you adapt deduction, something that is, in theory, unique for everyone into video game mechanics? And does giving players freedom to solve these things on their own mean they should have the freedom to reach the wrong conclusion? I spoke with some developers about what it takes to write a mystery someone else is meant to solve. It led to some interesting juxtaposition. That same individuality in how we process mysteries informed just how different the approach to creating one can be.

paradise killer lady love diesParadise Killer is an open-world walking simulator-style detective game starring Lady Love Dies, the “investigation freak,” as she’s known on Paradise Island. Of the developers I spoke to, Kaizen Game Works Technical Director Phil Crabtree and Creative Director Oli Clarke Smith were on the same page that the philosophy behind its design was to allow players enough freedom to get things wrong. All while trusting they’d find their way through its expansive world to discover the truth behind the slaughter of a governing force.

The setting of Paradise Island has more roadblocks to truth than most mystery games do. At least, ones that ask you to put forth a deduction at the end. The biggest being the environment you’re investigating isn’t a concentrated room or two. It’s an entire island. There’s lots of holes in the walls to explore, so being thorough before you go into the trial, where you’ll accuse conspirators of orchestrating a massacre, is key. But Paradise Killer allows players to begin the trial at any time. There’s no indicator that you’ve found the truth, that’s something the player has to internalize to their own satisfaction before proceeding.

“The idea of respecting the player is a two-way thing,” Crabtree said. “If you want people to enjoy your game, you’ve got to put the respect and trust in them that they will find their way to enjoy it.”

The two-person team did consider putting limitations on when players could start the trial, such as requiring you to find specific evidence or talk to all the suspects, but eventually landed on none of the above to avoid making the whole thing feel more mechanical.

“It turns out, all of those things are just very quickly exposing a system and you’re just giving the illusion of freedom,” Crabtree said. “You think you can go and do whatever you want, but not really. And as soon as you do that, people start to realize that’s how this game is structured and it takes away some of that respect and that trust.”

That level of freedom gives players a lot of rope, but it makes it easier to fail than most mystery games ever allow. The fear of failure entices someone to be as meticulous as they can, but it leaves the door open for someone to walk through feeling confident, only to find they missed key information when they’re unable to obtain a conviction. Paradise Killer’s trial allows you to accuse one person at a time, then present key facts you learned in your investigation. These facts either build up a case against a character, or fail to convince the all-powerful Judge of their guilt. Even if you’re sure you have an understanding of what happened, you still have to fill the holes in the game’s understanding to solve the case.

“If you just say ‘you can go and do this and we’re not going to stop you,’ then it transfers that onus onto the player to say ‘well, I better make sure that I’ve done a good job, because no one is going to tell me if I have or not. I’ve just got to trust myself,’” Crabtree said. “Then doing so, you make it a more personal experience within the game. And that was really what it was about for me.”

Compare this to something like the Danganronpa series. Spike Chunsoft’s teenage killing game mystery requires a player to have investigated every piece of evidence in a crime scene before they’re allowed to leave. That’s not to say the game will speak its solutions to you, but it will never put you in a situation where you don’t have the tools to solve a problem. It can lead to more concrete, satisfying conclusions, especially as it tailors storytelling into argumentative mechanics. But those restrictions require the player to understand a crime the same way Danganronpa’s developers do, which was something Smith said he wanted to actively avoid in designing Paradise Killer’s mystery.

“When that happens, the player starts struggling with frustration of not having made the same mental leaps that the designer and writer have,” Smith said. “I always start Danganronpa with the best of intentions and then partway through the first trial, I’ll drop out. Because they want you to make certain interpretations and logic leaps that are difficult. Or your mind doesn’t work like that. And I think investigators should be allowed to fail like that in a game.“

Smith and Crabtree point to that freedom as a pillar of Paradise Killer’s design, but it also means that there’s likely a scenario where players fail to achieve what they set out to do. Lady Love Dies can go through an entire trial and fail to achieve a conviction. But after all is said and done, the player still has a post-game moment to explore Paradise Island again and gather evidence. They may have lost their window to convict a killer, but they may at least find peace by discovering the truth in their own way. 

“We’d let you go into the trial and you fail to get the conviction you want. Then we either let you back into the world to have another crack and find more evidence, or we let you repeat the trial and accuse someone else or present different evidence,” Smith said. “Then that becomes a ‘trial and error’ thing. It doesn’t represent a human experience. It becomes a system experience that loses all the drama, loses the pace of a narrative”

It leaves Paradise Killer open to a Her Story “How Do I Decide When I’m Satisfied” moment. While yes, there are ways to obtain a conviction through evidence, but if you fail to achieve that, you can continue to search the island to your heart’s content. Then it becomes a question of is it enough for the player to internalize the truth they have discovered after the fact, or do they start an entirely new playthrough to get it right the second time around? Even when a conviction is obtained, that ambiguous spirit is still maintained in the game’s ending, which Smith described as deliberately “nebulous,” so players could reflect on the end state of Paradise Island and what decisions led them there.

“What we wanted was a nebulous ending where all sorts of variables are there, and then rather than it branching and you go down one of three different cutscene routes, it’s kind of the sum of everything you’ve done in the last few hours is that sense of what’s left on the island,” Smith said. “Like who is alive? Who isn’t? Where’s Lydia? How will you exit the island? How will you deal with people?”

While Paradise Killer’s developers insist upon freedom and ambiguity, Kitfox Games’ Jongwoo Kim explained to me that while developing Lucifer Within Us, he felt strongly that its mysteries should have a singular truth that is communicated to the player.

“I’ll take an extreme position and say that a mystery solving game should have a singular valid solution,” Kim said in an email interview. “A game that simply wishes to tell a mystery story can reasonably allow that ambiguity, but a mystery solving game needs to have mechanics that allow skilled players to discover the singular, objective truth.”

Comparatively, Lucifer Within Us has a lot more systems in place that allow more direct expression than Paradise Killer, but in doing so, it’s able to help get players on the same page with its own internal logic. Lucifer Within Us stars exorcist Ada, as she solves murders driven by daemonic possession. Much of the actual investigation is what you’d expect: inspecting a crime scene, gathering testimony, and looking for evidence. All of this is taking place on a timeline of events that you can fast forward and rewind through as you like, and also use to pinpoint moments where contradictions arise.

Using these tools, you must identify specific aspects of the murder and slot them in effectively. This includes: a culprit, the means by which they did the deed, when they had an opportunity to strike the killing blow, and the motive the daemon latched on to force them to carry out the crime. By making those specific reasonings into mechanics the player has to communicate to the game, Lucifer Within Us frames your thought process and trains you to look for specific information. That framing allows you to more directly express your hypothesis by asking more direct questions.

“I also felt that we needed a way for the player to express their current theory into the game and validate if it’s possible or not,” Kim said. “In doing so, we could ensure that the player’s mental model and the game’s systems are aligned, and that the player doesn’t pursue impossible red herrings.”

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Does this mean the player might fall into the “trial and error” loop Paradise Killer deliberately avoided? Perhaps, but it also allows one to explore an incorrect hypothesis to its natural conclusion, pushing them to rethink and retool their outlook, all without being punished for exploring every possibility.

“I think it’s important for players to be able to fully explore a wrong hypothesis that is consistent with their knowledge until they discover some evidence that contradicts it,” Kim said. “So the feedback is critical, but it needs to come in a way that minimizes ludonarrative dissonance.”

On the note of ludonarrative dissonance (conflict between story presentation and gameplay), Kim went on to explain how games like L.A. Noire and Phoenix Wright punish players for being wrong. But the former lacks a kind of in-text authority to be the judge of the merits of a player’s thinking while the latter has a judge that punishes poor arguments. What was interesting to me was comparing how both Paradise Killer and Lucifer Within Us encouraged exploration of all possibilities. But Kaizen Game Works’ game treated that exploration as being thorough, while also making it a trap door for someone to fall through should they become too fixated on something that didn’t hold up. Where Lucifer Within Us treats it like a process of elimination, working through every possibility until something clicks together.

That repetition can act as its own investigative tactic. Gnosia is a visual novel with Werewolf elements. It puts you through dozens of loops trying to identify who among a group of space-faring travelers has been possessed by the titular alien species. Each loop will have different imposters hanging out among you that you’ll have to identify and successfully convince the rest of the group of. The only evidence you have is based on where and how others cast suspicion. But repeated exposure to character’s argumentative tactics helps you gain an understanding of the world in a way that can only be accomplished through repeated failures. Petit Depotto Team Leader Mezukare explained to me in an email interview that a comprehension of how AI characters behave is key to solving its procedural, looping mysteries. Failure to solve one loop brings new knowledge to solve the next.

“Each character has their own specific tendencies and personality traits; some will focus on the discussion at hand, while others will vote based on personal preference, and others still will be able to see through lies intuitively, etc., and we feel that deducting what’s really going on while keeping all of these different personality traits and interpersonal relationships in mind allows for an even deeper level of fun,” Mezukare said. “The behavior of the AI is absolutely not random; each and every action and comment has a reason behind it.”

Where Paradise Killer finds freedom in never making the truth 100 percent clear, the truth is revealed at the end of every loop Gnosia puts the player through. Whatever deductions you can make in one loop can only be given meaning in the next if you understand the motive behind a character’s behavior. Mezukare explained that Petit Depotto decided to reveal every character’s roles at the end of each loop. This way, players could have context for what they saw in loops and apply that knowledge accordingly.

“It would be a real pain to play through 100+ loops of a puzzle over and over without answers ever being made clear, so we feel that for a Werewolf game, an answer should be provided for each round/loop,” Mezukare said. “However, as for the mysteries such as ‘Just what sort of people are these characters? etc.,’ we felt it was best to only offer up partial pieces of an answer here and there, and leave the bulk of it to the player’s own experiences.”

Gnosia acclimates the player to alien concepts through repeat exposure. Paradise Killer is just as alien, but doesn’t have loops to train your thinking with. In an earlier build of the game, players would have to assign evidence to suspects manually. But Smith said this felt unfair, as players wouldn’t be coming into Paradise Island with established knowledge of its politics and lore, and might not have that understanding until the late stages of the game. As such, this responsibility was given to Starlight, Lady Love Dies’ personal computer.

“Initially, Starlight forced you to categorize things yourself,” Smith explained. “You would get a piece of evidence, then you would have to tie it to a suspect and case file. That was a really poor player experience, because the player is being asked to do too much with stuff they don’t know very much about. It becomes a ‘right or wrong’ test. We don’t really tell the player in that situation whether they got it right or wrong, so it would lead to all kinds of frustrations. Especially on this weird island where you don’t know any of the characters and you learn the rules of the world as you progress. That was too much. So now, Starlight categorizes everything for you.”

In the end, that change helps to bolster Paradise Killer’s free rein, but Kim brought up an interesting point when I asked about the idea of how that can allow people to express their understanding to a video game in different ways. Is that fair? If someone’s deduction skills are vastly different than another’s, is leaving players open to such a breadth of logical threads antithetical to what makes a video game accessible? Lucifer Within Us has a more tailored progression, but it goes out of its way to align your understanding with its systems, which acts as an equalizer. Kim says this approach is more “disciplined” and fair.

“I don’t think logic and deduction are different for everyone,” Kim said. “Deduction should always lead to the same result for everyone so long as it’s used in a disciplined manner and it’s applied to the same set of information. To the extent that fairly designed mystery games are difficult, it’s in the same way that sudoku puzzles are difficult – you have gaps of information that you must fill with logical proofs. Some of these proofs may require multiple steps, and therefore may not feel intuitive, but I believe understanding and using these proofs are the skills being tested in a mystery game.” 

As most things are in game design, what approach is better will largely fall down to personal preference. But mysteries, solved or not, invite a level of speculation not found in most genres of fiction. Whether that comes in the form of suspicion or curiosity. Inevitably, the best of them lead to an “aha” moment, in whatever shape it manifests. As different as our perceptions might be, that feeling of satisfaction in solving a mystery is universal, and the freedom to fail is an aspect only video games can emulate.

“We were very keen on that feeling of ‘you’re an investigator.’ And when you look at real investigations, investigators get it wrong,” Smith said. “They believe a certain thing, they come in with certain biases, they miss evidence, they misinterpret evidence. That is the role of being an investigator, is to work through all of that. And a lot of games don’t allow you to do that.”