Detective Grimoire (SFB Games)

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Detective Grimoire is a short (90-180 minutes, probably, depending how much you rush through the voiceover parts) point-and-click mystery adventure. It’s pretty easy — strong hints about what to do next and what you might have missed thus far, as well as a “sparkle” mode to draw attention to environmental object that you should really look at. (If you want a more classic pixel-hunting experience, you can turn the sparkles off.) The content is also reasonably kid-friendly; though you’re investigating a murder, the actual and hypothesized reasons for that murder are all kept fairly PG. Some other reviewers refer to these as “grisly” or “dark”, but I didn’t find them so; it seemed to me that the character motivations are either quite gentle or cartoonish or both. If you squint, there’s maybe a bit of an argument for preserving the wilderness, but even that is softly handled enough that it avoids any political bite.

The casual graphic adventure is a genre I don’t follow very rigorously, and I came across this particular example mainly because it was entered in IGF. The thing I found chiefly notable about it was its handling of evidence. Like the Phoenix Wright mysteries, it has you collect a dossier of clues and evidence; entries are automatically added to your clue book as you explore the map and have conversations with NPCs. You can then bring up clues in conversation with other characters, which is a nice tidy front end to a “ASK FOO ABOUT BAR” mechanic. But occasionally you need to formulate a more complex conclusion, and then you have the opportunity to use this screen:

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You can drag elements from the top into the gaps in the sentence, and you can also rotate parts of the sentence itself. (So there are four possibilities for the first phrase in that sentence; I happen to have selected “spends less time holding”, but I could have chosen something else.) There’s also a less complex screen where you can draw single objects into scope to suggest the answer to a particular question.

It would have been easy to reduce these (especially the single-object version) to a pure choice-clicking interface, but the need to assemble bits out of components, and actually drag them across the screen, gave the impression of a bit more intellectual agency.

In practice, I found all of this really easy, with a lot of the interactions working more as pacing devices than as full-on puzzles. The writing heavily hints at correct solutions. I think that’s intentional, though, either because the authors were targeting a young audience or because they didn’t want it to be a game about difficulty. But I’m not sure I’d say that it was primarily about the story either: there’s a bunch of exploration to do, but the protagonist doesn’t experience much by way of heightening stakes or reversals or twist surprises, and the backstory exists more to be a solution than to carry any particular freight of characterization or thematic development. I really doubt I’ll be thinking about the storyline in a few weeks’ time.

Along the same line, tasks to do with concept-manipulation appear alongside tasks like “drag all of these objects away from the hidden thing underneath” or “follow this tangled string to the end”: super-simple activities that feel like they might be generated to keep 5-year-olds occupied.

So I’d say Detective Grimoire felt a lot like solving a low-piece-count jigsaw puzzle: there’s definitely a process there to follow, and some pleasure in watching the image emerge as the pieces come together, but it’s always obvious that time and patience will get you where you’re going. In fact I was reminded of something solar penguin once wrote about playing old-school text adventures:

I tend to look at IF as a sort of patience or solitaire game but with the cards replaces by text descriptions of objects, places and people… Those old, treasure-collecting cave-crawls all followed a similar pattern, just like all games of patience follow a similar pattern. Just as finding a red 9 means you have to find a black 10 to put it on top of etc., so finding a key meant you have to find which door it unlocked, etc. The interest lies in seeing which variation on the pattern you’ll get this time.

At the time I found that a really odd claim to make and antithetical to much of what I find interesting about IF. But I’d have to say that Detective Grimoire felt to me a lot like that description; it was just so charmingly voiced and illustrated, and so playful, that I enjoyed the experience as a process even though it wasn’t offering most of the things that I would ordinarily identify as my favorite things about interactive story games. Besides, the low-level interaction in Grimoire is not about locks and keys, but about determining causality in small simple events.

It seemed to me like that level of not-quite-puzzle evidence-matching task (“what does it mean that there’s water on the floor and the bath towel is missing?”) is the kind of thing that might be procedurally generable: at startup, you fire off a partly random series of events that leave behind trace evidence of various sorts, and then you let the player wander the map gluing the evidence bits back together to recreate the original event series. You might even allow the player to make wrong guesses, if there were multiple ways for the same evidential bits to come into existence.

I do not know whether this would be fun to play. Possibly too much of the entertainment value of Grimoire lies in the surface polish and not enough in the core activity.

It might be kind of interesting to build, though.

Hm.

4 thoughts on “Detective Grimoire (SFB Games)

  1. You say, “procedurally generable” and I say, “easily authorable.” Build out a little toolkit, let authors write mystery causation games like this. (The game as it stands is already practically a visual novel, so maybe a library on top of RenPy would be appropriate.)

  2. I’ve been working on a library that procedurally generates murder mysteries like that. It starts with a crime scene and a victim. Examining the body will tell you a cause of death, i.e., what kind of murder weapon to look for. Clues like business cards lead to other suspects and their locations. You can question suspects for alibis and verify them, e.g., if Bob says he was with Jane at the time of the murder, you check if Jane tells the same story. Given enough evidence against suspects–say, Bob lied about his alibi and some other clue reveals he had a motive–you can get a warrant to search their homes. It’s still a work in progress, but I hope to have something ready to release sometime next year.

    There’s also a game called Sleuth: Shades of Mystery that does some similar stuff (http://shades.playsleuth.com/).

  3. Pingback: Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  4. Pingback: Contradiction (Pneuma Films) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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