Detective Stories in Digital Games

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Abstract (in English): 

Literary detective stories have some game-like elements, as they pose an implicit challenge for the reader to solve the crime before they read the solution (Suits, 1985). This paper will examine early detective games to argue that interactive detective investigations are essentially linked to textual exploration and exegesis; as text becomes de-emphasized, the detective work also takes a secondary role.

According to Todorov’s typology of detective fiction (Todorov, 2000), detective games present two stories: the story of the crime and the story of the investigation. The first type of detective fiction, the whodunit, emphasizes the story of the crime, which the detective reconstructs, on the other hand, the thriller emphasizes the story of the investigation, by which the detective gets embroiled into the crime that he is solving.

Detective stories found their digital counterparts early in the 1980s, in the form of early adventure games, which will be the focus of this paper. Early detective games are a pure whodunit, where reconstructing the story of the crime becomes is the challenge, while the story of the investigation is the player trying to figure out the case. These early games provide the player with a variety of actions and information sources the player can obtain information from. In contrast, later games after 1990 to the present are closer to a thriller, where crime is an excuse for the player to get involved into a series of adventures and challenges, rather than investigate.

This contrast also reveals that early detective games focused on investigative work more than later digital game thrillers, which emphasize action and adventure. Early digital whodunits present an unusual variety of actions to obtain information, all in textual form: descriptions of objects, dialogue with witnesses, documental evidence. The platforms that these early games were developed for did not allow for sophisticated graphics, so the key information was written, and the game play consists of exploring, unveiling, and interpreting texts. The paper will examine these resources, and how they encourage exegetic work. With the advent of better graphics in later computer platforms, detective games seem to have steadily simplified the mechanics to perform the work of a detective, mostly substituting exegesis as gameplay with environmental puzzles or skill-based challenges, thus sidelining the textual aspects of detective stories.

The discussion will focus on a set of 1980s digital games selected from different countries (US, Japan, Australia and UK), which were originally developed for different platforms (Apple ][, NES, Spectrum, Commodore 64). The games selected are Deadline (Infocom, 1982), Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (ポートピア連続殺人事件, The Portopia Serial Murder Case) (Enix, 1983), Sherlock (Melbourne House, 1984), and The Detective (Argus Press Software, 1986). For contrast, these will be examined alongside later detective games for later technologies, such as the Gabriel Knight series (Sierra On-Line, 1993-1999), Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010), and L.A. Noire (Team Bondi, 2011).

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Jill Walker Rettberg