Archive - Games
If you’ve ever been in a pub with me, or on an excruciating train journey, you’ll know that one of my favourite game design ponderings is the problem of investigation in games. I’m a fan of police procedurals and detective fiction, and have long wanted to make a game in that mould.
Crucially, for me, I wanted to work out how to make investigation the mechanic of the game, rather than the set dressing. Hidden object games often use detective plots, but.. Angela Lansbury doesn’t solve crimes by picking up everything in a room. Same with more ambitious detection, as in the Arkham games or a string of more adventure gamey detective games… they are more like guitar hero than Poirot, requiring the player to lean in and match an existing path through the story.. it’s pattern matching: “find the connections designed by the designer, and show us that you have”.
I know why detective games often go down this path. It’s because I’m not clever. Well. I get by. Most days I remember the fundamentals. But I’m not Sherlock Holmes. I’m not Ms Marple. I’ll never be Jonathan Creek, regardless of how I grow my hair out. The truth is, nobody really is that smart. These characters are often more devices of structure than human beings. We may want to be Sherlock Holmes, but that’s not attainable in a videogame play session.
I also can’t shoot a gun. I’ve tried. And yet, thanks to auto-aim, I have saved Earth an enormous number of times. On an intellectual level, I know how much Assassin’s Creed is helping me make a jump, or the way in which the lego games are never really going to let that dinosaur eat me, but it doesn’t matter. I look at the possibility space in a given game through those filters, those little nudges that turn me into Indiana Jones.
And I always figured the industry was one step away from auto-aim for ‘intelligence’. And that an awesome detective game would be the first place that problem got solved in a way I liked.
Enter ‘Her Story’
Her Story is a detective game. One with very little nudging or objective setting. You use a shitty computer to track through video footage (271 files, I know, because like most I tried to break it ;D) you enter search terms, and are served up with the first 5 videos (with tantalising numbers showing you there are more you can’t get to).. as you watch videos, you piece together details, and use search terms that are inspired by what you’ve seen to look deeper into testimony hunting for..
.. well. There doesn’t seem to be a defined end. I know I discovered an explanation last night, but I already plan to hunt around that for a better one.. I’m not buying it. Too neat.
Oh, look at me, talking gruffly about the case I’m working on. I found myself thinking about the evidence after putting down my ipad (a good place to play for convenience, but I do wish I’d bought the desktop version, just for the haptics) and I realised that the team behind the game had solved auto-aim for detectives. They’d managed to give me the tools to feel like a real copper.
My mistake was thinking I had to give the player a better gun which cleaned up player bluntness. Their triumph is in handing the player an absolutely terrible gun that suddenly makes you feel like a genius for getting it to work. Oh. And the gun’s design is based on a tool you use for hours a day.
The interface by which you progress in Her Story is a search engine. A bad one. Google fu is, at this point, a skill most gamers will have picked up. We rely on it every day. Finding information quickly may be the defining skill of any person under 30. So, that’s a start: I’m not navigating a dialogue tree, or a clever 7 button interface, I’m using a tool I know.
But that still doesn’t make me clever. I’m still idiotic ol’ Mike Bithell, tapping away at my iPad. That’s where the bluntness of the tool comes into play. The single greatest design choice in Her Story, the one that ties it together, is that ‘showing first 5 results’ limitation. Bluntly typing in ‘murder’ will bring up, unsurprisingly, a lot of results.. but you can only see the first 5, chronologically. Leaving the term blank to try and cheat the system will show you video of the character ordering a cup of coffee in her first interview, oh, and dropping some hints to get you started properly, cheeky gamer.
The bluntness of the tool covers my own bluntness. Brute force is accounted for, and designed around. Presumably, the final video, the big reveal that she is, in fact, a time traveller, uses incredibly uncommon words.. but if I could just guess! It’s right there.
As with most of the stories we tell ourselves about cool game sessions, in my memory of playing the game, I’m not randomly typing keywords, I’m following lines of logic.. stretching red strings from polaroid to polaroid. I’m a genius. The interface takes the blame for any of my foolery.
Her Story is very clever, and thanks to an intentionally obtuse interface, it makes me feel clever too. Damn I wish I’d come up with it 😉
On my To-Play list.
The Definition of Pre-ordering Video Games (OC)