LudoNarraCon 2021: Murder Mystery Machine

Regular Later Levels’ visitors will know I have a thing for detective games. Give me a storyline featuring a hardboiled investigator, hidden clues and devious crooks, along with gameplay where it’s up to the player to solve the crime and I’m there.

It’s therefore no surprise that Murder Mystery Machine was added to my wishlist immediately after coming across Blazing Griffin’s project on Steam in December 2019. Teasing a series of murders, disappearances and conspiracies, the trailer showed two protagonists trying to link them together. I’ve now had the opportunity to try a demo of the game for myself during LudoNarraCon at the end of April – and I can’t wait to get my sleuthing on during the full release.

Players join fresh-faced rookie Cassandra Clarke on her first day with the District Crime Agency (DCA) where she’s teamed with a reluctant burnt-out detective named Nate Huston. They’re sent to investigate the murder of a prominent politician which at first seems to be a botched robbery; but the evidence soon entwines them in a complex, interconnected series of crimes which are anything but an open-and-shut case. Will you be up to the challenge to discover the truth?

Justin Alae-Carew and Neil McPhillips from Blazing Griffin gave some insight into their game’s design during a livestream for LudoNarraCon. Because the company spans video game, film and television development and production, they wanted to combine these areas and create an interesting title which felt like a police drama you’d see on TV. The result is a ‘detective mystery puzzle game which combines a few genres in one’ and takes place across eight episodes made up of several scenes.

The demo features three scenes for a case and each of these follows a similar format. You start by speaking to the witnesses or suspects if any are present then comb the environment for clues, sometimes having to turn or zoom into the isometric view to get a better look from a different angle. Every piece of evidence found is placed on a mind-map board where it can be linked together, and connections made can give the detectives new ideas and dialogue options.

For example: you discover that the politician has a political rival so could a hit have been arranged? Talking to the secretary reveals she was told not to answer questions from the press and didn’t tell anyone else of his whereabouts. Linking these two pieces of information on the mind-map causes Cassandra to realise that this theory isn’t possible so it rules out the rival as a suspect; and a further conversation with the secretary as a result uncovers some useful information.

Murder Mystery Machine, video game, office, secretary, detectives, sofa, Cassandra, Nate

During their livestream, Alae-Carew and McPhillips shared that the game started out as a ‘procedural crime scene generator’ and then evolved into something else. They wanted to create a freeform title where players were given a lot of freedom to investigate, as many current detective releases streamline the gameplay too much or include puzzles not related to the investigation. Focusing on a detective’s skills including powers of logic and deduction, and a desire to include a narrative led to what is now Murder Mystery Machine.

The biggest challenge the development team faced from day one was working with people who were used to creating linear narratives for television: how do you emulate a TV or film approach to a story but give the player some control over it at the same time? The writers were trained to understand that you can never be entirely sure what the person in charge of the controls is going to do, and that you therefore need to write for all the different possibilities.

With a television show, it’s usually the case that the characters know more than the viewer or vice-versa; but with a video game, you somehow need to marry these two together so the player knows just as much as the protagonist. Scenes therefore had to be constructed in a way where information is uncovered in a careful fashion and too much isn’t revealed at once. You should never be able to solve a case before the game has given you, Cassandra and Nate all of the necessary pieces to do so.

Using the clues gathered and linked together on your mind-map board, you’re asked to answer questions about the who, what, why, where, when and how at the end of each scene. You can submit your evidence once you’re happy with your conclusions but be warned: you only get three attempts to get it right and missing any links reduces your detective score. I made a guess during the final scene without getting all of the deductions and had my grade decreased as a result.

Based on what was shared by Alae-Carew and McPhillips, it sounds as though there’s going to be an overarching story rather than just individual cases during Murder Mystery Machine. Some will be personal stories, such as how the protagonists progress and build their relationship, while something much larger is teased and will be revealed at the end of the season. The point out that they wanted to add a lot of depth: ‘Nobody is a straight-up criminal, but nobody is a saint either.’

Murder Mystery Machine is already available on Apple Arcade, and PC and console players will be able to get their hands on the game very soon to find out whether they have what it takes to be a detective. Check out Blazing Griffin on Twitter for further announcements.

The folly of Kate Walker

At the last London Gaming Market in July, I managed to pick up copies of Syberia and Syberia II for my PlayStation 2. The first game in the series is hailed by many as a classic and Adventure Gamers named it the fifteenth best adventure in 2011.

Personally though, it’s never been a release that has made it onto my favourites list. I first played it back in 2003 on my old console and I’ve repeated it a couple of times since on PC but it’s always struck me as being rather odd. I understand video games are meant to be creative works of fantasy, designed to transport us to all sorts of magical places, but Syberia’s storyline contains several elements that just make me scratch my head in confusion and think ‘Why?’

Not least of all is the title’s protagonist Kate Walker, an American lawyer sent by her firm to the fictional French village of Valadilène to oversee the buy-out of a automaton factory. After finding out that the owner had recently died, she’s advised by the village notary that her brother Hans Voralberg may still be alive and so ensues a journey around a steampunkish version of Europe to track him down. I was reminded of just how much I don’t like this character when I streamed the game last month.

I know there are going to be a few shocked gasps among some of you reading that sentence. After all, Kate Walker (because almost everybody in Syberia calls her by her full name for some strange reason) is a much-loved character who’s often cited as a female protagonist we can be proud of. And while I’ll admit she’s more independent, intelligent and strong than some other leading ladies we’ve had in the past, all I can see when I look at her is someone who’s just not that nice.

She points out that nobody is around to take her bags up to her room upon arrival at her hotel in Valadilène. The manager apologies sincerely and tells her it’s a day of mourning for the whole village due to Anna Volraberg’s funeral, before taking her single case up to the next floor. The baker tells her the same thing when she asks why the bakery is closed. But she then says during a call with her best friend Olivia: ‘These people are just not very hospitable.’ Get over yourself, Kate Walker.

The hotel manager and baker aren’t the only people she’s rude to. When she needs to pick up a boat oar to use as a leaver, she says: ‘Yuuck! That oar is all dirty and wet!’. She then proceeds to let young Momo collect it for her because she doesn’t want to get her hands messy – so much for independence. It’s also worth pointing out here that the way Momo is referred to by other characters is often extremely derogatory, with words such as ‘slow’ and ‘retard’ used which makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The majority of Syberia’s plot covers what happens after Kate Walker boards a clockwork train staffed only by an automaton named Oscar, both made at the Voralberg factory. She has no idea as to its route or destination other than a hunch it might take her to Hans. As if that wasn’t foolhardy enough, she brings no supplies with her (although her case somehow her case miraculously appears in the train’s sleeper compartment later). What kind of woman goes on a long journey without at least taking a phone charger and snacks?

The biggest thing I can’t forgive her is during an event towards the end of the game. Throughout her mission, she receives several calls from her fiancé Dan who comes across as the ‘jealous type’. He’s annoyed she isn’t with him in New York to go a dinner party hosted by an important client and continuously tells her to come home. It becomes obvious to the player over the course of the title that it’s not all innocent between Dan and Olivia, and eventually they both reveal to Kate Walker that something has happened.

On one hand I can respect her for handling the situation with such grace. She doesn’t get angry; she simply realises that perhaps she and her fiancé didn’t love each other as much as they thought, and that her journey throughout Europe has changed who she is. I don’t believe calls with news like that would have been managed with so much dignity in the real world – there definitely would have been at least a small amount of screaming – but props to her for managing to stay so calm.

However, I just can’t agree with her responses to the cheating pair. When Olivia tells her she’s had the hots for Dan for ages and something happened between them when she invited him into her home for a nightcap, she says: “Don’t bust a gut over it.” And to Dan she replies: “Maybe, I’m to blame somewhere in all of this. Maybe I pushed you into Olivia’s arms. I’m well aware this trip has taken me far from New York and far from the Kate you once knew.”

What the hell, Kate Walker? A best friend is meant to be someone who you can trust, yet you simply tell her not to worry about sleeping with your fiancé as if it’s something that can just be easily forgotten. And as for Dan, he should be proud of your achievements and sticking to your mission regardless of the adverse (and ridiculous) conditions you’ve found yourself in – not using them as an excuse to end up in Olivia’s bed because you’re not there to cater to his every whim.

The fact she feels she’s partly to blame for what went on back in New York and that she essentially needs to apologise for growing as a person irritates me. I understand the reasons for infidelity are far more complicated than can be explained during a couple of short phone calls shown in a video game, but this isn’t a side of Kate Walker I wanted to see. Show me someone who’s been hurt by people she cared about and who is vulnerable – but don’t give me a woman who feels she has to say sorry for others’ mistakes.

It’s for the reasons explained within this post that I’ve never made it to Syberia II or Syberia 3, and it may seem strange then that I purchased the second title despite not particularly liking the original. It’s because I finally want to find out whether those plot elements that seem so silly are finally cleared up in a way that makes sense. I guess that also means there’s a chance that the new Kate Walker could end up growing on me if I spend a bit more time with her.

But not if she doesn’t start taking her phone charger and snacks on long train journeys.