Sherlock zones: my love for detective games

While at Rezzed in 2018, my other-half and I noticed just how many detective games were on display at the expo. It’s a trend which seems to have continued in the following two years and more titles with similar themes have been making it onto my wishlist.

As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, there’s just something about a private-investigator-protagonist which draws me in. I’ve grown fond of storylines featuring hardboiled detectives, hidden clues and devious crooks, and enjoy gameplay mechanics where it’s up to the player to piece together the evidence and solve the case. If you’re looking for something new to play and fancy a title which is going to put your sleuthing skills to the test, why grab your flashlight and check out the following releases.

Games I’ve played

Full-motion video (FMV) adventures might not be to everyone’s taste due to their technical limitations and hammed-up acting. But if you’re a fan like me, or you think you can make it through ten hours of exaggerated reactions, then I’d highly recommend checking out Contradiction: Spot the Liar! by Baggy Cat. Join Inspector Jenks, played by the awesome Rupert Booth, as he questions the inhabitants of Edenton village to find out whether Kate Vine’s death was caused by suicide or something more sinister.

If you fancy something more pixelated, why not try Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope instead? This was recommended to me by Luke from Hundstrasse and I picked it up for myself after watching Athena from AmbiGaming play on stream. How long it takes to finish depends completely on the strength of your deduction skills as it’s a pretty tough game, but in a very enjoyable way: you’ll need to make observations based on visual and audio clues to figure out why a once-busy merchant ship is now completely deserted.

The most recent detective title I’ve played is The Painscreek Killings by EQ Studios and it’s one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Much more than a walking simulator, it’s up to you to piece together the clues found around the quiet village of Painscreek to find out who killed the respected Vivian Roberts. The story becomes tangled as the residents reveal their dark secrets and histories through diaries, letters and newspaper articles; will you be able to select the correct murderer, motive and weapon at the end of the game?

Games I’ve wishlisted

Trust me: if you’re a fan of visual novels and noir narratives, you need to go and add Chicken Police by The Wild Gentleman to your wishlist straight away. The premise is somewhat crazy and the animal characters don’t seem to entirely fit the mature storyline at first, but the experience really grew on me throughout the demo and I now can’t wait to get my hands on this game. Join Sonny Featherland and Marty McChicken in Clawville for a case which is stranger and more dangerous than anything they’ve ever encountered before.

At the start of this posted I mentioned Rezzed 2018 and it was at this event that I first came across The Peterson Case. Developer Quarter Circle Games since renamed the project to Once Upon a Time in Roswell and I’m looking forward to the release this year. As you can probably tell from the new title, this one is a psychological-horror which chronicles the Peterson family’s disappearance in Roswell in 1947 – and players will encounter ‘beings not of this earth’ who may want more than just the protagonist’s life…

Murder Mystery Machine by Blazing Griffin is an interactive mystery game which caught my eye when it popped up in my Steam suggestions one day. When local politician Frank Daniels is murdered in what looks like a botched robbery, it entwines Detective Cassandra Clark and her partner Nate in a complex, interconnected series of crimes that’s anything but an open-and-shut case. I really like the isometric visual design and the content shown in the trailer reminds me a little of Knee Deep, but without the theatrical setting.

Games I’ve backed on Kickstarter

Taking a brief break from straight-up video games for a moment, let’s first talk about Missing in Jericho by Crimibox. Here’s an experience which aims to bridge the gap between reality and the digital as it will have players trawling through social media accounts, calling suspicious numbers, and using physical objects such as notebooks and printouts to make sure they don’t get lost in their enquiries. I recently receive my backers’ key and will hopefully start my investigation by the time this post is published – I’ll let you know how it goes.

I also received a copy of the backers build for Gamedec a few weeks ago and was impressed by Anshar Studios’ work so far. This detective game seems as though it’s going to be the one which will give you the most freedom when it comes to deciding how you’d like to approach a situation – but that also means your actions could have consequences which may close down certain lines of questioning. The project feels like it has plenty of potential and I’m curious to find out how the whole thing is going to come together.

Want a kickass female private investigator? Then look no further than Amira Darma in Chinatown Detective Agency by General Interactive Co. I really enjoyed the demo back in April, and the developer will be re-releasing it along with further content in a free preview at the end of this month. As well as investigating cases and doing some real-world research for these, players will also have to make sure the protagonist gets enough rest so she doesn’t crash and gains enough contacts to build her network. Definitely one worth checking out.

These are just a handful of the detective releases I’ve come across this year so far. Are there any further titles I should add to my wishlist? Krikket from Nerd Girl Thoughts recently recommended the demo for Lucifer Within Us by Kitfox Games so I’ll be giving this one a go – and I look forward to hearing any other suggestions.

Dear diary: journals in video games

I’m so used to being on my laptop nowadays that picking up a pen feels weird. Although I haven’t forgotten to use one yet, writing anything by hand is unfamiliar and I’m sure it takes me far longer than it used to. Watch any of our Shadowrun RPG sessions where keeping notes is a must and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m sure I’m not the only person afflicted by this struggle with penmanship. We’re always within range of technology and a large part of our life takes place online, meaning we’re usually more at home with digital than physical mediums. We celebrate birthdays and other milestones on Facebook; share our opinions on world events and politics on Twitter; and record our careers and promote our professional skills on LinkedIn. There are even some of us who are crazy enough to keep a digital journal in the form of a blog.

The Painscreek Killings, video game, journal, diary, handwriting

If we’re likely to turn to a keyboard over a notepad then, why are older forms of life documentation still frequently used as items within video games to tell stories? They might be more common in games like point-and-clicks and RPGs but such objects can appear in any genre. The smallest handwriting samples might be sticky-notes on the side of a computer monitor or a shopping list stuck to a fridge with a magnet; and when you discover a hidden diary, you know you’ve hit the narrative jackpot.

It’s something I’ve been mulling over since playing The Painscreek Killings last month, an excellent 2018 release by EQ Studios. This murder-mystery simply wouldn’t exist without journals, letters and newspaper articles. The developer tried to mimic real-world investigations with their project so there are no hints or quest markers for the player: instead, you’re reliant on the information you can glean from these objects and must translate it into leads to be followed up on.

Of course, this game takes place in an American town in 1997 and focuses on a crime which happened two years earlier, so physical documents don’t seem at all out of place in its world. Back then there wasn’t a computer in every home and not everybody had access to a personal email address or mobile phone. But would The Painscreek Killings have worked so well if its setting had been more modern? Would it have had the same impact if the diaries had been replaced with forms of online communication?

I’m not so sure. Digital documentation might have been able to carry the gameplay but there’s just something about a handwritten journal within a video game which makes the player feel more connected to a character. Because of how private they are in nature, we’re aware we’re holding an item which comes as close as possible to reproducing how a person thinks – plus there’s the added illicit thrill of reading something you know your eyes were never meant to see.

Answer Knot, video game, diary, journal, handwriting, Uncharted, Nathan Drake, Shambhala

There’s also the chance to discern part of a character’s personality through their writing – the way they form the letters on a page, pace their sentences and structure their paragraphs. It’s far easier to do this when you can see their scribbles than when an email or text message is all you have to go on, for example. The language used for such communications is shorter, more to-the-point and standardised, and you learn nothing from an Arial font which could be attributed to absolutely anybody.

As well as giving us an insight into a protagonist’s thoughts and behaviours, journals in video games are used in a few other ways. In Answer Knot by Naraven Games they’re a way of showing the past: the voice messages left on the answerphone show the current state of a relationship while the diaries show its history. Some of the entries also inject a little comedy through Easter eggs – for instance, there’s one which mentions a trip to Shambhala, where half the temples were blown up thanks to a bizarre ‘treasure hunter’.

In Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope, you spend more time within the protagonist’s ledger than you do in the game world itself. Using the evidence recorded within in it – a manifest, sketches of the crew and a map – along with a healthy dose of observation and logic, you must figure out who each person is to fill in the empty pages and solve the mystery of the abandoned ship. It’s easy to assume the notebook would take a backseat to the game’s magic watch, but it is in fact vital to the central mechanic.

Now let’s jump to Gone Home by Fullbright, a narrative release made even more emotional thanks to the way it handles diary entries. Discovering a scribbled page from your sister’s journal hidden around the house triggers a recording of her voice – incredibly fitting, seeing as your character would be likely to read those words in her head in her sibling’s tone. It makes the game extremely touching as you can both see and hear the feeling in Sam’s writing, even though you never once see her in person.

Gone Home, video game, drawer, letters, notes, read

Emails and text messages may have started to creep into video games but I doubt we’re going to stop seeing diaries and other handwritten documents any time soon. They provide a way of giving us a deeper insight into a protagonist or getting to know a character who isn’t present. As written by Andrew King in an article for USgamer: “The journal, then, is as fitting a tool for the video game protagonist as the gun or the sword; a tool designed not to do violence but to cope with the violence one inflicts or receives.”

Looking back over my notes for our Shadowrun sessions, it’s easy to tell whether we had a good or bad game just from the way my writing slants across the paper. Some scribbles are half-formed ideas about plans to attempt in the future, others are big fat question-marks, others are successes shown by crookedly-drawn stars. Each page is a reminder of challenges and victories, and this is what I think of when I see diaries in video games.

The Painscreek Killings: following the trail

Many people found themselves turning to video games to help them through the COVID-19 lockdown. Whether to fill the extra hours, forget about what’s happening in the real world for a while or stay in touch with friends, gaming has been a gift over the past six months.

Although I’ve been fortunate enough to continue working, doing so from home and not having to spend four hours commuting each day has meant longer evenings to dedicate to more games. I’ve now managed to finish 27 titles since April – way more than I’ve been able to get through in recent years. That’s not to say I’ve completely enjoyed that time though. As I wrote at the end of July, gaming was starting to feel like it was becoming another job and the stuff I was playing just wasn’t inspiring me.

Thankfully, I recently found the game to pull me right out of that slump. It was one I’d had on my wishlist since July 2018 after it had appeared in my Steam recommendations one day, and then bought on a whim as part of this year’s summer sale purchases. My other-half and I decided to install it a few weeks ago when we were looking through my library for something to stream and realised we both fancied another detective title; and it has ended up being my favourite gaming experience of 2020 so far.

The Painscreek Killings by EQ Studios takes place in 1997. As young journalist Janet Kelly, you’re sent by your editor to the abandoned town of Painscreek to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of businesswoman Vivian Roberts in 1995. You know you’ll find an interesting story to publish, based on the information released by the media, but what you don’t count on is just how many secrets the inhabitants of this place were hiding. There’s also the small fact that someone seems to want them to stay hidden.

At the beginning you find yourself locked out of the town and your first task is to find a way in. Fortunately, the door to the Sheriff’s office is open and it would be silly not to have a snoop around. Your search a key to the padlocked gate preventing entering Painscreek, along with several documents which help set up the narrative in front of you: a newspaper article about Vivian’s death, another about suspect Scott Brooks, the murder report and the Sheriff’s diary. There’s also a handy flashlight and map to pick up.

At this point the game feels like a walking simulator – but it goes beyond these mechanics by making the player think for themselves. The developer has tried to mimic real-world investigations so there are no hints or quest-markers to hold your hand. Instead, the story is told through items such as diaries, notes and other everyday objects, and you can explore wherever your investigations take you. We kept a pad and pen close during our playthrough so we could note the leads uncovered and follow up on each of these.

The Painscreek Killings, video game, path, driveway, house, mansion, Roberts

That’s not to say you’re stuck in Painscreek until you’ve uncovered all the evidence though. You can leave at any time by taking certain paths out of the town but your editor will still expect you to provide the name of the murderer, the weapon used to kill Vivian and a photograph for the front page. Depending on your actions, how far into the game you are and the choices you make for this final decision, you might be fired by your boss, receive letters from concerned citizens or worse: leave the real killer forever unmasked.

But at no moment did we consider leaving early (although I almost did once by accident). Every lock opened, code cracked and document revealed was a breadcrumb leading us on in an investigation we wanted to see through to the end. The further we progressed, the more we uncovered about the individuals who lived in these now-abandoned houses until we realised just how tangled and deceptive their lives were. This was no longer a case of simply murder; it was far more complex than that.

This made The Painscreek Killings an excellent game to play on stream. Everybody in chat joined in by discussing what each clue could possibly mean, the lead we should follow up on next and possible theories surrounding Vivian’s death. Shout-outs here to Will from Geek Sleep Rinse Repeat and Destiny (partner of Ian from Adventure Rules) for all their help, plus props to The_Ghost_Owl who came up with a theory about one particular plot point which ended up being spot on.

There was only one negative point about the game, and I say this with my tongue firmly in cheek. At the start you find out that the town’s population has been steadily decreasing since the murder and that the location is going to be auctioned off very shortly. This explains why almost all the items in each house are packed into boxes – but why did everyone decide to leave their diaries out in the open for anyone to find? And if we were able to discover the clues and follow the trail to the killer, why couldn’t the police have done that back in 1995?

Although we joked about this funny oversight, it didn’t bother us: the story was such a good one that it almost seemed insignificant when compared to how much we enjoyed the title. For three afternoons and around 16 hours of gameplay, we totally forgot about everything else. Even after we’d found out who the murderer was and submitted our findings to our editor, we jumped straight back in because there were a few leads we hadn’t yet followed up on and we wanted to uncover every single little secret that we could.

Speaking of the ending, it was tense. I made a joke about my palms sweating because it felt as though the killer was watching me from a dark corner and then had to hand the controller over to Pete because I was so anxious. A few reviewers have said that the final section of the game is out-of-place with what comes before it but for me, it really worked. The level of tension has been building steadily throughout our investigation and it was fitting that it would reach such a climax.

Forget the victim’s murder – the real crime here is that The Painscreek Killings hasn’t had more attention since its release in September 2017. I’d never heard about it before it appeared on my Steam recommendations back in summer last year and now I’m kicking myself for waiting for so long to get around to playing it. If you’re a fan of narrative-based titles, detective stories and solving mysterious cases, please do check this one out as soon as possible because you’re going to love it.

I’m so pleased that EQ Studios are working on their next project. There’s no release date for Scene Investigators just yet but what has been revealed so far sounds great: it’s set in a near future where reported cases are downloaded in a construction room so they can be re-examined, and it’s your job as an investigator to analyse each scene and uncover the truth. The official website advises this is going to be a game for anyone who’s a fan of detective films, the true-crime genre and escape room puzzles.

I’ll meet you at the crime scene.