Detective games

You’re welcome. Though… I think I might make another post about it when I finish both modes of the game just to be sure.

Speaking of Frogware titles, I had been making my way through Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring when I came up against something I was hoping wouldn’t make an appearance: a stealth section. Stalled on it a while then opted to find a bundle of saves someone kindly uploaded on the internet, so I could work around it in some way. Unfortunately, it does seem like it’s … well, a thing. At least for the area I stalled at. Being stealthy makes sense for the story but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to, like, dodge patrolling AI in real time.

I’ll probably miss out on a part of the game by doing this, but I want to at least have a chance at piecing the mystery together.

Are you going to try ?

Probably not without a strong recommendation. Everything I’ve read and heard about this game made it sound like the detective parts was not very meaningful nor well done.

It’s on Game Pass, btw.

Sherlock: Last Call is a part of the “Q System - Sherlock” line of games. The naming of these is as mercenary as it gets: other than the title, there’s not even the tiniest nod to connecting the games to Holmes. These games (6 released so far) are cooperative, take about 45-60 minutes to play, are a single deck of cards with a tiny box, and priced accordingly (~8 Euros).

The way the game works mechanically is that there’s a deck of 32 cards. Each player gets a hand of three cards. They can’t reveal the cards to others or describe the contents in general, but are allowed to read any underlined words out loud (e.g. there might be a card with 50 words of text, where “seat 17d” and “argument” may be read out). Some cards don’t have text but pictures: for those, there’s a subtitle that may be read out loud instead.

On a player’s turn, they either play one of the cards or discard it, and then refill their hand. If the card is played, everyone gets to see it. If it’s discarded, it’s gone for ever: other players don’t get to see it, and you can’t bring up the contents during discussion. There are two reasons to discard cards. One is that the players must discard at least 6 cards or they’ll automatically fail; the other is is that cards that turn out to be irrelevant to the case will score minus points at the end.

At any time the players can talk about their understanding of the case, which will presumably drive the decisions about exactly which cards to play or discard. When all cards have been played or when the players feel confident in understanding the case, it’s time to answer 10 multiple choice questions on the case, and the answers are scored.

The case we played was surprisingly subtle. We did not come up with the right theory, and indeed had to ignore one key fact entirely to force our theory into working. But that was still the best we had. The actual solution made at least as much sense as our attempt, and the bread crumb trail for arriving at the correct solution was there. We just missed it. Partly we didn’t consider it due to missing one detail in a specific card, and partly since my nephew threw away one card that from the keywords sounded really important (and I said so), but that he was adamant was not going to be useful given the contents. And of course it was. So I guess that the funny card-play system actually did the job.

One thing to understand is that this won’t be a deep and engaging story: it’s 32 cards each with either a picture or only a little bit of text. The bandwidth is used strictly for the mystery (whether it’s hints or red herrings), there’s nothing left for building characters or setting the scene. But after the turgid writing of SHCD: Jack the Ripper and Detective: Modern Crime Boardgame, the minimalist approach was kind of refreshing.

I liked this in general, it seemed like the most satisfying attempt so far at making one of these games take less than an hour. Not something to play instead of my usual recommendations in this thread, but good enough and in a totally different niche.

I’ve been getting back into The Council A ‘combat-free RPG’ that was released episodically across 2017-2018 (or maybe just 2018- all I remember is I picked it up on sale when it was finished). I played the first episode last year, and started up the second last night. I think it falls into this category of ‘detective games’.

How does a combat-free RPG work, anyhow, you ask? Well, it’s pretty much all the dialogue stuff from any normal RPG- you have skills and stays that level up, and perks, just subtract all the ones that give you +10% damage with shotguns our whatever. You wander around a large manor, investigating things and having conversions with people. During those investigations, skill checks come up, but there’s no failing them- either you have at least the required Politics Level 1 or you don’t. You can also boost your levels with Effort Points, but those are in relative short supply, so you have to pick and choose the things you really want to know about.

Characters you meet all have weaknesses and immunities you have to suss out, and if you exploit those, you get bonuses or penalties. So, the cardinal in immune to Logic, don’t go using Logic tests against him. Occasionally you get into a Confrontation with a character, and the successes and failures you have in these times can change the direction of the story.

The whole ‘detective thing’ is where the story comes in- it’s a conspiracy/thriller/detective story (set in the 1790s, so you get characters like George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte), so you’re looking for clues about various things going on and making connections given information you find.

I’m having a lot of fun with it. Sure, it isn’t AAA budget, but it’s a neat concept, and even with the rough edges, I can see the potential for the system. Hopefully the devs get to use it again in another with some more polish.

That’s cool, I bought the game because I liked the sound of it - I enjoy games that try to manage conflict and drama without combat. But, I haven’t yet gotten around to actually playing it, so thanks for reminding me.

Every time this thread is bumped, I get sad because I’ve already played Return of the Obra Dinn.

Yeah. I said a long time ago that I never wanted to play another D&D tabletop game as the system is so focused on combat, and poorly at that, compared to a bunch of boardgames I have on my shelf. In more interested in the indie, small-press story/narrative-driven RPG scene. And this game is pretty much exactly that. There’s drama and conflict, and even the occasional violence, but it’s all in service of the story, not the other way around. I’d love to see something like The Witcher 3, but with none of the ‘hey neat! Now I’ve got a sword that does 35-40 damage to replace my old sword that does 32-38 damage!’ B.s. that is endemic to the genre.

That’s another one that I picked up recently and need to start playing. Have you tried Heaven’s Vault? Not a detective game as such, but does have some of the same kind of investigation and deductive reasoning.

Side note: for some reason iOS thinks I meant to type “seductive reasoning” above. I don’t know who my phone thinks I am.

I really enjoyed that game but I could have done with about 10% of the game’s combat and inventory management. I didn’t need to run into packs of wolves and/or bandits ever fifty feet.

For me it was probably closer to 50%. I felt like all the monsters around actually undermined worldbuilding a bit- the people always acted like monsters were rare, but they were everywhere!


How does this part work mechanically? I.e. are you making the connections in-game or just mentally? And what do you do with the conclusions?

A little of both. First, there’s no ‘detective vision’ or anything. Objects you can interact with and/or pick up have little blue dots on them when you get near-ish. A vast majority of them are just bits of information- letters, books, art you can examine, etc. So the more of those you look at, the more information you have. Some have associated skill tests (using your precious effort points) that give you even more info. There is no screen that collects these to review later, so take notes yourself or remember. The game autosaves constantly, so don’t think you can just save-scum and reload after spending points on a choice or encounter, either. Only one save slot, too.

Then, when you are talking or ‘In Conflict’ with another character, you often can put that info or inference to work… but you can be wrong. You can improperly accuse people of things, for example. This probably won’t make them happy, tainting your future interactions with them.

One cool thing I didn’t mention is the ‘scoring’ screen. Each episode is broken into chapters. After each chapter, a screen comes up listing all the things you accomplished, all the things you failed at and alternate paths you didn’t take. The last chapter I finished was mostly an elaborate puzzle, looking at paintings and looking up quotes in a Guttenberg Bible. Given the way the chapter ended, I could have apparently abandoned that puzzle any time. I would have had fewer clues and information about one of the main mysteries of the game, but the game would have absolutely let me do it. After I finished the first Episode, I almost immediately wanted to go back and restart it to ‘win’, but I resisted that urge. It’s really neat to have to live with your decisions.

Admittedly, the game is like a walking simulator in a lot of ways. But an interactive, branching one that while you can’t exactly fail (that I’ve seen, yet), doesn’t strictly hold your hand and spoon-feed you all the answers.

Thanks, that sounds really cool.

No problem. But like I said, it is not am AAA game. The writing/dialogue and voice acting is very serviceable, but nothing special. Focus Home Interactive published it, and it’s very in line with the quality level of the other games of theirs I’ve played.

Make It Good is a 2009 interactive fiction game that the reviews were implying was the modern incarnation of Deadline. Complex characters with state that you need to manipulate by showing them evidence and telling things, and investigation that requires actual understanding of what’s going on with the case so that you know to use the right non-obvious verbs. Since I thought that Deadline had done some of this stuff better than any other game before or after, this sounded intriguing.

The reality is quite different from what those reviews said.

You’re a drunk detective straight out of a Raymond Chandler book, who hasn’t managed to solve a case in a year. You’ve been given one last chance; somebody is dead, you need to make an arrest before sunset or you’re fired. So there’s a somewhat Deadline-like setup for artificial urgency too.

Now, the game has a core conceit that all the reviews left unmentioned. I can see why, since it’s technically a spoiler. But it’s a spoiler for roughly the first 30 minutes of the game, and I find it totally impossible to talk about the game in the context of this thread without it.

It becomes apparent very quickly that the player character is the murderer, and that impression gets reinforced regularly. Your fingerprints are on the murder weapon. Your footprints are in the flowerbed at the escape route. When the vicar greets you, they say they’re happy to meet you “again”. You’re in the possession of a note that the stiff wrote to the person who was blackmailing them. A button that’s fallen off your coat is under the victim’s bed. And more.

Your job is not going to be to find the murderer. It’s going to be to frame somebody else for the murder. Which turns out to be a fairly boring mechanical exercise, where your sidekick will always helpfully mention what category of evidence is missing to make an arrest.

The first time you make an arrest stick, it turns out there’s a complication. Your evidence won’t be enough, and you really need to get somebody to confess to a murder they didn’t commit. That’s a slightly more complicated process, but doesn’t really feel like it requires any kind of deep understanding of the case or the characters. (I had to look at a walkthrough, but it was only since I’d given up on forging a certain kind of evidence, after once being told off by the game and the second time getting totally the wrong reaction from a character. Turns out the second attempt had actually worked correctly, but I just needed to wait for a while.)

I’ve at times thought that a game about framing somebody would be really interesting. Turns out I was probably wrong about that.

Make It Good was a harsh disappointment. As an interactive fiction game it’s technically great; there’s a seemingly endless supply of custom responses to everything. (Basically the first things I did in the game was throw a bottle of whiskey at a dog that was annoying my character, and then try to lick the whiskey off the pavement, and the game handled both of those commands). There was just a little bit of parser frustration, mostly due to the conversations missing some words that I felt were really obvious things to ask about.

But as a spiritual successor to Deadline, or even as an exampe of the genre, it just doesn’t work. The feeling of fitting together the puzzle pieces in order to solve the mystery just isn’t there.

An Act of Murder is another modern interactive fiction detective game that’s clearly been inspired by Deadline (all the way down to having Duffy as a character, though by now he’s been promoted).

A man is dead, in a remote mansion that nobody except the five guests at the dinner party could have entered. You conduct an investigation via a text parser, interrogate people by asking them questions about things you’ve found, and ultimately present a set of evidence to make an arrest that’ll stick.

The games is mostly pretty crude compared to the interactive fiction games I’ve written about earlier in the thread. There are no interesting investigative verbs, it’s basically just going to every room and searching every object. The conversations are just you the characters asking about things you’ve discovered (plus a couple of generic ones, like asking about their alibi).

And proving that you’ve solved the case is really just a case of telling Duffy about the evidence you’ve found. Once you’ve mentioned all bits of evidence that are germane to some aspect of the case, Duffy will explain their significance. As far as I can tell you could just tell Duffy about everything in your notebook, and he’ll solve the case for you. There is no need for the player to actually understand the case.

The gimmick is that the mystery is generated procedurally. The murderer, the motive, the murder weapon, the timing of the murder, the schedules of the characters, etc all change on every run. The first time around the illusion was maintained quite well. The murderer was maybe a bit obvious, but it was still quite satisfying since the game did a lot more than typical with detailed timelines of who-was-where-when-with-whom vs. the timing of the murder. And I just love that shit in detective fiction.

The second time around, the illusion collapsed completely. The details changed, but the process didn’t. Exactly the same two bits of evidence (one derived via absurd adventure game logic) were used to establish the time of murder. It became obvious that you’d every time exclude two suspects via them having mutual alibis for the time of the murder, one suspect via an inability to commit the murder (e.g. lacking a piece of knowledge needed to execute the crime), and one suspect due to not having a motive. And then whoever is remaining can be arrested, and will confess. Doesn’t even matter whether you’ve figured out if they have a motive.

(I might be wrong on the exact procgen structure, but even though I’m pretty sure that further runs would take about 10 minutes each, I can’t be bothered to try it again).

This won 2nd place in the IF comp in 2007, so my expectations were really calibrated much higher than the reality. I think it must have been purely based on some kind of “it’s a miracle this works at all” recognition of how hard this would have been to code, rather than anything to do with the merits of the game play.