Mystery games are one of the strongest running genres in gaming. Part of it is the fact that it can be so versatile, but the versatility is also part of the fact that it’s a weird genre. It can be tied into pretty much anything whether we’re talking thrillers, cyberpunk, straight science fiction, fantasy, horror, adventure, action, roleplaying games, etc. So, when and why does it work?
There are a couple of factors that really help with that. In my mind, it’s pretty simple. As long as there is something that players can latch onto, it’s easier for a game to succeed. That’s just the case for pretty much any game, book, movie, or show. It’s all about finding ways to guide expectations. And those expectations can be guided by what a game inspired by. Different types of mystery games will require different feels. So, three of the biggest factors are character, problem (and rising stakes for the problem), and setting.
Character is simple. The people you’re working with or around have their own agendas. So conflicting character goals can make things more compelling. Despite his flaws as a creator, David Cage comes up with some incredibly compelling stories. The biggest part of why is because of the characters that are well constructed and often put in opposition to each other. Then again, different types of stories lend themselves to different character archetypes, especially for the protagonists. Hardboiled detectives like Max Payne will play differently than the gentleman detective like Hercule Poirot who will play different than vigilantes like Batman, though Batman may have some gameplay elements similar to Sherlock Holmes, as the greatest detective from Gotham was heavily inspired by the great detective of 221B Baker Street. These are just some examples, but stories live and die by the characters that we approach the story through.
The problem is simple. What’s the story? What are we investigating? Why, so to speak, is the game afoot. It’s a lot more common that you might be dealing with a dead body by murder or suicide. Though sometimes it could be a substantial theft. There are a lot of angles that the mystery can take. But ultimately, the problem/mystery can take a lot of angles. The stronger it is, the more compelling the story will become, which will make even a mediocre game something that could turn out to be enjoyable to some. For example, while it is a fairly average game, Murdered: Soul Suspect has a great story. This is something that a lot of the players as well as the critics said. For players like me, the prospect of investigating your own murder was an interesting one with a lot of novelty. Though one of the best mysteries in gaming is for a horror game. Why did your dead wife send you a letter saying she’ll being waiting in Silent Hill in your special place?
Lastly, place is something that has a huge effect. In terms of games, aside from the obvious factors of communicating things like mood or the level of economic prosperity in the city, town, neighborhood. It can shape the obstacles that you need to overcome while also making you need to be more observant about your surroundings. Just for an example, if Alan Wake’s first game and its DLC didn’t take place in either Bright Falls or a twisted version of Bright Falls in Alan’s broken psyche, would it have felt the same?
These are just some of my ideas one what helps a mystery game succeed. If you have your own examples or favorites that you’d love to share, comment below. We’d love to hear from you.