Backburner Month 24: The Stray Dog Trilogy

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A video game inspired by classic hard-boiled detective stories.

My idea here is that this is pre-written, a hand-crafted world rather than a procedurally-generated one. My mental image of the setting is a sleeker-than-ever-really-existed fictionalized 1920's, borrowing heavily on the clichés of noir media: night more often than not, smoky with black shadows, Streamline Moderne in blue metals, but dingy as soon as you look past the surface. You'd interact with it as a old-style isometric RPG, talking to people and shuffling through drawers and trash-cans and so forth.

The interesting thing, I think, was how I planned to implement the mystery mechanic. When you're first given a case, you are also given a shape, a deeply irregular one with several crannies and protruding bits, areas of which are labeled: Culprit, Weapon, Motive, and so forth. As you acquire information by talking to witnesses, going to places, and so forth, those pieces of information also get represented as shapes, which can in turn be snapped onto the shape representing the case. The catch, of course, is that only one configuration will fit: the correct one. Sometimes also multiple shapes will snap onto the case, but will conflict with each other: a suspect fits, and a murder weapon fits, but they don't fit _together.

This does mean that it's possible to solve the mystery without thinking about its narrative content: by unthinkingly talking to everyone, casing every place, and then ignoring what the clues mean and simply snapping them together. I'm okay with that! The ideal way of playing is to approach it from both directions: using the narrative to inform how you approach the puzzle-pieces, and using the puzzle-pieces to help you approach the narrative. Ideally, too, the pieces would be designed to fit together in ways that match the story: for example, a given suspect and a given weapon both snap together with the shape of the case, then that suspect could have conceivably been the culprit and could conceivably have used that weapon, but if there's no matching motive, then you've got more work to do: either digging into a motive that fits, or figuring out if another suspect was the one that did it.

Why write it? Partly because I love the genre, and partly because I think the hard-boiled detective genre—despite being a perennial favorite for certain kinds of video games—have a ton of interest space for exploration.

I've had notes for this for a long time, and I recall back when I first saw trailers for L.A. Noire that I figured that maybe I had finally been scooped. I don't think it really succeeded at what I wanted to capture! Since the game's release, people have regularly made fun of the awkward interviews where the player must choose to believe, doubt, or disbelieve a suspect, but where choosing to doubt every question was always a safe strategy and lies were awkwardly telegraphed using exaggerated facial motion capture. (It was especially awkward since it wasn't clear which aspect of the story you were choosing to doubt: the player would notice a tiny discrepancy in a witness's story, choose to doubt the testimony, and the player's character would pound his fist on the table and shout, “You wanted him dead, just admit it!”) More than that, it was hampered by being a AAA action game: the grand climax of the whole affair was… an awkward, plodding shootout.

It's pretty common for games to borrow the trappings of noir but end up with yet more violence. (Not that I'm strictly opposed to video games that feature violence, but it's not a good fit for classic noir!) That said, there are games utilize the style and implement the mystery-solving a lot better. Grim Fandango is a spectacular example of the genre, leaning heavily on film noir iconography and using the affordances of a point-and-click adventure game to implement the mystery-solving. More recently, Disco Elysium does a spectacular job of building a deep and compelling mystery by building in the tradition of classic tabletop-inspired role-playing-games.

So I don't want to imply that this is unique or has never been attempted successfully: but that said, I still think there's space to play in this genre in a new and interesting way!

Why the name? I have notes covering the whole trilogy, each with a different protagonist, but each protagonist was going to be—predictably, given the genre—something of an outcast. The idea of the protagonists as “stray dogs” felt appropriate: more than a little cliché, sure, but given that I wanted to draw on the bombastic and cliché-filled movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, I didn't necessarily think that was bad.

#backburner #videogame