Sunday, 25 November 2012

Narrative In Detective Games

I’ve had a theory since my last article about the narrative in Batman: Arkham City. The reason that Batman isn’t a compelling protagonist and his villains steal the spotlight from him so often is because he is a Detective. By this, I mean that Batman’s actions does not drive the plot, his villains do, resulting in him being a more passive character who exists to restore status quo. For example, it contrasts games such as Uncharted, Call of Duty or Skyrim as their protagonists set events in motion, make choices and are much more crucial to the narrative.

Batman’s a big fan of Status Quo.
It could be said that this is evident in the Christopher Nolan films as The Dark Knight Rise makes Batman a more compelling character than in The Dark Knight. In The Dark Knight, Batman is just trying to catch the Joker and counter-act his scheme. This means that Batman is without a character arc and the plot is driven entirely by the Joker. Whereas in the Dark Knight Rises, he’s much more of a fighter and has to develop and overcome how crippled he is at the beginning. Take away the Bat motif and fancy gadgets and you essentially have a Rocky film, even down to how incoherent the main character is.
This doesn’t just apply to Batman. This is a problem that Detective games as a whole can suffer from and may be why there isn’t a huge market in them. It is the role of the Detective (hereby known as the “D-man”) to follow a story by means of examining its effect on the environment. Therefore the D-man (hereby known as “Magnum PI”) is basically a middle man between the audience and the plot making his role fairly redundant. Admittedly you can characterise Magnum PI (hereby known as “Tom Selleck’s Moustache”) to respond emotionally to the events before him and make him either a hard drinking, wise-cracking, police bruiser or a cowardly and malnourished hippy with a talking dog but it still doesn’t mean they have any control over the events that occurred.


Did you know Magnum PI was actually based on Agatha Christie’s Poirot but with a Moustache update?
Another problem that Tom Selleck’s Moustache Simulators have is that they are very hard to categorise into one genre. The natural assumption is that they would fall under puzzle games as they are presenting mental challenges to the player. However, there is a difference between the two. For example, Professor Layton isn’t a Detective game; it’s a puzzle game with a mystery narrative. A Good Detective game should give you the ability to wrong and make erroneous conclusions and still be able to proceed. Professor Layton is a mystery story is based around pseudo brain training exercises throughout the game. What makes a Detective game unique is it lets you piece together a continuous thread of events bound by reason, motive and opportunity, that is an entirely different experience and feeling to doing a Rubix’s cube and reading a bit of text as a reward like in Layton.
L.A. Noire had many issues (especially in its production) but was still a solid detective game at its core. Once again its genre was fairly broad as it contained elements action, adventure and even had the arbitrary scavenger hunting for collectibles that must be in all sandbox games these days by law. Cole Phelps, the protagonist, receives a lot of good characterisation in the game. We are shown flash backs to his military career in short cut scenes as an origin for him. His interactions with characters show him as incredibly self-righteous, having a clearly defined morality. He doesn’t adhere to the social norm of the time by discriminating against people based on their race, gender or religion like many of his colleagues. However, when his superior officers show these prejudices, he stands in line, showing his soldier like respect for the chain of authority. We see that all his of his moralising is just to perpetuate an image of him as a good cop and receive acceptance from others and that he is both an insecure and flawed character. Its shame that even with all his depth, Cole’s story outside of the cases is he gets a few promotions, rubs up the mafia the wrong way before finally getting an abrupt and dissatisfying ending.

Cole Phelps Car Buying Tip #164: Always check for a spare tire first. 
Maybe that’s a problem with games that emulate people’s jobs. The characters generally lack arcs and growth because they are literally just doing a 9-5. Would you criticise a game like Trauma Centre for the Wii because a surgeon doesn’t breakdown from the difficulties of maintaining patient relationships in regard to the frailty of human life? Would you criticise Cooking Mama because she doesn’t monologue about being trapped in a loveless marriage? No. So maybe it’s harsh to judge Detective games in this respect. What Detective games do like nothing else, is let us approach a story from an outsiders perspective as both the Detective and player go in knowing nothing and learn together throughout.