In-Universe Detective Fiction

When I was younger, my favorite type of game was the open-world RPG. I could play those for dozens or hundreds of hours. I still do, at times: my Steam version of Morrowind, for instance, has racked up 260 hours of play time since purchase in 2012. And there are other exceptions, of course, like Arena and Shadow of Mordor.

But as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had less time to play video games, and I’ve wanted my time with video games to be more meaningful even in that smaller amount of time, I’ve gravitated more toward shorter, narrative-rich experiences. For instance, while I was never a big adventure game fan, adventure games have taken up more and more of my time. I’m okay with a game that does not require a lot of skill or reactivity, but it’s still important to me that the game offer a sense of choice and diverging paths. There should be a sense of personal investment and consequence.

As a result, I’ve played a few of the Telltale games, though certainly not all. My favorite was The Walking Dead, with an emotionally gripping story and rich character drama. I only played season one, though; the first season alone was so emotionally draining that I am in no hurry to engage with the title further, and I’m not a huge fan of the nihilistic death and violence and gore of zombie stories in the first place. I played the Jurassic Park game, because I’m a huge fan of the original book and film, but that story offered very little sense of real consequences for most of the game, and it was too dependent upon annoying quick-time events. And I played most of the Batman game, which definitely offered the feeling of real choice and consequence, and it had excellent detective scenes that were fitting for the character and excellent character interactions. But I never finished that game, after encountering a persistent game-crashing bug in around the third or fourth episode. It was frustrating to have to give up on the game; I know that a lot of people complained about bugs and glitches and unplayability for the initial releases of each episode, and I suspect that the problem may since have been resolved, but I’m not too eager to get back into that story now.

My favorite contemporary adventure game was Life Is Strange, by Dontnod Entertainment. I was heavily invested in the choice and consequence of that game. The story was mystical and bizarre. And the time-looping powers of the protagonist resulted in interesting gameplay moments and were fully integrated into the game’s narrative. Narrative and game mechanics fed into each other. The weirdo teens and their interactions with the weirdo adults, and the snapshot of the Northwest, were great (I only really understood the comparisons to Twin Peaks after playing, as I only started watching the cult classic show months after finishing the game). Not that this is much of a feat, given that the achievements involved completing episodes and taking optional photos, but Life Is Strange is one of two games in which I reached 100% achievement completion on Steam (I stand by my final decision in that game, saving the town and reversing everything that happened, even though it is emotionally devastating; the other choice seemed too selfish to me, and I’m glad that 100% completion did not require playing both endings).

I tried Dontnod’s Remember Me, which felt like a fairly conventional action-adventure title although with the fairly interesting gimmick of memory alteration (memory and the past are obviously important themes in Dontnod’s body of work). I look forward to Vampyr, which seems to be quite a different game for Dontnod, and I’m curious to see how memory and the past might influence that experience.

But I’m discovering that there is a very specific form of typically short, narrative-rich game that I especially love. It sits somewhere between adventure game and visual novel. It often, though not always, has some level of consequence due to choice; at the very least, players’ investigative skills and growing familiarity with in-game systems are critical to advancement. And it involves the use of some sort of in-game software, often an operating system. I don’t know that this particular type of game warrants having its own genre, and I don’t know if there is already a genre descriptor, but I’m going to call these sorts of games In-Universe Detective games.

What I love most about these games is that they use the limitations of the genre to actually build a greater sense of immersion. Instead of remotely playing as another character, the game operates under the assumption that you are you. You may have a particular role or function within the game, and “you” can be defined by the player out-of-game. But who “you” are is built out of direct interaction with the game. The game itself, by acting like a software program, allows for easy suspension of disbelief. The world of the game is your world.

I know of three entries in this genre: Analogue: A Hate Story (and its sequel, Hate Plus), Her Story, and Orwell.

In Analogue: A Hate Story (designed by Christine Love), you are a spacer on a salvage operation to investigate an old, abandoned colony ship; the entire game involves reading through archives and interacting with one of two AI programs. You attempt to discover what exactly went wrong with the ship, and in the process uncover a feudal Korean-inspired culture that developed after a regressive societal change aboard the ship. The game has interesting things to say about misogyny and the myth of the forward march of cultural progress. And it has just as many interesting things to say about identity, rebellion, and forgiveness. It’s a short game, but I played the hell out of it; it’s my other 100% Steam achievement completion title. If you’re into anime or visual novels, it’ll be an easy game to get into. If not for some favorable coverage, though, I would have passed; the cutesy anime girl avatars of the AI were a little obnoxious for me to deal with at first, but they prove to be quite interesting quite quickly.

In Her Story (designed by Sam Barlow), you use an old police computer to review archived clips of interviews with a suspect in a murder investigation. You slowly piece together what happened as you find new videos. You have to find ways to draw connections to other videos, as you cannot simply review them all at once. There’s a fun amount of searching and browsing and deduction involved. Even though the case is closed, you feel like you’re doing a lot of detective work in the searching. Plus, there’s very little interaction outside of this searching role–just an occasional text conversation with a third party–so that a lot of the investigation work you do is off-screen, out-of-game, implicit, personal. I took notes on paper as I worked my way through. It was engaging, and the ending resulted in an interesting shift in perspective for me. This is a game that I would have 100% completion in, if I’d ever bothered to play more of the computer application game on the in-game desktop background.

Lastly, there’s Orwell (designed by Osmotic Studios), which I just reviewed on Sunday. Of the three, I found this the least rewarding to play, although it maybe had the most to say. I’d point you to my review if you want more insight there.

You could say that all of the above are basically games from other genres, and that I’m just reorienting them around a gimmick. But if it’s a “gimmick,” it’s holding up rather well for me and inviting a very particular type of immersive experience. I’ll gladly keep playing games like that.

If you know of any games that fit the bill, please let me know. I’m certainly not tired of them yet.

9 thoughts on “In-Universe Detective Fiction

  1. I’ve never been able to get past my commitment (addiction?) to open-world RPGs. In the early days, my spouse (Andy) looked for different games that I might enjoy based on my love of Morrowind. But I always just replayed Morrowind.

    One would think that, given my past academic life of literary analysis, I would enjoy richer narratives, but I think the opposite is true. The Elder Scrolls gave me the space where I could get lost in a world without needing to nit-pick every aspect of it. Instead, it was quite the opposite of what I was doing academically, given my tendency to fill in the holes the games have. That is not to say that there isn’t anything analytical to say about the Elder Scrolls (quite the opposite), just that the experience of playing doesn’t engender that analytical reflex that tends to happen with every other literary or cinematic production I engage (there’s a reason I don’t read fiction any more).

    But these games look really interesting. And I may have a go at one of them.

    I thought about playing The Walking Dead because I was rather impressed with the little that I saw when Andy was playing. But after he said that it’s the only game he’s ever had to stop playing due to how upsetting it was at times, I decided I’d better not.

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    1. Good to hear from you again–I always appreciate your thoughtful comments! I certainly understand your perspective. No fiction at all? (Outside of fan fiction, I suppose, eh?)

      As to The Walking Dead: yeah, that was a pretty devastating experience. Very good story. Could not play it again, though.


      1. No, I still read some things. I just don’t devour novels the way I used to. I go through spurts with fan fiction. A lot of it is frustrating. And I can be kind of picky. I found one today that seemed perfect and they made two lore-breaking decisions that just bugged me. Now, I love and encourage lore breaking. I mean, I love when people stretch the canon. I’ve said this before. And these were two relatively minor tweaks but they didn’t make any sense. And I had to stop reading.

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        1. All right, I admit I’m derailing things maybe, but what is it that makes lore-breaking great versus grating to you? What made you dislike the lore-breaking you encountered recently?

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          1. As if I would ever mind a chance to talk about TES lore! First of all, I should say that none of this applies to things like easter eggs or occasional off-hand remarks that are all in good fun and bring some levity to the story. Fan fiction that doesn’t take itself too seriously is a good thing.

            But if we are talking about the story itself, it’s about two things for me, execution and/or purpose. Good execution would be a situation where I barely notice something lore-breaking because it’s woven so seamlessly into the world that it feels natural. And purpose just means that it serves the story in some way. One example of not serving the story in any way was a story that changed the race of Lokir (the horse thief in the very beginning) from a Nord to a Breton and it made no sense why. (I had a lot of issues with the author of that story that didn’t help so had that been the only problem I might have let it go. But it did stand out as lore-breaking that did absolutely nothing.)

            Okay, in the story I read recently, there were two things that just bugged me. The first was that the protagonist was a Nord from Winterhold with an “honorary membership” that allowed her to enter and remove books from the library (and leaving casual notes to Urag with a list of what she’d taken). And while Urag sells books, the whole idea of the archaeneum being a lending library to people outside the College strikes me as unlikely and also, more important, uninteresting. The other change was a shift in chronology to having the Great Collapse in Winterhold take place eight years before the events of the story (in the canon, it’s 79 years before the events of the game). And nothing else in the plot (that I actually made it through) could explain why it was needed to be part of her character’s background.

            I know I’m probably being picky but sometimes a small thing like that is enough to get me to stop especially if it happens early on in the story. Once I”m invested, it’s easier to let it go.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Those are interesting examples to me, because they do sound like arbitrary changes as you’ve described them, but at the same time, they seem fairly inconsequential. On the one hand, I would agree that it seems pointless to have made those changes. On the other hand, those changes appear to be so peripheral to the plot that the impact of the changes seems fairly minimal.


              1. In thinking about this a little further, I find myself wondering, is there any metatextual awareness (in a plot synopsis of some sort, or comments following) that indicates that the writers were aware that what they wrote actually diverged from the canon?


                1. I always read author notes for this reason and in this particular case, I didn’t see anything. But really, my main guiding principle is that writers should take their fic in whatever direction they want. If certain breaks from canon feel more natural to the writer or just make them happy, that’s what they should go with. Trying to please purists or persnickety people like me takes all the fun out of it.

                  Right now I’m considering how, in that particular story, shortening the time line of the collapse increases the tension within the town and then creating a Nord character with a strong intellectual curiosity toward magic (who then becomes Dragonborn) deals with that kind of tension. I mean, I guess it could work (and maybe now I should finish the damn thing). I just didn’t get that.

                  Liked by 1 person

              2. At the end of the day, if something is really well written with compelling characters, I’ll read and enjoy. The way these thing tend to stick out and color the rest of the text is probably more residue from my life in academia than anything else.

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