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A random mystery, April 10, 2021
I can certainly see the appeal of the randomized murder-mystery. More than most genres of IF, once you know the solution to a mystery there’s not much to hold interest on subsequent replays – and even on the initial play-through, if the author’s telegraphed the true culprit too strongly it might be even less compelling. On the other hand, mysteries tend to be really engaging puzzles for players. If you could write a good mystery that could be randomized, so the player knows the game is playing fair and can be surprised the second, third, fourth, and fifth time they run through it – that’s a game you could enjoy for a long time.
While I think I’ve played maybe half a dozen iterations of the concept, though, they’ve always left me cold. Some of this is I think is down to the fact that I tend to be less interested in randomized narratives – I’ll gladly sink untold hours in a pure, zero-story roguelike, and I’ve 100%’ed every single Assassin’s Creed game save the most recent one. But even in those often-grindy games, if there’s a system for randomly generating quests, my brain just flips a switch and is completely uninterested, even if functionally the random ones are almost exactly the same as the bespoke quests I just put a hundred hours into playing through. But I think my diffidence at the sub-genre isn’t due to personal preference alone: it’s hard enough to write one mystery, much less a mystery that can be reshuffled multiple times and still be satisfying.
Picton Murder Whodunnit – yes, we’re finally getting around to it – is, of course, a randomized murder mystery. It’s built using the Strand system, which I wasn’t previously familiar with, but looks like it was designed to create updated versions of some of the old Magnetic Scrolls games. Anyway I like the engine well enough, offering the option of choice-based or parser-based interaction, though there isn’t the ability to play offline so far as I could tell and the online version was sometimes laggy.
The conceit here is about as traditional as you can get: you play a police inspector called to a country manor to investigate the suspicious death of a peer of the realm, and you’ve got to identify which of a quartet of suspects (the conniving widow, the vicious son, the grasping brother, or of course the supercilious butler) did the deed. The game discloses that the solution is randomized each time, so while e.g. the widow is always portrayed as conniving, only one time out of four does this tip over into a murderous motivation.
As you can tell from the characters straight out of central casting (the butler’s even named Jeeves), the milieu is spot on, and the writing is full of cheerfully over the top Britishisms that I quite enjoyed – the brother is described as wearing a “pompous cravat and tweedy, shoulder-patched green shooting jacket,” which definitely conjures the character. This is where the randomized nature of the game starts to pose problems, though, as every character is described in dark, unpleasant terms, even if that seems to make little sense. Here’s the ten-year-old son, Jimmy: “piercing, piggy blue eyes stare back at you fiercely. You get the impression he totally despises the police and you in particular. He’s probably guilty as Hell!” I mean, steady on there, matey, he’s not even a tween. But in order for the randomization to work, everyone has an equally-plausible motive, and everyone has a key to the gun cupboard (yes, even little Jimmy) which I thought felt artificial – at least give us one character who doesn’t seem to have a reason to off the Major!
The investigation is also less fun than I wanted it to be, though here the randomization is only partly to blame. There isn’t any physical evidence to examine, nor are there any clues to uncover or forensic details to analyze. Solving the mystery reduces to asking every character about their alibi, then doing another round to ask about everyone else’s alibi to see who’s the odd one out. This is made slightly more difficult by the fact that the murderer, of course, is happy to lie, and by the fact that I found some of the clues ambiguous, though possibly that’s down to me not fully understanding the manor’s layout rather than fuzzy writing. The alibis are also functionally the same in repeat playthroughs (like, maybe the brother will be writing a novel instead of smoking a pipe, but he’s always in the drawing room and always relies on Jimmy for corroboration), making the investigation feel repetitive even though the ultimate culprit may be different. This is especially the case because after the first run-through, which took maybe ten minutes, I managed subsequent replays in maybe two minutes apiece since there are so few things that need doing.
All of which is to say that while Picton Murder Mystery works fine and supports at least one or two fun go-rounds, the nut of the tightly-plotted but randomized mystery remains uncracked, and I’d personally trade it for a non-replayable but deeper investigation with the same setting and characters in a heartbeat.