Saturday, December 9, 2017

Detectives of Tomorrow

Like most folks, I enjoy the process of solving a good mystery.  In literature and television I'm talking about characters like Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and (my personal favorite) Lieutenant Columbo.  In video games there's also some noteworthies such as Professor Layton, Phoenix Wright, Laura Bow, Gillian Seed and Cole Phelps.  For me though, the backdrop in which these police procedurals (and what have you) unfold is just as important to good storytelling as the unraveling of the mystery itself.

As fun as shows like Dexter and CSI are to watch, having everything take place in modern day USA has always felt like a missed opportunity to me.  I'm sure it saves them a small fortune on their production budget, but there's something to be said for taking the classic detective formula and changing it simply by transporting the setting to an unusual time and place.  One great example is the long running Sano Ichiro series set in Edo-period Japan.  Eighteen books in total, I must confess that I've only read the first fourteen.  Another example is "In the Name of the Rose."  Set in a 14th-century european abbey, the novel/film were adapted into an unofficial 8-bit computer game entitled La abadía del crimen.  There's also a whole slew of authors who have written crime fiction set during classical antiquity, but I have yet to hear of any such stories that take place during the Viking Age.

That might sound like a strange era to consider, but believe it or not norse culture has more than a few law-speakers.  In fact one of the longest and, consequently, most famous sagas prominently features a character called Njáll the Beardless.  Essentially a 10th century Icelandic lawyer, I think it would be fun to play a Phoenix Wright-style video game with him as the protagonist.  Of course going the opposite direction could also be quite interesting.  Instead of looking to the past for inspiration how about the future?

Subsurface Circular is neat little indie game that was released on Steam August 18th, 2017 (with deliberate lack of preceding hype or fanfare).  It has players take on the role of a detective robot assigned the subway system beneath a major city.  From this rather confined place the player has to solve a mysterious disappearance by interviewing other robots that happen to be riding the train at various times over the course of the game.  Part of what makes it a compelling experience is learning about the world above and what it's like having AI controlled machines doing all of humanity's dirty work.  It's all very minimalist by necessity, but I kind of wish a larger developer would try tackling a similarly themed game concept.

While I like LA Noire, I can't help thinking it would have been so much more awesome had the game been set in the Blade Runner universe.  Rather than using the clumsy "good cop," "bad cop," and "accuse" options during interviews, I think it would have been a lot more well suited to the medium of video games to perform Voight-Kampff tests on suspects.  Something that the 1997 video game adaptation of Blade Runner did rather well was at the start of a new game a random algorithm would secretly decide which characters are replicants and which weren't.  That, combined with multiple endings gave the game replayability as well as a degree of personal investment in the story.  A recreation of 1950s Los Angeles is cool and all...just not as cool as it would have been in the far flung future of 2019...errr...maybe the sequel's 2049 would be a better timeframe...

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