I don’t have a specific story or game in mind for this, I’m just interested in the community’s opinion.
Let’s say you want to create a mystery story. Something terrible has happened, there are suspects who harbor secrets, and the player is tasked with finding out whodunit. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say a man has been murdered in his mansion, and there are five other guests staying at the mansion who may have killed him.
I suppose it’s helpful to know how the story might end. How important is it that the mystery be solvable during investigation, potentially before the author is ready? Is telling a good story at the forefront, above allowing players the joy of that “aha” moment?
All too commonly, the author tries to be tricky and the solution is something unexpected (as expected). The player was the killer all along, or nobody killed him, or everybody killed him, or he’s not dead after all. Do you consider it a major problem to make players go through the motions when their investigations are mostly doomed from the start? Would this be received poorly?
I feel like implementation makes a big difference on that point. The way a game like An Act of Murder is set up means the murder needs to be solvable. Other methods might be able to sustain drama and make an unexpected reveal feel more natural.
How would you personally organize the gameplay in this scenario, and/or how do you think players would want it organized?
The way I see it, there are several major ways the scenario can play out:
You could leave it open for investigation like An Act of Murder - players can go anywhere at any time and question anyone. This is often going to be a less focused sort of experience, less ripe for scenes and drama, in my opinion. Players will expect to be able to call everybody into the dining room and solve the murder.
On the other side of things, you could make it a very directed experience. The investigation takes place across five days, and each day the player leaves their room and decides to investigate a specific character, making them the target of the day. Perhaps you can only enter that character’s room on that day, or only access certain parts of the house, or only find certain clues due to events of the day. Each section has a clear-cut goal. Vespers, while not a traditional mystery, plays out somewhat like this. This seems like a better set up for a more varied climax.
There are some good intermediate options as well. You could allow the players complete freedom to a point, but once they have seen enough evidence to be suspicious of a given character, an opportunity presents itself to investigate them more closely. Having entered Colonel Mustard’s guest room, you are constrained inside until you have learned something significant, and then you may proceed to the next day. A subtle way of allowing players to choose their own daily focus, but still feel some sense of freedom.
You could also simply present players with a list of characters and ask who they would like to investigate next. That sort of straightforward, “cross-them-off-the-list” mechanic seems like another where players would have a reasonable expectation that, should they choose correctly, they can solve the mystery early. I could also see some players appreciating this method over the above, foregoing the illusion of freedom and offering them a direct choice of where to look next.
It’s the classic question of simulation vs. narrative. Realistically, an investigator could stumble across the damning evidence 10 minutes after walking into the house, but as an author of fiction you’d rather keep the cat-and-mouse going for a while and might want to wrap it all up in an unconventional way. What do you prefer? Are there options besides the ones I’ve listed that are worth exploring?