Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #36:

Exploring Genres: Mystery and Suspense

by Travis S. Casey
June 21, 2002

For online games, mystery is a lot like our last topic, romance — centering a game around mystery probably isn't going to work very well. However, like romance, mystery makes a great subplot or plot arc! So let's talk a bit about mysteries.

There's two basic kinds of mysteries — what I like to think of as "traditional" and "mystery-suspense". A "traditional" mystery has a few basic elements:

  • First, a mystery. By this, I mean that something has been done (generally, but not necessarily, a crime), we don't know who did it, and there are multiple obvious suspects on hand.
  • Second, Clues. (Capital intentional.) Some Clues may be obvious — e.g., there's a gun in the room with the dead man, which was fired into him/her. Some Clues will generally be subtle — e.g., there's a cigarette in the ashtray on the desk where the dead man was lying, but it's not the brand the dead man smoked.
  • Third, and most important, is logic. The Clues, plus information presented about the suspects, form a logic puzzle. Solving the puzzle will solve the mystery.

In a traditional mystery, solving the mystery is the central conflict of the story — all other conflicts are secondary, relating either to subplots or "feeding" the mystery by providing Clues or other information about the suspects.

Mystery-suspense, on the other hand, involves a mystery, but the mystery is not the primary focus of the story. It may get the ball rolling for the story, but other things quickly take over, and in the end, it may not even matter whether or not the mystery gets solved. If it does get solved, it's likely to be through an out-and-out confession or the discovery of a single thing that gives the solution, rather than through a logic puzzle.

Here's an example of how they differ. First, the setup:

A man has been killed, and his sultry widow (it's a genre convention) comes to see a detective and hire him to investigate the death.

In a traditional mystery:

The detective would go to where the body was found, check out the scene, question the witnesses and anyone who was around, establish a list of suspects, search for and find some more clues (note that some of these clues may be revealed in confrontations with suspects, or through means like attacks on the detective). It would all wrap up with the detective getting everybody into a room, revealing the clues and what they mean, and identifying the murderer.

In mystery-suspense:

The detective gets hired, goes to check out the scene, gets a little seduction from someone, a little threatened by someone else, then heads back to the office. On the way back or at the office, the detective gets attacked. The detective manages to turn the table on the attacker and finds out that the victim was into Something Big. The story from that point centers on the Something Big and what people are willing to do to get it, protect it, etc. The mystery may get solved along the way — or it may not. It doesn't really matter, since the mystery isn't the point of the story, it's a McGuffin to get things started.

Ok, so we've got two kinds of mysteries. Now what?

Well, the differences in structure lead to differences in how you need to set them up. The central element of a traditional mystery is the logic puzzle made up by the clues. That needs to be constructed carefully — it should only have one logical solution. The clues are also very important — you need them to be noticeable, but not too obvious. And you may want to have a few more clues than the absolute minimum that would be needed to solve the mystery, in case one or more clues don't get found. Spurious clues can also be a good thing to leave around — ones that either don't relate to the mystery at all, or are misleading at first glance.

In a suspense story with a mystery, you can provide clues, but they're really not needed — solving the mystery isn't the focus of things. You can also present the solution to the mystery full-blown at some point later on, after the Something Big has been revealed; at that point, it's more a footnote than anything else, since the original mystery isn't important. The important point is the Something Big and how it ties to the initial mystery.

These differences also lead to differences in possible game mechanics. In a traditional mystery, solving the mystery is the point of things — if you allow a player to simply do a check of a "detective" skill to solve the mystery, then there's nothing left for the player to do. The player needs to be involved in the finding of clues and solving the logic puzzle, because that's what's supposed to be the interesting part. As a designer, laying out the elements of the puzzle in a grid, as people often do when solving logic puzzles, can help in designing the set of clues and checking to make sure that there aren't other valid solutions.

In mystery-suspense, whether or not the clues "fit together" is less important, so you don't have to worry about it as much. Since the mystery isn't the focus of things, you can even go so far as to simply allow the player to make something like a detective skill check to solve it — indeed, it can add a bit of genre color, along the lines of the old, "I knew she'd offed him. What I didn't know was why. What'd made her want to off him after six years of marriage" sort of thing.

Traditional mysteries have a devoted, but somewhat limited, audience. They require the player to find the clues and solve the logic puzzle — not everyone is interested in this sort of thing, or good at it. If the clues are too hard to spot, a traditional mystery can get very frustrating, as players ransack everything in sight trying to find clues. One variant that can be interesting is to give a player a reason to want to prevent the mystery from being solved — that player would then be looking for clues for the purpose of removing or obscuring them, and possibly trying to plant false clues. With the logic puzzle already set up, you could even have the detective in such a setup be an NPC — he/she is programmed to find the clues. If he/she gets a set of clues which can solve the mystery, then the player trying to hide things has lost.

Mystery-suspense is generally more action-oriented, and thus, tends to have a broader audience, and is easier to implement in a traditional online game sort of way. They can also be more amenable to a multiplayer scenario, where everyone is out to control the Something Big — think of The Maltese Falcon for a classic version.

Neither type is really supports hundreds or thousands of players; at most a dozen or so players might fit comfortably. As a primary plot, then, they're best suited to a tightly size-limited environment. As one of many ongoing plots, however, mysteries are quite useful.

What's Next?

Next time, I'll be talking a little about pure suspense, and about conspiracy as another related thing... and I think the long tour of genres is going to stop there. There are some we haven't hit, like Westerns, but I've spent almost half a year on genres now, and I think that's more than enough. Is there something you'd like to see covered? If so, mention it in the forum!

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