EQMM’s May/June 2020 issue, which goes on sale next week, contains the paid professional fiction debut of technical writer N.W. Barcus, whose articles and reviews have appeared in the Seattle Stranger, Seattle Weekly, LA Weekly, the Portland Oregonian, and the Tacoma News Tribune. In this post, the author’s knowledge of video games is combined with an appreciation of the world of mystery fiction to provide some great recommendations for entertainment during this period of social distancing and isolation. Give them a try—and don’t miss “The Workaholic,” N.W. Barcus’s May/June Department of First Stories tale.—Janet Hutchings
I like mysteries. I like video games. Controlling an avatar of Sam Spade or Miss Marple and solving a mystery face to face with suspects sweating and footsteps fading down an alleyway should be wonderful. So why don’t I find mystery video games more satisfying? They’re too slow! Games are all about finding clues and interrogating suspects. Your detective enters a room, and you slowly and meticulously sweep your cursor over every pixel, hoping for a discovery—a piece of mud on the carpet or a key on a desk. It’s like when P.D. James’s Dalgliesh enters a room and three pages cataloging the décor follow. Like that, times ten. And interrogation is worse. People can read twice as fast as they can talk. To interrogate a suspect in a game, you choose a question from a dialogue tree, your character speaks it, the suspect answers, you choose another question, wait for your character to speak it, wait for the suspect to speak and so on. Slow! The immersive element offered by ambient sound and detailed graphics (say, rust on the murder wrench or a bead of sweat on a suspect) do not make up for the slog of scanning a room with a mouse and clicking through dialogue choices. To me, a mystery game is not as satisfying as reading a mystery nor as satisfying as shooting bad guys in an action game.
However, in this time of coronavirus, many of us are doing things we previously scoffed at. People who never do jigsaws have completed three 1000-piece ones, and people who don’t crochet have eight new potholders. People who never had interest in video games might now be willing to give them a try. So, I give you a list of a few cozy, noir, and paranormal mystery games you may love or hate. Mystery games, like mystery books, are a matter of taste. All of the games described here are available for Windows and some are available for Mac. If you want to go full millennial you can even play some on your phone. You won’t have to go out and buy a PlayStation console. Many of them are available as digital downloads.
For cozy mystery fans, a good game choice is one of the thirty-three Nancy Drew games developed by HerInteractive, available on their website or online retailers. Some of the games are loosely based on Nancy Drew novels, but most are original stories. There are no paranormal elements and little violence. The crimes you investigate are motivated by greed and usually involve mild sabotage and chicanery. They are classic point-and-click games where you interrogate suspects and search rooms. Your cursor turns into a magnifying glass when you find a clue. Some clues require you to solve a puzzle, such as reassembling a torn-up note.
The puzzles can be tricky and imaginative, and the mysteries are sensible. These are good games if searching, questioning suspects, and solving puzzles at your own pace appeals to you. However, they are pretty linear, meaning if there’s a clue in the greenhouse you need to find the key to the greenhouse, and you can’t proceed without it. Luckily, there is online help if you tire of searching the same house for that damn key a hundred times. I once got Nancy Drew help from someone who signed herself “Katy Perry Fan in Kentucky” who was probably eleven years old. Hey, no shame in getting help!
The first Nancy Drew game, Secrets Can Kill, had a murder, but there wasn’t another murder until game #27, The Deadly Device. Though the cartoonish Detective Grimoire: Secret of the Swamp starts with a murder, it proceeds humorously and benignly from there as you search for clues, speak to people, and solve puzzles. Benign and humorous do not describe the games below, which tend toward noir. Murders, disappearances and kidnappings take place in dark and seedy settings amongst corrupt and violent characters. Though they all involve finding clues and interrogation, some require quick responses to onscreen prompts and others require you to fight, so you’ll need both logic and reflexes.
LA Noire– You play as a police detective in 1940s Los Angeles investigating murder and arson while impeded by corrupt officials and businessmen, à la Chinatown. Though mostly hunting clues and interrogation, the game does have fistfights, shootouts, and car chases.
The Wolf Among Us– You play as Bigby Wolf (the Big Bad Wolf), a sheriff, who investigates a murder amongst incognito fairy-tale characters. Grim as well as Grimm, a forced-prostitution ring is at the heart of the story, and there are fights.
Heavy Rain– You play as three different characters tracking a serial child killer. In this dark and unsettling story, you race to save the latest victim before the next rain, using clues meted out by the murderer. There are fights. This is one of the few mystery games where your investigation can fail, the wrong person can be executed and the murderer left free to continue his crimes.
The next three mystery games involve the supernatural. After solving the mystery, you must defeat the evil entity behind it all through otherworldly means, not your usual detective work.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter– You play as a paranormal investigator looking for a missing boy and uncovering dark secrets about his family. This mystery involves murder, demonic possession, and many puzzles that require detailed observation of your surroundings to solve.
Alan Wake– You play as a crime-story writer whose wife disappears in a small northwestern town where violent and uncanny things start to happen. This game is an action game as much as a mystery. During the daytime you hunt clues, but at night you fight and evade possessed people and inanimate objects.
Murdered: Soul Suspect– You play as a policeman’s ghost, hunting the serial killer who killed you. Though the supernatural element is pervasive (you are a ghost) and there is some fighting, most of the game involves searching for clues in different locales of modern Salem, Massachusetts, including a witch museum.
The games listed here range from a casual three hours to huge time sinkholes. Depending on your taste and your leisure time (and thank you to all still working), they could provide a diverting way to stay inside and stay safe.