Friday, June 19, 2015


Memento mori

Every time I write a game review, I hope more mystery-focused blogs will discuss mystery videogames one day. Games are fiction too!

Most videogames end with your death, but the videogame Ghost Trick (2010) starts with your death. Protagonist Sissel awakens, looking down at his dead body, only to realize that he is 1) dead and a ghost now and 2) he has no recollections at all of his life... when he was alive. Right next to his dead body, a confrontation between a girl and a hitman results in the murder of the girl, and Sissel surmises his death is connected to that incident too. Sissel then finds out he's got strange ghostly powers now: his ghost can move around by jumping between, and possessing items and even cause them to move ("trick"). What's even more important: by 'possessing' dead bodies, he can jump back in time until four minutes before the time of demise of the body, and by using his new "trick" powers, he can actually prevent the deaths and thus alter time. Realizing the key to finding out why he's dead is the girl who just got herself killed, Sissel saves her life and decides to use his new ghostly powers to find out what is going on that night, why he's dead and most importantly, who he was when he was alive.

(Screenshots are from the iOS version, because they were much easier to find)

Most names tagged on this blog are mystery novelists, but Takumi Shuu is a very special exception. While he is definitely a writer of mystery stories, he works in the game industry and thus his creations are videogames and not novels. There are plently of writers whose works are adapted into videogames, but Takumi Shuu is one of the few people who writes mystery stories that are designed to be videogames from the outset. He made his name as the creator/director/scriptwriter of the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney videogames, a quirky courtroom comedy-mystery series that succeeded very well in translating the mystery-solving qualities of a detective story to a videogame mechanic that asked the player to actually participate in thinking along (see also this essay by Takumi about mystery videogames). Ghost Trick, originally released in 2010 on the Nintendo DS, was a completely original IP by Takumi, that was nothing at all like Ace Attorney as a game, but still strongly rooted in the mystery genre Takumi so loves. I played the game when it was originally released, but hadn't touched it since then, so I thought it was a good time to revisit the game now on its fifth anniversary (to the day!).

As a mystery story, Ghost Trick is really well done and brimming with originality. Playing a ghost on a quest for his own identity? The story develops in a fantastic pace as you jump between scenes with wonderfully colorful characters who all seem to be connected somehow to Sissel's death and the way the mystery is unveiled as you dig deeper is something to remember. And while some sour mystery fans might cry out that things like ghosts possessing items or time-traveling aren't 'realistic', I can only say it's their loss if they ignore this game. In fact, because Ghost Trick is a game, these concepts are completely fair, as the rules of the game are made very clear right at the start! I love mystery stories where the author goes the extra mile to come up with special circumstances that 1) are fun for the reader and 2) are of importance to the plot and Ghost Trick is an excellent example of how to do fair-play mystery with supernatural elements. By the time you arrive at the last chapter, you'll be surprised how well hinted and structured Ghost Trick is, as you look back and you hit yourself when you realize that that line or that scene had those meanings, like you do with the best of mystery fiction.

I loved the game when I first played it five years ago, and I enjoyed it again this time, but it was only this second time I realized how detached the actual gameplay mechanics are from the story sometimes! In Ace Attorney, the main game mechanic (pointing out contradictions in testimonies) is an integral part of the story. In Ghost Trick however, the narrative and the gameplay feel a bit detached. When you actually control Sissel, you can only move by possessing items: you jump from one thing to another to get from A to B. The item Sissel is possessing can also be used, so when Sissel is possessing the remote control of a TV or a lightstand, he can also switch it on or off. Most often, you use these powers (together with your travel-back-to-four-minutes-before-death power) to prevent the death of somebody (Luck has it that a lot of people connected to Sissel's death die that night). For example, in the very first scene, Sissel manages to postpone the murder on the girl by the hitman a little by possessing a bicycle and distracting the hitman with its bell. Usually, you have to possess, and use a whole series of items within the four minute time limit to succesfully prevent a death, resulting in Rube Goldberg-esque scenarios. Slowly finding out what items to use in what order to create what effect is fun, and these puzzle sections are very reminiscent of the classic game The Incredible Machine. Possessing items and somehow changing destiny never bores and the game throws enough new things at you at set times to keep you on your toes.

But often, these (otherwise great) game sections feel somewhat detached from the main narrative. Sometimes the narrative about Sissel's past and other shady business going on that night is suddenly stopped rather artificially with another unlucky death which Sissel has to prevent, after which the narrative continues again. At one hand, you're solving the mystery of Sissel himself (the main plot), and then you have these gameplay sections, which are completely different (solving the problem of how to prevent a murder/ get from A to B). Not all prevent-the-death sections (or even just 'get from A to B' sections) feel essential to the plot (i.e. could have been left out with slight rewriting), and the inclusion of some game sections felt rather arbitrarily, as if just to fill a quotum. Ghost Trick is not a long game (nor does it need to be because the plot is strong), but I think the game could have been shorter and still just as fun. The integration of plot-game mechanic was much stronger in Ace Attorney (solving contradictions was 'part' of the game, as well as a way to move the plot forward) and while both plot and game mechanics are fun in Ghost Trick, the integration between the two is less strong. Don't get me wrong, the plot-game integration in Ghost Trick is still much and much stronger than most other games: it's just Takumi has done better in the past.

Ghost Trick has a very unique look with excellent animations by the way and as expected from Takumi, the plot and characters are written with a very distinct comedic touch. In fact, I find it disappointing that these kind of comedic, almost slapstick characters are so very rare in mystery fiction. Bold colors, smooth and theatrical animations, it might not be the first thing you think of when thinking of mystery fiction, but it certainly aren't mutually exclusive terms.

Anyway, Ghost Trick is a great game, with a fantastic story and simple, yet satisfying puzzle-solving game mechanics. Is it better than Takumi's own Ace Attorney series? No, I don't think so, because for me, Ace Attorney is simply better as an example of how to present the 'logical puzzle-solving' element of mystery fiction in game-form. Ghost Trick on the other hand is a mystery story, that focuses on mechanical puzzle-solving and in comparison, these game sections are not as tightly connected to the narrative as in the Ace Attorney series. But despite that, Ghost Trick is a fun game that shouldn't be missed by any fan of the mystery genre.


  1. What do you think about the Ace Attorney manga?

    It got bad reviews, but I personnaly liked it, especially the Spider-Man case

    1. I quite liked it, especially as the series did something with the 'turnabout' theme most of the time. I think I discussed a couple of the last Gyakuten Kenji/Miles Edgeworth volumes on the blog too.

  2. Loved Ghost Trick's smart narrative in combination with the zany characters and pop art style. I think the restaurant was my favorite level.

    Off-topic, but I've been stalking Amazon for a pre-order page for The Decagon House Murders ever since you announced its translation. Pleasantly surprised that it's available for purchase today instead of July! Already excitedly ordered my copy! Hoping it sells well enough to warrant further translations of the Yakata series!

    1. The restaurant was fun, especially as it was so different from the other stages (being a 'normal' location).

      Thanks for the note (and the purchase!). Really hope you'll like it!