Monday, October 30, 2017

Angels Flying In The Dark


This cruel angel's thesis
Will soon take flight out of the window
"Cruel Angel's Thesis" (Takahashi Youko)
Mystery fiction encompasses much, much more than just books, and that is why I try to discuss a variety of mediums on this blog. Television and films are of course the usual suspects besides books, but then there's comic books, theater plays, musicals, radio plays and more. These mediums all can offer new possibilities to a puzzle plot mystery, deepening the experience and giving the consumer new surprises. The audio-visual mediums can obviously offer all kinds of passive hints to the viewer without telling the audience. People like to use the phrase show, not tell for almost everything now, but it does explain what for the audio-visual medium can do best: it can show hints and clues without making it too obvious about it. Sure, one can use all kinds of narrative techniques to explain that a character is left-handed, but nothing is more simpler than to actually show it on the screen, for example when making a phone call. The moment the action is described with the printed word, it attracts attention, but such actions are much less obvious on the screen. This obviously also holds for sounds as clues in audio dramas.

But the most exciting medium is the videogame, as it can offer the possibilities of all the other mediums, and even more due to its interactive characteristics. It can be a semi-passive experience like a novel, it can offer the audio-visual stimula of screen or audio productions. It can literally include books or films or anything within the game world, so there's much potential. If one accepts the puzzle plot mystery story as a kind of intellectual game, than the possibilities of the videogame became clear: it's only here where the consumer is actually expected to intellectually engage with the story. The passive nature of the other mediums means that no matter what the consumer does, the story will go on. Sherlock Holmes will explain what happened, even if I myself have no clue whatsover, as long as I read on. I might've missed each and every clue, but Conan will explain what happened at the end of the film. But not so with a game! How this interactivity is implemented is a different topic, but the thing games do best in terms of mystery fiction is actually having the consumer understand the plot and do some detecting themselves.

But interactivity is not all games can do. Games can also present extremely complex elements in an accessible manner. Machi, a game I reviewed earlier, for example has the player juggle simultaneously between eight seperate storylines that occasionally intersect. One could choose the order in which to play these storylines themselves, and the storylines and their interconnections also changed depending the choices the player made, which led to very complex storylines that would be impossible to present in a linear book form. Machi made things clear by having a flowchart function, which showed how each storyline was connected. Of course, diagrams are not unknowns in mystery fiction, but having such things available with just one push on a button is sometimes a true game-changer, and maps, diagrams and the like have much more potential in videogames, as they can be updated on any spot, and one can even have the player add in notes themselves for convenience. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books have a form of non-linearity too, but the non-linearity as featured there is peanuts compared the things videogames can do.

Non-linearity was what was on my mind as I was playing through the videogame Keiji J.B. Harold - Manhattan Requiem, also known as J.B. Harold - Manhattan Requiem, as it presented a mystery story in a manner no novel, film or audio drama could ever hope to do. The second entry in the J.B. Harold series was originally released in 1987 on the PC, and later ported to other platforms like the MSX, iOS and Nintendo DS, but it remains even now an interesting example of what the mystery fiction genre can do on various platforms. The way the story is told could not work in the same form as a novel and while the execution is certainly is not without its flaws, I think Manhattan Requiem, like the other games in the series, does make an interesting case for non-linear detective stories.

The start of the plot is fairly simple: police detective J.B. Harold learns from his old friend Judd that a beautiful musician he knows, Sara Shields, has passed away in Manhattan. While the police seems to be steering towards a suicide, Judd himself thinks there's something fishy about Sara's death, and he invites Harold to come to Manhattan himself to investigate the case. When Harold arrives in Manhattan, Judd gives you a few pointers as to where you could go, for example Sara's apartment or some friends of hers, but this is basically all the set-up you get in this game, because once you're past this two minute-long prologue, you're free to go anywhere in Manhattan Requiem.

A detective story in most mediums tells its story in a linear fashion. In chapter 2, suspect X is questioned, in chapter 3 they find clue Y and in chapter 4 they learn of the existence of secret lover Z. It is also a passive experience, as even though you might want to know more about suspect X's alibi right now, it might not be investigated until chapter 7. Manhattan Requiem however gives you freedom about who you want to question about what when. There is no set order in which to complete your tasks in the way you want. Short example: after the prologue of Manhattan Requiem, I decided I'd first swing by the victim's apartment, and interviewed her landlady. From her I learned about the victim's roommate and where I could find her, but also about the witness who first found the victim. I then proceeded to the roommate, who in turn told me about her boyfriend, but also about the victim's work and other things. But this was the route I took and it's perfectly able to first start the game by visiting the police first to get more information, or to go to the victim's work to ask about her and her relation with the customers. If I had gone to her work first, the people there might've told me where to find Sara's roommate, as opposed to the landlady. Or perhaps I'd heard about a rumor first, and I'd have gone after that first, rather than first checking up on the people close to Sara. This system is by the way exactly the same as it was featured in the first game in the J.B. Harold series, which I reviewed last year.

This non-linearity can be overwhelming at first, as you'll learn a lot about dozens of characters who all seems suspicious, and you need to check on everybody's alibi and motives with the other suspects. Suspect A's alibi might depend on the testimonies of suspect B and C for example, but A might also give you decisive information about suspect D. There are about thirty characters in Manhattan Requiem, so especially in the opening hour or so, so there's a lot to keep track of. But there's something liberating about being able to choose who you'll go to next, to ask them about what. It changes the detective story in a much more engaging experience, as you, the consumer, are deciding what to check and you decide the flow of the story. It is almost impossible for someone else to have the exact same experience I had, for everyone will decide to follow up on different clues in different orders.

The game does not help keep track of all the clues/accusations you have, so you might want to keep a note on certain important revelations and stuff (it's here where you really have the feeling you're playing an adventure from the 80s). After a while you start to get complete profiles of each character and you might even be able to strike suspects off the list, but in other cases you might gather enough incriminating testimony and evidence that justify a harder approach. Eventually, you'll strike off more and more suspects until you've uncovered all the underlying plots and schemes. Slowly all the loose points will turn into lines, and they'll all converge at one point, so the conclusion of the game is naturally very linear in comparison (you might for example need the testimony of a certain character to 'break' another character, so those need to be done in order). The game is not difficult at all, in theory, as all you do is ask questions, and you can't go game over or get stuck, though it has some really old-fashioned "traps" like having to ask the same question twice to a suspect to get results and things like that.

Non-linearity is also what hinders the story though. Because the game is designed to be played in a non-linear manner, in a way that each player can decide their own route in uncovering the plot, there is very little that happens during the game. In a linear story, you can have plot twists and the ensueing effects of said plot twist to further push the story forward. Manhattan Requiem does not have that luxury, as most of the game is non-linear, meaning that I might uncover information (the basis of a plot twist) in a completely different order than another player. I learned relatively late about the existence of a helpful policeman in this game for example, who would give me an important piece of information, but one could've come across his path very early in the game actually. Information flow to the consumer is what every puzzle plot mystery revolves around, what allows a story to build over time, but as the information flow in Manhattan Requiem is mostly free-form, it does not have the room to feature a plot that truly develops. From the start of the game until the very end, you're just interrogating suspects about each and every subject you can think of, and in between there are very few developments that truly drive the story forward. You're just digging in the alibis and motives of the many characters and it can soon become boring, as you're just talking and talking, with no thrills presented throughout.

Of course, the story and presentation could be rewritten for a linear experience. Just give a proper order of who you get to question when and what. But that would take away the feeling of the consumer of investigating the case themselves, and that is what this game can offer what a normal book can't, and that's what makes this so unique an experience.

The J.B. Harold series was written by Suzuki Rika during her time at the game developing company Riverhillsoft. Later she'd move to the company CiNG, where she'd be responsible for some of the more memorable adventure games on the Nintendo DS and Wii. Interestingly though, her later games are much more linear and also feature more traditional adventure game puzzles (using inventory items etc.), instead of the questioning-oriented style of her earlier games at Riverhillsoft.

J.B Harold - Manhattan Requiem thus forms an interesting, if at times also very flawed example of the non-linear mystery story. It is definitely fun to carve your own path through the mist, to choose yourself where to go and when, and pursuing each lead yourself does give you the feeling you're really investigating your case yourself, but at the same time, the story is rather sober and very focused on simply talking to people because it needs to facilitate for this non-linearity. You have the most freedom in the first three-quarters of the game, which is also perhaps the most tedious part, as non-linearity also means you are often just poking around in the hope of picking up a lead (at least that's realistic!) and there's nothing to really drive the plot. Only at the end you'll make some more engaging revelations, but by then most paths have already converged to a standard linear experience. So perfect, it definitely is not, but I think it's worth looking at. J.B Harold - Manhattan Requiem is available in English on iOS and Nintendo Switch by the way.

Original Japanese title(s): 『刑事J.B.ハロルドの事件簿 マンハッタンレクイエム』

No comments :

Post a Comment