By EquitasInvictus 9 Comments
If there's one moment-turned-into-gaming-mechanic that I've seen approached in several of different ways (to varying degrees of success), it's the crime scene investigation. Between attempting to score five stars on cases of Team Bondi's L.A. Noire and simply avoiding the bad endings of Innocent Grey's visual novel Kara no Shōjo, I've realized there are many interesting methods for a game to determine both player success and narrative progress, whether it be having the player comb out an area for clues or simply having the player pointing-and-clicking in the correct sequence.
Before I begin discussing about investigation mechanics and storytelling, however, let me say I thoroughly appreciated both L.A. Noire and Kara no Shōjo and would readily recommend either game to anyone. (The latter is an eroge visual novel, however, so I can't actually recommend it to everyone. Keep away from children!)
One thing that was especially appreciable about L.A. Noire was how you could do a less-than-stellar job on certain cases and still progress. Granted, the different conditions for achieving five stars weren't always intuitive, but it was still great that you could miss certain clues and botch certain interrogations while still coming to an acceptable(? your mileage may vary) conclusion given certain situations. Kara no Shōjo revolves around an overarching case where investigative success is key to narrative progress, however, and certain points towards the end can get quite punishing during the investigation sections.
The room pictured above, for example, is one of the latter "investigate for clues" sections that turned downright frustrating. I was certain I pointed and clicked to find enough evidence (I mean it's practically a plain, old schoolgirl's room), and the game even prompted that there was nothing else to be found, or so it seemed...
"But I'm still missing a vital piece of the puzzle. What do you think it is, Zach?"
Never mind that, Agent York -- we'll simply have our ex-Police officer, detective protagonist defy logic and be fooled by the very person he suspects to be involved with a crime into following her to a shady room in a shady building in which he gets drugged up, bound, and left to starve to death while the person he meant to protect also dies due to his lack of situational awareness and straight-up stupidity (these negative aspects I stress about the protagonist being completely nonexistent in him prior to this sudden bad ending -- he's actually very intelligent and alert, otherwise).
Game over, because I apparently didn't click interact with the objects in the right sequence. How does that translate to good detective work?! I actually had to take multiple attempts at this particular investigation to get the right, final piece of evidence. Without that specific evidence (a certain photograph hidden in a book in a bookcase that has some odd trigger), the basic reasoning skills of our protagonist and overall storytelling goes to crap. If it comes to that, why ruin the narrative with such uninspired bad endings? At least have me make the wrong arrest or shoot the not-exactly-right perp in the face rather than have me done in cheaply! Considering how much I loved the visual novel in the end, the frustration of nonchalantly derailing myself into such a bad bad ending beforehand was a bitter pill to swallow.
When Kara no Shōjo does progress in its canon narrative, however, the storytelling is exceptional -- but it is beyond me why they would go so far to guarantee a bad ending over something as trivial as clicking one bookcase three times after you clicked the books on the shelf, which basically seemed to be the only way for me to find the evidence that actually progressed the storyline. That aspect of the investigation mechanics or at least the narrative consequences could've been worked out a lot better.
I'll admit, however, I was charmed by how certain aspects of Kara no Shōjo reminded me of L.A. Noire at first. The protagonist's notebook basically serves the same function as it does in L.A. Noire, but Kara no Shōjo doesn't go as deep in terms interacting with the notebook during certain dialogue portions as in L.A. Noire. Instead, you organize evidence and associate people with certain conclusions in an inference portion of the game, which was far better worked out compared with the investigation portion I mentioned earlier.
Setting aside investigation mechanics, both games had magnificent narratives.
Noir vs. Nihilism
I'm a huge fan of film noir, and I personally thought the concluding arc of L.A. Noire was appropriate considering my experience with the genre in film. There's nothing I find more touching than a bittersweet resolution to a conflict involving a protagonist scarred and haunted by some really dark decisions made in the distant past. Nevertheless, I still felt like the better crime thriller narrative arc actually came with the homicide desk. The tension building towards the end was great, and the "resolution" was definitely far more satisfying, because even with the finality of the case being entirely solved, it was still actually left inconclusive for reasons beyond the player's control.
The narrative in Kara no Shōjo gets even darker and more psychologically thrilling than the homicide desk of L.A. Noire, eventually ending up being straight-up nihilistic. With smart references to Dante's The Divine Comedy and some of the murders being recounted in real-time with all gory details disclosed, Kara no Shōjo is not for the faint of heart. I don't even want to go too far in detail about it, either, because I feel like the narrative is so great, that anyone interested should go ahead and overlook my gripe with regards to the particular investigative sequence I mentioned earlier and check it out. If you loved narrative qualities about L.A. Noire and are up for picking up a visual novel, check out Kara no Shōjo. If you have a passing interest in either but haven't played, play them!
Also, if you have any great examples of good (or bad) investigation mechanics in video games, feel free to bring them up as well! Now that I think about it, I'm itching for another video game crime thriller...