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Tom

What are the keys to writing a mystery?

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Hi people. Wavinator was complaining about the gratuitous lack of posts these days, so I thought I''d bring up something for us to discuss. Also, I can use your advice on my story, because I''d like to start it off with a gripping mystery. So, what makes a good mystery? In my opinion, it''s the simple process of revealing bits of information over a large amount of time, until the observer has enough to piece together a solution. Of course, some people will figure out the answers sooner than others, so I guess a bigger question would be: How much do you reveal, and how much do you keep hidden? Since this is a game writing forum, we should look at this from the perspective of game design, of course. So, we have to assume that each piece of evidence must be awarded after some amount of work. The cheese at the end of the maze, if you will. We want the player to feel as though s/he is solving the mystery her/himself. So, what kind of ideas do you have regarding mystery games? I''d like to hear about it, and I know you want to share it.

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Nice topic.

In the few mystery books I have read there is a tendancy to present the reader with a handful of the clues and have the detective put them together at the end in a way that the reader simply cannot, either by bringing in extra knowledge or simply not revealing everything the protagonist learns.

Some games do this too, giving the player some puzzles to solve, and the result of the puzzles are expositions that tell the reader the story (or the mystery).

These are not, IMO, really mysteries - they just use the conventions of the genre to make a puzzle game.

But if that suffices, then I recommend Discworld Noir as an entertaining example.


If you want to have the player actually solve the mystery then I think it''s alot more difficult. I''d say that to keep it entertaining you''d have plenty of extra clues to point the player inthe right direction. So the clever players get the minimum set and move right through while the rest of us can wander around lost and pick up extra hints here and there.

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I''ve been thinking about this some more, and here are my suggestions. Feel fre to use or ignore as you please.

Avoid science fiction and magic, since it often gives writers a technobabble cheat if they box themselves in a corner.

I''d use a good old fashioned murder mystery set in relatively modern times (now +30 / -80 years).

The player can win if they can identify a single suspect who has MMO (method, motive, opportunity).

For the design I would use a series of nested or interconnected logic puzzles. You know, the kind where each person has a name, a pet, a color shirt, and the player gets clues like ''Bob sat next to the person with the red shirt''.

Except acquiring individual clues at the top level (MMO) requires more information at he next level. And don''t forget that people are mistaken and lie -> which means you can''t have the computer automatically fill in (T/F).

For the writing, I''d focus on the characters more than the details of the setting. Fewer characters with lots of dialog. A few plot twists, and you''re done (If it were only that easy).

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Nice topic.

I''ve always heard it said that a good mystery is like a magic trick. The truth is obvious, but only afterwards. Until that time, you are distracted by more obvious "truths".

It''s obfuscation.

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A nice topic indeed. Pity it has fallen behind. Here''s my reply, a little late, but what the heck. To begin with, I would read mysteries.

Patricia Cornwell''s Dr. Kay Scarpetta series are really good. The first one is Post Mortem. Cornwell writes in the first person, so as a reader, you unravel the mystery with her character, Dr. Scarpetta. Because Dr. Scarpetta is a medical examiner, some of the scenes can be rather gruesome. Cornwell spares the reader no details here. For insights into forensic medicine and FBI profiling, these are interesting books.

Barbara Michaels writes mysteries with gothic overtones. They can be fun, and she leads the reader along one clue at a time.

John Sandford''s Prey series featuring police detective Lucas Davenport are written in the third person and generally alternate between Davenport''s and the killer''s point of view. As the reader, you know what the killer is doing, but nonetheless, it is fascinating to watch how the homicide team pieces together the clues. These are great police procedures, and explore various investigation techniques used by detectives, including working ''fences''. The first one is Rules of Prey.

Dennis Lehane''s series features a private eye team from Boston. These books are dark, gritty, and poignant. Written in the first person, you the reader gets to piece together the investigation with the protagonists. The first one is A Drink Before the War.

A different type of mystery to explore is the medical thriller. I think this has great potential in the field of games. The ones I''ve read seem to be mostly third person and alternate between viewpoints of the up and coming idealistic doctor and the evil machinations of greedy organizations which will stop at nothing to increase their bottom line.

One good medical thriller author is Michael Palmer. Another is Tess Gerritsen. I particularly enjoyed Bloodstream by her.

What can be gleaned from these books, aside from many enjoyable evenings of reading, is procedural methods of investigation, the psychology of criminal activity, technology used in investigation, and the dynamic of character cooperation.

These books are good, because the authors have generally worked in the field they write about. Patricia Cornwell has worked for a medical examiner and the police, and has had experience with computer systems, hence one of her character''s proficiency as a unix geek. Interestingly, John Sandford''s Lucas Davenport character moonlights as an RPG game designer. And Palmer and Gerritsen have served time in the ER. You, as a game designer or writer, can only benefit from knowing your subject matter.

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It''s what I write the most easily

Partial informations, misleading informations, legends, old stories, rumored facts, strange happening, closed doors...

This creates a mystery.

Add some strange fog, far sounds, doors that are closing themselves, old journal and you''ll make a thrilling story.

The basic of this is to work around the fear we have, and to walk on the line of fantasy, things that cannot be, that are rumored to, but that noone have ever proved to exists.

To add some atmosphere, make the action happen in a place that is even a place made by humans but long lost/abandonned without known reason/because of strange things, or a place that people don''t really know/alien to us. (such a subterranean place, in which we are lost [sound is different and seems to come from everywhere at the same time, strange noise, no light, unknown life forms...)

You see that''s not that hard, I even remember having put such a strange feeling in a place that my pen & paper RPGamers where at the time fascinated by what was going on, and scared because they were fearing the worst : the unkown.


-* So many things to do, so little time to spend. *-
BeOS :

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A little trick is to change the setting frequently throughout the course of the mystery so that you can give the reader some cool exposition without telling them anything useful for solving the mystery.

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I think a few things need to be considered when writing a mystery (book or game).

1. Physical Clues - The bloody knife in the back of the victim. But who does the knife belong to? You can check out the neighbor''s kitchens. Footprints, broken glass, etc.

2. Character development - The biggest thing you need are a realistic group of characters. You are going to have people with different reactions to you. Some will be honest and up front (nothing to hide...or do they?), others will be closed and unwilling to talk (unless you find a way to convince them). The trick is to not only interact with your characters, but have other characters (and clues), interact with each other. Remember, everyone has the capacity to lie (and tell the truth). The big trick is to make it all believable.

It will be pretty tough to make all that work. You will want to make your game more than a pixel hunt. I hate it when you have a game where you walk from room to room clicking everything hoping it is something useful. The same goes for conversations. I think the popularity of multiple choice conversations really killed character interaction. Anyone who has played Ultima 4 know''s what I mean. Sure you had to type conversations, but the answers were not immediately obvious.

borngamer

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quote:
Original post by Tom

In my opinion, it''s the simple process of revealing bits of information over a large amount of time, until the observer has enough to piece together a solution.


I would go a bit further with this than mere revelation of information over time. There are other elements which may be used to create a much more dynamic interplay of detective and plot.

To begin with, clues are not always static. They do not always simply reside and await detection. A little forceful coercion is sometimes necessary. For example, look at the way a detective works fences. Fences are individuals who are sitting on the fence regarding the law. A detective may use coercion (the detective may have reason to run a the fence in) to force information, or a detective may use bribery to gain clues. The fence usually has an ''in'' on shady deals, and often has open eyes and ears.

Another tactic, which may be used as an investigation proceeds, is what I might term ''goading''. Public insults of the perpetrator might be used to force the individual to get emotional and make a mistake. Or the perpetrator might become more brazen and less careful.

And lastly, we have a shift in plot tempo as the story unfolds. Initially, the investigator is a clue gatherer and puzzle solver. As the pieces fall into place, the investigator begins to assume the role of hunter. And lastly, the investigation becomes a personal game of cat and mouse. The roles reverse, and the investigator assumes the role of hunted in a final climactic endplay to capture the suspect.

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Maybe these fue tips could help making a good mystery :

FEAR : IMHO the scariest films/games/stories are the ones featuring a deadly lurking danger, never seen, except a shadow of it from time to time ( a good example : Ridley Scott''s Alien)

TREACHERY : Never forget treachery ! In a mystery, there should be a friend who turns out to be a traitor, as it adds to the involvment of the player (damn it ! Raynor was plotting my death with the archbishop ...)

CONSPIRATION : This joins with TREACHERY. A large scale conspiration with traitors, so the player never knows who he can trust

WEIRD : Ever seen "The Name of the Rose" ? Weird clues, yet simple and logical. Now that''s a mystery !

Good Luck

Mustard

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