Ever since I first watched Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke tromp about Victorian England on public television as a nine-year-old kid, I have wanted to be a detective. As I went through middle school, passion for all things Holmes gave way to a deep and abiding love for Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but the essential passion and admiration I have for the Private Detective (yes, I capitalized it) has never changed.
Without boring you with 101 Reasons Why I Want To Be A Detective When I Grow Up, let’s just leave it at the weird nobility and ability I find in the private citizens who are able to unravel schemes, root out corruption, untangle seemingly endless webs of lies, and occasionally put their lives on the line for the sake of helping a fellow human being (and twenty-five dollars a day, plus expenses).
So private eyes–and noir in particular–have always kind of been my “thing,” you might say. And seeing as how games are also kind of my “thing,” I’ve spent a large part of my life seeking out detective games that give me that chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination of thrilling deductive work and fun interactivity.
But boy, has it been rough.
Because to my mind, in addition to meeting the minimum basic criteria for being a good game–it should be fun, it should be playable–it also has to be a good detective game. And that’s often a harder-to-meet standard than you might think.
Here’s what what I’m ideally looking for in a noir detective game:
- I want to feel like I’m a detective. I want to piece together clues, uncover hidden information, and ultimately bring order to chaos for a little while.
- I want to bathe in the sheer noir-i-ness of it all. I want backstabbing contacts, treacherous allies, unexpected enemies, and a sense that I’m just one dude and maybe a handful of a cheering section against the unstoppable forces of society, power, and those who own a townhouse on the dark side of human nature.
(Side Note: Oh dear, that got unexpectedly purple. This…may not be uncommon from here on out, if I’m honest. You’ve been warned.)
On the bright side, I get the sense that I’m not the only one out there looking for something like this. There are some pretty good attempts at fusing the two, even if I’m not even sure that any game–analog or digital–is ever going to give me the same thrill I got from, say, reading The Lady in the Lake or seeing The Usual Suspects for the first time.
But! That doesn’t mean we can’t spend a few hours trying, does it? No, reader, it does not.
(Side Note: I feel like we need to talk about spies. And here’s the thing: there’s a LOT of overlap in theme and tropes between spy fiction and detective fiction. In fact, a lot of the best example of both are really a combination of the two: John le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, to name a few examples. After all, what’s a spy undercover behind enemy lines but a private investigator in a town where the local fuzz don’t exactly cotton to outsiders? The main difference is that spies are generally acting on behalf of something BIG, like, say, a gubmint. And as compelling and thrilling as spy fiction can be, there’s something about the higher stakes and blown-out scale that doesn’t quite hit my buttons the way that a more personal private eye tale does.)
(Additional Side Note: This is also probably why the more intense, personal spy stories–le Carré’s Smiley trilogy, Deighton’s whole Bernard Samson saga–are the ones that appeal to me. That said, I’ll take a good Cold War or World War II spy story any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.)
(Son of Additional Side Note: How good is Len Deighton? Answer: Forty-truckloads-of-ninjas good. For real. Check out the Game/Set/Match trilogy, and I dare you to not be hooked.)
(Revenge of Son of Additional Side Note: So, what’s my point here? Spies: Like detectives, but with more frequent flier miles and a marginally better pension plan, assuming they live long enough to collect it. Which explains what Agents of SMERSH and Covert Action are doing on the list.)
- Mansions of Madness
- Scotland Yard
- Agents of SMERSH
Then it’ll be on to the PC games side with a trip down
GoG.com’s catalog memory lane:
- Infocom’s interactive fiction
- Tex Murphy adventures
- Blade Runner
- Black Dahlia/Ripper
- Sid Meier’s Covert Action
And maybe a few others, depending on how the discussion goes and how many random side notes I can keep from injecting every other paragraph.
So pack a spare flask, tighten the belt on your Burberry, and watch your back–we’re gonna talk about a few of the more memorable detective games I’ve played, and try and puzzle out where they succeed or fail in pulling off the whole “down these mean streets a man must go” scene.