Regular Later Levels’ visitors will know I have a thing for detective games. Give me a storyline featuring a hardboiled investigator, hidden clues and devious crooks, along with gameplay where it’s up to the player to solve the crime and I’m there.
It’s therefore no surprise that Murder Mystery Machine was added to my wishlist immediately after coming across Blazing Griffin’s project on Steam in December 2019. Teasing a series of murders, disappearances and conspiracies, the trailer showed two protagonists trying to link them together. I’ve now had the opportunity to try a demo of the game for myself during LudoNarraCon at the end of April – and I can’t wait to get my sleuthing on during the full release.
Players join fresh-faced rookie Cassandra Clarke on her first day with the District Crime Agency (DCA) where she’s teamed with a reluctant burnt-out detective named Nate Huston. They’re sent to investigate the murder of a prominent politician which at first seems to be a botched robbery; but the evidence soon entwines them in a complex, interconnected series of crimes which are anything but an open-and-shut case. Will you be up to the challenge to discover the truth?
Justin Alae-Carew and Neil McPhillips from Blazing Griffin gave some insight into their game’s design during a livestream for LudoNarraCon. Because the company spans video game, film and television development and production, they wanted to combine these areas and create an interesting title which felt like a police drama you’d see on TV. The result is a ‘detective mystery puzzle game which combines a few genres in one’ and takes place across eight episodes made up of several scenes.
The demo features three scenes for a case and each of these follows a similar format. You start by speaking to the witnesses or suspects if any are present then comb the environment for clues, sometimes having to turn or zoom into the isometric view to get a better look from a different angle. Every piece of evidence found is placed on a mind-map board where it can be linked together, and connections made can give the detectives new ideas and dialogue options.
For example: you discover that the politician has a political rival so could a hit have been arranged? Talking to the secretary reveals she was told not to answer questions from the press and didn’t tell anyone else of his whereabouts. Linking these two pieces of information on the mind-map causes Cassandra to realise that this theory isn’t possible so it rules out the rival as a suspect; and a further conversation with the secretary as a result uncovers some useful information.
During their livestream, Alae-Carew and McPhillips shared that the game started out as a ‘procedural crime scene generator’ and then evolved into something else. They wanted to create a freeform title where players were given a lot of freedom to investigate, as many current detective releases streamline the gameplay too much or include puzzles not related to the investigation. Focusing on a detective’s skills including powers of logic and deduction, and a desire to include a narrative led to what is now Murder Mystery Machine.
The biggest challenge the development team faced from day one was working with people who were used to creating linear narratives for television: how do you emulate a TV or film approach to a story but give the player some control over it at the same time? The writers were trained to understand that you can never be entirely sure what the person in charge of the controls is going to do, and that you therefore need to write for all the different possibilities.
With a television show, it’s usually the case that the characters know more than the viewer or vice-versa; but with a video game, you somehow need to marry these two together so the player knows just as much as the protagonist. Scenes therefore had to be constructed in a way where information is uncovered in a careful fashion and too much isn’t revealed at once. You should never be able to solve a case before the game has given you, Cassandra and Nate all of the necessary pieces to do so.
Using the clues gathered and linked together on your mind-map board, you’re asked to answer questions about the who, what, why, where, when and how at the end of each scene. You can submit your evidence once you’re happy with your conclusions but be warned: you only get three attempts to get it right and missing any links reduces your detective score. I made a guess during the final scene without getting all of the deductions and had my grade decreased as a result.
Based on what was shared by Alae-Carew and McPhillips, it sounds as though there’s going to be an overarching story rather than just individual cases during Murder Mystery Machine. Some will be personal stories, such as how the protagonists progress and build their relationship, while something much larger is teased and will be revealed at the end of the season. The point out that they wanted to add a lot of depth: ‘Nobody is a straight-up criminal, but nobody is a saint either.’
Murder Mystery Machine is already available on Apple Arcade, and PC and console players will be able to get their hands on the game very soon to find out whether they have what it takes to be a detective. Check out Blazing Griffin on Twitter for further announcements.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.