Hardboiled Wonderland: Videogames and the Case of the Forgotten Genre

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Hardboiled Wonderland: Videogames and the Case of the Forgotten Genre

I was very hopeful when L.A. Noire came out in 2011 and so much of the press surrounding it focused on the interrogation mechanics and the actual shoe leather aspects of being a detective. The thought of sifting through clues at crime scenes, bluffing or intimidating thuggish mafia wise guys and swaggering into a seedy nightclub with a lounge singer crooning songs a hell of a lot sadder than the smoldering look in her eyes was everything I’ve wanted in a videogame in this era of hyper-real performance capture and photorealistic graphics.

You know the end to this sad story: While it had a few positively sublime moments, it was a mess of half-baked mechanics, confusing questioning and needlessly wack-a-doo plotting that, during one infuriating stretch of the game gave you no ability to correctly deduce the actual perpetrator. Waste opportunity though it was, I don’t think it should have completely sunk the detective fiction genre. We may never know if it did, but I can’t help but look at the conspicuous lack of the genre on the AAA game scene now and not at least surmise that’s what happened.

To be clear, I’m not talking about mystery games. For that, you’ve got plenty to choose from (though really more on the indie or smaller-release scene than the big AAA console market): Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Soma. The Wolf Among Us goes in for some of the hardboiled sensibility, but mechanically speaking, it’s far more concerned with story, character and world-building than it is with the crunchy gameplay possibilities of investigation. Even Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy are a few years back and only partly focused on investigation.

Do you notice how so many of these are tinged with the theme of the supernatural, or elements of horror? (That is to say, unscientific, illogical bunkum that hardly ever bothers to follow even its own internal rules?) For the opportunity to play a hardboiled gumshoe solving an actual case – a classic character archetype with rich potential for adaptation to an interactive medium – you’re out of luck.

If you look at the detective fiction genre, it almost seems like it could be made into a videogame more easily even than shooters or fantasy role-playing, if for no other reason than the terse and clipped dialogue. As the stalwart animators over at Extra Credits have pointed out, while the average minute of television has about 120 spoken words, their investigation of games found that in the same span of time, players hear about 16 words.

So what better work to emulate than Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett – guys renowned for cutting language down to its barest elements? In iconic ’30s detective novels that set the standard for the genre like The Thin Man, dialogue between characters zips by – whole gunfights are described in one syllable words with a sort of clinical voice.

While it’s challenging to base any game on things like deduction, it isn’t like old detective fiction doesn’t thrive on action in the same way action movies do: The stories themselves are riddled with gripping external conflict like deceptions, gun and fist fights, car chases, and the interrogations that L.A. Noire tried its best to make compelling. Any one of those could act as a peg to hang a sprawling AAA title upon, if the developers could learn from past mistakes.

If we go deeper than the surface level, we also find a story structure perfect for adaptation to games. Detective stories are largely told from the first-person perspective of our hardened investigator – the better to put the audience in his shoes so that they’re receiving the same information at the same time and from the same bias as he is. They almost invariably begin with a quest-giver beseeching our hero to accomplish something – find a missing person, recover a stolen macguffin, solve a murder most foul. As the detective explores and probes, he opens up new locations, meets new characters and meets with resistance from whatever shady antagonistic force is trying to stop him from solving the case.

And of course, it all ends in a grand confrontation with the final villain, sometimes in a fateful gunshot as in Hammett’s short story The Gutting of Couffignal, or with the detective tricking the true culprit into revealing herself, as happens at the end of Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep.

Lastly, most superficially, and yet most appropriately, there’s the hardboiled narration. For crying out loud, a ton of games already do this as needlessly as the theatrical cut of Blade Runner did. Nobody needed Alan Wake to go on forever about every obvious thing going on, but some hardboiled internal patter for a mechanics-heavy game of deduction? That could set the tone, casually put in a little bit of exposition about mechanics and inform the protagonist’s character.

Despite those seemingly tailor-made genre staples, I think I have at least some inkling why the dry, stoic private eye didn’t stick with us on the AAA scene (besides the obvious lukewarm reception of L.A. Noire). For as iconic a place it holds on the book shelf, the genre doesn’t give today’s AAA developers much to do with the dazzling particle effects that Xbox One and PS4 players feel they’re entitled for the price tag. Additionally, in a medium that has one of the most immature views of “maturity,” detective fiction swims in exactly the wrong kind of problematic subtexts that developers even the most tone deaf developer wouldn’t dare play straight; every foreigner a villain, every femme a traitor.

Did the genre just evolve past Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe? Does it need to be paired these days with head-scratching paranormal hooey, framed like a season of Twin Peaks, dressed up with elements of the fantastical fairy tales of old, for us to be able to swallow it? Instead of a serious genre, has it become a jokey modifier that can only be used in combination with another, a spice instead of the meat?

I’d love to see it make a comeback, if for no other reason than I’m tired of games that labor endlessly to make their graphics realistic at the same time they do everything they can to make their violence utterly excessive and ridiculous, that force me into the role of some unassailable god of catastrophe.

The old detective heroes were mortals who bled (but never cried). All this processing power, and we can’t replicate that kind of drama?

Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.