Out of Focus: Dismantling Detective Mode

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A medical teacher was lecturing her students on the importance of observation. She held up a jar of urine so that they may identify it by sight, smell and taste. On this last one, she dipped her finger into the jar, took her hand out and put her finger in her mouth. The students watched in astonishment as the jar was passed around, but being the dedicated lot they were, they each proceeded to dip in their fingers and lick off the urine. After the jar had done the rounds, the teacher shook her head and said, “Had any of you been observant, you’d have seen I put my second finger in the jar, but my first finger in my mouth.”

Although it centers on the benefits of observation, this joke hinges on obscurity. Like the teacher fooling her students, ambiguity surrounding which finger went where is pivotal to the punchline’s twist so that if the joke explicitly presented the finger in the jar as different from the one licked, there would be no twisting of the mental model you’ve built up of the scenario and no “aha” moment.

In the AAA games bloc, detective mode is the feature du jour that inadvertently demolishes the beauty of observation, though what I call “detective mode” you might know better through whatever name granted it by your franchise of choice. While it certainly predates Batman: Arkham Asylum, this was the title that really popularized it so this is the one I’ve come to blame. Nowadays more and more designers wring it into their games’ mechanics—it’s been in Dishonored, The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, Hitman: Absolution and Deus Ex; Human Revolution. It’ll be in the next Metal Gear Solid. It’s in the new Thief, which is out today. It’s not everywhere but soon enough it may become standardized for a certain type of game.

And that would be a massive pity, because while detective mode confers some advantages for players and designers, it spoils the punchline of which finger is soiled.

thief focus mode 2.jpg Focus mode in Thief (2014)

What I mean by detective mode is the ability of the player to press a button to overlay the screen with a bizarre hyper-virtual representation of the gameworld. The environment turns drab and anything relevant to the player’s interaction with the area is signposted, often through walls, with neon silhouettes. In Arkham Asylum, enemies glowed blue and red, and grapple points were orange, among other visual tricks. In the new Thief, every object Garrett can interact with in a room turns blue when he uses his Focus ability. While each version of detective mode slightly differs, all adhere to the function of overlaying visuals to smack you over the head with anything of interest.
In this way, detective mode can be useful, especially if you the player are not really arsed with interacting with your brain. It’s a double-edged sword, though—you barely need to do anything more than point and click because the visual explodes anything relevant to progression to the forefront of consciousness. The main virtue is in enabling progress without needing the player to be familiar with design tropes, so those not fluent in videogame conventions can still identify paths and track enemies with ease. So it makes games more accessible, which is great, but it tears away any sense of subtlety and intrigue until there’s very little to sink your teeth into systemically.

Ostentatious signifiers bypass the need for observation and interpretation by presenting base design elements at their face value. Observation is replaced by seeing: You just boggle your eyes at the screen for a second and immediately take in everything. The mental model you’d normally need to form of the gameworld is externally displaced to the visual interface so that each signifier becomes little more than an emblem of an obstacle or resource: red for bad, blue for useful, green for good.

This is never more obvious than in detective mode’s eponymous function. Scenes where Batman must exert his detective status ask the player to give a quick scan of the area. Any speck of dust ultimately becoming a clue is emblazoned to attract the player’s attention, whereupon Batman narrates the clue’s relevance to his immediate task and unlocks the next objective marker. Deduction is wholly automated, making the player’s input in the detecting process nothing more than looking at something the game has observed for you.

In games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, where investigation and deduction are core to the experience, the joy of investigation follows the same pattern as problem solving in a good puzzle game: observe, interpret, abstract and relate. Automation robs you of mental investment in the scenario and leaps right over that Eureka moment on finding and enacting the solution.

Detective mode in Batman was lip service in a game whose developers preferred it to be a brawler, but in the same manner it steals the internal processes inherent in stealth design: the routine of observing patterns, conceptualizing routes for progression and enacting the solution while retaining environmental awareness. Good stealth mechanics convey the game’s ecosystem into your mind as a liveable space, using sounds and behaviours and sensations to compliment the sights. Replace that with an interface allowing for near-constant visual omniscience and there’s little cause for information retention and concentration on your surroundings, and less reason for you to step into and live in the environment.

That all being said, it’s not such a dreadful thing so long as the detective mode is left optional, as a leg up for disadvantaged or disinterested players, right? More often than not, however, this tends not to be the case. Instead it’s a crutch to overcome design shortcomings, as in Arkham Asylum and its sequels, where detective mode substitutes for any actual detective work, as a nod towards actions fitting within the narrative that accomplish the gameworld’s fiction without having to actually entertain them. In doing so, the player can be bridged from one area to the next when the plot hits a wall, facilitated onwards by Batman’s amazing genius brain, rather than sensible plotting.

detective mode arkham.jpg

For stealth games, it empowers you to spot and track enemies where this is not otherwise made accessible through the game’s broader system, making it much easier to track and avoid erratic enemy behavior caused by wonky AI. And it means you have less cause to interact with guards to exploit and manipulate their behavior, because why would you need to when you’ve got them in constant visual contact? Routes through convoluted areas or discovery of obscured items or objects of relevance can also this way be more easily scried, as with pathfinding by runes in Dishonored, patching over problems with the level design.

But while detective mode is too often an easy, lazy answer to design woes, with a little imagination it can be incorporated into a game’s structure without supplanting every other player resource. The thermal goggles in Metal Gear Solid, arguably the originator of detective mode, serve as a fantastic example. When you equip these goggles enemies still become vivid silhouettes, but since the camera remains fixed outside of your control you’re forbidden constant visual dominance of the area. The camera restrictions are otherwise navigable by other allowances so the goggles encourage you to play them against other resources and abilities, whereupon your inventory becomes a very powerful toolset.

When Metal Gear Solid 3 shifted to a third-person perspective, the goggles were tweaked to greatly hinder depth and terrain perception and gobble up batteries like a glutton. Instead you were compensated with a variety of other items, each limited in their specificity, but when put all together enabling you to conceptualize the area outside of your natural field of sound and vision, much as detective mode tries to simulate.

So what lessons could be learned from this in relation to, say, Batman: Arkham Asylum? One complaint pretty much everyone had of detective vision was that it was so useful with no real drawbacks as to make it virtually ubiquitous. There’s no real need to see every baddie in the area, for instance, especially through walls and floors, since they’re only a threat when they’re close enough to see you directly.

Limiting the glow of enemies to the range of a few feet and to only when they’re in your visual range would create a lovely tension between your power and your vulnerability. Mess around with some of Batman’s other gadgets to make them less like “the blue key” and “the red key”, and make them useful for vaguely locating enemies and things of interest, through sounds, vibrations, as a splodge on a handheld radar or the tightening of a camera angle on Batman’s haunches. That’d stop it from being the win button and turn it into something you’ve got to navigate and manage, and when everything comes together like poetry, it’s the result of your expertise and not Batman passively emanating his reputation.

A few wee changes can wallop the entire vibe of the game framed by a feeling of veracity to your actions, no longer as a shimmer of Batman’s, no longer letting him do all the thinking as if you don’t have a brain in your head to look and see and think for yourself. Ironically, designers always rationalize detective mode in a narrative context as a visualization of sense perceptions enhanced by experience, technology, magic, whatever, whereas in practise it precludes the feeling of these characteristics through your own prowess. It ends up hollow. Batman is wonderful and clever, you’re just a homunculus.

Stephen Beirne is a freelance critic of videogames as cultural texts, examining design and social phenomenon under narrative, philosophical, political, social and feminist lenses. His work has featured on Destructoid, Gameranx, Popmatters, Unwinnable and more. You can see more of him on Twitter @ByronicM and his blog Normally Rascal or help to support his writing by visiting his Patreon page and pledging a few quid as patronage.