Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Whodunnit? Post-Mortem

I've been missing the TV show The Mole for a long, long time. Since it seems like we'll probably never see another US season of it, my Mole withdrawal has sent me to the depths of streaming the Australian version from possibly legal websites... and watching Whodunnit?

Pitched as something between The Mole and Clue, Whodunnit was (ostensibly) about a closed-room murder mystery, where the killer was among the players, and the winner would be the one who unmasked the killer before he could himself be killed. It's a great idea, Agatha Christie meets reality television, but unfortunately Whodunnit fell far short of what it could have been. 

As a crime-themed reality show, perhaps the first game-show take on CSI, Whodunnit did a lot well. The idea to play at being crime scene investigators is novel and intriguing, and it was fascinating to see the meta-game emerge around the fourth week, where players began planning strategies around getting other players eliminated.

Evaluated as a game, though, Whodunnit's biggest flaw is that its narrative is about one thing (identifying a murderer) but its mechanics are about something else entirely (figuring out how the murders were committed). The winner won the game by being good at solving crimes, not by suspecting the correct person--in fact, his guess about the identity of the killer was wrong until the end. The analogy would be winning a game of Settlers of Catan without building any settlements, or Go without capturing any territory... and either of those two would be poorly designed games. Here are three ways Whodunnit could improve in terms of game design.

1. Better define the killer's in-game role. In The Mole, the job of the eponymous mole was simple: sabotage the game, but do it subtly, so that none of the other players catch on. In Whodunnit, it's much less clear what exactly the killer is supposed to be doing. Should the killer mislead the rest of the players so they couldn't solve the puzzles? Lie low and avoid detection? Put a lot of effort into the game and control the flow of information?

If yes to any of the above, the next question is why? What's in it for the killer to avoid being targeted (other than to maintain the conceit of the murder mystery)? Why does the killer care who stays, who gets killed, and who the other players suspect might be the killer? Aside from the psychological shock value, there's not much mechanical reason for the killer to be among the players at all.

Again drawing a (possibly unfair but probably inevitable) parallel to The Mole, players need the in-game chance to be able to say "hmm, person A acts so strange whenever circumstance X arises" or "isn't it funny how person B's team always performs the worst?" Giving the character of "the killer" a more defined relationship to the other players and to the events of the game ratchets up the tension and ensures that the players never stop wondering who the killer is.

2. Give the meta-puzzle some teeth. Whodunnit is--or should be--first and foremost a murder mystery, so the focus of the drama should be first and foremost on solving the mystery of who's committing the murders. But the day-to-day of Whodunnit is more often about the riddles and the manner in which each murder was committed. Geno might have said it best in a post-elimination interview: most of the time, it's more about the "how-dunnit".

The concept of Whodunnit made it seem like the weekly murder mysteries would eventually lead to identifying the killer. And how cool would it have been if there were a couple of random red herrings each week that, while totally irrelevant to solving a particular murder, gave some little hint about the killer? If the murder weapons or distribution of Scared cards encoded some pattern? If there were tiny clues scattered around the house that the players could find in their non-murder-solving free time? Or if the solution to each week's riddle provided a fragment of a larger meta-riddle that would reveal the killer's identity?

The idea here is to make the murder mystery something that can be solved instead of something whose solution will be revealed at some pre-determined point in the narrative.

3. Better integrate the murder mystery with the rest of the game. Once the killer's role is better delineated and the murder mystery is actually solvable on its own, the best improvement Whodunnit could make would be to give the identification of the killer some mechanical weight. To make one last comparison, the elimination quiz in The Mole is entirely centered around questions about the mole's identity, while by all accounts the Whodunnit quiz doesn't even ask about the killer's.

The Mole's system has a couple of intriguing strategic implications. Of course, it allows players more keyed in to who the mole is to remain in the game longer. But it's also useful in the metagame: as people get eliminated, their theories about who the mole is are likely to be the least correct, allowing the players still in the game to refine their own. No larger strategic plan is possible in Whodunnit. A player who is good at crime solving and plays the social game adeptly could accuse Giles the butler of being the killer every week and still win.

Other gamers and game designers seem to share the same critiques: the puzzling blog Clavis Cryptica has its own three criticisms of Whodunnit, which might sound a little familiar. Whodunnit was definitely worth watching, especially in the drought that is the summer television schedule. It might be worth watching again, now that it's clear that the real game is about crime-solving. Since it was pitched as who-dunnit, though, the game was disappointing in that the murder mystery carried basically no weight at all.