After watching the BBC’s excellent adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, I’ve been on the lookout for any other media that riffs on the same source material. I’ve settled on two games: Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. In this post I will compare the two experiences, attempting to highlight what mystery games can learn from them in the future.
Though both are games, it’s important to note that Crimes and Punishments is a video game and Consulting Detective is a board game. In a previous post, I discussed how board games can be easier to analyze. However, for this comparison, I make the assumption that neither board nor video games are a medium which provides an inherently superior experience.
Number of Players
By examining each game’s box, we find our first major difference. Crimes and Punishments is a single-player game. Consulting Detective is playable solo or collaboratively. Let’s examine what difference this makes for potential detectives.
A lone detective will experience a more intense feeling of satisfaction after solving a case. However, cases in both games are complicated. The burden of solving the mystery by oneself can become daunting.
Playing cooperatively distributes the cognitive load across multiple players, making it more likely that critical details will be noticed. Are you interested in military history? Or maybe you know a bit about geopolitics. These things will come in handy for Consulting Detective, and it becomes more likely that someone will happen to know these miscellanea when more players are involved. However, introducing multiple players can add tension. The entire group must collectively decide which clues to follow, and it’s possible players will not reach a consensus. An otherwise elegant game is forced to introduce rules for solving these disputes.
Gameplay as Abstraction
Games are abstractions, and these two games chose to abstract different parts of the crime-solving process.
The mystery-solving process in Crimes and Punishments focuses on the sensory experience of the detective as they examine the evidence. Players meticulously comb over all physical evidence available to Sherlock and Scotland Yard. However, when it’s time for higher-level strategy concerning what to do next, Sherlock will chime in with lines of dialog like, “I’ve seen this name before… Perhaps my archive holds the answer.” Or in another example, “I should check this blood sample at Baker Street.”
Conversely, Consulting Detective focuses on this high level decision making that Crimes and Punishments avoids. The work of combing through the environment is instead performed automatically by the in-game characters.
Deriving abstract ideas from cold, hard facts should be at the core of any detective experience. The player needs a space where they can think through the details and figure out how to proceed.
In Crimes and Punishments, this space is a special menu where we go inside Sherlock’s brain and connect neurons. Each neuron represents how Sherlock interprets a clue discovered during the investigation. Finding all clues and choosing an interpretation of each is the way players codify their conclusion.
In Consulting Detective, there are no rules about how to piece the details together. Players must take it upon themselves to take notes on any relevant details. This means that all deductions must be made the old-fashioned way, without any guidance from the game itself. The image above is an example from a case I played where notes and deductions were written on a whiteboard.
Structure and Pacing
Each game takes a radically different approach to gameplay structure. Crimes and Punishments uses a linear structure that requires players to perpetually unlock the next segment of the investigation. Consulting Detective describes the premise of the mystery, then gives players free rein to investigate any location in any order. Let’s examine the pros and cons of each approach.
A game which has gated sections like those in Crimes and Punishments allows the designer to enforce a specific pacing. An ideal game pacing follows a specific intensity curve, similar to the three-act structure used in film and theater. Unfortunately, funneling players through this experience always comes at the cost the player’s freedom to make meaningful decisions, also known as player agency. Too much of a trade-off can make the game feel more like a movie than an interactive experience. In fact, multiple cases in Crimes and Punishments are re-creations of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. The designers are able to follow the original narratives very closely by restricting the player’s agency.
Consulting Detective takes the opposite approach. Players are free to move through an investigation in any way they want. This approach creates a less predictable experience, for better or worse. Some players will be thrilled when their choices create an experience like that of a more controlled narrative, while still keeping their sense of agency. However, some portion of players will lose the trail of the true culprit. Consulting Detective is a game that asks players to take this risk of veering off of the correct path while Crimes and Punishments does not.
With any game about solving a mystery, there’s a chance players might get stuck. Both games have problems in this regard, and each set of problems is caused by the gameplay structures described above.
In Crimes and Punishments, coming to a conclusion requires that players have the requisite evidence. It’s easy to overlook some small clue and be unable to progress at all. Additionally, the cases can cover a large physical area, making it tedious to retrace one’s steps.
Consulting Detective doesn’t have any issues with players being blocked outright. However, the game is all about correctly choosing where to go next. Usually this choice is based on a question the player would like to answer. As an example, let’s say I want to find where a suspect acquired their weapon. I might choose to visit a gunsmith, when in reality, the criminologist is the only one who has the desired evidence. If this clue was necessary for a correct understanding of the case, I will have missed it.
The ‘Detective Feeling’
The goal of a detective game should be to make the player experience that ‘aha moment’ after making a vital deduction. This moment makes players feel like a crime-solving genius. I refer to this elated sensation as the ‘detective feeling’.
Games with more agency are more likely to make the player experience this feeling. This is because players need the freedom to take risks.
Consulting Detective uses a clever mechanic that penalizes players for each extra turn they require to solve the case. At the end of the game, players are awarded a score that will be markedly higher for those who solved the case efficiently. This scoring system creates a scenario where on each turn, players debate whether it’s worth it to investigate a specific person or place. Sometimes taking this risk pays off by connecting all the loose ends in a case, ensuring that players will experience the ‘detective feeling’.
Because Crimes and Punishments is a game about following the pre-determined path, it has a hard time introducing risk. Instead, the game has a dominant strategy: keep searching until you find all the clues. There’s literally no reason not to do this, as doing anything else will lead to an uninformed accusation.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
I thoroughly enjoyed playing through Crimes and Punishments. But in the end, it embraces a formula that’s already been done to death by mystery movies, TV shows, and other games. Consulting Detective was a more novel, and ultimately a more rewarding experience. In the future, I hope that some of the ideas from Consulting Detective can augment the existing clichés found in our detective games.