US: 29 Sep 2009
—Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”
In attempting to distinguish the hard boiled detective story from the kind of “parlor” detection of traditional British detective fiction, Raymond Chandler suggested that a distinct difference emerges in the interests of these two subgenres of mystery. The latter “classic” form is concerned with solving a formal problem. Hard boiled or American crime fiction is more concerned with setting a tone and resolving mysteries through movement, intrigue, cross-purposes, and the elucidation of character. What this difference boils down to in practice is that detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot become logicians that draw conclusions based on careful studies of evidence and formal problem solving all while sipping tea in the parlor. Detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade don’t so much investigate by reasoning out solutions as much as they get their hands dirty by wading into the muck of the world that a crime takes place in in order to see what might shake out.
The British detective is brilliant, insightful, and driven by logic. The American detective is persistent.
EA’s new iteration of the MySims brand distinguishes itself in a number of different ways from its predecessors, MySims Kingdom and MySims Kingdom 2. While the prior two games featured Sims-style gameplay for kids that focused on resource gathering and building to solve puzzles, MySims Agents has taken a decidedly different approach to the Sims formula by focusing on the very things that Chandler describes as being fundamental to American detective fiction, creating relationships with people in order to sort out and allow intrigue to develop and following up on evidence by getting your hands dirty. As a result, solutions tend to make themselves apparent not through careful consideration of clues and piecing together a puzzle but merely by pounding the pavement. Additionally, the game is less interested in presenting a building simulation (as the previous games were) as it is in presenting a world of mystery where persistence, not problem solving, is key to resolving a mystery.
It should be noted that MySims Agents as its title suggests is really not exclusively wed to the detective story as its dominant narrative style. It includes (and satirizes) any number of genres that are related to mystery, including paranormal investigation (think the X-Files, haunted mansion mysteries (think Haunted Honeymoon), and spy fiction (think James Bond. All of these genres are presented in a manner accessible to kids (in the instance of presenting an X-Filesish case to the player, the investigation of the disappearance of a young man results in an absurd and funny encounter with a very friendly Yeti), but nevertheless, the game does play less like traditional mystery games where logic and drawing conclusions becomes the paramount vehicle for play, but instead, these mysteries are investigated merely through the dogged pursuit of leads that point directly at an inevitable solution.
In a sense this makes this game less “educational”, perhaps, than what parents want a kids game to be. However, it also makes the game much more fun by focusing the player not on formal solution but on the elements that make American crime fiction so successful, the story, its events and characters. In that sense, the game is best at creating situations where the mechanisms of storytelling can be appreciated and admired more so than in trying to get kids to perform didactic, logical problem solving.
While many of the mysteries suggest themselves as multifaceted with a variety of potential solutions (the opening case that the protagonist solves has to do with figuring out who a dog belongs to, a little girl or an old man, and either possibility when investigated suggests that either of these individuals could be the true owner), nevertheless, branching lines of inquiry always end up proving that one solution is the correct one (when enough clues are “collected” by tracking down footprints, questioning witnesses, or finding pieces of evidence, the game will prompt the player (by checking off a fixed number of clues necessary to resolve the problem in your detective’s notebook) to return to the client that initiated the case to explain its solution. As a result, the player cannot draw unique conclusions. False leads might exist but that means that not enough evidence can be collected to justify these red herrings. The plot cannot advance without the persistence of the player leading inevitably to a correct solution. MySims Agents then suggests that mysteries are not solved by brilliant insight but by having the endurance to follow a problem to its natural solution.
In that sense, the game is very American. Its anti-intellectual tendencies place it firmly in the tradition of a rugged and dogged work ethic that is more meaningful than effete high mindedness and assumption. We like our heroes to be men of action, not men of reflection or meditation.
The purpose of this style of play also manages to lead the player to an experience that is nearly as pleasurable as reading a great example of American crime fiction, enjoying the interesting characters presented and the wildness of the events that they take part in rather than in worrying about whether or not the crime will be solved. After all, we already know that it will if the problem is tackled through a commitment to sweating it out rather than pondering it over.
This principle is also reflected in another new feature of the game, building an agency that can resolve minor cases while the protagonist is occupied in solving the cases that form the main story arc. While these subplots do require a bit of analysis on the part of the player (hiring agents that have different skills and then matching them to cases where those skill sets are required does mean that some basic problem solving skills are necessary, especially since these traits can be modified by supplying those agents with gadgets and gizmos that enhance those traits), nevertheless, like the hard boiled plots that Chandler describes, these subplots are still not determined by reasoning but by designing men and women that are simply “right for the job”. While some logic must be used in matching personalities and skills up to the mission at hand, the advice that these agents request of the protagonist while they are trying to solve a case “off camera” is not really relevant to success. Advising agents to attempt to get a cat out of a tree by climbing it or simply waiting for a ladder to arrive modifies a degree of success in the mission, but it is the “character” of the agents assigned that dominantly alter the probability of their success. Reasoning is not sufficient to solving these cases, force of character is.
MySims Agents is a rather wonderful anesthetic for encouraging hard work and effort for kids. The laughs that it generates and kooky characters that it presents are a fun way of prodding kids into embracing sticktuitiveness as an ethic of value and a developer of character. As Chandler suggests, elucidating character is really the only subject matter appropriate for detective fiction. All of this business about solving formal problems is just spillikins in the parlor. That is just a game; this is dirty work made decent and desirable. This is hard boiled.