PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Games

The Best Detective Is an Assassin

The most recent Assassin's Creed's games clearly understand the fun of playing detective.

2015 was a good year for detective games: Her Story was great, episode four of Life is Strange had a cool sequence in which we run down all the evidence that we've collected over the past three episodes, but most unexpectedly, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate brought back the detective side-missions from the last game with a wealth of improvements. Her Story may have been the better game, Life is Strange may have been the bigger mystery, but Syndicate had the most versatile and fully-featured detective gameplay that I've seen in a while. We investigated various murders, some elaborately staged and some simple crimes of passion, we collected evidence, questioned suspects, then contrasted the two against each other in order to discover motive, opportunity and an overall timeline of events complete with red herrings and dead ends.

The detective missions first appeared in 2014's Assassin's Creed: Unity and immediately stood out to me for their emphasis on interpreting evidence rather than just collecting evidence.

That was also the year of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a detective game in which ghosts reenacted every murder once all the evidence was found, thus negating any need for analysis or critical thinking -- any actual detective work. That was also the year of The Wolf Among Us, a detective game in which the detective didn't so much solve the case as he did punch his way to the culprit (though to be fair, that is a noir convention). That was also the year of Murdered: Soul Suspect, which had a variety of clever investigative mini-games but often phrased its investigative questions poorly.

All of which is all to say that Unity didn't exactly have the toughest competition, but its side-missions were still impressive in that they clearly understood the true fun of playing detective. Evidence was easy to find thanks to your magical Eagle Vision that highlighted any relevant object or person. It was interpreting that evidence was the fun part: sifting through your notes, comparing and contrasting witness statements. Each mission usually came down to motivation (Who wanted the victim dead?), so our analysis was often focused on finding connections between characters (were they in the same regiment? Did they work in the same building? Did they work nearby and could conceivably cross paths?). The game wanted us to examine these details and was refreshingly restrained about providing any overtly helpful exposition.

It wasn't all great, though. There was that one mission with only one suspect, leading to a solution that was so obvious that it left me stumped, believing there had to something that I had missed. Still, though, overall the game offered up an impressive set of investigations that set Unity apart from its crime-solving peers.

If Unity was an improvement over other games because it emphasized interpretation over collection, then Syndicate is an improvement over Unity because of how it emphasizes different kinds of interpretation. We're no longer simply looking for motivation, but also for opportunity and for capability.

Syndicate creates some fun, complex mysteries in which everyone has a motive for the murder. One stand out is the murder of a fake medium who has been scamming people with help from their friends. So, was he killed by someone he was scamming or by one of his accomplices in the scam? Then there is the murder of an industrialist on a train filled with potential enemies, both personal and ideological. Everyone has a reason to kill him, a few had the opportunity, but only one had reason, opportunity, and the capability of carrying out the act.

The game does a good job avoiding any easy "smoking gun" evidence that unequivocally implicates one suspect. Multiple trails of evidence may point to one person, but there's always a gap that leads to reasonable doubt. This is the central trait that makes these mysteries so much fun to solve. It is the difference between accusing an obvious killer as opposed to the most likely killer: The former is an exercise in basic reading comprehension, but the latter is a far more interesting exercise in critical thinking.

That gap in evidence forces us to pay attention to the little details of a story. Our investigation is less about finding the killer and more about finding who is not the killer. We compare statements against evidence to rule out suspects, and the one possibility left standing is the one best accused. We can't trust our assumptions about who the obvious killer is because when everyone has motivation everyone becomes an "obvious" killer. So this process of elimination becomes necessary, and that lends each mission a procedural quality.

Procedurals are entertaining because they’re predictable. They follow a set pattern, and it’s fun seeing how different stories fit into that set pattern. I got into a similar pattern when investigating. Collect all the evidence first, that way if a witness statement conflicts with the evidence, you can confront them immediately. This means that the general plot and pacing of each mission is the same. You always do the same things in the same order and only the details of the crimes are different, but, after all, that’s all that needs to be different. A repetitive plot doesn’t feel repetitive when you are a part of it, when those little details are things that matter to you personally. By making us care about those little things, the game frees itself to repeat itself on a larger scale. This means we get a bunch of missions in a bunch of locations -- variety.

Taken as a whole, these missions also feels like a boldly realistic adaptation to solving crimes in a video game: There are no easy answers and no obvious solutions. You make your accusations based on evidence, but there's always a chance that you're wrong. There is always that reasonable doubt. It takes awhile to become comfortable with the idea of accusing someone you’re not absolutely certain is guilty, but that’s just the way that the police work. If guilt were always obvious, there would be no need for trials.

Of course, the game is far more forgiving than reality is. Make a wrong accusation, and you're just told you’re wrong. Make the correct accusation, and the guilty party always confesses on the spot. Syndicate isn't interested in interrogating the nuances of the 19th century British justice system. It's just a cool police procedural. But that is what makes it fun. It doesn't hold your hand through its mysteries, but it's still there to congratulate you at the end.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.