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.