Puzzle of Evidence

Crime dramas and police procedurals are popular genres on TV. Detective stories and murder mysteries are a popular genre of novels. These sorts of genres do exist in game form, but I feel that these games have never successfully found a gameplay mechanic that captures the essence of being a detective and solving crimes.

Current mystery games focus on the procedure of solving a crime. There might be various mini-games that try to invoke the "feel" of gathering clues or interviewing suspects, but the player never gets the chance to synthesize these clues into a "solution" to the case. Instead, the interpreting these clues and drawing conclusions is usually not interactive. You'll find a fingerprint, and the game will tell you "this means that the butler did it!" Or while talking to a witness, the game might offer you the opportunity to bring up some evidence, and the game will then show you accusing a witness of lying due to some contradiction that's supposedly demonstrated by this piece of evidence. These games never let you ponder the evidence and come up with your own theory of how the crime was committed. At best, some mystery games allow you to rub clues together and the game will tell you whether doing so will generate some sort of "hypothesis" about what the clues mean.

Puzzle of Evidence is my attempt at making a game where YOU actually solve the case. The key to doing this is

While reading some articles about Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, I read something about crime reenactment, and that got the cogs turning in my mind to arrive at this game design. A player can solve a crime by creating a reenactment of the crime that is consistent with all the evidence. But how can a player "express" a reenactment of a crime? For this, I decided to use a grid where the player has to show where each person is at different times. The character who is with the victim at the time of death must be the murderer. Different arrangements of characters at different times can express different theories of how a crime was committed. This grid is expressive enough to let the player propose different "solutions" to a case yet is simple enough that it isn't overwhelming to players. Overlaying clues right on the grid helps guide players to a solution because players can see when their solution is inconsistent with the evidence. Solving a crime then becomes like solving an elaborate logic puzzle: players need to arrange characters on a grid so that everything is consistent with the clues. It's like a murder-mystery version of sudoku!

Puzzle of Evidence is my prototype of the core "puzzle" at the heart of this game idea. Obviously, a full game would have a nicer UI, and there would need to be a whole section where you gather clues and interview suspects. I was also thinking of having some sort of AI judger that would evaluate whether you solution was consistent with the clues. The idea is that the player could send the case to trial and a judge could dismiss the case if the player's reconstruction of the crime was plausible given the evidence (possibly allowing multiple possible explanations for a crime, if the evidence allows for it), but that ended up being too complicated, so I just went a strict comparison of the player's solution with what I was thinking of when I came up with the puzzle. I think the prototype is complete enough to allow me to test to see if this game mechanic actually works as a game. Is it too complicated for casual gamers? Is it too abstract for players to "see" the crime expressed by the grid?

Surprisingly, one of the most difficult parts of making the game was actually making the mysteries themselves. The crimes actually aren't that complicated, but I found it uncomfortable spending all day trying to figure out how to murder different people while leaving enough evidence for detectives to reconstruct the crime. This is definitely something where having a real writer would help a LOT.

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Puzzle of Evidence
a game prototype by Ming-Yee Iu

Choose a crime to solve:

Below is the crime reenactment board. To solve the crime, you must determine where each of the people were during the crime. You do this by clicking on one of the persons on the left and then clicking inside the table to indicate where you think the person was at a certain time. Click on the question marks to show you the clues you have found during your investigations. Click on "Check Case" to check if you've solved the crime correctly.
Crime Summary
Check Case