Mystery-solving video games have existed almost as long as video games themselves, from early text-based adventures right through to the modern line of Danganronpa and Ace Attorney. One thing they usually have in common, however, is that there’s only one ‘right’ explanation for what happened.
In Danganronpa, you might think you’ve found a plausible version of events. But if you’re not presenting the perfect piece of evidence at the perfect moment, revealing the absolute truth of events, then the game says you’re wrong and stops progression. This is how a lot of them end up working, and you can see why: creating endless possibilities is a pretty steep ask. But a pair of UK indies reckon they’ve cracked it, and want to upend how these detective-style games are played.
Oli Clarke Smith and Phil Crabtree are developing Paradise Killer. The game is an open-world murder mystery, but one that doesn’t tell the player for certain if they have the correct answers or not. Similar to something like Her Story, progress can be roughly measured by how many clues you’ve found, and if you’ve found enough to make a convincing case for a prosecution, but the game isn’t clear on whether you’ve found the ‘real’ version of events or not.
Clarke Smith joined Supermassive Games as a designer when he was 20, while Crabtree was working in back-end software development before deciding he wanted to move into games. The pair quit their day jobs to work on Paradise Killer, with a development timescale based on how long their savings are going to last.
“We went to school together, and we used to hang out and skateboard and drink and play Dreamcast together”, says Clarke Smith. “We formed a punk band together, I was the vocalist and he was the drummer. We just hung out all the time. Phil used to have a permanent toothbrush at my parents’ house because he stayed over so often. We went our separate ways with uni, always kept in touch, but then came back together in 2011 to make an iOS top-down shooter. We did that together, but then life takes over and we got other jobs.”
The pair wanted to keep making games together, but the bills needed paying, and their employers were strict about people developing indie games outside of work.
“Working with studios, you’re often not allowed to make things in your own time, otherwise they’ll end up owning what you make,” says Clarke Smith. “That was particularly problematic where I was working at Supermassive, they are very draconian on that.” It should be said, in Supermassive’s defence, that such clauses are common across the industry.
“We eventually got to the point where we said ‘look, let’s save up some money, and then let’s do a thing together again,’” says Clarke Smith. “It wasn’t so much that we had an idea that was going to change the world – we are not going to make the next Fortnite – but we wanted to work together again, and we wanted to make the kind of game that we want to be making. Working on AAA stuff, you become just a cog. I wanted to do my own design work, not work that’s designed for someone.”
The turning point came when the pair both came into a little money at around the same time. This was the opportunity to stop the day jobs and give it a go, seeing what they could achieve before the cash ran out.
“The thing we always came back to is wanting to build a world for the player to exist in that is very open and free. We’re big fans of world-building. We had about a year to make a game, so we settled on making a game about being in an isolated or deserted town, where your aim is just to work out what has happened. That has slowly evolved to be much more ambitious.”
“Paradise Killer is a freeform first-person open-world exploration investigation game,” says Clarke Smith. “A lot of investigation games are about the player finding or being guided to the objective truth. Who did the murder? Who did the crime? In Danganronpa you always have to pass the court case in the perfect way, exactly how the game wants you to.”
So how exactly will this differ?
“What we wanted to do was primarily an investigation game, but one where you are investigating a murder, finding answers at your own pace, and finding the truth that you want. You find all these bits of evidence, and you can assemble them into different truths, different versions of the truth.”
“We don’t tell players or expect players to know objectively what the truth is, we want to just give you a bunch of stimuli, a bunch of pieces of evidence for you to piece together, and for you to decide what you think the truth is. After that, the game doesn’t judge you for whether you were right or wrong. We know as the creators what the absolute truth is, but we don’t care if the player knows that.”
An interesting aspect of Paradise Killer is how well thought-through some of the principles underlying it are, being rooted in the nuance of real-life investigations. As we talk the pair explain how court cases are more about finding a version of the truth you think you can make the jury believe, rather than presenting an ‘objective’ truth. They move onto how the game never discourages players by shutting down their lines of inquiry, even if said line is wild. Rarely do you come across such unvarnished excitement surrounding the minutiae of a game’s structure.
“Our idea for the player is that they can get things wrong, they can mess up, they can take shortcuts, but they can also take all the time in the world, and that’s their call,” says Crabtree. “We want to give the player the chance to say ‘I believe this crime happened in this way.’ They may be right, they may be wrong, but as long as they believe it and feel they’ve made the right decisions, that’s what’s important. You can finish the game thinking you’ve done a really good job, or maybe thinking you’ve done a really bad job too. We support letting the game play out however it plays out.”
Clarke Smith’s history at Supermassive included working on Until Dawn, an experience that had a big impact on the initial design decisions made for Paradise Killer.
“The first version [of Paradise Killer] was a linear story, where you’re in an open world finding different things, pieces of evidence which would open up the next stage of the story. Because I came from working on stuff like Until Dawn, which is a linear story which branches and then converges, that’s what we initially tried to do. What we’ve now done instead is broken the story up into a number of different case files, and then when you think you’ve got enough evidence for each case file, you take it to trial with a judge that will decide whether you have enough evidence to find your suspect guilty or not.”
If the game’s not telling the player if they’ve found the ‘truth’ of a crime or not, however, I wonder how it can reward players for their investigations. Clarke Smith says the game focuses more on whether or not you’ve found enough evidence to build a strong case, rather than finding the one true version of events. Again the idea is inspired by the real-life nature of a prosecution, where the focus is on finding a strong enough case for a certain version of events.
“We thought about how to score the player during trials in a very systematic way,” says Clarke Smith. “For each case file, there is a set number of suspects, and a set number of pieces of evidence which relate to each suspect. If you’ve got, say, three out of five bits of evidence on a suspect, the jury might go your way. If you’ve got four out of five, they’re probably going to go your way.”
“However, that doesn’t take into account different types of evidence. A piece of physical evidence tying someone to the scene is way more important than a testimony of someone simply saying they think they did the crime. That’s where we have to get into some of the more naturalistic dialogue where the judge character assesses what evidence you’re bringing to the case, which helps you go down certain branches in a dialogue tree. If you haven’t got the evidence needed to back that up, you might revert back to a different branch.”
“We want to give the player dialogue where they can respond to criticisms of their arguments, and have a proper back-and-forth seeing where the weaknesses in their evidence might be. We want more natural branching and back-and-forth, rather than just tick tick tick you found the things we wanted, that’s a guilty confirmed.”
The pair set out to develop Paradise Killer with a set amount of money, which means the process has a hard deadline. This limitation is also a blessing, however, helping them to focus on what they can realistically achieve rather than constant feature-creep.
“We’ve got so many features that we would love to implement if this was a five year project,” says Clarke Smith. “But we know we might have at most a week to implement a certain feature, so we’re constantly thinking about ‘what can we do?’ and ‘what are our limits?’ I think being conscious of that helps, a lot of people forget their own limits, but we all have them.”
“Having that firm schedule, knowing when the money runs out, has really helped keep us on track. One of the things we have talked publicly about wanting to have as a feature in the game might not actually make it into the game, and we’ve acknowledged that. That feels really important, because it helped us realise the feature is not as key to the game as we thought. A good rule that I try to abide by is when you design something, cut one third of it. You won’t have the time to do it to the full vision, and it’s more than the game actually needs. We have cooler stuff to focus on.”
“You can get lost in trying to make a perfect small part of the game, and we need to instead focus on making sure the game as a whole finds its voice.”
“Especially because this may be our only chance to do this”, adds Crabtree. “If at the end of things this game doesn’t sell, then we’ve run out of money and we have to go back to work or whatever, and then the money to have another go at this is substantial, and not easy to come by. It's easy to go ‘this is going to be our perfect game, and we’re going to do all these impossible things’, but that is entirely the wrong attitude to take.”
As we wrapped up our chat Clarke Smith mentioned one golden rule for Paradise Killer, a principle he’d learned at his previous employer.
“The biggest take away from my time at Supermassive, the creative heads at the company early on came to a core truth about Until Dawn, which was that the game would have an absolute truth to it, and would never lie to the player. If you look at the old PS1 Resident Evil games you’ve got NPCs just teleporting about that have made it through locked doors or past hordes of enemies, but there’s no real world way they could have done that. But for Until Dawn and everything Supermassive does, there is a truth to the game. Even if we don’t explain it to the player, we can in our heads justify it, and if the player thinks about it they can work out ways it can make sense.”
“That’s an attitude and belief we’ve taken forward into Paradise Killer. There is a central timeline of events that happened, and will happen, and you cannot change that. We will never ever lie to the player, we will never change the location of items, or what NPCs do or say, everything has to have an action and a consequence if something is going to change. We will never ever lie: that’s the core thing I took from my time at Supermassive.”
Paradise Killer is planned to release in late 2019. After all, it has to.