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IG@FG: Blazing Griffin on The Murder Mystery Machine

We speak to members of the Blazing Griffin team about their upcoming procedural whodunit generator, The Murder Mystery Machine;

Blazing Griffin is a Scottish based team, hailing from Edinburgh. Starting out in 2011 as a small game studio, the company has now grown into a 50 person strong multimedia business that’s capable of game development, film production and end-to-end post-production. Having produced games like Scottish BAFTA winner Distant Star and their latest title, Murderous Persuits, the gaming arm of the company turned their attentions to what is probably their most ambitious title to date – The Murder Mystery Machine.

A whodunit simulator that generates murders for you to solve, The Murder Mystery Machine is a deeply intriguing game. Having only recently heard about it, I had to know more and thankfully, the Blazing Griffin team took some time to give us some details…

The games arm of Blazing Griffin is currently working on The Murder Mystery Machine. What inspired the team to create this game?

Pete Low (Lead Designer): Ultimately it was a combination of things that resulted in our forming a vision for the game.

First was noting how strong the crime drama/murder mystery genre is outside of games then wanting to solve a problem we felt could be addressed within them by focussing on the art of deduction.

Second, I was watching Mindhunter on Netflix and was struck by a scene where the main character (a young criminal psychologist), given only a few pieces of evidence and background from a police officer, imagines a plausible and detailed theory that the police had never thought of. “Someone would do something like that?” The police officer is shocked by the idea. Holden has a completely different background from the officer so can offer a different plausibility. His theory isn’t right, but it does open new lines of questioning and ideas for the police who do eventually discover key evidence they’ve been looking for and solve their case.

Coincidentally we then read a quote by famous murder mystery author Agatha Christie: “Unless you are good at guessing, it is not much use being a detective.” This led us to ensure that ‘informative guesswork’, just like the character Holden Ford is doing in Mindhunter, would form a key element in our vision.
We then read an academic paper on the mechanics of murder mystery writing and the idea that a murder mystery is, in fact, two stories. The ‘first story’ is the actual events as they happened. The ‘second story’ is the way in which the detective discovers and interprets the first story. The details in-between the facts, the ‘drama’ could be anything. If you put Sherlock Holmes, Mrs. Marple, Mulder, Scully and Rust Cohle on the same case they may all reach the same conclusion, but the way they tell the story can be vastly different. Their personal experience, the order they discover evidence and the way they interpret it will all be different. The idea that people can tell a vastly different story out of the same pieces of information, no different from Story Cubes or fridge poetry magnets, was something else we wanted to incorporate.
That same week one of our user interface artists mentioned a Marvel comic, Hawkeye 011 featuring Lucky the Pizza Dog by Matt Fraction and Aja Hollingsworth. The entire story is presented from the point of view of the dog in the form of connecting icons and just a few words (the one’s the dog knows). We noted how this abstracted form of storytelling through connecting icons mimics a classic investigation ‘pin and string’ evidence board. This method of storytelling became the backbone of the entire game.

All the while our lead artist was working on concepts and came up with this image:

An isometric view best represented how a detective perceives a crime scene. We could play with lighting and camera rotation to make use of the entire space to enhance the exploration/investigative aspects of the game and create an atmosphere that immerses you into the scene.

Then I asked if we could add a crime into the scene:

I then showed this image around the office and asked people “what do you think happened?”
Excitingly, everyone’s theory was different. We heard plausible explanations that the image itself was never designed to elicit. “He committed suicide.” “He was shot and made to look like suicide.” “He was shot through the window.” “He pushed his significant other out the window then shot himself in despair.”
The sheer level of engagement that a still image created was hitting on all our ideas around the art of deduction. For a moment everyone in the office became a Holden Ford or invoked their ‘best guesses’ and told second stories. For that moment, they became detectives. The effect was heightened if you asked two or more people at the same time to interpret the crime scene as they would feed off ideas and argue others. It just felt right and became our starting point for development.
So, it was this simple concept image in combination with the research we had learned from immersing ourselves in the genre that helped to set the direction for MMM: We present a crime scene, you tell us the story.

The Murder Mystery Machine is a procedurally generated “whodunit?” game which creates cases for you to solve. How many different scenarios is MMM capable of generating?

Pete Low (Lead Designer): At its core, the procedural engine generates the Who, What and Why of a crime then builds a story around it. Ultimately it is only limited by the number of possibilities we feed into it using what we call the ‘Knowledge Base’. This is essentially a giant spreadsheet that the designers input all the ingredients (and logic hooks) into that the generator uses to create stories with. As with any procedural generation you can fall into the ‘trap’ of saying that the number of scenarios/story combinations is massive, which may be true but if the visual details surrounding the story aren’t engaging or providing enough variety or support then it can quickly lose its appeal. Therefore, we’re concentrating on what we call an ‘event structure’ that allows us to visually support stories in a variety of ways. For example, the procedural engine may pick a motive, such as jealousy combined with a suspect whose archetype/personality is prone to anger and a blunt weapon. This combination can result in a more violent and longer lasting murder event. The engine is also aware of the immediate surroundings of the victim so the details of the murder can then be used to visually affect the environment in a way that reflects the story of the death event itself. The final position of the victim’s body, gore details (position and direction of decals, whether bullet holes, stab wounds, blunt trauma, drag marks, cover-up details, damage or change to prop states) are all taken into consideration.

One of the criticisms that’s often directed at procedural generation is that it sometimes removes the feeling of purposeful direction. By all accounts, MMM seems to get around this to provide a rich narrative. How did you manage to achieve this?

Pete Lowe: Through abstracted storytelling. By putting the onus on the player to infer details and ‘fill in the blanks’ between bits and pieces of information is the key to this. Our overarching story, that of you as a detective making a name for yourself in a mysterious organization then slowly discovering bits and pieces that may raise more questions than answers is ideal for procedural generation. Keeping the meta story in the realm of mystery, while providing logic puzzles that are satisfyingly solvable provides the right mix to make it work.

Is it possible to accuse the wrong person in MMM? If so, what happens when you do?

Pete Lowe: Yes, you can. Your accusation is made up of the Who, Why and What (invert the W’s to see where the inspiration for the name came from 🙂 so it’s possible to get any part of your accusation wrong. In any case the game will tell you how many are incorrect, just not which (in a Mastermind like way) then give you a chance to fix your story. You need to get all three to successfully solve a case, otherwise it gets archived and you’ll have to start another. This is one of the reasons we’ve opted for somewhat shorter/bite-sized mysteries to solve, although it will be possible to generate very deep, difficult cases.

Blazing Griffin also created Murderous Pursuits. Was there anything you learnt from creating that game that informed the development of MMM?

Pete Lowe: Yes, in the sense of best development practices and process. You learn so much as a company from making any kind of game and do your best to apply that to the next. They are significantly different types of games however so there wasn’t much to carry over in terms of actual features.

Do you have a favourite scenario that MMM has generated so far?

Pete Lowe: We had one scenario play out where we discovered that the victim, named Claire, had been attending a support group for domestic abuse. We discovered a trail of messages between her and a suspect named Brett Collins suggesting that they struck up a relationship that both wanted to become more serious. We weren’t sure if Claire was married already and having an affair with Brett, the domestic abuse evidence didn’t suggest why she was attending so we had to guess, which is what really made this story work so well. When interrogating Brett, he said that he was visiting Claire and was shocked and sad to have found her dead.

This suggested that she may have killed herself or was a victim of someone else but the crime scene and her wounds weren’t consistent with that of a suicide as she had heavy blunt trauma to her head. Eventually we found a bloodied towel, suggesting that someone tried to clean the weapon used (a fire extinguisher that was hanging on a wall) and finally a key piece of evidence that Brett was obsessed with Claire, had proposed marriage to her and when she rejected him, he went into a rage. It’s was very sad but it was one of the first cases where, depending on the order of evidence discovery, your story as you built up the case could be pulled in many directions.

The art style employed in The Murder Mystery Machine is phenomenal. What inspired this direction?

Sean Wenham (Lead Artist) – Thank you. We wanted to re-create the vibe and tone from some of our favourite tv shows like True Detective and Mind Hunter. David Fincher was an inspiration with the grainy, grimy, dark atmosphere’s he creates. Also just a desire to inhabit the seedy underbelly of urban America in the early 80’s. The smoky dive bars and neon lit motel rooms. You can read more about how we defined this vision in our blog post here.

Lastly, when can we expect to get our hands on MMM?

This year (sorry for being vague!)

The Murder Mystery Machine is due out in 2019 on PC. You can wishlist it by heading here.

IG@FG (or ‘Indie Games @ Finger Guns’) is a an irregular feature exploring the world of indie games. If you liked this, or anything else we create, please consider supporting our Patreon.

Sean Davies

Ungrateful little yuppie larvae. 30-something father to 5. Once ate 32 slices of pizza at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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