Investigating the Merits of Famicom Detective Club's Meticulously Mundane Mystery Mechanics
The Mystery Game is Afoot
Usually when I get into a mystery story, whether it’s a book, show, or a video game, I go in expecting to be compelled by the mystery of the story. That’s reasonable, right? I’m no detective, but I suspect that might be the point. Yet, upon completing the recent Famicom Detective Club remakes, I found the mysteries provided by the stories to be the least interesting part. I mean, they were alright, I had fun. Still, they weren’t what stood out to me.
What stood out to me was the part of The Missing Heir where I knew the game wanted me to go to the cliffside at 5 p.m. because all of the characters were telling me I needed to go to the cliffside at 5 p.m. No matter what I did, though, I just couldn’t progress time forward to 5 p.m. Or the part where you call out into an empty forest and nothing happens, and then after fruitlessly examining every pixel of the environment, you call out again and this time someone shows up. I also enjoyed the part where you exhaust all of your dialogue options and the game doesn’t progress, so you try every single option again only to discover that one of the choices you already picked has a new line of dialogue. That part happens a lot.
Something about nonsense like this compels me in a way I find hard to describe. I need answers, so today we will deduce the truth: are there merits to the odd way these games are designed?
When playing the Famicom Detective Club games, you will spend far more time deducing how to reach the next bit of dialogue than the identity of the murderer. That’s just how it shakes out. It may be tempting to call that a design flaw. I’m not so sure it is. As a general rule, I don’t like assuming that the developers of a game somehow didn’t know what they were making. No, in this case, I believe these games are functioning as intended.
What, you want proof? Like I said, I’m no detective. However, I have picked up most of the basics from Famicom Detective Club. For example, in lieu of direct proof, I know I can just stumble through a bunch of different options at my disposal and hope that something sticks.
First, despite my portrayal above, many actions the games require you to take do have some logic behind them. While it makes sense to ask someone about every topic you can in a video game world, that sort of approach is at least somewhat believable in real life as well. If I ask you about Theodore Regis III, you’d probably say you don’t know who that is. Similarly, in Famicom Detective Club you can usually infer just based on character personalities and relationships who or what they might be able to give you some info on.
Logic flows throughout a lot of potential actions to take. At one point, examining a room reveals the existence of a TV. Later on, remembering where the TV lives will pay off when you find yourself in a situation when one is required. Reasoning out little information puzzles like these are where the Famicom Detective Club games feel the most normal and rewarding. Inquisitive minds get rewarded with smooth progression, and by paying enough attention, you may even figure out key information regarding the mystery itself long before the game explicitly reveals it.
The second game, The Girl Who Stands Behind, contains a mechanic designed to punish you for random guessing. At the end of the game, your compatibility with your detective partner Ayumi Tachibana gets judged based on choices you made throughout the game. You’ll likely receive some penalizations simply for chasing down every potential lead you can. For example, if you chat up other female characters too much, Ayumi will find out through telepathy and you’ll lose some points for it. I guess I can’t claim to know much about what girls like - apparently it is bad to repeatedly show them pictures of their dead friend for no reason too. Who knew!
Of course, not every solution makes perfect sense. The 5 p.m. puzzle I described above, for example. I’d estimate a person could reason their way through about 90% of the method required to progress the game at that point, however most will inevitably fall short. After activating certain progression triggers, you end up needing to awkwardly switch back and forth between conversation partners in an unnatural way until you are specifically told you can leave. The game appears to be pushing you to leave at virtually any point before that, but if you do so, you have to start the whole process again.
It’s dumb - this section is probably the lowest point of either game. While this happens to be the most extreme example, the Famicom Detective games are filled with smaller, less annoying scenarios where the solution lies more in fidgeting with the mechanics of the game than the natural logic behind the actions.
Even when the answer to the next progression block defies logic, however, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still have some fun with that too. Is my brain just broken, or is there something else going on? Maybe it can be both, a good detective shouldn’t be leaving out any possibilities here.
I believe the answer lies in recognizing that the Famicom Detective Club games are in fact games. It makes sense to challenge the player’s observation and memory like one might expect from these kinds of games; those are important skills to test for a mystery regardless of the medium. Perhaps, however, some value can be extracted by challenging the player in abstract ways that only a video game can. Often in these games, the puzzle of progression becomes less about deducing the logic behind the characters or the mystery at hand, and more about recognizing how the game functions on a meta level.
Initially playing through the first game proved to be a rough time. It felt like I was constantly getting stuck on arbitrary things that I really should not be getting stuck on. It shouldn’t be difficult, right? If you talk to a guy about everything on a menu, you should just be able to go to the next area. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. I can talk to a Famicom Detective Club character just fine, but what I should have been focusing on was speaking to the game itself. I did not know how to speak the language of Famicom Detective Club.
I know my brain seems to be deteriorating much more rapidly over the last few paragraphs, but hear me out. While some solutions may seem obtuse, in actuality, both games share patterns. I described earlier how some conversations will give you a new line if you try the same dialogue option again - this is a trick that the games employ often, and once you know about it, it becomes a new tool to try. Many little tricks like this exist, and over time you begin to build up a desperation skill set specifically for figuring out what to do when you get stuck.
Figuring out these little mechanical quirks ends up becoming its own mystery-fsolving exercise completely unique to the medium of video games. Either that, or I just spewed out multiple paragraphs of nonsense. Gosh, that would almost be as embarrassing as getting caught with your fly open.
It surprised me how faithful the remakes appeared to be in terms of how they were designed, yet I understand why they kept them the way they did. The occasional aimless flailing forms a big part of the identity of these games. Is it a perfect identity? Not at all. Is it fun or even desirable? I think so, at least to an extent.
I’m seeking out the merits of these mystery mechanics largely because of what these Famicom Detective Club remakes imply for the future. I surmise they exist to test the waters for a new installment. That begs the question, though, what would a modern Famicom Detective Club game even look like? Would a new Famicom Detective Club entry dispose of the obtuseness or embrace it? After playing the games, I feel it could go either way. Whether the mystery lies in the story or the mechanics of progressing it, there is fun to be found in Famicom Detective Club. Unless you need to be somewhere at 5 p.m.
I don't think Nintendo wanted to test the waters with the remakes (sadly). It feels more like them embracing their legacy which is just something they do.
They never showed any interest in making adventure or visual novel games after the three Famicom Detective Club games but IF they were to ever release a new game in the series I think the mechanics would be more streamlined and the game would feature multiple cases (like the Ace Attorney series) as those three games are barely six hours long.
It's great to see this game get some love! Awesome work, Jack!
@conangiga It's a little outside the scope of the article so I didn't get into it, but Nintendo is actually more interested than you might expect in making adventure/visual novel games. Nintendo's views on the subject were discussed as part of a response to one of their investor meetings (https://www.siliconera.com/nintendo-got-asked-two-cute-questions-in-the-latest-investors-meeting/) as something they wanted to do. This specific question might have even been what kicked off the Famicom Detective Club remakes!
Also worth noting who they got to do these remakes - Mages. They're known for Steins;Gate and the like. Outside of really big companies like Capcom, this is one of the most prestigious developers currently doing visual novels. I don't think they were cheap to hire, relatively speaking, and most game companies these days are so conservative that basically everything is seen as a long term investment. Things aren't funded for one and done legacy/vanity projects, at least intentionally. The phrasing from the Mages staff I linked to in my article says to me that the project likely was funded with the intent of building on it down the line, whether that results in another remake of the Satella game or an entirely new one (personal speculation, but I think Mr. Sakamoto is itching to write a new one and that may also have contributed to these happening).
I fully believe these remakes and Buddy Mission Bond are Nintendo's attempts to find some success with the genre. Whether or not they met their expectations, I don't know.
I still have yet to play the originals or the remakes. Definitively in my to do list, but I still think the price tag is a little bit up.