Monday, November 21, 2011

Writing a Mystery Game (Part 3)

Tips for writing intriguing stories for Serious Games

Part 3 of 3

Step 3 Decide thenumber of Layers in the Mystery

A good mystery peels like an onion with new layers revealedas you examine the surface layers. This layering doesn’t simply happen andrequires a lot of planning and work.

A good technique for layering is to create a hierarchy ofthe layers. Start with the big reveal and layer it behind such clues that pointto the big reveal when put together. Do the same thing for each of the cluesthat lead up to the big reveal.  

If A is the big reveal then:

Your hierarchy would look something like this


An example of this from the Mystery Matters “City of Fear”game is

Layer 1 clues
  • A large number of deaths are occurring in the city of Sydneysporadically
  • Healthy people suddenly fall ill and die in a matter of days
  • The Deaths seem to be more concentrated in the denser sectionsof the city

Layer 2 clues
  • The pattern of the deaths seems to be spreading out from thedocks
  • There has been an outbreak of plague recently in Europe

  • Sydney has a rat infestation because of poor sanitation. Therats are the vectors of the plague.

Step 4 Remember Chekhov’sgun

Chekhov's gun is a technique where an apparently irrelevantelement is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear laterin the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhovused this principle in his play Uncle Vanya, in which a pistol is introducedearly on as a seemingly irrelevant prop and, towards the end of the play,becomes much more important as Uncle Vanya, in a rage, grabs it and tries tocommit murder.

The phrase "Chekhov's gun" is often interpreted asa method of foreshadowing, but the concept can also be interpreted as meaning"do not include any unnecessary elements in a story." If you don’tabide by this rule then the audience may be left feeling unsatisfied with thenarrative experience.

A statement of the rule is:

“"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

Anton Chekhov

Use of Red Herrings(wisely)

Another interesting literary technique you can use in thegame is the presence of a ‘red herring’.

Wikipedia describes these as:

“Red herring is an idiomatic expression referring to therhetorical or literary tactic of diverting attention away from an item ofsignificance. For example, in mystery fiction, where the identity of a criminalis being sought, an innocent party may be purposefully cast in a guilty lightby the author through the employment of deceptive clues, false emphasis,"loaded" words or other descriptive tricks of the trade. The reader'ssuspicions are thus misdirected, allowing the true culprit to go (temporarilyat least) undetected. A false protagonist is another example of a red herring.”

While this can prolong the audience’s immersion in the storyit must be remembered that the audience must not be misled and that the ‘redherring’ must be revealed as not being the central agency before the storyconcludes.


Mysteries can be fun to explore as a tool for creating engagingnarrative especially in games for learning. A great tip for Teachers embarkingon this path can be to involve your students in the creation of these stories.It is as much fun to create mysteries as it is to solve them. Plus the processof creation of a mystery requires thorough research of the subject and domainof the narrative which is a great learning exercise in its own right.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and have funbuilding your own mystery games. Check this space again for more articles aboutmaking serious games. 

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