Agatha Christie to Ryukishi07: Linear Whodunits as Games (For NarraScope 2020)

Beatrice and Battler in a screenshot from Umineko no Naku Koro Ni where she's telling him in the red truth that he is incompetent.

Hello everyone!! Here’s my talk on processing linear books as interactive mediums especially in terms of whodunits and detective fiction, as taught to me through Umineko no naku koro ni. You can enjoy the video above, or read the script below, although the two aren’t word for word.

Also a lot of my pictures are missing from my blog due to some aggravating webhosting errors on my part. Hopefully I’ll have time to fix that at some point.

うみねこのなくころに, literally “When the Seagulls Cry” or localized as Umineko: When They Cry by Mangagamer, is a murder mystery visual novel by indie developer, Ryukishi07.

The wealthy Ushiromiya family meet at their family home on the island of Rokkenjima for an annual family conference. The patriarch has locked himself into his room, only willing to see his servants while his children discuss their forthcoming inheritance, and his grandchildren wander the island and enjoy each other’s company. A storm moves in on the island, stranding the family there for the weekend.

Our hero, Battler Ushiromiya, has come to the conference for the first time after a six-year absence. He finds a new addition to the household: a portrait of a woman and an epitaph made out to her, supposedly a riddle for the family to solve and earn their inheritance, rumored to be a massive amount of solid gold. As night falls, murders begin, all following the message on the epitaph. Letters left around the house imply that the deaths are caused by a witch, but Battler tries to find a more reasonable answer.

When none of the residents come home from the family conference, a message is found in a bottle weeks later. The message lays out two different versions of events where a witch, reborn, took the family’s lives as sacrifices. But magic isn’t real… right?

I want to mention that in my summary for this talk I stated that Umineko “never supplies explicit answers”, which isn’t true. It answers many things about the story and the murders that take place. However, the story avoids answering certain questions when those answers reveal a narrative truth. Umineko comes in two packages: the Question arc and the Answer arc. The Question arc sets up the mystery, and the Answer arc provides you with the tools to solve the questions supplied. The Question arc provides you with all the information you need to figure everything out, but without context, it is nearly impossible. Once you’ve read the Answer arc as well, you have all the information you need to solve each and every mystery that the story has presented you with… that is, if you have the drive and desire to go back for it. It is this invitation that made me realize that Umineko, while having very few instances of player interactivity, is very interactive, as long as you, the reader, are willing to play along. This is an aspect of the mystery novels that Umineko seeks to emulate. Interactivity has been key to the genre for over a century.

On Umineko

It should be possible for perceptive readers to work out the solution for themselves — for many this is the whole attraction of the genre.

Rosemary Rowe, “Writing Crime Fiction”. Creative Writing Masterclass. 2014

Umineko is a classic whodunit mystery story with a twist. The goal is to prove how the murders were done without magic. (I guess that actually makes it a “howdunit”?) The prose of the novel frames the murders in a magical light, so Battler and the reader are charged with disbelieving the impossible. He does so by relying on the facts of the scene, struggling to pin the murder on a stranger, rather than someone in the family.

I read Umineko for the first time over steam’s streaming service with my wife, as we have spent most of our relationship long-distance. I grew up reading fantasy, light horror and sci-fi, with a bit of non-genre fiction thrown in. My wife reads anything they can get their hands on, and it wasn’t their first time reading it. When we finished episode 1, they asked me:

“Who do you think the culprit was?”

and I said.

“It was a witch, obviously.”

I was not experienced in mystery novels. Most of my exposure was, and probably still is through police procedurals, which take you along a dramatic story rather than necessarily guiding you to solve a crime for yourself. I realized what was intended late in the story when it became obvious that Umineko would not tell me the answers for anything explicitly. No detective sits us down and explains everything at the end. If I wanted to really know the truth, I would need to figure it for myself as the reader.

Reading Umineko brought me down a rabbit hole of changing what I thought mystery novels were, and in the process I learned a lot about game development. I’m not nearly as much of a mystery fan as I am an avid consumer of narrative games and visual novels. I want to share with you my observations and research about how mysteries often construct themselves as puzzles for the reader to solve, how mystery writers conceptualize their ideas with reader interactivity in mind, and how Umineko exists as something both interactive and linear, with minimal instances of input and feedback, in the tradition of mystery novels that came before.

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

Part of the attraction of the story is this satisfaction in solving the mystery. The importance of this differs with the individual reader. Some follow the clues assiduously and at the end feel the same small triumph that they do after a successful game of chess.

PD James, Talking About Detective Fiction 2009

In Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None, a group of strangers are invited to a mansion on an island off the coast of England. Unable to leave the island, each is killed according to verses of a nursery rhyme hung in every room. When everyone is dead, the only proof of events is a confession sent to sea in a bottle, written by the murderer.

Umineko is a pastiche of And Then There Were None, complete with a confession in a bottle. However, in Umineko, the bottle comes with two versions of events, immediately obfuscating the “truth”. While the truth may be hard to find, it is available, as Umineko respects the rules laid down by the writers in the “golden age” of detective fiction.

The “golden age” is understood to be the 1920s and 30s, when Christie was actively publishing alongside other mystery juggernauts such as Ellery Queen and Dorothy L. Sayers. This era popularized the whodunit, which was regarded as a puzzle. An author and catholic priest Ronald Knox codified a set of rules known as “Knox’s Decalogue” or “Knox’s Ten Commandments” in writing detective fiction.

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. [Redacted]
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twins, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Knox’s Decalogue is mostly accepted by mystery writers (although novelists will take the opportunities to subvert them with relish, of course). In laying out a set of rules to ensure a relationship of trust between writer and reader, you establish trust so that the writer can lay out a puzzle for the reader. And it is a puzzle.

A “puzzle story” is one where the mystery to be solved is just as, if not more, important than the characters and the narrative taking place around it. Some writers even left the mystery unsolved and invited readers to mail in their solutions. This concept is something that was folded into mystery novels during the Golden Age, and remains in the genre to this day.

In Japan, mystery novels that follow these rules are called “honkaku” or “orthodox” mysteries. It’s a genre that, above all, promises “fair play”. Umineko definitely deserves to be in this category. Through establishing rules and laying down the groundwork of an agreement of fairness between the writer and the reader, mystery novels proceeded to lay out a puzzle for the reader to solve.

Umineko as Linear and Interactive

Never forget that a book is an interactive medium. The relationship between writer and reader may develop and change, but it never disappears. And a skillful writer will be constantly aware of the effect that [their] words have on the reader at any given point in the action. That’s what storytelling is about.

Simon Brett, “Controlling the Flow of Information”. Now Write! Mysteries 2011

Umineko is staunchly a visual novel, rather than a game. It lays a linear story before you with the added flair of art, music and sound effects. There are also menus where you can review key concepts, a list of characters, and the details of their deaths when applicable to assist you in solving the mystery.

In addition to Knox’s decalogue, Umineko has a set of its own rules. In each episode of the Question arcs, we are given a new version of events that result in the deaths of the Ushiromiya family. Meanwhile, there’s a paralleln outside meta-narrative wherein the witch, Beatrice, tries to show Battler that events couldn’t have been possible for a regular human. Beatrice names the world of those days on Rokkenjima as the “game board”, and the Battler that remains in the story as a “piece” on the board. She challenges Battler to providefor a logical explanation for the murders, which he declares unfair, so they agree on a set of terms to confirm/deny certain factsevents. This is the Red Truth, where the text that Beatrice commits to fact is red, instead of white. It can be said that Knox’s Decalogue is an inherent Red Truth on which the story is built. The Red Truth helps to build a structure where the mystery can be sussed out, and its use is as revealing as the words it uses, and the times when Beatrice refuses to use it. 

Everything is carefully laid out before you, but Umineko never asks you who the culprit was. It never confirms if you are right or wrong. If you want answers, you have to solve the puzzle of who, what, where, when, and how. In order to get the full story in this linear narrative, you have to commit to playing it as a game. Or, of course, you can choose not to. “The truth” only becomes clear to sharp-eyed readers near the end of this hundred-or-so hour journey, and everything before becomes clear in sharp relief. The “whodunit” becomes clear after we know the motive. The mysteries are arranged as puzzles to guide readers — and Battler — to the truth. To the “why”. The puzzles in Umineko serve the narrative, and by that point, the lack of explicit answers are to serve the puzzle. It’s a very interesting, albeit long, display of excellent logic design.

Conclusion

This concept occurred to me when I was putting together a list of recommendations for visual novels and conceptualized the list based on the amount of interactivity, from most to least. “Most interactivity” being adventure games such as Read Only Memories, and least interactivity being linear story visual novels such as The House in Fata Morgana. I put the list together in this order to serve as a potential gateway drug for friends who I worried wouldn’t be interested in a “game” that had no input and response. When putting Umineko on this list, it was originally at the very end in linear, non-interactive territory. That is, until the amount of problem-solving occurred to me. A completely invested reader is not consuming the story without interactivity. An invested reader is taking notes, verifying information, doubting testimony, and trying to solve a problem that the story itself won’t shed light on. A mystery reader is trying to stay ahead of the story that the writer is laying down, to predict and anticipate the answers.

I find it fascinating that for decades, linear mystery novels have been engaging in this interactivity between reader and writer, lining up the information so the reader can experience the satisfaction of figuring out the solution.

The idea that a story can be completely linear and non-responsive in a “mechanical” sense can operate as a game purely on the motivation of a player’s commitment to play is incredible. There’s a lot that we can learn by studying things across-genre or across medium, and I think countless incredible things can be made with the love of these cross-concept passions.

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