The Shapeshifting Detective: Magic and the Detective Genre

So I’ve started playing The Shapeshifting Detective (2018), a full motion video (FMV) game about a detective who is also a shapeshifter. If you’re not familiar with FMV games, they’re conceptually pretty close to interactive films – they sit somewhere between Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) and the award-winning Her Story (2015). I’ll talk a little more about the format of Shapeshifting Detective next week – for now, I wanted to focus on how it addresses ideas of the supernatural and abnormal.

As I say, then, The Shapeshifting Detective is about a detective who changes shape. If you meet someone, you can take on their appearance. It’s a pretty useful technique for getting information out of suspects – people will talk to each other in ways that they wouldn’t talk to you. The game doesn’t open with any contextual information about where this power has come from, or how widespread or well-known it is – you’re just punted into an investigation without any extensive world-building. Once you arrive, you discover that a girl has been murdered, and that her murder was predicted by a group of travelling tarot readers. The local police suspect the tarot readers of killing the girl, with the implied reasoning being that the police think tarot is nonsense and it’s much more likely that the readers knew because they were the murderers. But at the same time, you know, you are literally a shapeshifter, so maybe tarot reading is valid in this universe. What follows is a really fascinating study on how to deal with the supernatural in fiction. Different characters talk about aliens and multiple dimensions, and there’s the tarot readers, and you’re a shapeshifter, and it’s very difficult to try and figure out who’s a loony and who’s actually correctly identified the rules of the universe. It’s appropriate fare for a detective story.

The first thing to note here is how Shapeshifting positions the relationship between reason and belief, or reason and faith. Often these things are said to be opposed to each other – you’ll hear it from atheists or skeptics arguing that religion is irrational and anti-reason. But as someone who is religious, I’ve found – at least within Christianity – that religious people are often very skeptical. If you tell a room full of Christians that you’ve witnessed a miracle, you’ll experience forensic levels of skepticism. They won’t necessarily be out to disprove what you’re saying – they accept that it might be true – but they won’t just take you at your word. I’ve seen these conversations happen – if it’s a miracle healing, people will say oh well, it could be a placebo effect, there’s no guarantee that anything miraculous actually happened. They’ll question whether an event could have happened naturally, whether it could have been a coincidence, whether there could have been a mistake or a misunderstanding – they won’t just accept things at face value. They’ll interrogate what’s happened just as much as any actual skeptic. They will accept that there could have been a miracle, but again, you have to cover a lot of ground before they’ll take that option seriously.

So personally, I don’t accept the idea that faith and reason are opposed to each other. Or rather, where faith exists, I don’t agree that it exists uncritically. I’m telling you all this because in playing through The Shapeshifting Detective, I found myself experiencing that same dynamic of skepticism and belief. I was busy trying to figure out whose beliefs were valid, and whose were superstitious nonsense. Sometimes I’d tentatively accept a belief, but continue to question its application in the moment. For instance, pretty early on I decided that the tarot readers probably had some real power. But that didn’t mean they were innocent. They could have a genuine power to foresee the future, and one of them could also be a murderer. That’s what I mean about the dynamic between reason and faith – you can believe that the tarot cards have power, and still suspect the tarot readers of murder. Your beliefs are deployed critically. They’re interrogated, they’re re-examined, and sometimes they become untenable and they’re abandoned. I dunno – there’s just something really interesting about the thought process of ‘well, given the evidence, tarot is probably real’. It’s obviously just within the confines of a fiction, but what that fiction is doing is giving you is a place to explore the interplay between reason and the supernatural – not in terms of a lazy opposition, but where you are expected to evaluate the proof of the supernatural, and the reasons for the unreasonable, in ways that ignore the boundaries between those supposedly rigid categories.

Speaking of Christianity, it’s also worth noting here that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to take this same approach with a story that used Christianity as its supernatural framework. When you get books or stories written by Christians, they often have a sort of – you almost feel this sense of weariness as you approach them. You know everything before it even begins. You know there will be some Jesus stuff and somebody will hear from God and go off and do something inspirational, or God will protect someone from getting hit by a car and everyone will be like wow we should all convert immediately. It’s as if you’re not reading a real story, but a sort of blueprint that hangs someone’s ideas or beliefs on the thinnest possible narrative frame. But part of the issue is that we already know what Christians believe. It’s easy to trace narrative events back to the obvious underlying beliefs. With The Shapeshifting Detective, that’s not something that happens. There isn’t one cohesive, well-known worldview underpinning the game’s worldview. There are a scramble of influences – shapeshifters, tarot reading, and aliens, all in the same game – and that scramble stops players falling back on an overarching framework. They have to figure it out from the details of what’s happening on the ground. The grab-bag approach of the world building gives you room to be creative in a way that you couldn’t with an established, relatively centralized belief system such as Christianity. The detective genre relies on the initial uncertainty, which mainstream Christianity probably just doesn’t have enough of.

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