Paradise Killer: On Detectives and Knowledge

Spoiler warning: Paradise Killer is a detective game, and I am 100% going to talk about how it ends.

A big part of the detective genre is this idea that we can make the world make sense. There’s a mystery, an instance of the unknown, and over the course of the story the detective figures it out – they make it known again. We move from not knowing to knowing, from ignorance to understanding. It’s an exercise in comprehension. And there are some clear psychological benefits to this sort of text. If you’re the victim of a crime, the world can seem unsettling and dangerous, thrown into disarray. There would be a lot of value in a text that tried to help make sense of those feelings, taking the disruption and bringing it into the light, putting it under the microscope – carrying out a sort of autopsy of the event as a way of processing it, rehearsing our ability to make sense of it, to move past it. I don’t think it’s a mistake, for instance, that long-running police procedural NCIS started in 2003. If you’re not familiar, NCIS follows a grizzled ex-Marine solving crimes relating to the Navy and the Marine Core. He’s old and gruff, and technology doesn’t make a lot of sense to him, but he’s fought for his country and now he’s upholding the integrity of its fighting forces, solving murders and straightening out anybody who’s dishonouring the US Navy. It’s not surprising that such a show came out just two years after 9/11.

Of course, in its quest to make sense of reality, the detective genre often draws on different ways of knowing, all of which sit in a hierarchical order. Eyewitness testimony is one thing, but people can lie. A better, more authoritative form of knowledge comes from the scientific method. Forensic evidence obviously has a long history in crime fiction – you’ll be familiar with the idea that Sherlock Holmes popularized many forensic techniques, in some cases before real-world police forces started using them. If detective fiction really is about a search for knowledge and understanding, then the scientific method has a really clear rhetorical function. It offers this sense of objectivity, of knowledge with a higher level of certainty than anything else. It’s knowledge that’s publicly available, that’s able to be verified independently by anyone who carries out the experiment. The public component is actually really important – when we say that there are mysteries or unknown events in detective stories – you know, there usually is someone who knows what happened. The criminal knows what they did. The problem is that their knowledge is hidden. It’s not part of the public record. The detective’s goal, in that sense, is to open knowledge up to the public – which is what science does. Scientific experiments make knowledge public, both in their methodology and in their results. They are free of the individual biases and prejudices of human testimony. They have no agenda, no hidden motive. They are objective and transparent, and – just to be clear, this isn’t necessarily how science actually functions in real life. Rather, it’s the rhetorical function that science plays as a literary device in detective fiction. It’s the way it’s positioned and utilised by the narrative.

From a similar narrative perspective, the video game as a medium seems like the apotheosis of that scientific worldview. It is a medium where everything is ultimately knowable. You can quantify, exactly, at any given point, the exact state of every aspect of the game world. Video games offer a closed, finite system governed by logical processes, where every variable is defined and absolute. There is again that sense of objectivity. The computer knows what’s up. Sometimes that knowledge is used for specific effects – for instance, in Papers, Please, you’re supposed to be a guard on the border of some Soviet state, processing entry visas. If you process a visa incorrectly, you’ll get a little notification that you’ve been penalized. You’re experiencing this corrupt hopeless bureaucracy, but you’re also perfectly and totally observed in a completely objective system. The laws are absolute, and if you do something wrong, you’ll be penalized, without fail.

You can also see this process play out in more traditional detective narratives. There’s a convergence between the systems-driven processes of the game and the scientific method of inquiry. They both share this idea that the world makes sense, that it can be contained within logical, rational rules, and that by configuring our behaviour and actions according to these rules, we can come to an objective conclusion as to the identity of a criminal. The win/loss structure of video games even confirms your conclusions beyond a shadow of a doubt – you’re told very objectively whether you got it right or wrong. In the 2013 point and click murder mystery The Shivah, you can win or lose depending on your actions. You’ll be told if you get it wrong. The Shivah is a game about asking questions – it ends with a monologue about how “we may never find that elusive truth” – but also, by that point, you’ve won the game. You’ve found the correct answer. You’ve caught the murderer. There’s a level of tension here between the fictional motif of uncertainty, of questioning, and the unambiguous, absolute win/loss conditions built into the structure of the video game form.

You know – I haven’t even got to Paradise Killer yet, and we’re nearly out of time. These things keep bubbling over, pushing up past 1500 words – and it’s not really sustainable to do that every week. Maybe I’ll halve the release schedule, do one every fortnight. Mm. Paradise Killer, then. It’s interesting because it’s a detective game that refuses to tell you who the killer is. I mean, you can make some people confess, and you can be pretty sure you know what’s going on – but the game resists the urge to validate your decisions one way or the other. You don’t get good endings and bad endings. You’re not ranked or rated based on what you decide to do. It’s a little more like life. You create your narrative, and then you live with it.

Let’s maybe back up a minute, start from the start. Paradise Killer is a fantastic 2020 murder mystery game. It’s got amazing world-building, it’s intriguing, it’s sexy and fun – it’s just wonderful. The council of Paradise Island are murdered, and you, as the investigator Lady Love Dies, must figure out who did it. From the beginning, Paradise Killer is a game about stories of guilt and justice. Everyone believes the murderer to be the prisoner Henry, a man possessed by a demon. On the night of the murder, he broke free, and was found outside the council chambers with council member blood in his guts. But the facts don’t quite add up. For one, he simply didn’t have time to make it all the way from his cell up to the council chambers – not in the handful of minutes between his escape and his recapture. The math doesn’t add up. Clearly, someone is selling you a story. And you can buy it, by the way. You can condemn Henry to death and swan off into the sunset. The game won’t give you the ‘bad ending’, some cutscene where you’re told off for leaving the problem unresolved. Instead, it pushes the value judgements of right and wrong outside of the game structure, making them something for you to wrestle with as a player.

This wrestling is intensified by – here’s the big spoiler – the fact that there were actually two separate groups out to murder the council. Across the course of the game, you can unravel two entirely separate conspiracies, two separate groups of people who, quite independently, set up a plan to murder the council on the same night. One of those groups is a pack of awful shitheads, but the other is made up largely of your friends and allies. Again, the question of how to deal with that is left to you. Do you prosecute one group and not the other? Do they both go on trial? And – honestly, I’m not even sure which conspiracy technically succeeded. Both murderers are found dead in or around the council chambers, both shot by the leader of the council. It’s kinda pitched as if the murderers bled out after killing the council – so the council are all dead, but they wounded the murderers, who both died as well. But from my playthrough, it wasn’t clear if one murderer started the killing and then the other one finished it before expiring from the gunshots, or – yeah, I could be wrong, but I don’t think you’re even able to know who exactly was responsible.

So it’s a fascinating little dynamic. It pushes against the core of the detective genre – it doesn’t give you that payoff at the end, that catharsis of clean, unambiguous knowledge. In that sense, despite being about gods and demons and the possessed, it’s surprisingly close to realism. In the real world, you don’t get some sign that pops up to tell you when you’ve solved a case correctly. You do your best, you weigh up all the evidence, and you make your case. And after everything there remains an element unknown, intangible. Our reconstructions of the past can be compelling – and they might even be mostly right – but they’re never whole. Something is always lost. Narrative offers to smooth over the gap, but it’s not value neutral. You have to bring your own judgements to the table, and in some sense expose part of yourself in the process. It’s the world making sense for us, from our own perspectives. In the strictest terms, the foregrounding of player values in Paradise Killer is not a totally new idea – Papers, Please obviously had a similar sort of dynamic, although there the question was whether you’d break the rules and play ‘badly’ in order to help people. But what both games offer is a concern with the why, rather than the what. They are both texts with very contemporary concerns – in the age of information and data and surveillance, what drives your decisions? The data alone isn’t enough. These games reach for the unspoken, for the unarticulated human within the machine. Paradise Killer is still acting like a detective story though – it’s still looking for meaning and understanding. It just finds that meaning in the human factor. It’s not about DNA or forensic evidence. It’s about greed, impatience, arrogance – it’s about the common human instincts that we all share. If you want to understand crime, and comprehend the moment of disruption – that’s what the game urges you to investigate.

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