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April 29, 2012 / jwaxo

In the 1st Degree (Investigations)

Teaching me what CSI reaffirmed years later: one person solves the murder, on their own.

Back when I was a (little) kid, there were two things that, when I heard someone talking about them, would just cause my eyes to glaze over: politics, and law. Don’t get me wrong: politics can still make my eyes glaze over, but it’s not due to a lack of understanding, more to complete boredom. Law was confusing and strange. I mean, I knew that OJ Simpson was running for some reason, I knew that it was exciting that the cars were chasing him and that he was being prosecuted for something that apparently everyone knew he was guilty for, but I had no idea about the prosecution and what went into it. If he was guilty, why not just charge him, put him in a chair, and run current through his brain until deceased? Instead we sat glued to the TV when I could be watching cartoons.

This was only all cemented when we picked up a copy of In the 1st Degree, fresh in the box. I think my parents only got it because it was madeby Broderbund. Somehow my mom was safe in the knowledge that the founders and owners of Broderbund were good Catholic boys, and so anything they made couldn’t go wrong; this was virtually the same reason we bought Myst and Carmen Sandiego games. So1st Degree came home with us on a whim, one day, straight from the bargain bin at the mall.

It was tossed into my hands to install and promptly forgotten by everyone else.

Score.

After the usual obstacle course of installing a game on our old Packard, I booted it up and got it going. It started with your character, from the first point of view, watching a news announcement about an upcoming murder trial. As it turns out, your character is the DA, ready to review evidence and interview witnesses, all in preparation of your prosecution.

What a slog that seemed like. Being a kid of only 8, I wanted to get to the trial. That was where the excitement was, right? All of the interviews and tapes to review seemed like backstory, unnecessary for the actual trial.

So, once I gave a cursory glance at the surveillance tapes to the murder and briefly met with each witness, I pounded on that button to take me to the courtroom.

Over the next few real-time hours, I put the jury to sleep, embarrassed and confused the witnesses, and failed to even get a manslaughter charge on the defendant. It was hopeless and useless and not at all like on TV. Plus, it took really, really, really long.

Basically: I had no idea what I was doing. The game gave me some pitying hints about talking to the witnesses, but I blew them off as usual. Why would the backstory part matter? This time I would try for second-degree. I had no idea what that meant, but it must mean second place.

Failure again. I really had no idea what I was doing.

“Mr. Wax, please get down.”

I temporarily resigned, going back to my easier games of running and jumping and shooting. But 1st Degree sat there, like a splinter, worrying at me. How could I beat it? How could I lose that easily? I thought I knew who the bad guy was!

This time I went back. I watched all of the surveillance tapes, and the tapes of the initial interviews with the witnesses that the detectives made. I didn’t take notes, but I took mental notes. I realized that maybe it wasn’t as cut-and-dry as it seemed at first: maybe the obvious killer wasn’t the real killer, and that’s why the jury hadn’t convicted. I looked up what the different degrees of murder were, as well as a million other things related to the case that were in the game’s extensive internal manual.

And, when I interviewed the witnesses myself, something magical happened. Their responses started mutating from basic infodump (“this happened, that happened”) procedure to actual conversations. I got certain prompts within the dialogue system to suggest new responses from them, setting up specific things they might say on the stand. I realized that the game was not set up to be a basic “figure out the right things to say on the stand based on prior information.” It was a complex system, involving me making important logical leaps and sparking ideas in its characters.

Then I went to the courtroom and put the jury to sleep, confused and embarrassed the witnesses, and failed to get even a manslaughter charge.

I had uncovered a complex system, finding that things were not always what they seemed in either legal matters or in video game systems.

Playing (and failing) as a 1940’s homicide detective in LA Noire is reminding me of this, is the bottom line.

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