Image by Krystian Olszanski

Disembarking from the Orient Express

How we took the classic Murder Mystery completely off the rails.

01.30.2015

Rebecca Power and Justin Hinojoza are the founders of Hoax, an interactive design studio. Together, they're revising rules and disrupting routines to create novel situations and powerful experiences.

TOPICS: Murder, Mystery, Mayoral Politics, Birthday Parties, Emergent Behavior, Iterative Processes, Origin Stories, Imperfect Information, Banking Systems

1.

Things That Can and Will Go Wrong at Your Murder Mystery Party

The murderer will fail to arrive

People will get too drunk to find the clues

All your friends are terrible actors


At this point, it’s hard to remember how or why things went so wrong. There was the ominous pile of unclaimed character envelopes by the front door. The liquor bottles that had been emptied before we’d even arrived at the rules speech. The moment when the entire party crammed itself into the bathroom to speculate as to why there were four toothbrushes for only two housemates. Honestly, though, it’s hard to pinpoint. This was a long time ago. It was 2010. I was a different person then. I was also very drunk.

I spent the first half of my Murder Mystery birthday party being as obnoxious and kill-worthy as possible: insulting people’s outfits, complaining about their lateness, and generally acting put-upon by all the lovely people I had invited into my home. About an hour in, an accommodating friend flipped the lights off, I let out a dramatic “Aiiiuugh!!!!”, and when the lights came back on I was lying flat on my back with my tongue hanging out.

Unfortunately for everyone in attendance, I was about to get way more irritating. Within moments I was back on my feet, bellowing “Ladies and gentleman, it appears that I have been MURDERED!” at my at-that-point-patient friends. I implored them to combine what they knew about one another with information deduced from clues hidden around the house to determine which of them had committed the heinous crime of killing me on my birthday.

And, at first, it seemed like everything was going according to plan. Talk resumed in the poor accents and stilted speech of people who are not actors trying their very best to act, and a handful of people began giving my apartment a thorough going-over. They pulled books off the shelves, rifled through my drawers, and otherwise tore the place apart looking for anything out of the ordinary, all while I smiled nervously and hovered near the areas of my home that I didn’t want to be exposed to prying eyes.

After an initial flurry of excitement, however, things slowed to a crawl. The poor accents slipped away. Conversations became less stilted but more about what was going on at work, and the feeling of relief that people had stopped looking in my underwear drawer was replaced with the sinking realization that they weren’t looking, period. I spent the rest of the night playing manic train-conductor: running from person to person to figure out if they had found what they needed, sometimes dragging people to where the clues were hidden, all the while shouting “By Jove, someone has to catch the killer!”

What sticks with me to this day was the unshakeable feeling that things were going horribly, uncomfortably wrong, and that only through sheer force of will could I keep the evening lurching forward toward what was certain to be an unsatisfying conclusion. Clues were inconceivably misinterpreted, characters failed to reveal their key pieces of information, and I was dismayed to discover that my group of nerdy, predominantly teacher friends were failing to produce compelling portraits of spoiled aristocrats and winsome street urchins.

All of this ended up being too much for my birthday guests. The facade of intrigue faded, and we were left with an aimless costume party. A row of people sat on the couch, bored in their faux finery, a desperate crowd jockeyed for position around the liquor bottles, and a confused player I had overlooked stood in the corner, elephantine as he whispered: “I have no idea what’s going on.” As the night wore on, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was thinking the exact same thing.

The evening came to a merciful end when I abruptly shouted “And Amy was the murderer all along!” into a crowd of people who did not know they should be paying attention, only to realize that I hadn’t even bothered to ask “whodunnit?” When a few people began slurring “Wait, who won?” I answered by fixing myself a stiff drink and pretending that I was in no way responsible for anything that had just occurred.

Things just kind of petered out from there. People thanked me as sincerely as they could for inviting them, half-empty food platters were reclaimed by their owners, and eventually, I was left alone with nothing but my destroyed apartment and an overwhelming sense of my own failure.

But, like all good mysteries, this one ends with a twist. The events of the evening didn’t kill my desire to throw a Murder Mystery party, and I found myself more committed than ever to the project. I spent the next several months revisiting the party, pulling apart every uncomfortable moment, analyzing how and why it all went wrong. In the process, I wrote a game of my own that would, I hoped, avoid the awkward pitfalls that had plagued that first fateful evening. And it is a testament to the unwarranted loyalty or stunning naivete of my friends that, four months later, they humored me by attending a reinvented and infinitely more successful “murder mystery” party.

That was four years ago, and it’s been deadly fun ever since.

— Justin Hinojoza

*

Much of the work and effort I have put into designing games and experiences has been motivated by the failures of that first night, and I walked away with a few key ideas which would become the backbone of our design philosophy. Since this series will be mostly about explaining principles rather than sharing stories, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of some of the most important things I learned, which will be discussed in greater detail in articles to come.

1. The Best Person to Play Is Yourself

In order to make an engaging plot, I had created characters with complicated backstories and motivations that added to the narrative but required a great deal of preparation and commitment. Not only that, but I had made some of the mannerisms and attitudes of these characters essential clues to solving the murder. This ruined the experience for those individuals who were not up to the task by making them feel overwhelmed or inadequate, and also prevented a successful resolution to the game since important information went uncommunicated.

Letting people portray themselves instead allows them to focus on strategy rather than worrying about how well they are following the instructions, it also allows them to present a character that they have intimate knowledge of and unique mastery over. This leads to far more compelling and meaningful interactions than those between fictional characters whose portraits are impossible to communicate with the same depth, affinity, or ease.

2. I Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

In preparing the trail of clues that would lead players to the culprit, I had convinced myself that my cryptic notes and oblique book references were crumbs that any reasonably intelligent person could easily follow. But no one realized that “The Land of Nod” was a biblical reference to Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” nor was a Ceasar Cipher something people found familiar or obvious. I had created clues and puzzles that I liked and that I understood, but that left my players feeling confused, stupid, and angry.

One of the critical components of a successful game is accessibility. In order to be popular in the literal sense, a game needs to accommodate people of all backgrounds. Requiring that players share the same cultural references ensures that your game will never gain popular appeal. It also guarantees that some players will be at a significant disadvantage. Information that seems obvious to you might be trivial to someone else, and unless trivia has been represented as a crucial part of gameplay, those players are likely to feel frustrated and believe, quite rightly, that your game is unfair.

The solution is to create puzzles and challenges that either require innate skill or information accessible within the game world. Encrypted information is great, provided that the cipher can be found, and you’ll have much more success in the long run with an obscure author if their book can be found in the game than by assuming that people will get a Shakespeare reference. Even if it is hard to find the book or if the code is difficult to crack, the success that is derived from skills like searching, deduction, and charm rather than prior knowledge won’t run the risk of feeling arbitrary or unfair.

3. Goals Are How You Keep the Ball Rolling

The problem with the classic Murder Mystery is that there is only one murder to solve, one set of clues, and one path to success. For everyone. At my party, a few players took the lead in piecing clues together, and everyone else was left more or less tagging along after them. I had included goals for individual players, like giving the Duchess a will she needed to wrest from a duplicitous lawyer, but these subplots were not avenues to success in the larger game, and so were not particularly compelling uses of people’s time. In essence, the players were on rails. Their path was largely predetermined, and the only variable was the speed at which they moved down the tracks.

Figuring out how to fix this problem — to create a game for dozens of people who each have independent, balanced avenues to success — has been an immense undertaking that is far from over, and much of this series will be an exploration of the triumphs of and misadventures into that uncharted territory. Suffice to say, what my first “real” Murder Mystery taught me is that everyone needs to feel like they can win, otherwise you’ve lost before you even started.

*

I could go on, I really could, but instead let me make a transition, because this endeavor went from “I” to “we” a long time ago. The person responsible for that is Rebecca, who was fortunate enough to miss my birthday debacle but came to my very first Murder-SANS-Mystery party. Since then she’s helped turn what might have been nothing but a brief comedy of errors into a full-fledged adventure drama. Our story begins at that second party, and, in many ways, the best story from that evening is hers.


2.

Things One Does Not Expect to Encounter at a Murder Mystery Party:

A villainous Detective

An inflationary economy

Significantly more Murder than Mystery


The party really got going for me when I made my first arrangement with The Mayor. It was about 45 minutes into the game, and in that time I’d already scoured the apartment for weaponry, insinuated myself into what was likely a smuggling ring, and made myself an obvious target for law enforcement. It wasn’t until the suggestion that I get involved in city politics, however, that I found a clear avenue to real success.

I have no idea how I ended up there that night. Justin and I had met only a few months earlier and still didn’t know each other very well. It was an unfamiliar crowd, I hadn’t been invited to bring a friend, and from what little I knew, Murder Mystery parties had the potential to be a distinct and nuanced type of uncomfortable.

But whether out of a sense of adventure, or obligation, or morbid curiosity, I’d accepted the invitation. When on the morning of the party I received my identity, I had expected to get a full character, complete with a new name and detailed backstory including an agenda to fulfill and perhaps an embarrassing accent to adopt. Instead, all I got was a paragraph. I was The Banker, equipped with some Bank Account envelopes that that would keep people’s money safe from yet-to-be-explained theft and tasked only with the goals of making as much money as possible and having a great time. So, curiosity piqued, I donned a cheap top hat and my roommate’s tuxedo jacket, and off I went into an uncertain night.

As far as house parties go, it started out like most of them do: a pack of college students clutching red plastic cups in a tiny apartment, complaining about tests or talking about television or asking one another what their majors were, all dressed in thrift store costumes around a theme both vague and arbitrary. The only difference in that first thirty minutes was the envelopes. Everyone had one, and in the corners of rooms and the arches of doorways, people were slitting them open. Reading quickly. Glancing furtively.

Soon we were gathered in the living room. My new friend Justin informed us that this was supposed to be a party for The Mayor, but, due to a clerical error, invitations had been sent not just to his trusted friends, but to the entire constituency. He suggested that we make the most of the mishap, especially because, with such a ‘diverse’ crowd, some unexpected business opportunities might arise that would help us in becoming the guest with the most money at the end of the night, otherwise known as the winner. So, with a goal in mind and a sense of security that, as the Banker, I would have been invited anyways, I took to getting to know the other guests with the confidence of a stockbroker in a bull market.

I already knew that my Bank Accounts were a valuable commodity. Since they protected people from theft, there must be thieves in our midst, and those with the most to lose would be the most likely to seek me out, bringing the real competition right to my doorstep. I quickly found, however, that the greater value was the excuse they gave me to talk to everyone. Under the pretext of offering my accounts to a variety of people, I learned that there was a drug dealer pushing illegal smack, a priest peddling religion to the masses, and a detective who was clearly going to be good at the game and did not like me.

I was having a grand old time getting to know people and wooing them with my tophat tricks, and for a reason I no longer recall (divine fate, perhaps?), my hijinks eventually caught the attention of The Mayor himself. A hushed conversation in a dark hallway ensued. It turned out that Mr. Mayor had some interesting extracurricular proclivities, and was looking for all of the Sex tokens (you read that right) he could find. I, with my winning personality and plausible cover for hustling everyone in attendance, seemed like the perfect candidate to help him with this illegal endeavor, and he agreed to reward me handsomely for whatever I recovered as well as provide me with his Favor, which made it harder for my nemesis, The Detective, to search me.

At this point, it’s hard to remember exactly how things unfolded. Sex tokens were acquired en masse under the pretext of banking deposits. A rare and valuable Kill token (aptly named, as it let you kill people) was acquired then confiscated by my flatfooted rival and his patsies. Distractions were created aplenty, and Justin had to repeatedly throw Mr. Mayor and me out of the apartment’s only bathroom, which we had commandeered as our secret headquarters. At some point, however, the Mayor and I’s relationship turned sour. I think I tried to kill him, or maybe he tried to kill me, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. By the time the evening ended, we had gone to war, made a truce, and broken it several times over. It was only when the music stopped and we heard Justin’s voice in the living room, calling us all in to count our money, that I realized I had never thought to ask his real name.

What sticks with me to this day is the unshakeable feeling of excitement, the understanding that I did not and could not know what would happen next, and that no matter what I was doing, someone else could be and was doing something even more intriguing, more ludicrous, more dangerous in the very next room. The game had been 3 hours long, but it felt more like 30 minutes, and when it was over we spent at least another three hours reliving the entire thing, revealing our secrets, narrating our successes and failures in equal measure.

I left far later than I had intended to that evening, and would have stayed longer if I were able. In many ways, I never left. In the last four years, Justin and I, with the help of our loyal and naive friends, have thrown dozens of parties for hundreds of people and created a game that is both complex and simple, deadly serious and hilariously fun. As we’ve worked, that first fever dream of an evening has been mentioned countless times, assessed and reassessed, modified and returned to, all in the hopes of capturing, distilling, and refining the most intoxicating of feelings: possibility.

Cheers,

Rebecca Power