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If You’ve Had An A-Ha Moment, Press One

Not long after the Penny Arcade Expo ended I was winging my way to St. Louis for Bouchercon, the international crime fiction writers and readers convention. To think I once led a lanyard-less life. Attending the two cons so close together got me thinking about detective games, and an early one that remains a personal favorite.

The height of electronic entertainment circa 1980

As soon as I heard the name Electronic Detective, I knew I had to have it. It didn’t hurt that the “computerized who-done-it game” was endorsed, right there on the box and on TV, by Don Adams. (For the entire generation of gamers that has no idea who Don Adams is, he played secret agent Maxwell Smart before Steve Carell did.) Then there was the game itself, an elaborate plastic console that I coveted because it reminded me of the answering machine from the title sequence of The Rockford Files. (For the entire generation of gamers that has no idea what The Rockford Files is, it’s TV greatest private eye series, created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell. Last year there was an aborted attempt at a reboot produced by Steve Carell.)

Start up the game and you hear gunshots, followed by a chintzy digital rendition of Chopin’s “Funeral March.” Behold the boot-up sequence in all its glory.

One of the game’s twenty characters has just been murdered. The other nineteen are now suspects. They’re all depicted on Rolodex-style cards with illustrations that could have come out of Mad magazine. (For the entire generation of gamers that has no idea what Mad magazine is … oh, to hell with it. That’s what Wikipedia is for.) The depictions of the characters prove that Electronic Detective was a pre-PC game in every sense; you’ve got a red-faced ex-cop named Mickey O’Malley, and the only Hispanic figure is, naturally, a flamenco dancer.

What follows is essentially a simple logic puzzle. You ask questions of the suspects, receiving answers either as letters or numbers. You track their replies on a “Case Fact Sheet.” Only 100 of them came with the game, so I kept my handwriting small to reuse them. When you’re ready, you make an accusation. Get it wrong and, in an intriguing attempt at motivation in law enforcement, you yourself are shot.

Words cannot describe how much I loved this game. I didn’t play through all 130,000 possible scenarios (according to the game’s instructions) but I’ll bet I came the closest to doing so.

Yes, it was primitive, and seems even more so having played through all of L.A. Noire’s nuanced interrogation sequences. Yes, it was formulaic. Most games are. The ritual is part of the enjoyment. Electronic Detective did have one advantage. It made allowances for the Eureka moment. If you thought you knew who the killer was, you could vault to the end. Whether it was based on careful questioning, a hunch, or the fact that you’d played this particular scenario before, you could input your guess and wait for either gunshots or sirens.

In mystery novels, knowing or strongly suspecting who done it doesn’t impede my enjoyment provided that I like the characters with whom I’m keeping company and the world that they inhabit. That’s our goal with March 32nd, to create an environment that players want to visit that’s studded with mysteries large and small. But every once in a while, we’re going to try to let you solve one at your own pace. Because everybody likes to feel like Columbo.

He was another big TV detective, by the way.

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