Tag Archives: appointment with death

Treasure Your Medium: Agatha Christie and Game Design

Spoilers ahead. Sorry.

I love Agatha Christie. I mean I don’t just really like her work, I LOVE what she does and how she does it. I don’t love all of her works, but when she does it right, she’s among the best the world has ever know.

There are many reasons why Agatha Christie was so good at what she did. But, as far as I could tell, one of the main reasons is that she treasured her medium. She did not write play-like books, or movie-like plays or novel-like plays. When she was working with a medium she took the best she could out of it. Others do this as well, but the topic of Agatha Christie’s novels make her efforts more visible than many others’.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First of all, Appointment With Death. This is a famous novel of hers, adapted into a wonderful film, very faithful to the book. At the end, Poirot reveals that the murderer is (shock!) the last person anyone suspected. In both the novel and in the film it’s based on, Poirot explains in detail his reasoning and how and why he gets to his inevitable solution.

The first play Agatha Christie worked on was Alibi, based on what is arguably her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was not satisfied at all with that play and proceeded to write her own stage adaptations from then on. For Appointment With Death, she realized that Poirot’s monologues and complex deductions were fascinated to her fans in the novel, but would be tedious to wach on stage: it would then be little more than people standing still while one of them was talking. So not only did she change the solution to the mystery (hint: the only even less likely suspect in the play) but she removed Poirot altogether. In the play, some of the remaining characters, a pair of romantically entangled young people in particular, figure the solution out by talking to each other and comparing views on the events. This is a dynamic, dramatic, visually and psychologically compelling way of presenting the solution, a way that is perfectly suited to the stage. A way that embraces the medium.

Why then did the story of the novel work on film? Films are in many ways closer to novels than to stage plays. Not in every way, of course, but certainly in way that matter here: they can punctuate long speeches with flashbacks (murder mysteries often do that) or with reaction shots. They can emphasize how dramatic a specific part of the speech is with close-ups or camera movements. Plays don’t have these tools. They have other advantages, but none of them would have allowed Agatha Christie to make Poirot’s monolgues enjoyable on stage. So she accepted the limitations of her medium.

Another work by Agatha Christie that stars a young couple as the detective character is one of my all-time favorites: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. In that novel, at the very beginning, our young hero, Bobby, finds in the middle of a golf course (brace yourself) a dead body! In a panic, he searches the body and pulls out of a pocket a photograph of a woman. He finds her rather plain. Later on, there is a police examination and Bobby’s co-hero, Frankie, also gets to see the photograph that was in the dead body’s pocket. But she finds the woman in it beautiful. When the two of them try to figure out what is going on in this complicated story, they actually go so far as to argue over that detail. Frankie goes so far as to accuse Bobby of being too choosy when it came to women, an acccusation that Bobby has to take seriously given the tangled nature of his relationship with Frankie. Much later, it turns out that there were two photographs in the pocket. Bobby saw one and that same one got removed from the body before the police got to it. Frankie saw the other. The nature of the narrative text allowed Agatha Christie to describe both photograph in the same language while sounding specific but in fact being vague enough that her reader did not suspect that she was describing two distinct items.

Returning to the stage, Agatha Christie’s stage masterpiece is certainly The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world. In it, the main murder takes place on stage in front of everyone. The audience is in front of the whole thing without any visual obstacle between them and the very crime they’re a witness to, but not only can’t they communicate any of it to the characters, the stage is set in such a way that what the audience does see is no real help at all as who did it. The trick is so simple that I won’t ruin it by revealing it here, but it would not work on film, radio or in a novel: The Mousetrap is made for the stage only and only works on the stage.

As for Agatha Christie’s overall masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has been adapted in movies, TV series, plays and comic books, it too uses its medium to the fullest. Most adaptations try to work around how Ms. Christie takes advantage of the narrated word, but often only attempt to do so in vain. It may work, but it cannot feel as smooth as with simple narration.

Agatha Christie did not just accept her medium but she treasured it. When she set herself up to write a play, she did not try to make it “cinematic” or “like an epic novel,” she made a play that would give her audience an experience that only a play can give. And she was right to do so.

When it comes to games and interactive media, for me, the master of that skill was and still is Ron Gilbert. The way he uses dialog trees creates humor that could not exist in any other way. The two games I enjoyed the most in the recent months, Portal and Braid do similar things. Would Portal, even just its story, work nearly as well in another medium? One trick that works in Portal — whether it is intentional or not — is that, unlike in film, in games we are really usually guided by pre-recorded voices. In that way, the way we are introduced to GLaDOS is perfectly believable. This would not be the case in a film: we would expect a film to polish everything Aperture’s AI says. At the beginning of Portal, the game, we may know that the audio problems of the GLaDOS AI are placed there by Valve, but we are ready to believe that, even within the story, they are just events triggered by Chell’s actions because, well, that’s how games work. The sort of metastory or metastructure that comes out of finding out that GLaDOS scrambles her own messages with static comes as a surprise in the game in a way that would not make sense in the same way in any other medium. Furthermore, this revelation is meaningful in the game: it’s an essential part of how we progressively learn the true nature of GLaDOS, but also, in part, the true nature of what Portal itself is.

If Agatha Christie knew how to accept the limitations of her media and to embrace what made them special, there is no reason why we should not do the same. We may be filmmakers and writers and musicians but when we’re making games, we’re making games and that’s the essence of what we’re doing, just not a cast made after the fact, or an afterthought, but, I repeat, the essence of what we must do.