header is screenshot from Judgment
Lack of Judgment
Ed Smith

In Manhunter, Michael Mann’s terrific psychological thriller from 1986, after speaking on the phone to Hannibal Lecktor (for some reason it’s spelled differently in this film) detective Will Graham returns to the scene of the crime he’s investigating; the slaughter of an entire family, in their own home, by a serial killer nicknamed The Tooth Fairy. With Lecktor’s discourse on why murder feels good still ringing in his ears, as Graham treads through the dark, empty house, he begins retracing not just The Tooth Fairy’s steps but his thoughts:

“I enter. The house is mine. I pass the children’s toys. The children mean nothing to me. They were put here to help me. I move to the door. I step into the room. I see you there. And I see me desired by you. Accepted and loved in the silver mirrors of your eyes.”

Throughout Manhunter, Graham is described as an exemplary detective owing to his intuitive ability to feel and understand the emotions of murderers. He caught Dr. Lecktor, he says, when he noticed a book on his desk containing photos of war wounds. After visiting The Tooth Fairy’s hunting ground, he deduces the killer has a fetish for voyeurism, exhibitionism, and photography, and tracks him down to his job at a film development lab.

Graham isn’t alone. Whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or Sam Spade, fictional detectives are united in their instinct for human psychology. In one of the most famous Holmes stories, A Scandal in Bohemia, tasked with recovering a blackmail photograph hidden in the home of an American opera singer, Holmes takes advantage of the woman’s charitable nature by pretending to be injured in a fist-fight outside her front door, prompting her to invite him upstairs to recuperate on her sofa. Holmes then has Watson stand stand outside the singer’s house and shout “fire!”; understanding that the woman values the photo more than anything else in the world, and wouldn’t ever flee her home without it, Holmes discretely watches as she removes it from a recess hidden behind her bell pull. It’s this ingenuity, and subtle and intricate brilliance, which makes the great detectives irresistible to watch and read. The thrill of the detective story is not just in finding out who committed the crime, but witnessing your maestro at work. Using lateral, elaborate, sometimes bizarre methods, the great detective empathises with his suspects’ motives, and that’s precisely what distinguishes him from the rest of the police and his peers: where they are forensic, with magnifying glass, fingerprints, and DNA swabs, the great detective is emotive, able to catch his quarry thanks to his deep and unresisting connection with other human beings.

Takayuki Yagami, of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s Judgment, is not a great detective, or at least not when he’s being controlled by the player. Although much of the game involves catching criminals, be that by tailing them through the streets of Kabukichō, analysing their faces and clothes for clues, or searching through their homes and offices, these investigate processes require on behalf of the player no analytical or mental input whatsoever. Scanning a crowd of busy Tokyoites, trying to identify whom among them appears suspicious, is simply a case of moving a cursor then holding down R2 to unwrap a clue—if you pick out the wrong person, Judgment’s myriad pop-ups and HUD elements will inform you instantly, reducing the margin for error or opinion—the game’s titular judgment—to zero. Likewise, the tailing and evidence-gathering sequences: if a suspect is about to turn around, Judgment will let you know and give you plenty of time to get out of the way; anything pertinent you might need from a crime scene is consolidated into a handy checklist, so it’s impossible to miss something and, as a player, you’re only responsible for detecting in the sense that you literally gather the evidence—a cutscene, or rather several hours of cutscenes, will later piece it together and draw a conclusion for you.

In one sense, this system works. Like the flashing lightning bolts around Batman’s head in Arkham Asylum, Judgment’s mechanics and on-screen elements are a representation, a literalisation, of its character’s talents: crime investigation and its various demands are presented so clearly visually, and as players we’re able to perform them so routinely, with just a few button presses, that it communicates just how brilliant of a detective is Yagami, since he seems able to solve even the most complicated of crimes without any effort. The system also has functions which are narrative and generic. One of the main joys, surely, of a whodunnit is in not knowing right until the very end who did it. Like watching a magic trick or riding a ghost train, there’s fun to be had in obliviousness and surprise: that moment, at the end of every Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or Dashiell Hammett story, when the detective finally brings together all of their evidence and provides an explanation, is both cathartic because we finally get our answer and fulfilling because we like the idea of having been fooled—if we could figure out the murder before the detective we would probably feel cheated, whereas having to read or watch right until the very end feels like getting our money’s worth. To these extents, the way Judgment holds back on its conclusions and prevents players from actively forming or influencing them themselves, is consistent with detective fiction.

But like L.A. Noire, which plays a chord of atonal piano each time the player wrongly guesses a clue, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which won’t allow you to progress to trial day until you’ve gathered every single bit of available evidence, and Murdered: Soul Suspect, which reduces crime scenes to simple, highly-negotiable tile puzzles, Judgment seems unable, or maybe even prevented, from capturing the full spirit of the detective story. For whatever reason—maybe they think players are stupid; maybe they think they’re too easily bored; maybe they think players in videogames prefer an illusion of ability rather than having to deploy and demonstrate actual ability—the developers of detective games abbreviate the process of detection to the point where it becomes basically redundant. Although they’re playing a detective game, in all of the above titles there is no demand on the player to actually play as a detective. In order to be completed none of these games require any certain degree of intelligence, intuition or understanding of human behaviour—it’s true that the skills necessary to complete a Call of Duty or a Grand Theft Auto are also not the skills necessary to be a soldier or a bank robber, but a detective game like Judgment, which represents not just physical actions but also abstract human thinking and imagination via banal, repetitive mechanics, is an even further departure from the spirit of its subject.

Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.