This is a short story that I wrote as an entry to Gamasutra’s The Games of 2020 contest. The task was to visualize what the games of a decade from now would play like. You can read the twenty winners here.
I didn’t win, but I didn’t want the thing to go to waste, so I thought I’d publish it on the ol’ blog. Despite this being titled as a “pitch,” I don’t actually think that anyone should make this now. Huge technological leaps must be made in camera recognition, speech recognition, and AI to make this even feasible. However, if I’m not playing this game in ten years, I’ll be dissapointed.
So here you go:
Aventine Noir: A Short Story and Game Design Concept of the Future
Of all the offices in all of Aventine, she had to walk into mine. Her blond hair fell loose around her shoulders and her dark eyes peaked out from beneath the veil pulled across her face. I couldn’t help but think that she was showing a bit too much leg for a woman who had just found her husband face-down in his oatmeal just 48 hours earlier. I got the feeling that her mourning was for show.
“He was murdered,” the woman purred.
“He was old,” I replied.
We went back and forth for a few minutes. She insisted that old man Atwood had been perfectly healthy before his demise. The millionaire owner of half the industrial sector of Aventine, and famed world explorer and hunter, did not have a bad ticker, she insisted.
“If he could survive hunting lions in the savannas of Africa, trekking across the frozen wastelands of Siberia, and climbing Everest…” she leaned in close, “If he could survive what he and I did two nights ago, Mr. Twelve, he could certainly manage to survive a bowl of warm mush.” She had a point.
She was leaning in close enough that I could smell the cigarette that she had put out before getting out of the car downstairs. Or at least I would have, if she wasn’t a character in a game, and I weren’t sitting on the couch in my living room interacting with her via the camera built into my television set. A lone green LED shone next to the camera’s iris, indicating that one player was recognized in the room.
“Let’s say your husband was murdered, Mrs. Atwood.”
“Please, call me Betty.”
The woman slid even closer, if that was possible. She ran a single finger across my cheek. “If you could just figure out who it was who killed my husband, Mr. Twelve, I’d be very… very… grateful. Her lips couldn’t have pouted any more.
From my spot on the couch, I lifted my hand, palm towards my face and placed it in the space between my face and where hers would be if she wasn’t trapped on my wall. My on-screen avatar, as viewed from the first person, did the same, my digital hand hovering in front of the woman’s nose. I wiggled my ring finger, the action was mirrored on screen, my digital finger wearing a wedding band just as my real one was.
“I assume your gratuity comes in the form of cash Mrs. Atwood.”
She backed away. Turning towards the window and lighting a cigarette in defeat. “Name your price.”
“Can you think of anyone who would want your husband dead?”
She said she couldn’t. Everyone loved Hank. Her voice was filled with honey unbecoming of a woman in mourning.
With my fist in a ball, I gesture to the right, moving the viewpoint of my character on screen to the right, giving me a view of my desk. The morning paper sat there. I reached out with an open hand and closed it. On the screen, I had picked up the paper. With my balled fist, I gestured back to the left, turning me to face Mrs. Atwood again.
“Really? I couldn’t help but notice in the papers this morning that your husband left half of his estate to his longest-working employee. That must’ve been a surprise.”
She turned. “Why, Mr. Twelve, I’ve been so shaken up over my loss that I hadn’t even had time to consider the money.” I must’ve been making a face that conveyed enough disbelief to be picked up by the camera, because she changed her tune quickly. “Fine, yes, It was that rascal Jameson. He must have talked my husband into some foolish modification of his will, and then made sure he would never have a chance to change it back. I know it was him. I just need you to prove it.”
I asked how I could be sure that she wasn’t the murderer, herself. After all, Mrs. Atwood had just as much reason to want a speedy death for her husband.
“Because, Mr. Twelve, if I had murdered my husband, I wouldn’t have been so rash as to do it when half of the estate went to someone else.” She had a point.
She wasn’t two steps out of my office when a window popped up in the lower right corner of my screen. “Where’s Kumi?” asked the man in the window. He was sitting on the couch of his own living room.
“She had to run some errands this morning before work. No time for a case.”
“Too bad, I was looking forward to embarrassing you in front of her again!”
“I don’t think so, Andrew. You’re going down.” He had to go down.
He had won our last three cases in a row. It would be an uphill battle to beat him today, though. When starting this game, I had to have the computer create a short case for us, since I would have to be leaving for work soon. Andrew was especially good at short cases.
When starting a case, the player gets to choose a difficulty and a length. The computer then builds a new, unique murder mystery for the number of players connected. You could play forever and never play the same case twice. Since this was set to medium difficulty and short length, the computer had generated a mystery without many twists and with enough clues to find our way through without too many problems. Personally, I like the long cases, but as I said, there wasn’t enough time before work, so I’d have to beat Andrew on his home turf.
“We’ll see about that,” Andrew retorted. “Where’s Travis?” I shrugged. “Open a chat window to Travis,” Andrew instructed the computer.
A small window popped up on the bottom left corner. Travis was leaning back on the couch with his arms wrapped around an invisible person, his lips puckered up and his eyes closed.
“Eww.” Andrew and I said in unison.
“Hey, do you guys mind?” said Travis, opening his eyes. “Elina Jameson was just telling me how happy she would be if I could prove her father’s innocence.”
“At least we both know we don’t have to worry about you solving this case before we do.” I nodded in agreement with Andrew.
“Seriously guys, I was just… charming some info out of her.”
Andrew continued, “So, Jameson hired you, eh? Tell Elina to inform her father that the police will be stopping by soon for a chat as soon as I finish up at the morgue.”
Travis nodded. “Close chat window.” Travis blinked out.
“May the best man win,” I said to Andrew.
“I will.” he replied smugly. “And I had better not see you snooping around my crime scene. I’m sure I can think of a reason to have you thrown into a cell for a few hours.” And with that, Andrew was gone too.
Andrew always played the cop. It always seemed the easy way out, to me. You get access to the help of other officers, plus the power to order citizens about and lay on the pressure to squeeze info out of people.
But that doesn’t make the game lopsided. The seedier side of town is pretty inaccessible to the cops. The shady characters can spot a cop a mile away and tend to clam up and forget anything and everything. Sometimes it’s the shady characters who provide the most help. That’s why the down-on-his-luck PI is the way to go for me.
As I stepped out of the cab onto a quiet residential neighborhood on the east side of Aventine, I bumped into Travis leaving Mr. Jameson’s small house. He waived goofily to me on his way down the stairs. I pointed at my neck to inform him about the lipstick on his collar, but I don’t think he got the message. I gestured with my balled fist to turn back towards the house, and then extended my index finger to move my character forward. The wide-angle camera on the TV picked up my gestures, interpreted them, and sent my instructions to the computer, which sent back the images of what my avatar was seeing as he approached the door of the Jameson house. He followed the path laid out for him by my pointing finger.
Mr. Jameson was refusing to see me. His daughter stopped me at the door and told me that they had already hired a Private Eye to prove Mr. Jameson’s innocence in the matter. I nodded knowingly. I noticed that Elina was wearing a zoo keeper’s uniform. She explained that she worked at the County Zoo and was leaving for work.
“Sometimes the animals seem like the only ones in this city with any humanity,” she said.
I thought about this for a moment. What an interesting statement. In the way that she meant it, I couldn’t disagree. However, the degree of human-like qualities that these characters posessed was still nothing short of amazing to me. I thought about the last ten years that I had been playing games. After so many years of graphics improving asymptotically to some level of unreal-realism, and after it became clear that physics couldn’t be improved anymore or that the weapons were as realistic as they were going to get, finally the realization was made that the only part of games that was still light-years away from where it could be, or that had the most potential for gameplay improvements, was the AI. AI had improved drastically over the last decade. Enemies were no longer limited to deciding between a few pre-programmed routines. Characters could now be given unique personalities, and they would act accordingly. The story of the game could also take on a life of its own, generating new quests, new mysteries, and allowing the player to truly take ownership of the story by interacting with the characters in any way they saw fit. Instead of wandering through a series of levels or quests that were predefined by the game developers, the game would take a life of its own, providing challenges in accordance with the player’s actions, requiring logical thought to navigate. No longer were the NPCs limited to holding their ground or attempting to outflank you, they would now love you, lie to you, help you, betray you, or whatever else that needed to happen to keep the story that the player was acting out exciting and entertaining. I realized that I was now able to *live* movies and wondered when the last time I had watched one was.
My cab let me out in front of the city morgue. I was downtown and the street was full of people walking and driving to work. Looking up at the city morgue’s sign, I knew that this was going to be tricky. Once in the front door I quickly looked around, gesturing with my fist in every direction. An unattended mop and bucket sat in one corner of the waiting room. The man at the desk was talking with a man in a white lab coat — distracted for the moment. I picked up the mop and broom and put on my best non-chalant face as I pointed with my finger, walking past them into the hallway beyond. After I rounded a corner, I set the mop and bucket quietly on the floor and then pointed down the hallway, moving my pointing hand further away from my body making my character move much faster. Around another corner stood a coat rack with several white lab coats hanging on it. I heard footsteps approaching. Quickly, I reached out with my hand and then closed my fist. My avatar did the same, taking one of the coats off the rack. Pulling it back towards my body, I gestured as if sliding the coat up my arms. I was now “wearing” the lab coat. I turned to face a bullitin board on the wall next to the coat rack as two men walked behind me.
“And could someone get this poison at a pharmacy?” I knew that voice. It was Andrew. I silently prayed that he wouldn’t notice that I wasn’t an NPC.
“No, Detective Lieben, that type of drug is used mostly to euthanize animals. You wouldn’t find it through any normal means. It’s mostly used by Vetrenarians, but you might also find it being used by pest control workers, or at the zoo.”
“Thank you doctor. Let me know if you find anything else.” His heels clicked as he hurried down the hallway. So, Old man Atwood WAS poisoned! Andrew must be onto something. Wait a minute! The zoo?
Crap! It was almost 8:45 and I was going to be late for work. Real-world work, not fake-game-detective work. I ran out of the morgue and got myself into a cab. If only I could pause the game. But I knew Andrew and Travis would be continuing the hunt for Mr. Atwood’s killer while I was away. “County Zoo!” I shouted to the cabbie. I hopped up off the couch, grabbed my work bag and hurried out of my house as the cab pulled away from the morgue, my digital avatar riding in the back seat.
Once everyone was onboard the transportation bubble and the team of transit-dolphins began towing us out down the canal, [Give me a break, I'm supposed to be designing the game of the future, not the transportation of the future! -- Vince] I pulled out my cellphone. My phone began streaming the game information from my home computer, displaying the game just as it was before. Unfortunately, I would have to make do with the slightly smaller screen. My avatar had arrived at the zoo. I used the touchpad to navigate around the zoo until I spotted her near the monkey cages: my prime suspect, Elina Jameson. I didn’t have much time to close this case before I would arrive at work, so I clipped my wireless headphone to my ear and cut straight to the chase.
“So tell me Elina, why did you kill Mr. Atwood? Was it for the money?”
Elina was startled. “Mr. Twelve! Oh, I.. uh… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you do. I’ve just confirmed that a vial of a certain drug disappeared during your last shift. The same drug used to poison the old man.” I was bluffing.
She looked flustered, letting me know that it was working. “If you have such rock solid proof, why don’t you bring it before a judge?” Unfortunately, I didn’t actually have any evidence. Certainly not enough for the game to give me the victory.
“See, here’s the thing, Ms. Jameson. I’ve got all the evidence I need to send you away for life. But what does that get me? A tiny sum from the widow. I’ll bet that you’re willing to pay me more for your freedom than Mrs. Atwood is willing to pay me for your incarceration.
Elina did not look happy. She thought for a second and then looked around. It was a crowded area. “Meet me behind the aquarium in ten minutes.” And she walked away.
Ten minutes, huh? How inconsiderate. I would be at work in ten minutes. Not to mention that it was just enough time to retrieve a syringe of her favorite drug, I’d imagine. I decided to follow her. Making sure to maintain my distance, and once having to dive behind a statue of a seal when she checked over her shoulder, I followed her to a pay phone which she began slipping coins into.
Now was my chance, I looked around. There were several kids near the tiger cage, and an ice cream vendor nearby. I walked over to the ice cream vendor and quickly ordered a cone. I reached my hand into my jacket’s breast pocket, or where it would have been if I was wearing one. The camera on my cell phone picked this up and displayed the content of the pocket on an overlay. I chose my hand-held voice recorder. My on-screen avatar removed it from his pocket. I pressed the record button. Next to the ice cream vendor was a trash can. I tapped on it and then tapped on an empty soda cup inside to tell my avatar to pick it up. I then used the touch screen to drag the recorder into the cup. I then sealed the lid back on with another click and drag. I thought about how I greatly preferred gesture controls to touch controls, but it couldn’t be helped when I needed two hands and one was holding the phone. The ice cream vendor had finished my cone.
I approached the kids watching the tigers. “Hey, who wants an icecream cone?”
The kid did a great job, walking nonchalantly up to the pay phones and setting the cup down near Elina. She was so engrossed in her heated conversation that she didn’t notice. The boy had earned his ice cream. I winked at him as he walked off. I could tell by his smile and nod that the camera in my phone had relayed it to him. A minute later Elina hung up and hurried off.
I strolled casually up to the pay phone and picked up the cup. Opening it up, I retrieved the recorder and pressed play.
“Yes, he knows everything! I thought you were going to make sure this got pinned on my father!” She paused. “How was I to know that it was only used on animals? … Ok, I’ll do it. I need to go now, he’ll be waiting for me and I need to pick some up from the veterinary building. Just tell me we’re leaving Aventine tonight.” I could hear her take a deep breath. “You promise? And be together forever? … I love you too Betty.” I stopped the tape and smiled. I had my proof. And BOTH of the murderers. I had won.
The screen faded out and a newspaper came into view. The top story showed a picture of me dragging Betty Atwood and Elina Jameson into a jail cell. The story was about how Betty and Elina had planned the murder and their motives, most of which I had already figured out. The story below that one showed a picture of Andrew being hit in the head by an old lady’s purse. The headline read “Local Police Officer Falsely Accuses Local Veterinarian.” Ha! That was too rich. I pressed a button on my cell phone to save the screenshot, and then another to upload it to my social network page.
Just in time. I had arrived at work.
My wife, Kumi had gotten a kick out of the screenshot. As had all my other friends. I had been getting comments on it all day. That night, after dinner, Kumi had promised me a special treat. We sat down on the couch and she booted up the game — our favorite game, Aventine Noir. “I wrote you a case,” she beamed. “I’ve been working on it all week.”
Two green LEDs lit up next to the camera. On the left side of the screen was the office of my detective agency as seen from someone sitting in the desk. On the right side was a view of my office door from the outside. Kumi raised her hand and knocked.
Of all the offices in all of Aventine, she had to walk into mine. Her black hair was pulled back smartly. She looked quickly around the office. “Mr. Twelve, your life is in danger.”
“And you are?”
“There’s no time for that,” she continued. “I’m here to save you. Come with me.”
I turned to face her on the couch, “You can take me wherever you want…” I smiled wryly.
She turned to meet my eyes. “C’mon, play along.” She turned back to the television and lunged forward with her arms.
Her character leapt across the desk, knocking my chair backwards. A window exploded and bullets pierced the wall behind where I had just been sitting. She lay on top of me, her eyes locked on mine.
“Believe me now?” I nodded, mouth agape.
She reached down and picked me up by the hand. “Run.” She said. And we ran.