How to best structure a mystery?

How do you reckon would it be best to structure a mystery IF? Especially one with an overarching plot and various cases that might built up on each other.

Separate cases into Acts and have the player retry from the Act’s start if they don’t find the necessary clues, perhaps? How much replay value would there even be?

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What sort of mystery game is it supposed to be? Is it like Popcorn, Soda, Murder?, where there is one correct solution, basically one correct way of getting there, and and replay value is minimal? Is it like Dead Already?, where solving the puzzle is the focus but the solution is randomized at the beginning of the game so you can play it a few times with different results? Or is it more like the Evertree Saga, in which the mystery (or mysteries) takes place in a richly developed setting with complex characters and a variety of subplots, such that it isn’t expected (or even possible) to uncover everything in one play-through and it’s still fun to play even if you already know the solution to the mystery?

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This is a fun question! I’ll think about it some more, but here’s my hip-shot answer.

I would either:

  1. Treat the murder as a B plot. Meaning it is a thing, but that thing is secondary to your life as either a police officer or private eye. That way, there could be meaningful choices AND a tight compelling case with multiple feasible suspects. Then, there would be strong variations in the A plot: cop partner dying of cancer, or dating scene, or rebellious teenage son, or all of the above plus something. You could make variation with a set murderer by varying your success: do you stop them in time, do you figure out who it is, are you at the site of the last crime when they are. You could have those events happen as they do, even if you don’t know or aren’t present. Se7en and Frequency have character plots stronger than their case plots.
  2. Do it as a serial. Thinking Persona 4/5.
  3. Do it as a survival horror. Thinking Lovecraft.

*I plotted something like this about a house where, as an exorcist, you investigate multiple murders post mortem. The answer to the mysteries is fixed. But the release of the souls is variable. And you only save the next victim if you get the help of all the ghosts.

I can talk more about any of these. Or shut up all together. Thanks for the brain food!

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Did you ever do anything with that plot? Because I think I would like to read something like that.

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As with all plots that rely on a twist, mystery has inherently low replay value.

I would add some by making more than one path to get to the twist, and making sure that each path has some answers that can only be unlocked on that path, so the reader only gets the full picture by reading every path. While of course making sure that each play-through is still a satisfying experience.

Things like romance options, sidequests that can be completed different ways, etc, can also add more replay value, as can customization with impact.

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Or you could change a little bit of the mystery based on Key decisions. So for example If the first thing the player focusses in is the family a ghost of a family member might cause the trouble, If the player focusses in an occult angle a Voodoo curse might be behind everything or if the business is the focus then a opponent could be behind everything. You could make everything else similar so that the variations are Not too much work

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Some more on the OP now that I’m finished my midnight run to Whataburger. Frequency is a good case study because the victims change with the MC’s actions. Caviezel feeds clues to his father, in the past, through an old radio. Father stops specific murders but bc antag is a serial killer, he just murders someone else. Multiple iterations of this give a sort of “replay” value. Another good one is Butterfly Effect. MC’s “mystery” is how to get the one that got away in a way that doesn’t harm all parties involved. Every time Kutcher changes the past, his present gets worse. These iterations could be boundless.

Thanks for saying that! I haven’t yet. I was thinking of pitching it in a few months to CoG, when I’m finished my current WiP. Not sure, though. I have a couple things brewing. It would be called Haunted Hearts. The MC is a fledgling realtor who doesn’t know the house they’re trying to sell is haunted. A pair of gender-swappable siblings (ROs) pose as Pest Control to investigate, but one is a ex-priest, the other a pseudo-scientist. The manor belonged to man who was 3x a widower. With the team, you have to solve the murders of his 3 wives to put their souls to rest. In the course of doing so, you find evidence that implicates others in the town and suggests there might be another victim soon. This would be around the year 2000. I had fun with it bc one wife died in each the 70s, 80s, and 90s. So, each decade makes the same setting feel very different. Strong elements of romance in the story. I also play w the notion that we abandon cases when we find 1 murderer. Seldom do we consider multiple. Sorry if that was more than you were looking for—I think it still speaks to the OP, albeit sideways. If you’re into it, maybe I’ll throw something in interest check and see if others are too. Cheers!

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This sounds more and more amazing. But if your current WiP is the one linked in your profile, please please please keep working on that because it sounds equally amazing.

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In my case it’s going to be episodic with an overarching story (that’s the plan right now9 AND it’s a sequel to my current project.

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I love a good plot twist.

For a mystery I would (and still use) a red herring that still have some value to the story to keep the reader away from the big picture at first, then bring them to that ending where they go…“Oh… it was this other guys this whole time?”

I like a story that simmer some clues along the story. Clues that the writer will put all together at the end for the reader to go like Oh, so that is why the antagonist did this at the beginning or that is why they had that type of behavior or reaction to that question and so on.

Don’t just use the red herring just to lure the reader away, like in my WIP the red herring has a close connection to the antagonist and the reader only finds out near the end of the story.

I also like twists that are hidden in plain sight which is when the reader will interact with an NPC or even antagonist at an early stage of the story and during that conversation something will be revealed to the reader but it sounds banal or without value at this exact time. And by the end of the story the reader would go… “Oh… Crap!” lol

Which is why in mystery stories trust no one lol.

In a IF you can make it so that if the reader doesn’t collect all the clues, they miss out on some of the antagonist’s motive or even add collecting all the clues as an achievement (which can booster replayability for readers that goes for achievements)

It’s not easy to do because the writer need to keep check of a lot of stuff to make sure nothing is left unexplained at the end, but we also know that some unexplained stuff in a story make for good fan theory too :face_with_hand_over_mouth:

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Well, that depends on how much variance you want to introduce in each case, but I think you can draw on linear novel writing for this. Specifically what Writing Excuses calls the “try/fail cycle”, or the structure of three conflicts of increasingly high stakes. Maybe the solution to a minor burglary in chapter 1 opens the case for a blackmail mystery in chapter 2, and so on. Of course, if each case has more than two outcomes (solved/unsolved), then that introduces more branching than might be practical.

I think the most important thing is probably maintaining a good ratio of questions to answers:

The ratio favors questions during rising action and only starts to favor answers as we move towards the climax of the story.

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