Failure is a great option

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is, in many ways, a typical detective game. You look for clues, you interrogate witnesses, investigate suspects, and ultimately decide whodunnit. One feature separates it from much of the mystery pack, however: You can get things wrong. The game will let you make incorrect deductions, draw wrong conclusions and even send the wrong person to prison. The ability to fail is probably the game's best feature, and it's one I wish more detective games would embrace.

It's easy to see why mystery games would be reluctant to let the player completely blow a case. For starters, there isn't much replay value in that type of gameplay, and slogging through a case all over again, hearing the same testimony or performing the same experiments, would lack a certain vivacity. People also process information differently, so what might be a stonkingly obvious connection to one person would be utterly baffling to the next; add differences in cultural references or knowledge into the mix, and the problems inherent in crafting a tightly-constructed detective narrative become obvious. Plus, people just plain don't like feeling dumb, and getting a big fat "WRONG, BUCKO!" after noodling your way through a case would understandably be off-putting for some players. It should be there anyway, though, because otherwise there's no real incentive to put your brain through its paces.

In other kinds of games, the inherent threat of failure - whether that's death, loss of progress or points - is what pushes you to try harder, but in games like Phoenix Wright or Murdered, there's no penalty for screwing up. You might have to replay a conversation, but you can cycle through the same dialog choices as many times as necessary to find the right way forward. No matter how off-base your deduction may be, you won't lose the case, the bad guy won't get away. They'll all patiently wait for you to get your little grey cells in the proper order so that you can all move on with the story together. While that guarantees you'll get to the end of the game, it robs your victories of any real meaning. It's not that you were smart enough to put the pieces together, the game simply made it impossible for you do anything else.

Wishing for harder detective games is one thing, but getting them is something else. A well-constructed mystery takes great writing, something that is often sorely lacking in the video game space, but even when the story is hitting all the right marks, the gameplay often gets in the way. You'll often know exactly what you need to do, but not be able to suss the way the game wants you to do it; in other cases, you'll get dialog options for clues you have yet to discover.

L.A. Noire had both of those problems, and more. Like Crimes and Punishments, Noire had a smart story and also gave players the chance to fail, but one incorrect interpretation of the game's nebulous "lie/truth/doubt" mechanic and avenues of discussion were forever closed off, essentially forcing you to fail. L.A. Noire's execution was flawed, but its ideas were sound. You should be able to say the wrong thing, inadvertently pissing off or scaring a witness into clamming up. You should be able to gather evidence and draw the wrong conclusion. Even Sherlock Holmes himself gets it wrong sometimes, so why shouldn't we?

It's reasonable to say that some detective games are more about the journey than the puzzles themselves, and in those cases, failure shouldn't be an option. I agree; Phoenix Wright is more about the goofy characters and overall story than the intricacies of the plot. (Good thing, too, given how shaky that franchise's crime construction is.) I certainly don't think that every last game involving detective work has to come without a safety net, but I welcome the chance to genuinely match wits with villains and find out if my armchair sleuthing skills are as good as I think they are. I hope that more mystery games follow Crimes and Punishments' lead and give the bad guys a sporting chance.