The Inversely Suspicious Character Problem

I’m several hours into Heavy Rain now, and I’m throughly enjoying it. There are some flaws here and there but generally the whole thing is amazingly well done, and unlike 99% of other games on the market today. I’ll post a lot more about it when I finish.

Playing Heavy Rain got me thinking about the Inversely Suspicious Character Problem. I just made that phrase up; maybe there’s a formal way to describe this literary problem. The Inversely Suspicious Character Problem is an issue that plagues all types of mysteries, but is particularly damaging to whodunits. I define the problem as follows: Regardless of how dramatically suspicion is cast on a particular character, an astute reader will tend to suspect the most innocent character. Another way to say that is: mysteries authors that design their stories to surprise the reader by revealing the evil-doer at the very end must take steps to ensure that the criminal is beyond suspicion up until the last moment. If the reader already suspects a character and their suspicion turns out to be correct, the surprise is lost, so the author must work to mislead the reader. But a reader who is familiar with this sort of mystery avoids jumping to the obvious conclusion and instead simply looks for a character who seems to be entirely free of taint; this character is most probable to be the real criminal at the end. This doesn’t really take any brain power, and so it’s not as rewarding as deciphering the mystery given the clues that the author provides, and the result is that the surprise ending loses much of its punch.

Different authors deal with this problem in different ways. One way is simply to introduce so many characters that many end up being incidental, hopefully making inductive selection of the real culprit difficult. But even then, the author runs the risk of annoying the reader when a character who has absolutely no bearing on the story takes the blame. Criminals who turn out to be characters who were introduced early in the work and then quickly discarded (see: any given Scooby-Doo episode), or even worse, characters who enter the story only at the very end, are infuriating to readers because the clues that they’ve been mentally tracking over the course of the story turn out to be worthless.

Another approach is to avoid the problem entirely by revealing the criminal early in the drama and then making the story focus on the detective who figures it all out. Columbo works this way, and it’s quite satisfying. Other authors reveal the criminal but then provide the reader with a different problem, such as how the crime itself was committed (and indeed, in many locked-room murder mysteries the actual murderer is much less important than how they did it). In The Hound of the Baskervilles, as in many other Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle casts doubt over everybody by using an obviously unreliable narrator (Dr. Watson) and integrating the secret movements of the Holmes into the set of clues presented to the reader. This is genius because when it is revealed that Holmes has been working on the case in secret, many of the unresolved loose ends suddenly resolve themselves and the reader has a chance to make the mental leap to the real killer just as the story is about to reveal him itself, thus magnifying the surprise and satisfaction felt by the reader. Many Golden Age detective novels rely on a secondary character who jumps to all of the obvious conclusions before the reader has a chance to, thus focusing (sometimes deceivingly) the readers attention on a subset of clues. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has Captain Hastings, Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson, and there are many others. Sometimes the side-kick is just there to give the detective a reason to talk about the case.

Whatever the method, mystery authors who seek to surprise the reader have to do something to conceal their criminal without lying to the reader or holding back clues. But this very act of attempted misdirection is a way for the reader to identify the real enemy; whomever the spotlight of suspicion shines on the least is quite likely to be guilty. So there needs to be some extra step, some other sort of twist, to keep the story relevant.

My one complaint with Heavy Rain is that I’ve deciphered the killer after only a few hours of play. I had a pretty good idea who to suspect even before all of the principal characters had been introduced. You can see the game going out of its way to cast suspicion in certain directions, but I’m pretty confident that in doing so its creators have instead highlighted the real criminal. It’s not that the story or characters are poor, it’s just that this is a form with which I’m familiar and the regular tropes are all accounted for. Now, I could be wrong, or the game could get real tricky and feature multiple endings with different characters named as the antagonist, but probably the end will reveal the character whom I’ve suspected since the second hour of play. There are quite a few other loose ends to tie up that I have no idea about, so I’m hoping the end isn’t completely predictable, but now that I’ve fixed the killer in my mind there’s much less brain power needed to play the game. Hopefully I’m wrong, and the Inversely Suspicious Character will turn out to be just another red herring.

Final note: DON’T YOU DARE discuss the real killer in Heavy Rain in the comments. Not even with spoiler tags. As confident as I am in my selection, having the game spoiled for me would ruin all of the anticipation of finding out if my theory is right.

12 thoughts on “The Inversely Suspicious Character Problem

  1. NO SPOILERS AHEAD (promise)

    I finished Heavy Rain a few weeks ago, but I will obviously not spoil it for anyone. It’s a very beautiful and immersive experience, but as a thriller it has its flaws. You’ll see what I mean when you finish it. Also, many people are claiming it would make a great movie, but I really don’t think so. It’s basically a mix of plot devices and scenes taken from Hollywood thrillers from the 90s and 00s, just like Fahrenheit was. Aesthetically, it tries to look like a David Fincher movie.

    I tried to spot the most innocent characters as well, I got the same suspicion. Because there are lots of red herrings, I kept thinking of the possible endings (four), one of which I got. It wasn’t a complete letdown, but it wasn’t a huge surprise either, because even though I couldn’t tell which ending I was going to get, I knew it was going to be one of those four. I thought of a possible 5th ending, one that was completely out of place and ridiculous (these guys made Fahrenheit). By the way, Heavy Rain shares much more than just the gameplay with Fahrenheit.

    I also came up with an impossible ending, so impossible that it won’t spoil anything (promise). I thought of the possibility that the game blamed the player for the murders. Not any of the playable characters, but you, the person who’s using the controller. After all, the game tackles themes like hallucination, perception and guilt. I don’t have a clue how that could be integrated, but I came up with it. Stupid? Maybe.

    So, as a game/experience, I think Heavy Rain works wonderfully. But at the plot/story/character level, I didn’t find it that surprising or exciting.

    QUESTION 1: Are you playing the English version? Even I, being Spanish, could tell how bad the English voices were. Not just the French accents, but the acting in general. I heard the french version with subtitles is a better experience.

    QUESTION 2: Do you think the Heavy Rain-style gameplay could be used to create a survival horror? There are times when the game tries to scare you, but it doesn’t really succeed (maybe because you are confident that, whatever happens, the story will go on with another character).

  2. As a long-time detective novel fan, I really can’t argue with your point. The solution some of the best mystery writers have adopted is either presenting the villain/killer as a small, episodic character whom the reader doesnt really think of, or, alternatively, actually making the killer the most suspicious character around, up to the point that the reader becomes convinced of their innocence.
    P.S. New Silent Hill and F.E.A.R. 3 announced; pretty grand, huh?

  3. …. aaaaaand turns out I was right. Still, the ending was pretty good. I played it twice just to see what sort of variation is involved. I think there’s actually much more variation, depending on how earlier segments are played.

    > premaitor

    I played in French with English subtitles. It was fine. I heard that was the way to go as well.

    I think that this format could absolutely be used for horror. In fact, I think the only games that close to similar to this kind of game nowadays are horror games. David Cage, the director, called Heavy Rain a horror game, and while I don’t really think that’s true, the genre he’s going for and the horror genre are close cousins.

  4. I was taken completely by surprise when the killer in Deadly Premonition was revealed. That game does cast suspicion onto certain characters and not others, but there are so many “innocent” characters that you can’t be certain of who to suspect. I’d like to hear if you’re able to figure out who the killer in that game is early, Chris (if you even get into it enough to complete it, I know Deadly Premonition can’t charm everyone because of its flaws, but I’ve thought you might be the type of person who would appreciate all the things that make it so fun and interesting to some of us).

  5. This reminds me of another problem in whodunits: killer split personality. The killer can be a calm, poker-faced genius or just a skillful liar, but the very moment that his identity is revealed he becomes batshit insane. No matter how smart or non-violent (well, relatively speaking, of course) he was, he’s going to admit being guilty to anyone within earshot and will try to murder anything in sight. His last ditch killing spree is actually the author giving the hero a good excuse to blow the killer’s brains out, I guess. Prison just doesn’t work in modern fiction anymore, it seems: killers have to be finished off before the end of the story.

    Worst of all, a lot of the killer’s actions don’t make much sense once you know who he/she is. There are a lot of that in Heavy Rain.

  6. I was actually thrown at the end of Heavy Rain when I learned the true killer’s identity, but that’s because I was so thoroughly convinced of another character’s guilt. My one big complaint about the game is a plot anomaly that is never fully explained, and which therefor left us with a glaring hole in the narrative. It was this hole that misled me and turned my suspicions on a seemingly innocent character. Despite this pretty huge oversight, I really loved the game. Other than Quantic Dream’s other titles, there’s really nothing else out there quite like Heavy Rain.

  7. I’ve heard/read from a lot of others who also thought it was obvious who the killer was, and they ended up being right.

    I never suspected that the killer was who the game was presenting as the main suspect, but I did have a good theory and gut feeling about who I thought the killer was and I was completely wrong (by like, miles).

    I was very surprised to find out who it was, and now I’m enjoying subsequent play-throughs to see the hints the game provided as to the killer’s identity.

    I’ve been gushing about this game ever since it came out, and I must seem like a mother who thinks their child is the cutest-but I just don’t notice or care about the flaws that others are pointing out. This is officially my favourite game of all time. 🙂

  8. > Nat,

    It’s not a smart/dumb thing, it’s just familiarity with the form. If you read enough of these kinds of mysteries the patterns are pretty clear and making this sort of call early on is pretty easy. You might, for example, notice that certain characters are always shown in highly positive scenes, and from there it’s just a short jump before you start noticing typewriters on desks.

  9. Yeah, I’m definitely not familiar with these types of stories; when I make connections on simple mysteries (like, we’re talking in cartoons) and I say “oh! it’s that person!” my husband teases me, “oh, you think?!” lolz

    On one hand, I’m actually glad that my mind doesn’t think that way; it allowed me to be so completely surprised at the end, and immediately had me thinking about what would have happened had I made other choices in the game. 🙂

  10. QUESTION 2: Do you think the Heavy Rain-style gameplay could be used to create a survival horror? There are times when the game tries to scare you, but it doesn’t really succeed (maybe because you are confident that, whatever happens, the story will go on with another character).

    Try the first DLC, called The Taxidermist, and you have the answer. SH in maybe its purest form and it definitely works.

  11. I was completely thrown off by who the killer was even though I normally look for that kind of thing in movies.

    I figured it could be four different people three that had been introduced and then figured they might just have some random guy.

    The brilliance of it is that they had some really good subtle clues from the start of the game.

    Probably some of the most intense fight scenes I’ve ever experienced in a game.

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