One of the most important decisions a visual novel developer will make is how any choices that can be made by the audience will affect the overall game. Interactivity is one of the core draws of a visual novel, after all. Even going the kinetic route means that it becomes incredibly vital to have a compelling narrative that keeps the audience invested for hours at end on a device where they can literally do anything else other than play your VN. Ironically enough, as much as I harp on narrative details, character development and ambitious presentation, if a choice system is included in a VN and it’s bad, that is usually the gateway towards a negative experience. So, how one decides on how we the audience interacts with their work can very well make or break a visual novel.
Ghosts of Miami is a game that will live and die by its ability to properly integrate audience activity with the story they want to tell. On the surface, it’s a detective story set in 1980s Miami. Fueled by rapid immigration, an expanding, drug-fueled criminal underworld and good old-fashioned excess, people tend to disappear. Digging through this dark backdrop for lost souls is an enticing idea and brings to mind some of the better crime fiction writers who hit a solid stride in that era such as A.J. Quinnell and Elmore Leonard: that last one should be familiar to anyone who’s seen the excellent television series Justified. But there’s a caveat to that, because of course there is a caveat to it.
Bottom line? I don’t think the development team is interested in telling a detective story.
Let’s take a step back and talk about the layout of this one. You play as Consuela ‘Chelo’ Martinez: a wannabe detective with a lot of intellect and little else. However, after the disappearance of her father, she’s inspired to get involved with missing people and get them back home to their families. Her first case deals with her landlady’s daughter. You’re tasked with picking up her trace at four separate locations and it is intriguing. However, this mystery has to compete with another story the developers want to tell that is directly tied to your choices.
You see, as you investigate the disappearance, you also interact with potential love interests for Chelo. While this may not be the case, in all the paths I played I had no option on how Chelo reacted to their flirting: subtle or otherwise. The only choices I had dealt with where Chelo got her information and how she questioned certain witnesses.Unfortunately, all we have to go on for now is the demo and what happens in the demo if Chelo was in the room with someone who liked her, the focus immediately turned to their flirting.
Where you take Chelo seems to play a large roll in her romantic liaisons. It’ll be up to the audience to decide who has the correct information to move the investigation forward and who just wants to get hot and sweaty with our protagonist. This means, just by the sheer structure of the game, the narrative weight is going to be behind the romance and not the mystery. We see that in the demo, where only two locations had usable information in the investigation, but three featured a romantic interest for Chelo.
Another factor in my hypothesis is the nature of Chelo’s love interests. There are five in all that Chelo can get to closer that cover the spread on gender, ages and sexualities. The draw of this relationships beyond there progressive foundations is that they all have an element that could get Chelo into trouble. This could include dating a definite crime lord, or the daughter of a member of the Escobar Cartel who probably wouldn’t approve of his daughter being in a homosexual relationship, to dating a high-school student. Beyond my own jokes, there is obviously a strong attempt to draw the audience into experimenting (for lack of better terms) with the different relationships just to see what can happen on that end. And, I can’t say in good conscience that it will not be an effective way to tell a romance story.
The problem is that it’s not just a romance story, remember?
With all of this attention to how horny everyone in this game seems to be, there is not a lot of room to flesh out any aspect of the mystery half of the game. Maybe, just maybe, things will be balanced out in the game proper. However, that would mean pulling back one what is proving to be the game’s largest draw: the diverse, romantic options. The danger here is that the mystery element is watered down to the point of irrelevance to ensure the romantic element is as good as it. I’m sure it will not bug the game’s fans too much at the moment, but considering the first case deals with a running teenager turned drug addict, that being used as a stepping stone to getting laid could backfire in horrifying ways.
At the moment though, that’s not definite. Things could swing either way as nothing in the demo was an outright deal breaker. Ghosts of Miami is definitely riding a thin line moving forward, though. The development team has to make sure that the mystery is substantial enough to maintain the audience’s attention. If they’re not, then why are they here in the first place? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but considering this situation I’d much rather deal with Chelo running around in a romance game on its own and just brace myself for the neon pap than have to deal with the fallout of a bad mystery attached to it.
The simple truth here is that we’ll have to wait and see. If the development team is wise, they’ll sit down with their plot outlines and make sure it’s as tight and as developed as possible. And a lot of consideration will have to go into whether or not the mystery end is necessary or if maybe more was bitten off than they could chew. If they continue on this path, then that means the audience’s interactions will be the last standing judge on this title, so it needs to be pointing due north and not leaning in favor of one story element over another. After all, if you’re going to make the player decide between saving a life or getting some tail, the choice should at least be somewhat fair.
If you’d like to play the Ghosts of Miami demo yourself, you can check out the official webpage here. JP3: OUT.