Detective Di: Review and Analysis
Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is a Kickstarter-backed point-and-click adventure game. After reaching its funding target in March 2015, the game was finally released in May 2019.
Unusually for me, I picked up a copy almost immediately after release. It was on offer on Steam and looked interesting, with the promise of a detective adventure requiring the player to deduce the identity of the killer.
I didn’t get what I was promised, the deduction mechanic obviously being shaved down to almost nothing over the 5-year production cycle. But Detective Di is an otherwise well-polished game, with engaging story and characters, and a few interesting puzzles to while away a couple of long evenings. Overall: 3 out of 5.
Detective Di is set in ancient China and is loosely based on the real-life, Tang-dynasty chancellor, Di Renjie. The setting and its presentation help lift the game, and the story features plenty of political intrigue that keeps things moving towards the sequel-inviting ending.
There are lengthy conversations to be had with almost all of the game’s characters. Almost none of these conversations are relevant to the game, but they are well enough written to enjoyably flesh out the world without overstaying their welcome.
I therefore think it’s more accurate to describe Detective Di as a visual novel than an adventure game. Yes, it features puzzles and an inventory of items that need to be used in the right places. But these are all in service to the plot and are an almost entirely linear affair. There is none of the “bushiness” or player autonomy essential to a great adventure game, as discussed in my recent post on “Puzzle Dependency Charts”.
I have been creating Puzzle Dependency Charts for games over the past 6 months or so in order to practice the craft. The charts for Detective Di reveal its weakness as an adventure game, but also show how it could be improved. Below are the charts for the Prologue and Chapter 1 to explain.
The Prologue chapter to Detective Di is by far the best designed section of the game. It is very nicely put together to limit the player’s options while introducing the interface and some of the game mechanics. Once that is achieved, the game opens up, presenting lots of new locations, characters and three non-linear puzzles.
It’s a real shame the rest of Detective Di wasn’t as carefully structured as the prologue. The game would then have easily matched its description as an investigative adventure game. But the signs of the problems to come are present even here: painfully obvious bottlenecks to serve plot development.
The colour coding in my Puzzle Dependency Chart highlights the different ways the player solves puzzles in Detective Di. Yellow nodes are the default that don’t fit into any of the below categories.
Purple represents inventory items, whether picking it up or analysing it from inside your inventory.
Light blue represents conversations and interrogations. There is no skill in these. You click through all the conversation options before you are given the option to exit the conversation. Later developments will open up new conversation options, so you have to go back to talk to the character again, and these new options are clearly highlighted.
Rose represents information, such as autopsying the murder victim’s body or the environment, or receiving a lead from a conversation. Again, autopsys require no skill and you just click through the options to reach the end.
Pale green are logic puzzles. Each chapter of Detective Di has one or two locks where the player has to solve a logic puzzle or riddle. In the prologue, for example, after picking up three keys you have to rotate them to their correct positions to unlock a chest. These are the most challenging and interesting parts of the game.
Finally there are the orange Deduction Board entries. These are the promised “unique selling point” of the game but, once again, there is no skill to them. They are merely checkmarks that appear as you complete certain conversations or pick up certain items. They add a nice visual touch to the game and help remind you of the plot, but are ultimately nothing but window dressing.
Returning to the issue of enforced bottlenecks, the first appears when you investigate the murder scene. The game stops you from leaving the area until you have fully explored every option. This is excellent design for a tutorial, letting the player know that they’ve missed something while they’re coming to grips with the game. Unfortunately, Detective Di forces these cages on the player throughout the game. This really limits the options for explortation, self discovery and “a-ha” moments as you realise you missed something further back.
The second bottleneck in the prologue is telegraphed the moment you leave the murder scene. The first character you encounter says they do not trust you. To gain their trust, you must fill out three more entries on the deduction board. There is no particular reason for this, and the game doesn’t spell out what you’re trying to achieve so you must keep on going back to this character to see if you’ve gained his trust yet. When you do, you’re given a vital piece of information which opens up a more linear progression of puzzles to the end.
The space between these two bottlenecks is the best Detective Di has to offer. What’s good about it? First, you are given a couple of clear “locks”. A log with an object stuck inside it and a rag with some unidentified chemical on it. You immediately have some idea of the challenges before you.
You also have lots of characters to talk to. Most of the conversations are dead ends at this stage, but they nicely set the scene as you learn what each of them was doing at the time of the murder. Some conversations reveal important leads to further your investigation.
Best of all, you are able to trace three almost entirely independent threads in the investigation. Parallel sets of puzzles to solve simultaneously in order to get the three checkmarks in your deduction board. A classic adventure game structure.
The Prologue serves its job nearly perfectly to introduce the game, to provide a good set of non-linear puzzles to entertain, and to set the scene for the chapters to come. What went wrong?
After a short dream sequence with an entertaining logic puzzle, Chapter 1 quickly forces you down a single path: you can’t leave your room until you’ve written in your journal (to fill you in on recent events), and you can’t go anywhere else until you’ve spoken with the Empress (to learn of your first real case).
Then, you’re not allowed to go to the murder scene until you’ve spoken with the suspect and the coroner. At the murder scene itself, things improve with a classic three-way split in the investigation, but each path is very short and they all collapse down to a bottleneck very quickly.
This is the first of several painful bottlenecks in this chapter. Once you’ve filled three spots in your deduction board, a witness appears out of nowhere for you to interrogate. With that done, you have to talk to two of your colleagues, neither of whom are of any help, but completing the conversations initiates the arrival of a bird that points you towards a hidden wall.
This final bottleneck involves obtaining a chisel to combine with a hammer you picked up at the beginning of the chapter. The chisel has also been lying in plain view for some time, but the coroner wouldn’t let you take it. Once you have a use for it he suddenly changes his mind and you’re fully armed to knock down the wall.
This is disappointing because, with work, it could have been so much better. The hammer is just lying there to be picked up. There could have been a problem reaching it. Or it could have been broken. The game has plenty of locations and characters so that an independent thread of puzzles to get the hammer could have been added. The same goes for the chisel. There’s no puzzle here, it’s just that you can only pick it up after you need it.
The worst offenders are the deus ex machina arrivals of the witness and the bird that point you to the next clue only after you’ve solved the previous one. How much more satisfying might it have been for these to be separate threads running in parallel? Worse, there’s no reason why they aren’t.
In the game, you knock down the wall to access a hidden stash of blackmail items. You need one of these to get the witness on your side. In the linear progression of the game, the stash can’t be found until after you’ve spoken to the witness. A better design would have allowed you to find the stash, revealing the corruption of your predecessor, in parallel with speaking to the witness. The witness reveals that he wants a specific medal from the stash so there’s no need for these puzzles to be presented in a linear order. There could even be a logic puzzle to find the medal among the rest of the items once you know what you’re looking for.
It’s missed opportunities like this which plague the remaining chapters and prevent Detective Di from being a really good adventure. As it is, it’s finely produced with decent story and characters, but ultimately unexceptional.