Paradise Killer and Nonlinear/Choice-Based Storytelling

I’ve spoken extensively about detective games on this blog, even going as far as to say Return of the Obra Dinn is the best detective game I’ve played. Since then, the idea of a hands-off approach to the genre has been expanded in games like Outer Wilds and Telling Lies. These games thrive when they trust the player enough to figure things out on their own, rather than the player being along for the ride. The fact that these highlights are also experimenting with nonlinear structures further expands the player freedom that fans of the genre are looking for.

Paradise Killer fits snuggly into those recent releases. The games give clear goals and are designed to get out of the player’s way, which allow their unique structures to work. However, Paradise Killer takes a step towards what I’d consider the next evolution in nonlinear and choice-based narratives by removing the fail state. The game stumbles a bit when it comes to the minute-to-minute exploration, but uncovering secrets at my own pace and letting the story play out how I believe it should shows a promising future for game narratives.

The premise of Paradise Killer is fairly simple, but the world you’re dropped into is anything but. The player controls Lady Love Dies, an immortal investigator sentenced to eternal exile away from Paradise Island. On the eve of the inhabitants moving on to the 25th attempt at creating the perfect island, the highest Council is murdered and Lady Love Dies is brought out to solve the mystery. The lore of this alternate reality is fascinating if you can get over its outlandishness, with alien gods and Egyptian-brutalist-vaporwave architecture. The suspects of the crime are all members of the immortal Syndicate who help run the island, each with their own jobs and over-the-top backstories.

In order to understand why a choice-based detective game works, it’s important to look at the problems with choice-based narratives and detective games separately. If you want a recap on why it’s hard to make a detective game, you should definitely either read my piece I linked above or watch this great Mark Brown video about it. A perfect example of the genre’s shortcomings can be seen in Danganronpa. The series is a heavy inspiration for Paradise Killer with its zany murder mysteries, colorful cast, and first-person world exploration. However, if your deductions at any point in the game are wrong, it will make sure you know and force a restart until you get it right. It’s a moment that takes you out of the experience because it reminds you that you’re only as smart as the game lets you feel. All evidence you find is important because the game won’t progress until you find everything.

The Danganronpa games force players to restart the trial if they make too many incorrect guesses.

There isn’t anything wrong with this method of storytelling (Danganronpa 2 is one of my favorite games ever, as evidence of that.) However, being a detective relies on accurately assessing all of the information available and reaching conclusions based on what makes sense. Most games like Danganronpa shoot themselves in the foot; they’re so focused on telling the story’s twists and turns that they lose out on the fantasy that players are looking to fulfill. That’s why recent trends are so refreshing; they trust the player enough to reach the right answers on their own. These games still tell the linear stories their developers want you to experience, but they are told in a non-linear way. It’s important to note that the developers of these games are attempting to give two different types of experiences, and so one isn’t necessarily “better” than the other.

As for choice-based narratives, the structure most players might be familiar with is the one used by Telltale Games in games like The Walking Dead and Minecraft: Story Mode. Players are given choices in action and dialogue that change the events and relationships of the cast moving forward. However, many players feel these games allow you to choose your path through the story rather than really affecting the story itself. Most of the major beats like character deaths are going to happen no matter what; your choices just personalize the experience.

Diagram of the approach most choice-based games take, taken from’s review of Erica (PS4).

Again, there isn’t anything wrong with this formula, but it’s understandable for a player to be disappointed with this lack of freedom when it seems like their actions will have actual consequences. Until Dawn‘s idea of adapting around my specific fears excited me when I started it, but I was let down when I learned that these changes were inconsequential and rare (though having any combination of characters live or die is very similar to Paradise Killer). Just like with those detective games, the beginning and end are set in stone and only the events in the middle are what can change. From a developer perspective, though, it’d be an incredibly difficult task to make a story with enough choice to satisfy players. They would need a lot of decisions so it feels personal, but the narrative would have to remain coherent and couldn’t become so far branching that it’s impossible to maintain.

Paradise Killer finds a genius middle-ground that allows nonlinearity in its gameplay, but consequential player choice in its narrative. In terms of the gameplay, the player can spend their time following any leads that interest them. They can find as much evidence as they want in whatever order they want, and they can start the trial that ends the game at any time. This removes the barrier of detective games telling you what’s important and what isn’t because the player has to stumble upon information in order to gain more.

However, players actually have a surprising amount of choice throughout the story. Conversations with characters often give two dialogue options that can drastically change your relationship with that character and what information they’ll give you. Acting subservient to someone who thinks they’re better than you might get you a new lead, while fighting back might make them your enemy but lead to growing respect in someone else. Information can be completely missed or much harder to find if you make the wrong call.

This all culminates into what I consider Paradise Killer‘s greatest strength: it never tells you the “correct” ending. The player can start the trial anytime they choose, whether it’s immediately upon hearing the Grand Marshall’s report or 15-20 hours after exploring every inch of the island. Each crime the player has come across will be presented, and they will have to choose who they will convict. The key is that any character with enough evidence against them can be convicted and the game will never tell the player that they’re wrong. The full details of the crimes are there for persistent players to discover, but they’ll have to find and analyze all of the evidence on their own.

This system where the game rolls with whoever you convict is incredibly simple from a developer side, but has a massive effect on the player experience. At first glance it may come across as just choosing your ending to the game. However, the game’s nonlinearity up until this point has allowed the player to feel confident in their abilities to parse the real truth. Paradise Killer challenges conventions by simply asking, “why doesn’t the player get full reign over the events of the game?” There was a lot of trust put into the player to understand what happened. If the game told them that they were wrong, all of that trust would be betrayed for shock value. When we watch a movie like Knives Out, we await the unpredictable twist that has been cleverly set for the viewer. However, I believe the interactivity of games allows the perfect opportunity to give people a more direct role in stories, and very few do it as well as this game.

Structurally, Paradise Killer stands out by finding that balance between two difficult methodologies. However, this strategy would not succeed without a number of small details and mechanics that the game employs. The first is the open design of the island itself. Once the player arrives, almost every area from the ziggurat up high to the housing district below is available to them. Similar to Outer Wilds, the player’s curiosity drives them to follow the clues they’re most currently interested in, which keeps them more engaged than if they were told to follow a waypoint. There’s something to be found in every corner of the island, whether it’s a piece of evidence or just a collectible relic, so the player feels rewarded for going out of their way. The world is absolutely bloated with these relics (almost to a fault), but they give a bit of insight into the lore and life of the island’s inhabitants.

Like I said, the island is almost fully open to exploration from the get-go. Gating progress is used in narrative games in order to avoid revealing secrets too early. This is especially frustrating in nonlinear games because it usually segments the game into distinct chunks, making things feel less cohesive. A good example of this is Zero Time Dilemma, the final entry in a fantastic trilogy of nonlinear games. The game has players control one of three groups of characters at a time, with each group affecting the stories of the others. While as a plot device it works well, it still feels like three separate stories loosely tied together. Luckily, the gating in Paradise Killer is so minimal that it actually works in its favor. Being able to rush over to one of the very few rooms I can finally unlock feels very similar to Metroidvanias, but more satisfying because you know that some important information is behind it instead of just another area of the game to play. It’s an easy form of tangible progress for the player, while being rare enough that it still feels like a part of the single experience.

Starlight gives short nudges about what you can investigate more of.

Thankfully, the player doesn’t need to compile all of that progress on their own. Similar to the log in Outer Wilds, Lady Love Dies is equipped with the Starlight computer that automatically stores all of the important information about evidence and suspects. It never outright gives the player any answers, but it does help those who can’t focus by pointing them to something that can help them pull on that thread. Instead of guiding the player, it does the dirty work of knowing what’s important so that the player has more time to think about the data.

The game also cleverly paces information out. It’d be easy to just let the player run loose to find a boatload of information to parse through. Instead, it naturally builds over time because of how you use certain evidence to discover new evidence. You can only ask characters questions about things you currently know, which creates a flow state of finding evidence, asking characters about it, and using the information they give to find more evidence. You can also find information from multiple sources, which allows players to reach many conclusions even if they might’ve missed something. This results in the player finding information and chasing down a lead, bouncing between characters to try and find the truth.

The game does try its hardest to make you explore on your own, though, and that’s actually where a lot of the issues come in the game. As someone who loves the jankiness of Shadow of the Colossus and enjoyed the monotonous walking of Death Stranding, these issues weren’t detrimental to my experience, but I do think others might be bothered by them. Players explore the island with very rudimentary first-person platforming controls. While serviceable, these simple actions highlight the slowness and lack of precision when trying to navigate a world as vertical as Paradise Island in first person. You can spend Blood Crystals (the game’s currency) at a few locations to unlock some additions to your arsenal that make things much easier and faster, but I can see a lot of people being frustrated nonetheless.

In an attempt to solve this clunkiness, players can fast travel from the many save phones scattered around the island. Unfortunately, adding this poses a design issue for the developers. They’ve now just introduced a system that directly contradicts the idea of checking every nook and cranny as you walk between destinations. To solve this, players have to spend a Blood Crystal not only to unlock fast travel from a phone, but each time they use it. Having so few crystals early on got me exploring and helped me understand the layout of the island much better, but I became frustrated later in the game when I simply didn’t have anything left to explore for and I just wanted to get to my next destination. Implementing an upgrade to make fast travel free late-game would solve this.

In a similar manner, the map of the island poses very little help when the player needs it most. The map is a very simple pixel art representation of the island’s major locations, rather than a detailed look at the layout. More detail might have given away some of the island’s secrets, but I still think there needed to be a better system in place. Looking at the map gives no indication of all of the winding pathways between areas or cardinal directions. This makes early traversal kind of cumbersome as you just have to hope that the path you’re following will lead you in the right direction. I distinctly remember feeling a bit overwhelmed by just how open the world was with no way of knowing how to get to the suggested first locations. I eventually figured it all out, but a game with so much faith in the player has to know when it can show its hand a bit.

As a last nitpick, I thought it was worth mentioning that the trial as a whole feels less involved than I would have hoped. Games like Danganronpa and Ace Attorney make the courtroom an exciting and active event where you can finally prove your logic and put the case to rest. Here, the player simply chooses who to convict and what evidence to submit, and then things essentially play themselves out. There’s no red herring evidence to make you consider if your case is strong enough; you just have to have enough evidence. As the climactic end to the game, it would’ve made me feel even smarter if I had to piece things together myself in the game since I already had to do that in my head. But as a game about investigating, it’s all about the journey, isn’t it?

So what lessons can Paradise Killer teach us? Games like Minecraft and Fortnite prove that players can find their own fun without the developer telling them exactly what to do. This can be taken a step further by allowing players to put the plot puzzle together themselves. Players are inherently curious where a plot will go, and giving them control in ways that feel both personal and consequential mean they can connect with it even further. They’ll take their own perspectives and experiences and draw their own conclusions. It doesn’t matter who the Paradise Killer actually was; I know who did it and I’m fine with that.

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