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Murder Mystery Games:

A Long Way from the Victorian Parlour

Reprinted from the Summer 2015 issue of Prose ‘n Cons™ Mystery Magazine

In 1935, Parker Brothers released the first boxed murder mystery game. It was called The Jury Box and the game cover warned that the players - i.e. jurors - should consider the evidence carefully because “a human life is in your hands.” While an entertaining diversion created by NYPD criminologist Roy Post, this wasn’t really a new concept. Victorians had already been playing mystery-oriented parlour games for decades.

  A singularly bizarre forerunner of modern mystery games, arising from the phenomenal popularity of then-new Sherlock Holmes, was called “Are You There, Moriarty?” It would most likely result in a lawsuit in the modern world. The sum total of the play was this: two men lay on the floor, face down, head to head. One asked the other, “Are you there, Moriarty?” A verbal response was required - which helped the questioner locate, and land blind blows, to his opponent’s head.

  Needless to say, murder mystery games and parties have come a long way since the punch-happy Victorians. Today’s offerings blend professional theatre, amateur actors, social gatherings and a good pinch of internet technology.

  Like any other plotted tale, a murder mystery game begins with a writer. Elspeth Futcher has been writing and performing in these productions for twenty years. She wrote her first script for an American-based game company in 2005. Six years later, she was their best-selling author. The best part about writing mystery games, she says, “is creating a plot which, although tricky, is solvable if everyone pays attention.” Futcher begins with the victim and then asks herself, “Why did he/she die?” Everything follows from there.

  Scripts are as diverse as the customers who purchase them. Some themes and time periods, though, are perennial favorites. The 1920s appeal to the “golden age of mysteries” nostalgic and is a stalwart. 1930s-set games attract classic, Agatha Christie “country house murder mystery” lovers. TV tie-ins (currently Downton Abbey, for instance) are reliable hits, as are disco-era scripts.

  While they may seem similar, the plotting of a murder mystery game or party script is quite different from that of a novel. Explains J.R. Violini, owner of The Mystery Factory, “One of the key differences between [mystery] events and contemporary novels and movie scripts is that the latter tend to be more character-driven than fair play oriented.” Violini believes the concept of “fair play” is critical to a game’s enjoyability. It ensures that readers or audiences have all the clues they need to solve the case. There are no last minute revelations or surprises that make detection by players impossible.

  Another major difference is the way in which murder and death are portrayed. Books and movies are often quite realistic. Mystery entertainment, by its very nature, avoids this approach. “It is for fun, after all,” says Violini.

  Jo Smedley, owner of the U.K.-based Red Herring Games, echos Violini’s sentiments. “Obviously, if you are asking someone to role play, then you need to create characters they are happy becoming.” But it’s not just physical violence or sexual aggression that are eschewed. “I also reject murder plots that are implausible,” Smedley says. She remembers a particularly protracted conversation with an author who proposed a plot hinging on death by snake bite. Smedley balked at the idea. “How come the snake only bit that one person?” she asked the writer. “How could the murderer be sure it would only attack a specific individual?” In the end, the idea was rejected.

  The busy season for mystery entertainment providers runs from Halloween to New Year’s Eve. Much of this business comes from corporate events. Summers can be brisk, too, says Violini, especially for venue-driven locations like river cruises or tea houses.

  At-home hosts hold parties year-round. Most purchase dinner games as downloadable, printable kits. About one-third of Smedley’s customers opt for play-ready, pre-printed kits. Not only does this make for a no-hassle experience, there is no risk of the host stumbling upon the murderer’s identity by accident. Because you never know when a guest is unable to attend, props rather than characters often provide the clues for murder mystery dinner party players.

  “One-offs” - scripts created and customized for one client - are another source of revenue for mystery entertainment producers. Because these aren’t made available for public consumption, storylines are sometimes a bit racier than the standard fare. Says Smedley, “I’ve written one involving girls who fire ping pong balls from you can guess where.” Other interesting requests have involved sex toys (for a hen party) and key swapping.

  Like all things, says Violini, the demand for mystery entertainment ebbs and flows. “I am one of the longest-running mystery producers I know. Many of those that were operating when I began have disappeared or evolved into something else.”

  Interestingly, none of these three women - Futcher, Violini or Smedley - ever envisioned themselves making a living from the creation of murder mystery parties and games.

  “I had no idea I’d end up running the biggest international retailer of murder mystery games,” Smedley admits. “It all came about quite by accident and is as much a shock to me as anyone else.”

  Violini says she, too, stumbled into the field when she met a man who produced themed corporate entertainment. “The themed entertainment he created was fantastic, but the murder mystery events really sucked. I thought, ‘I can do better,’ and eventually, I did.”

  The best part of running their own business, Smedley and Violini agree, is calling the shots - sometimes quite literally. During one Mystery Factory event, an actress got a bit carried away with her role. Says Violini, “I had to pull out a gun and shoot her down. Interactive entertainment is built on improv. Sometimes you just have to fly with it.” PnC

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Image Courtesy of The Mystery Factory