When I was given the opportunity to check out Mystery at Mansfield Manor, an online interactive murder mystery movie, I couldn’t resist. While I have somewhat limited experience with role-playing games, I’ve long been intrigued by the possibilities for interactive cinema, and Mystery, released online by a Canadian company, S.R. Entertainment, offered an intriguing narrative, a murder mystery involving the ancient patriarch of a massive family-owned oil business, making the game “a combination of Clue and a choose your own adventure,” as the interactive movie’s writer, Rory Scherer describes it. There’s quite a bit to like about Mystery, which is an ambitious, entertaining experience, but after viewing the movie (if that’s the right phrase), I still have questions about what constitutes interactivity and a truly interactive cinema.
The “mystery” of the film is established in a ten-minute introduction, in which we are introduced to Detective Frank Mitchell who is soon to retire from the police force when he gets a call instructing him to investigate the murder of Colin Mansfield, Sr, the elderly oil baron who has invited several guests for dinner to explain alterations to his will. Among the guests, Colin Sr’s alcoholic son (Colin Jr), his leftist daughter, his mistress, his lawyer, a Senator seeking his financial support, Colin Jr’s wife, and 2-3 employees who work in the mansion. Most of the guests seem to have some incentive to murder Colin Sr, and the object of the game is to play detective, sift through the clues, and (of course) solve the case. While the plot clearly recalls classic murder mysteries, the father’s oil profits, the daughter’s environmentalism, and the Senator’s soliciting campaign contributions give Mystery at least some degree of timeliness.
Mystery is worth checking out for a number of reasons. The decision to distribute the film online is itself intriguing. Rather than release the film on CD, Scherer chose to make the film available online at a cost of $4.95 for unlimited viewing for 72 hours. This is one of many possible avenues for self-distribution, of course, and I hope that Mystery can inspire similar relatively low-cost DIY projects. As Scott Colbourne, a Globe and Mail reviewer points out, the production values are quite impressive for what is essentially a micro-budget film. The use lighting and shadows in the mansion evokes classic detective films (of course the film takes place during a storm that cuts off the electricity, allowing the cinematographer to play with candlelight in several shots), and given that most of the action takes place inside the mansion, the film uses space relatively well. Mystery is also a relatively extended viewing experience, keeping me engrossed for the three or so hours it took to solve the mystery and to watch some of the alternative paths I didn’t chose. The game loads relatively quickly and requires nothing more than a Flash Player, making it accessible on most computers or game systems. The game also has a relatively simple and intuitive interface, although like Andrew Ogier, I found the “Evaluation Stage,” where you determine which of the suspects is lying to be somewhat confusing at first, in part because I wasn’t prepared for what was expected of me as a detective.
This is where some of my questions about interactive cinema begin to form. I recognize that by the most basic definition, I am interacting with the film’s narrative. I could choose to interview each of the suspects in any order I chose and could repeat the interviews and made other decisions about the order in which I watched many of the segments. But as I participated in solving the mystery, I still felt like a passive subject who was merely involved in bringing the narrative to a foregone conclusion and not actively creating something new in relationship with the previously recorded material. Perhaps this is a fine point, but as I made my evaluations of the characters, of the misunderstood environmentalist; the spoiled, alcoholic son; the corrupt Senator; and other characters, I couldn’t help but become conscious of my own biases and assumptions and how they might be feeding my interpretation of the film and of my role as a detective. An interactive cinema that is more attentive to why we make these decisions would, I believe, be a useful tool for thining about how we as viewers interpret the world, how we “read” films and other information.
No matter what, Mystery and Mansfield Manor is worth checking out, I hope that it can be used as a reference point for some of the ongoing conversations we’ve been having this summer about movie and videogame criticism.