The Portopia Serial Murder Case

The Portopia Serial Murder Case

The release of Colossal Cave Adventure in 1976 cemented the concept of the text adventure game. Themselves inspired by the works spawned in the wake of Colossal Cave Adventure, a writer named Roberta Williams, along with her husband, Ken Williams, created a game in 1980 entitled Mystery House. Taking cues from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and the Winchester Mystery House situated in San Jose, California, Ms. Williams’s work broke ground by featuring visual graphics in a time when most computer games did not. Slowly yet surely, the solely text-based titles made way for the graphical adventure game, although the Williams couldn’t possibly have known the influence of Mystery House would extend across the Pacific Ocean.

One year later in Japan, 27-year-old Yuji Horii read a PC magazine article detailing the rise of these adventure games. He was intrigued by their concept, but couldn’t help but wonder why the market of his native homeland lacked such games. Realizing the potential in this genre, he sought to introduce it to his peers by creating an adventure game of his own. Using his knowledge of the BASIC programming language, Mr. Horii began his project.

He started off wanting to create “a program in which the story would develop through entering a command and by receiving an answer to it”. It would be a game that progressed through a conversation between a human and a computer. He attempted to craft an artificial intelligence language algorithm, but realized it simply wasn’t possible with the technology afforded to him at the time. Instead, to make his game stand out from his inspirations, he experimented in non-linear storytelling wherein the main scenario composed 20% of the experience and the remaining 80% was to be allotted to responses to the player’s actions. Memory limitations made this extraordinarily difficult, causing him to scale back to several scenarios with short branches, though he still found it more interesting than programming one long linear path.

This game, entitled The Portopia Serial Murder Case was completed in 1983 and saw its debut on NEC’s PC-6001 home computer. It was eventually ported to other platforms, including Konami’s MSX computer and Nintendo’s Famicom console. It was notably the first adventure title to see a release on the latter platform, and its unique gameplay quickly caught on with the consumers, selling 700,000 copies. Critics were receptive to Mr. Horii’s work as well, enjoying its good storytelling and dynamic gameplay. The game notably resonated with future artists as well. Hideo Kojima, who would make his own impact on the industry a few years later with the stealth-action title Metal Gear, considered it one of the three most influential games he ever played. It was also one of the first games a man named Eiji Aonuma ever played; he would later go on to direct many installments in Nintendo’s venerable The Legend of Zelda series. Although its lack of a Western release ensured it remained unknown outside of its native homeland, its influence cannot be overstated. How was a single game able to leave this much of an impact on the medium?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers.

A gruesome incident has occurred in the city of Kobe. The dead body of Kouzou Yamakawa, the president of a successful bank, was discovered by his secretary Fumie Sawaki. As the room was locked from the inside, some initially believe that he committed suicide, but the police, suspecting foul play, send a detective to investigate further. The detective in charge of getting to the bottom of this case? You – the very person playing the game.

Portopia - Beginning

To help discover the truth, your chief has assigned you a subordinate – one Yasuhiko Mano, or Yasu for short. Through this development, The Portopia Serial Murder Case stands out from the Western adventure games from which Mr. Horii drew inspiration. Games such as Mystery House and Colossal Cave Adventure used a second-person narration to tell their stories. It was extraordinarily rare for non-interactive fiction to be told from a second-person perspective due to the inherent presumptuousness associated with telling the audience they’re directly experiencing these fantastical situations as opposed to using a proxy. However, with the advent of interactive fiction, this storytelling style became much more tenable, as the player is indeed a part of the narrative – whether their role is directly acknowledged or not.

The inspiration Mr. Horii took from the likes of pioneers such as Roberta Williams is evident the exact moment you begin playing, but before you even get a chance to type a command, you’ll find he managed to put an interesting spin on the template. In games such as Mystery House, you type commands into a text parser whereupon, assuming you entered something it will understand, the narrator describes you carrying out the action.

Portopia - Dead Body (Original)

Yasu: We are at the crime scene. Boss? >

With the presence of Yasu, however, the interface has an interesting narrative implication. You are Yasu’s boss, and you are to issue commands for him in order to see the case through. When you do, he will execute them to the best of his ability. Using this basic setup, Mr. Horii made the interface of his game far more diegetic than in contemporary examples.

Now, the exact manner by which you issue commands to Yasu depends on the version you’re playing. The original version released on the NEC PC-6001 used a text parser that was standard for the time. However, by Mr. Horii’s later admission, he was never able to get very far in most adventure games that used text parsers. Anyone versed in adventure games can name countless instances in which they were unable to advance because they didn’t know the exact words the parser would understand. In extreme examples, the programmers would only think of a single valid way to phrase an important command.

Portopia - Menu

Therefore, when he created his second adventure game a year later, he created a command menu, which was repurposed and subsequently implanted in the Famicom port of The Portopia Serial Murder Case. This command list includes the most common words you would input into the text parser such as “Examine”, “Ask”, and “Investigate”. It is slightly cumbersome because you have to select the appropriate command every time as opposed to typing it out, but it is a friendlier interface overall. Indeed, even if the simplified menu arguably takes some of the challenge out of the game, you cannot save your progress. Therefore, being able to get back where you last left off with a specific set of menu choices makes the ordeal much easier.

Although the inability to save sounds like it would be an instant deal-breaker, it should be noted that The Portopia Serial Murder Case was miles ahead of its contemporaries in one significant way. When adventure games weren’t killing your character off at the drop of a hat, they frequently placed the players themselves in a brand of purgatory unique to the genre known in enthusiasts’ circles as a “Dead Man Walking” scenario. Simply put, certain actions could render the game unwinnable if the player utilized a resource improperly or otherwise failed to act in a certain situation. However, these games would rarely, if ever, tell you if you indeed rendered your playthrough unwinnable, allowing you to wander the world forever in search of solutions that don’t exist. Infocom’s adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which would see its release the year after The Portopia Serial Murder case debuted, stood out as an especially infamous example, as you could render the game unwinnable in the first minute of your playthrough.

Thankfully, even if you can’t save, you can take solace in the fact that, no matter what boneheaded action you decide to have Yasu carry out, the titular murder case can always be solved, and it is impossible to die. You can even try to close the case prematurely, but it won’t result in an alternate ending. Instead, your own boss will yell at you for your faulty conclusions and demand the case be reopened immediately. It’s a little ironic how Mr. Horii took inspiration from early Sierra titles because his own design philosophy predicted that of rival developer LucasArts. Adventure games are at their worst whenever they punish players for exploring, so removing that issue entirely allowed The Portopia Serial Murder Case to outshine its competition in 1983.

However, while The Portopia Serial Murder Case does manage to rise above its contemporaries, it is, regrettably a product of its time in other respects. The single most debilitating aspect of this game, particularly from a modern standpoint, is just how obtuse it is. Anyone playing this game without a walkthrough is almost certainly doomed to wander aimlessly in search of the one thing that will advance the plot.

Portopia - Questioning in streets

This is primarily because a significant problem with the game lies in its presentation. To be fair, the presentation is decent for its time, being as much of a passable recreation of these real-life locales as the technological constraints would permit. The problem is that these screens fail to convey sufficient information to the player. For example, as soon as you begin the game, you need to question the locals to get your first lead. The screen does not show a crowd of people walking around, so you would be forgiven for believing the streets are empty. This is something you must actively remind yourself of whenever you enter a new area, as these locals often have vital information.

Portopia - Ring

While it was typical for adventure games to encourage players to brute-force puzzle solutions, The Portopia Serial Murder Case goes a step further by hiding important items in very obscure areas. The most notable example takes the form of a ring dropped by a person of interest. It is near the entrance to Yamakawa Mansion, and to find it, you have to select the magnifying glass and examine the bottom of the front door. Nothing in the game suggests this ring even exists, and the area you need to search is not highlighted in any way. This problem runs throughout the game when you need to examine two other unremarkable spots for important pieces of evidence in the mansion. You then later present them to an important witness so you can get a lead. It’s unfortunate that the game lacks a generic “LOOK” command, as it would turn up details such as these.

Even outside of that, you occasionally must resort to rather questionable means to get the information you need. When you interrogate certain witnesses, you need Yasu to physically strike them to get them to talk. Considering the increased awareness of police brutality in the years since 1983, this facet has not aged well. A modern player would therefore be unlikely to come up with this solution on their own.

Regardless of its shortcomings, the main attraction to The Portopia Serial Murder Case would be its storytelling. It is, unavoidably, indicative of its era, being very laconic with its prose and characters. Back in 1983, you ran a legitimate risk of running out of memory on your storage medium of choice if you cluttered the game with too much dialogue. The original release of this game provides an example of the kinds of limitations Japanese developers in particular had to deal with. The text was rendered in a combination of hiragana and katakana. This was done for two reasons: the low resolution makes kanji nigh-impossible to read and developers simply couldn’t program the nearly two-thousand commonuse characters in the Japanese dictionary. Many Western developers would get around this by printing a novel enclosed in the box and ask players to refer to a specific passage in the game proper.

Portopia - Autopsy

How Mr. Horii himself got around these limitations is, in a lot of ways, a triumph in minimalism. It was the standard at the time that a story in a computer game would unfold in sparse sentences. However, it turns out this style of storytelling perfectly suits an interactive murder mystery. Any exposition given cuts straight to the point, and it puts the onus on you to fill in any narrative gaps they may encounter. In other words, it makes you think like a detective. After all, this is standard operating procedure of any good detective in real life – collecting evidence, questioning witnesses, and examining the crime scene are all in the service of crafting a complete narrative with which to determine to determine the guilty party.

The result is that, despite its sparse dialogue, The Portopia Serial Murder Case manages to provide a surprisingly dynamic experience. This is evident in the sheer number of red herrings the game throws at you. Early on, you’re given a fairly obvious lead in the form of the victim’s next of kin. While Kouzou was unmarried and without children, he did have a nephew by the name of Toshiyuki – Toshi for short. Toshi is unemployed and was always asking Kouzou for money. The obvious conclusion is that he cut out the middleman by murdering Kouzou for the inheritance money.

Portopia - Toshi

However, when you interrogate him after searching his apartment, you learn he is just a small-time drug dealer with no connection to the case at all.

Undeterred, the player might then assume that a man named Hirata, a greengrocer who had disappeared shortly after the murder was committed, is the culprit. He has a clear motivation for committing the crime, being in severe debt to Kouzou’s company brought on by the competition of the local supermarket chain.

Portopia - Suicide

This line of reasoning then comes to a complete stop when you find Hirata’s corpse hanging from a tree in Kyoto. While Yasu speculates that he killed Kouzou and then committed suicide, you can disprove his theory by having an autopsy performed. The report definitely proves that Hirata had committed suicide one day before Kouzou died, thus posthumously exonerating him for the crime.

Portopia - Okoi

As you investigate further into Kouzou’s background, you learn that he was a decidedly unscrupulous person – particularly in his business tactics. Before he became president of his successful enterprise, Kouzou was a conman who had ruined countless people’s finances in his exploits. His partner was a man named Kawamura, although the two eventually parted ways, culminating in a heated argument in a hostess bar.

When you eventually reach Kawamura’s apartment, you find that he has been stabbed. Yasu concludes that Kawamura killed Kouzou and then himself in order to avoid being prosecuted. However, if you attempt to close the case, your boss will point out that, as a man with six prior convictions on his record, Kawamura would be unlikely to end his own life over the prospect of a seventh.

These instances reinforce the idea that the human mind can trick itself attempting to make sense out of a heinous crime. You want to come down to these sensible conclusions because the larger details seem to fit perfectly, but closer examination reveals that the smaller aspects directly contradict each other. But, therein lies the catch-22 of detective work – it’s a profession that forces one to fill in these gaps for the purpose of serving justice when the process can easily lead one astray. After all, a narrative isn’t true just because it makes sense.

Portopia - Maze

The most significant development occurs when you discover a hidden maze underneath Yamakawa Mansion. Mr. Horii happened to be playing another Western computer game by the name of Wizardry as he created The Portopia Serial Murder Case, and it absolutely shows in the Famicom version. Exploring the maze in this version is exactly like crawling through dungeons in Wizardry, as you are put in a pseudo first-person perspective in which you press forward on the cross pad to advance and left and right to turn ninety degrees in that direction. The main difference is that, being a realistic setting, you don’t have to worry about Kouzou’s maze housing a dragon or even a particularly vicious dog. Even so, it adds another layer of depth to the experience, and is impressive in an age when artists seldom changed up the gameplay.

The maze represents another potential run-ruining scenario in that you eventually have to walk into a wall repeatedly to find a hidden room. If you find it, however, you will obtain a very interesting piece of evidence: a diary Kouzou kept hidden in his basement.

Portopia - Fumie's Backstory

During his partnership with Kawamura, he conned the owner of a company called Sawaki Industries. However, he was wracked with considerable guilt when he discovered that the owner and his wife committed suicide, leaving behind two children: Fumie and an older brother who had been taken in by relatives.

Portopia - Diary 1

Knowing that Fumie was Sawaki’s daughter, he hired her as his secretary, even intending to leave some of his money to her.

Portopia - Diary 2

Portopia - Diary 3

As you question the locals in the city of Sumoto on Awaji Island, you learn Fumie’s older brother is identifiable by a birthmark on his shoulder that resembles a butterfly. Once you make Yasu read Kouzou’s diary, you have all the proof you need to definitively identify the culprit. All you need to do is deliver the coup de grâce.

Portopia - Clothing

Yasu will resist, but as it is a command from his superior, he eventually relents.

Portopia - Birthmark

That’s right. The killer was staring at you in the face as soon as you booted up the game. Yasu could not forgive Kouzou or Kawamura for driving his parents to suicide, so he killed both of them. Then, with Fumie’s help, he tampered with the crime scene to make it seem like your typical locked-room mystery.

It is impossible to overstate the sheer impact this development had on enthusiasts back in 1983. The plot twist quickly became the stuff of legends in the Japanese gaming scene – to the point where it became the only aspect many people knew of the work. It’s not difficult to see why the twist threw those who grew up with this game for a loop. Game plots in the 1980s, if they existed at all, didn’t usually get more advanced than “Save the princess”, “Beat up the bad guy”, or, if the developer was feeling particularly ambitious, “Save the princess by beating up the bad guy”. In other words, they were paper-thin excuses to shoot asteroids, eat dots, or smash barrels.

Portopia - Tragic Ending

So, for Mr. Horii to take a story made minimalistic due to technical constraints and give it a twist ending ensured he had blazed a trail for himself and countless other artists to follow. In fact, it could very well be the first instance of a game having a plot twist at all. If not, it would likely be the medium’s first instance of dramatic irony. Yes, even with its simplistic presentation, The Portopia Serial Murder Case is quite the tragic story in which a vengeful brother murders those responsible for his parents’ suicide only to learn – too late – that one of his victims sincerely sought to atone for his sins.

What makes the twist work so magnificently is that it’s another instance of Mr. Horii examining an aspect gamers take for granted and giving it a diegetic justification. The manner in which this twist is expressed brings to mind a famous adage regarding the nature of computers.

“The good thing about computers is that they do exactly what you tell them to.”

“The bad thing about computers is that they do exactly what you tell them to.”

Nowhere is that more evident than when you’re fumbling around with a text parser or – in the case The Portopia Serial Murder Case – ordering Yasu around. Text parsers have a knack of doing exactly what you tell them to – no more and no less. Most of the time, this is a testament to the developers’ lack of foresight. Early developers, having not grown up with the medium, often made the assumption that anyone playing their game would phrase commands the exact same way they would. “GET [ITEM]” was the most common way of acquiring an item, yet in a few cases, the equally valid “TAKE [ITEM]” would result in the computer equivalent of a blank stare.

Even if you were to master an adventure game’s lexicon, you would have to deal with the fact that the text typically only imparts exactly as much information as it’s comfortable revealing. After all, if the game told you every single point of interest in a given screen upfront, it would defeat the challenge. In a lot of ways, an adventure game always makes you do some detective work – even if you’re not actually investigating a murder. It’s not enough to scan the screen for clues, you have to question it in the right way to get what you need to emerge victorious.

Portopia - Unhelpful Yasu

Just like the minimalistic storytelling itself, what Mr. Horii did was take these often-irritating limitations and explored their underlying implications. Like an uncooperative text parser, Yasu being enthusiastic, yet unhelpful if you don’t know what commands to use makes a lot of sense when you realize he is trying to misdirect you so he can get off scot-free. He can’t directly disobey your commands, but he won’t reveal any information beyond what is necessary lest you discover the truth for yourself.

It is therefore fitting that solving the case involves severing the contract between you and the game when you realize your lens into this world have been deliberately clouded. Pulling away the curtain of deception is something you alone must do, as the game’s narrator has a vested interest in preventing you from reaching the conclusion. In any other context, this would be a typical, obtuse puzzle solution, but Mr. Horii turned it into a personal triumph for anyone who realized it for themselves. It goes to show that with even the simplest bit of context, it is possible to turn one’s limitations into strengths.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Incredibly innovative storytelling for its time
  • Surprisingly dynamic gameplay
  • Cannot be rendered unwinnable
  • |Features one of the medium’s oldest plot twists|
Cons:

  • Rather obtuse without a guide
  • Unwieldy interface
  • Storytelling is rather fragmented
  • Extremely short if you know what you’re doing
  • Inability to save

One could argue that, in the grand scheme of things, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was a mere stepping stone for Mr. Horii’s true calling. However, it is a testament to his status as a visionary that, before he even came close to realizing his goal, he managed to bring adventure games to Japan, codify the concept of the visual novel, and prove role-playing experiences were viable on console platforms – all in one fell swoop. Even contemporary innovators such as Hideo Kojima, who notably took inspiration from this very game, would have tremendous difficulty claiming they had accomplished something on that scale in the span of a single work. In fact, it’s a shame this game doesn’t get its dues in the West because the sheer amount of artists it inspired – both directly and indirectly – is incalculable. Mystery House may have been an early progenitor to the visual novel, but The Portopia Serial Murder Case told other artists how they should be made. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that the medium as we know it would look very different had it not been for this landmark work.

Unfortunately, while there is no denying that The Portopia Serial Murder Case had a profound impact on the medium, revisiting it now is quite the daunting task. So many artists over the years have captured what this game was going for far more effectively with better fleshed out storylines and comprehensive interfaces that it can be difficult to appreciate just how groundbreaking Mr. Horii’s inaugural effort managed to be. This makes it rather difficult to recommend as anything other than a homework assignment for gaming historians. Regardless, even if it couldn’t help but age poorly due to others improving on what it accomplished, The Portopia Serial Murder Case has a secure place in the history books and is absolutely deserving of your respect.

Final Score: 4.5/10

7 thoughts on “The Portopia Serial Murder Case

  1. What a curious title. You’re right that this isn’t one that you hear many speak of with high praise or speak of at all. But, based solely on your review, it’s clear that it had a profound impact on the medium and that alone is something that should require praise. Thanks for sharing the in-depth review of it and making me discover it through you.

    P.S. I wanted to let you know that (for various and maybe obvious reasons) I’m transitioning to a new blog that would be mine alone as of today (later today actually, when I post my monthly wrap-up) and I wanted to let you know beforehand. Since I cherished our interactions for the past years, I’d love it if you’d follow me there going forward (blog isn’t up yet though). You can decide on remaining a follower of Bookidote but, on my end, for a couple of weeks, I might only cross-post my stuff until I’m ready to drop Bookidote completely. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s not very well-known in the West, which is a real shame because it is unquestionably one of the most influential games ever made. I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that any story-heavy game owes at least part of its existence to The Portopia Serial Murder Case. If nothing else, it’s to visual novels what Super Mario Bros. was to platformers in that it didn’t technically invent the genre (it basically just took cues from Mystery House and the like), but it showed a generation of developers an incredible amount of potential just waiting to be tapped into.

      And I’ve gone ahead and given your new site a follow.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t know about this game, and it was a fascinating one to read about. Considering the time and place, the fact that you have to beat a suspect to progress makes sense (I remember seeing some similar stuff in a few Japanese cop/gangster films from the 90s, not too far removed) but that certainly hasn’t aged well.

    Regarding the running into a wall and the hidden ring and similar stuff, I’ve noticed that some games at the time had these sorts of bizarre near-unsolvable puzzles in them. The infamous Takeshi’s Challenge was one of the worst examples, being a game with practically nothing but nonsensical puzzles with stupid solutions, but it seems like other games had those to a lesser degree. My theory is that these kinds of puzzles were inserted to encourage kids to buy strategy guides, because I can’t think of any other possible motive for them than pure sadism.

    Still better than the kind of garbage “dead man walking” game design some of the old Sierra games had. That was always inexcusable – not even limited technology could excuse it; it was just plain sadism in my opinion, since the writers must have known what they were doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is definitely one of the most interesting games I’ve ever read about. I actually learned of it back when I reviewed the original Dragon Quest, though it really says something about the sheer impact Yuji Horii had that a stepping stone to his signature franchise wound up founding an entire genre. Without this, the visual novel as we know it wouldn’t have existed. I can also see the impact it had on Hideo Kojima, as the original Metal Gear features a very similar twist.

      And yeah, 1980s and 1990s entertainment had a really blasé attitude when it came to police brutality. I could never imagine having to do something like that in Ace Attorney, that’s for sure.

      And I still insist that strategy guides were the microtransactions/loot boxes of their day. Just make an hour-long game as confusing as possible and count on your clientele to give up and buy the strategy guides, which were often sold by the companies who made those games. How convenient.

      That being said, I think the obtuse nature feels more organic in this game given that the narrator is actively trying to mislead you, although the ring would be very easy to find in a modern-era game. I think it’s also because these games were being made by people who didn’t grow up with the medium, so they often assumed that anything that made sense to them made sense to everyone. It’s an easy trap to fall for if you’re not thinking of it from your audience’s perspective. Regardless, I give Mr. Horii props for eschewing any possible “dead man walking” scenarios.

      You mentioning Takeshi’s Challenge and ‘90s Japanese cop films reminds me I need to see Hana-bi at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

      • True, we can’t say gouging players is a new thing. The method has simply changed over time.

        I do like the idea of the game misleading you being part of the story here. Also agreed that it’s easy to forget that games were a totally new medium back in the early 80s, so we wouldn’t have had a lot of the same expectations then as we do now.

        And yeah, Hana-bi was one of the movies I was thinking of. I saw it years ago, remember it being good. Sonatine also looks interesting, an earlier film also with Takeshi Kitano, but I haven’t seen it.

        Liked by 1 person

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