Dirty Secrets & Noir - Interview with Seth Ben Ezra

Hi Seth! Thanks for talking with me about Noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?

S: Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed, Emily!

Probably my favorite literary sleuth is Lew Archer, Ross MacDonald's investigator for nearly all his novels. Where Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade is something of an agent provocateur and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is a knight errant in search of adventure, Lew Archer is on a different quest. Someone described him as more of a social worker, seeking to understand. Archer isn't trying to rescue victims, like Marlowe. Rather, he is trying to protect innocence, if that makes sense. This is even more powerful when you consider that nearly all of MacDonald's novels can be summed up by the concept of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. Marlowe and Spade move through the criminal underworld. Archer moves through suburbia, uncovering generational sin that has landed unfairly on the children. I find that to be a very powerful story.

Also, Archer gives us this great quote:
"That isn't your real motivation. I know your type. You have a secret passion for justice. Why don't you admit it?"

"I have a secret passion for mercy," I said. "But justice is what keeps happening to people." —Ross MacDonald, The Goodbye Look

A secret passion for mercy...but justice is what keeps happening. I love it.

Now, if you expand to the sleuths of the screen, it's a two-way fight between Brandon from the movie Brick and Veronica Mars from Veronica Mars. Brick was my first exposure to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so it sticks in the mind. Brandon is definitely a Sam Spade kind of investigator, playing off the various sides against each other, trying to make justice happen. But, in classic noir style, he's not clean either. The hardboiled language is a delight, and the shootout at the end of the movie...wow.

I hadn't been exposed to Veronica Mars when I designed Dirty Secrets; in fact, I heard about it at GenCon 2007, when I debuted Dirty Secrets. So, when I got home, I devoured the series. So good! And yes, my wife and I were early backers of the movie Kickstarter. I guess we really are marshmallows at heart. I like Veronica because she is both the hardbitten P.I. and the vulnerable victim at the same time. The individual mysteries give her a chance to strut her stuff and talk hard, but she is also one of Ross MacDonald's innocents, caught up in familial corruption that has come home to roost with her generation. I find the combination to be irresistible.

What was your approach to creating a mystery in Dirty Secrets

S: I was originally inspired by an unpublished draft of a mystery game by Christoph Boeckle, which was trying to solve the same design problem, which is marrying player-driven play with the emotional impact of the reveal of a mystery. In his game, he had a progression of creating clues which could then be woven together into chains (or threads?) which could eventually support the solving of a crime. As I tried to work with this idea, though, it soon became too cumbersome.

Then, one day, I had an epiphany. Instead of mechanizing the trail of clues, just mechanize the selection of a criminal. I already had the idea of a limited cast of characters. Let the game periodically assign guilt to a character, and rely on the players to reverse-engineer a justification. This ended up being the killer app that drove the rest of the design.

What happens during play, then, is certain events are defined as the Crimes that the game is about. No player is allowed to establish the guilty party, as the system will do that periodically. So, what this ends up requiring is that each player develop a working theory of the crime. What do you think happened? Then, use this theory to inform your playing of the various characters. Of course, since everyone will have a different working theory, different details emerge, and various characters become implicated as suspects. Then, when the game spits out a guilty verdict, the players collaborate to condense this web of details into narrative.

But here's the part that makes the game work. While only one of the characters is guilty of a given crime, all the other incriminating facts are still true. No one is clean. Even if you didn't commit this particular crime, you are actually guilty of all the other things that you did.

I've compared this use of the Crimes in Dirty Secrets to the way a pearl is created. A grain of sand is introduced into an oyster, which forces it to make a pearl, one layer at a time, to protect itself. The Crimes work similarly. By introducing them into the narrative, they provide a core that the players surround with their narrative.

What parts of crime fiction were you most interested in when you wrote your game? How do your rules help players experience that?

S: I discuss this at length in the final chapter of Dirty Secrets. As I reread that chapter, I realize that there are broadly two answers to that question. To help structure my answer, I'm going to grab two extended quotes from that chapter to get things going. Here's the first one:

I blame John Tynes.  It's all his fault.  I was reading his list of inspirations for his Unknown Armies roleplaying game, and he talked about James Ellroy.  In it, he says, “If you want to read the best in new horror fiction, avoid the ‘horror' book rack — Ellroy is fighting on the front lines of the human nightmare, and has handily left the sad remnants of the horror field in his wake. “I read this, blinked, and went off to locate The Black Dahlia.  Over the course of several years, I finished Ellroy's Los Angeles quartet.  It was very hard going and horribly brutal, but I understood what Tynes was talking about.  The most horrifying thing in the world is other people.

Dirty Secrets takes a fairly dim view of human nature. Everyone is compromised somehow and lying to cover it up. True horror is having to look at ourselves and acknowledge who we are and what we have done. This is supported in the rules by the Crime mechanics that I described in the previous answer. Of necessity, game play requires that suspicion be cast broadly. This means that many more characters are implicated by their actions than actually committed the central Crimes of the game. No character enters a game of Dirty Secrets and comes out clean.

Here's the other quote:

Dirty Secrets is about injustice.  The powerful oppress the weak, using their money and influence to control them.  In response, the weak rise up in violence against their oppressors.  We are a divided people, and therefore, our society will not stand.  But we hide from this reality.  So long as we are safe, we do not care to look around us.  But the oppression is real, and the violence is already with us. Is it already too late for us to be saved?

Maybe a little overdramatic, but that sums it up well.

Mechanically, this is supported by the Demographics, which is possibly the most controversial part of the game. Each Character is defined by a set of demographic categories: sex, age, race, social class, and legal status. Each of these is selected from a list of items, which were supposed to be fairly objective. In particular, for the "race" category, I looked up the categories used by the U.S. Census and used them. Now, let me be clear: there was no mechanical weight attached to any of these categories. None of them provided bonuses to rolls or anything like that. But you had to do this step for any Character being written down.

It's amazing how much this simple step exposes so many prejudices. You look at the Demographics, and suddenly you know this character...or you think you do. Because this character over here is poor and black, so he must deal drugs, right? But then, due to how the game plays, suddenly you discover that you were really, really wrong.

The game goes one step further. Dirty Secrets produces a lot of paperwork, and keeping all those index cards and papers organized became a problem early on in playtesting. So, we decided to make a virtue out of necessity and establish a filing system for the various Character cards, based on Demographic. The center of gameplay is a Conflict track--the English edition puts it on the back of the book--and around the edges of that are spaces to sort Character cards by demographics. All law enforcement types are on the top. White citizens are on the left, sorted then by social class (wealthy, middle-class, poor), with non-white citizens on the right, sorted similarly. Ex-cons are racially segregated at the bottom.

Again, this is just a filing system. But it was an attempt to express the basic social divides that exist in our country right now and require the players to have to look at it.

These aren't value judgments! In fact, it's an attempt to lay bare these divisions--to force players to confront their own prejudices--which might provide the possibility of self-reflection and positive change within society. And, to get political for just a sec, given our recent experience of Ferguson, "Hands up! Don't Shoot", "Black Lives Matter", "I Can't Breathe" and the like, I think this message is still immediate and relevant.

It's not just that the characters are compromised, but the players are compromised, too. But maybe it doesn't have to stay that way.

In each of my games, I lead off with Bible quotes that seem to fit the themes of the game. Here's what I included in Dirty Secrets:

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. (Ephesians 5:11-12)

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)

I think that the thematic resonances are obvious. However, having my current vantage point, I do wish I had included something with a little more hope, maybe at the end of the book. Something like this:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (‭John‬ ‭3‬:‭19-21)

There is still hope. There is still light. To answer my question from eight years ago, it's not too late for us to be saved.

How do your GMs and players learn about the genre as they play your game?

S: I think that the elements of compromised characters and social inequity that I mentioned above go a long way towards the players of Dirty Secrets learning the genre, if they didn’t already know it. But I think that there’s at least one more element that enters into the equation. Raymond Chandler spells it out best:

“[M]urder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like playboys or college professors or nice motherly women with softly graying hair.”
—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

At the center of every Dirty Secrets game is at least one murder. And noir cares very much about murder. Not in the “interesting puzzle” sort of way, like an Agatha Christie novel. No, noir cares about murder because it knows that a murder--a true, cold-blooded murder--represents the final stop on the descent of humanity into the depths of darkness.

And so, if you’re playing Dirty Secrets correctly, you will encounter at least one murder. And then you will encounter all sorts of characters, most of whom had the moral capacity--or lack thereof--to commit this murder. Because, as I’ve said, they’re all compromised. Only one of them actually committed the murder, but how many already committed the murder in their hearts? How many of them would have pulled the trigger but simply never had the chance to do so?

One of my favorite sequences in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie The Dark Knight is the ferry scene. If you don’t know it, here’s the brief setup: there are two ferries escaping the island that Gotham City is on. One contains a bunch of convicts from the prison. The other is full of civilians. You know, “good people.” The Joker tells both ferries that each has a bomb on board, but each ferry has the detonator for the other ferry. He tells them that they need to blow up one of the ferries within a time limit, or he will blow up both of them. You can watch the relevant scenes here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4GAQtGtd_0

Notice how it’s the white, upstanding citizen, supposedly a “good” man who argues for the despicable ending. Notice how he is the one who is willing to contemplate the murder--because it would be murder--of an entire ferry of human beings. Notice his capacity for delusion and justification. Notice how he supported by majority rule, by democracy.

And it’s the black convict--shown as the “hardened criminal”-- who does what they “should have done ten minutes ago” and throws their detonator overboard, refusing to compromise his basic humanity, even at the cost of his life.

This is the sort of thing that noir is made of. Noir is all about someone who is basically decent having gone just one step too far and then trying to fix it by going one step more. Decent people, from decent homes in decent towns, doing terrible things for really good motives...at least in their own minds.

And noir is sometimes...just sometimes...about finding light and humanity in the places that you weren’t expecting to find it.

This is exactly the sort of narrative that Dirty Secrets produces, if played with even a little empathy.

Thank you so much, Seth!!

Thank you again for the opportunity!

Seth Ben-Ezra is a human of the male variety who lives in Peoria, Illinois. He's been happily married to Crystal since 1997 and is the father of six children. In addition to Dirty Secrets, he designed Junk, Legends of Alyria, A Flower for Mara, and Showdown, as well as contributing to Little Fears by Jason Blair. For more information on Seth and his games, visit http://sethbenezra.wordpress.com