I spent a very happy Saturday afternoon last weekend watching the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, INHERENT VICE. If you like good movies, this is something you should see. If you like Anderson, or Thomas Pynchon, or THE BIG LEBOWSKI (although it's not a straight-up comedy, like TBL, despite a lot of wry humour) you should definitely check it out.
The thing that was running through my head, as the credits rolled, was how the "drug addled detective" story seems to have almost become a genre unto itself in my mind. If you also include things like WITHOUT A CLUE, where a character with no real detective skills (in this case, the actor hired to pose as "Sherlock Holmes" by the real detective genius, Dr. John Watson) is forced to solve a mystery, or Douglas Adams's DIRK GENTLY (who solves "mysteries" by investigating the fundamental connectedness of all things), you've got the potential for some real fun.
INHERENT VICE and THE BIG LEBOWSKI follow in the tradition of intricate film noir detective stories like THE BIG SLEEP, and they have fun with the fact that their main characters don't have the streetwise skill to figure things out like Philip Marlowe did. Instead of clarifying the mystery by uncovering a series of clues, they make the detectives more and more baffled as they encounter a wide variety of colourful and bizarre characters in the sordid California underworld. They're more concerned with the picaresque elements of the story than in how the elements actually fit together.
I think the key to using this in a game context would be to follow the player characters around as they explore the underworld of your game setting, meeting a collection of crooks, lowlifes, nuts, corrupt cops, and whatever else tickles your fancy. Throw in the odd twist and a few action beats, then allow them to "solve" the case at the end.
I was mainly inspired, in the game design part of this, by the old ILLUMINATI card game and by the excellent ATOMIC ROBO RPG by Evil Hat. The former is a card game where players lay down cards with different outlandish groups on them (from the Boy Scouts to the CIA to the Bilderberg Group) and describe how they are interconnected, like a big diagram of a conspiracy that Spooky Mulder might draw. The latter handles "two fisted science" by allowing players to have a "brainstorm session" where they each pitch scientific theories about the Weird Thing they're investigating, in order to develop a solution. SCIENCE!
I think a game that approached solving a mystery by setting out each discrete element -- a clue, a character, a location, a secret cabal, whatever -- on a 3x5 card, ILLUMINATI style, has useful potential. It keeps the players looking at the different mystery elements throughout the game, and figuring out how they connect. And why would the GM bother to figure out a "correct" solution to the mystery, when the players can just retrofit one, ATOMIC ROBO style -- making some successful rolls to describe how the different pieces interlink and reveal the culprit. Simple! Sort of.
All the GM would need to do is come up with a starting situation and some ideas for locations and characters he could introduce, then run with whatever the player characters introduce.
Sounds like fun to me.