Who Dunnit is one of my favorite pinball machines. With a Clue-style theme, and some really fun mechanics like a ringing telephone and a slot machine, it captures its imaginative setting, a murder mystery at a casino, perfectly. Recently, I’ve been improving my game and reaching higher scores than I ever have before, too. I realized I didn’t really know the rule set of this machine, and figured I would consult the manual. That’s when I came upon the “timeline” that introduces the various fictional characters in the game.
It blew my mind. Here was an intricate backstory, spanning years, that fleshed out the characters and gave each one a motive for murder. It explained how Tony’s Palace, the casino where the game takes place, was originally under a partnership, with a different name.
I was amazed. The casino in this pinball machine had a prior history, with a different name? I’m delighted at the work the original designers put into this. It shows a true dedication and love for their work. Especially when you consider that at the time, pretty much only the operator had access to this information. Your average Joe would just walk up to a machine and play it, oblivious to the fact that *spoiler alert* Tex, thought to have died in a suspicious car crash, is actually back at the casino under the assumed name, Bruno!
You can find the entire Who Dunnit backstory here, but here’s a sample:
Walter returns to Europe to find that VICTORIA’S mother has died and that VICTORIA has grown up in a boarding school. VICTORIA looks amazingly like her mother. Walter can only think of how much he loved Mia when he sees VICTORIA. Walter changes his name to BUTLER. He tells VICTORIA that he used to work for her mom and she hires him as her manservant. BUTLER, trapped by the memory of Mia, does whatever VICTORIA says. VICTORIA treats BUTLER like dirt….as she does most everyone.
This goes on for pages. It paints a soap opera story for why each of the characters in the game might want to kill any of the other characters. There are secret identities, mysterious disappearances, and all sorts of sordid goings-on. It gives the game an extra level of character.
Back in the day, there were many DMD pinball machines based on non-licensed themes. Junk Yard, for example, by some of the same designers as Who Dunnit, involves the player collecting parts in a junk yard to build a flying jalopy, while being coached/heckled by a devil and an angel. Bwaaaaaah? o.O How in the world did they come up with that, and who signed off on such a wild topic? I’m so glad they did. It makes for a unique pinball machine, and today the collector market has a rich tapestry to choose from because of it.
The reason you won’t see this kind of story created for a modern day pinball machine is simply that the vast majority of new titles are based off a license or intellectual property of some sort. They need the insurance of an already popular theme. Properties like The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, or Avengers already have a backstory in place, and their licenses grant little creative freedom. In Iron Man, for example, designers were forbidden to display the words Iron and Man apart from each other, so the banks of targets (four on the left and three on the right) don’t actually show those words even though you hit them to spell IRON MAN. It is what it is, and the industry is doing what it needs to do to remain viable, but it does make one appreciate the creative freedom designers had in pinball’s golden years.
Another halfway point on this spectrum is pinball machines designed for really fleeting films that did not hit big in the box office. Pinball machines were released for mediocre films like Demolition Man, Congo, and The Shadow, for example (OK, I *love* The Shadow, but it was certainly not a box office smash). These machines are quite popular now, because they are well-designed game experiences, and have as a result far outlived their namesakes. Nowadays, you will only find Stern going after blockbuster licenses like Avengers (and Star Trek? *raises eyebrow Vulcanly*), and you can’t blame them for that. The theme has to carry its own weight now.
Jersey Jack Pinball has stated before that they are interested in doing an unlicensed theme. Heighway Pinball in the UK is making a dirt bike-themed machine (below), and of course there’s Ben Heck’s Zombie Adventureland, the fantastically left-field retro zombie theme. Can a pinball machine stand on its own in modern times, without a license? Time will tell.