I was recently having a discussion with Otaku USA’s Caleb Dunaway about why I thoroughly love 07th Expansion’s When They Cry series, but utterly hate the Zaregoto series. They are both deconstructive looks at the mystery genre that play with tropes and expectations of the genre, but I could not put my finger on what made me love one series and dislike the other, despite being similar in their approach. But then I read this post by Eternal on his new perspective on the series after playing the 5th and 6th games, and it struck me that it was the attitude towards the mystery genre in each series that made my feelings so decisive.
Higurashi is a series of visual novels with supernatural elements and unreliable narrators, but its narrative followed rules which can be discovered, as the killings and supernatural elements are related but solvable mysteries in their own right. Umineko is a story that uses the rules of the mystery genre to tell a tale of mystery novels. Therefore unless Ryukishi07 has been misleading us, the core mystery follows Knox’s Decalogue and is a properly solvable mystery just like Higurashi. It is a story written by a mystery lover for mystery lovers.
Zaregoto on the other hand goes out of its way to break the rules without the same love for the conventions of the genre. Nisio Isin loves to play with tropes and ideas of a genre, and then constantly provide a twist on what you would normally expect. The Zaregoto novels so far have been a deliberate attempt to break the conventions of mystery novels. I would go as far as to say it comes from the angle of a mystery story written for people who are bored with mysteries.
And therein lies my problem with the two series. I believe that rules like Knox’s Decalogue are a vital element of the genre, and I don’t see them as unnecessary boundaries, but as helpful tools for making a story feel satisfying. In Umineko Battler, Virgilia, and Dlanor A. Knox have a long conversation about the nature of mysteries. The analogy is made that a good mystery like a good relationship and is built on mutual trust: the author and the reader trust each other to play by the rules, so when the reader comes to the end of the book, they do not feel that the ending was a dirty trick. They may not have figured out the ending, but at least feel like they COULD have. Nisio Isin goes out of this way to make the ending extremely obtuse in Zaregoto by twisting and breaking the rules. To use the Umineko analogy, I feel like the Zaregoto books are a cheating partner, and I want a mystery novel to be on an equal relationship with me.