It would have been almost impossible to write this list a few years ago, as the entire concept of a detective game didn’t really exit. Aside from a couple of notable outliers, the closest you could get was an adventure or puzzle game with a detective-y theme, such as Broken Sword or Professor Layton.
Within the last decade, however, detective games have coalesced into their own mini genre, as various titles have experimented with new ideas and systems dedicated to creating experiences revolving around sleuthing. This new breed of detective games is specifically about asking the right questions, seeking out evidence, and most importantly, putting the clues together yourself to form your own deductions.
Hence, this rundown focuses primarily on games about detection and deduction, rather than games that simply put you in the role of a detective. Let’s put on our trilbies and sniff out which game occupies that no.1 spot.
10. Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments
Frogwares has been making Sherlock Holmes games for at least a decade, most of which have been too clunky and idiosyncratic to make the most of the premise. The exception to this is Crimes & Punishments, a superb sequence of Victorian mysteries that require genuine deduction to solve.
Crimes & Punishments’ crucial evolution over previous Sherlock Holmes games is how it lets you identify clues and put them together yourself. Using Holmes’ own mind as a pinboard, you can connect different pieces of the puzzle and follow the resulting conclusions. It’s worth noting however, that those conclusions may not necessarily be correct, so you can’t just rely on Holmes to do the work for you.
Combined with a moody and atmospheric Victorian London and some decent writing to boot, Crimes & Punishments is a great place to start your sleuthing adventures. Just avoid follow-up, The Devil’s Daughter, which wasn’t so much a step backward as it was a somersault off a cliff.
9. Discworld Noir
A detective game based in Terry Pratchett’s inimitable comic fantasy world, Discworld Noir puts you in the trenchcoat of Lewton, the Discworld’s first private dick. Approached by a mysterious woman named Carlotta, Lewton sets off on a trail to find her missing ex-lover Mundy. But in classic noir fashion, what starts out as a simple case quickly spirals into something much bigger and more dangerous.
With its blocky 3D graphics and fixed camera angles, Discworld Noir may resemble a fantasy Grim Fandango, but it eschews the obscure puzzling of traditional adventure games for a more direct focus on the act of sleuthing. It’s about having pointed conversations with shifty characters while a soft jazz soundtrack plays in the background, all draped in the rain-slick stonework and wry humour of Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork. Witty, clever, and thoroughly entertaining, Discworld Noir is a unique gaming oddity that’s still well worth playing today.
8. Hypnospace Outlaw
Inspired by the Internet of the late nineties, particularly prototypical social networks like Geocities, Hypnospace Outlaw puts you in the role of an Enforcer, an online detective assigned to track down illegal content on the Hypnospace, ranging from pirated content to malware and beyond.
Given its incredibly garish visuals, you’d be forgiven for dismissing Hypnospace as a serious detective game. But it will still be a mistake. The how of tracking down this illicit material makes Hypnospace one of the best sluethers around. You have to locate hidden web-pages, find passwords to get into locked files, and masquerade as a hacker to infiltrate hacking communities. There’s nothing else quite like it.
7. Blade Runner
The 1997 adaptation of Ridley Scott’s cinematic masterpiece sees you play as McCoy, another Blade Runner prowling the wet and smoggy Los Angeles of alt-2020. Tasked with hunting down a group of replicants, the story runs parallel to that of the film, right down to many of the locations you visit.
Blade Runner is probably the most adventure-like game on this list, with a point and click interface and some typically bamboozling puzzles. But it has a couple of neat ideas that push it toward proper sleuthing. Chief among these is that Blade Runner randomises who among your suspects is a replicant at the start of the game, meaning you actually have to figure it out yourself. In addition, the game has several timed events which, if missed, alter the course of the ending. It’s one of those rare video-game adaptations that tried hard to get into the spirit of the film.
6. The Last Express
Even among a list of highly unusual games, the Last Express is a true original. Using a mixture of adventure gaming structures and (still impressive-looking) rotoscoped FMV, it sees you play Robert Cath, a mysterious individual who boards the Orient Express in 1914 to rendezvous with a friend called Tyler Whitney. When Cath finds Whitney dead, he assumes the man’s identity and proceeds to investigate his murder in a mystery that starts strange and only gets weirder as it goes.
With a neat real-time structure, puzzles that are more streamlined than most adventure games of the time, and a fantastic sense of atmosphere and drama, The Last Express is one of the most underrated games around. You can get it for two whole pounds on Steam, and I’d thoroughly recommend doing so.
5. L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire was somewhat misunderstood upon first release. Its undeniable quality tends to get buried beneath tales of dreadful crunch and a thousand “Doubt” memes. Nonetheless, it remains probably the biggest and most earnest effort to make a proper, true-blooded detective game.
The game puts you in the role of street-cop named Cole Phelps. Starting out as a beat cop, Phelps slowly rises through the ranks of the LAPD, first investigating traffic crimes, before moving up to Homicide, Vice, and finally, Arson. Each rank of Phelps’ career has multiple cases that you need to investigate, which L.A. Noire painstakingly attempts to simulate the process of. You must investigate crime-scenes, interview witnesses and follow clues to new locations. Each case culminates in a blistering interrogation scene where you try to nail your evidence to the suspect (almost literally in some cases).
L.A. Noire has a somewhat idiosyncratic logic to it that can make knowing the right thing to do difficult to judge, while it sometimes isn’t clear where you went wrong. But despite a few kinks, L.A Noire’s attempt to simulate the act of detection was hugely significant for future games, while its deeply authentic representation of 1930s L.A. is hard not to be won over by. Passion projects on this scale are rare, and we’re unlikely to see a game like L.A Noire again.
4. Her Story
Googling has never been as thrilling as it is in Her Story, a game that grips you from the first words you type into its simulated search engine. You play a nameless protagonist who, for reasons that are their own, sits down in front of an ancient computer connected to a police database. Within that database are seven video interviews with a woman in the late nineties, interviews that have been broken up into dozens of short clips.
The whole game basically involves watching these clips, listening to what’s said during the clips, then using that information to search for more clips. It’s a simple loop, but irresistible for any armchair detective, and you’ll quickly find yourself rummaging your desk for a notepad to write down keywords to search for, grinning when that search reveals another piece of the puzzle.
Of course, Her Story wouldn’t be much fun if the mystery wasn’t interesting. Fortunately, it’s superb. Her Story’s sleuthing is made compelling due to director Sam Barlow’s meticulously written human conundrum, bolstered by a sterling performance by actress Viva Seifert. If you’re remotely interested in virtual detective fiction, Her Story is an absolute must-play.
3. Paradise Killer
Paradise Killer is the game that L.A. Noire tries to be. At least, it is from a mechanical perspective. Stylistically it couldn’t be more different, a hyper-colourful blend of open-world exploration and visual-novel style dialogue sequences featuring some of the strangest characters ever committed to code. Somewhere within this kaleidoscopic cityscape is a murderer, and it’s up to you to figure out who that is.
In your investigations, Paradise Killer leaves you entirely to your own devices. You’re free to explore where you want, talk to who you like and collect evidence how you see fit, all at your own pace. At the same time, however, the game doesn’t hold your hand through the investigation. If a piece of evidence has clear links to a particular person, the game will do that for you. If it doesn’t, it goes into a pile of unsorted evidence, remaining there until you figure out who its relevant to (if you choose to do so at all).
Paradise Killer’s mystery culminates in a trial where you present your evidence and attempt to convince the jury that your chosen suspect is guilty. It’s entirely possible to get this wrong, and the fact that you can do this and still have a wonderful time should give you an inkling of just how good Paradise Killer is.
2. Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium is as much about the kind of detective you want to be as it is the case you need to solve, but given how the first feeds into your approach with the second, this makes it one of the most fascinating detective games and RPGs around. After drinking away his memory in a dank hotel room in the alt-history port-town of Martinaise, your amnesiac sleuth wakes up and, assuming he doesn’t die while getting dressed (which is a genuine possibility), begins to investigate the case of the hanged man behind the hotel.
There’s ultimately only one solution to Disco Elysium’s mystery, but the ways you can approach solving it depend hugely on your character. A more cerebrally-minded detective might notice key clues at the crime-scene itself, while one more in touch with his humanity might be better equipped to glean crucial information from witnesses. Or you can try punching a small child in the head. It’s all about whatever works for you (although there’s every chance your chosen path will explode in your face).
Disco Elysium is one of the funniest games ever made. It’s one of the most empathetic and soulful games ever made. It has one of the most brilliantly devised skill-systems ever made, where those skills speak to you like secondary characters and attempt to influence your behaviour. All of this, and it’s a fascinating mystery in its own right. A truly unparalleled RPG.
1. Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn is the best detective game ever made. You play an insurance Investigator for the East India Company, who in 1807 boards the good ship Obra Dinn, which has drifted into Falmouth bay devoid of its entire crew. Your job is to figure out the story behind the ship’s fate identify who the missing crew-members are, and what happened to them.
To aid you in this, you have a couple of useful items, one exotic, one mundane. The mundane item is a records book that includes some key pieces of information, like the crew manifest and a schematic of the ship. The exotic item is a pocket watch that lets you travel to key points in the ship’s past, each represented as a static diorama that you can walk around. All you’ve got to do it put a name to each face that you find, then log the nature of their demise. Simple, right?
Of course, it isn’t. In fact, Obra Dinn’s game of spot the sailor one of the best virtual puzzles ever devised. The game gives you the tools to solve the case, but no pointers on how to do it. Hence you must scour the ship in each of its different time-slices, looking for clues that’ll help you figure out who each person is and how they died. This could be anything from their position on the ship, to the type of clothes they’re wearing, snippets of conversation. Even something tiny like the number of their bunk can be crucial in putting the pieces together.
The result is a game of true observation-based deduction. One where you seek out clues of your own volition, and draw your own conclusions. Combined with a superb retro art-style and a brilliantly told story of a strange tragedy at sea, Return of the Obra Dinn is a bona-fide detective masterpiece.
April 12 2021 | 14:00