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Long before L.A. Noire’s ineptly irate lead investigator, Cole Phelps, belligerently “Truth,” “Doubt” and “Lie”-ed his way across 1940s Los Angeles, video games have trafficked heavily in the well-worn tropes of the classic detective story. And yet, for all the two-bit gumshoes chasing down Carmen Sandiego, busting the occasional voodoo murder, and generally airing the old trench coat out, it’s only recently that mystery games have leaned into the qualities that actually make the genre so compelling: The ability to step into a detective’s shoes and tread the intellectual mean streets ourselves, using logic, deduction, and inference to unravel a tricky conundrum. (The multi-year, studio-killing hibernation of the adventure genre probably didn’t help matters much.)
Over the last few years, developers have re-embraced the idea that games can take the purest pleasures of a mystery novel—the race to piece together all the clues and figure out whodunnit before the resident detective can parlor scene all the big mysteries away—and codify them for actual play. We’re currently living through a golden age of gritty crimes and great unravelings, and it’s never been a better time for players with a penchant for playing P.I. to pick up a controller. So c’mon, flatfoots: Let’s take a tour through what this golden age of detective games has to offer.
What’re the facts, Jack? Released in English just a couple of weeks ago, Next Studios’ new sound-based mystery game ends up feeling like a great concept in search of a quality game to accompany it. The premise is hook-y as hell, at least, tasking players with viewing a top-down map, identifying various sound sources in the environment, and working out what went down over the course of 10 or so easily fast-forwarded or rewound minutes. The trouble—besides a wholly unnecessary bit of meta plot that’s not nearly as clever as it seems to think it is—is that “solving” these mysteries is never much more complicated than keeping tabs on all the participants of a scene and filling in some simple blanks, leaving you feeling less like a veteran detective, and more like a glorified taker of minutes.
Hard boiled or half-baked? A good start, but ultimately runnier than an under-done soufflé.
Hypnospace Outlaw (2019), Orwell (2016)
What’re the facts, Jack? Although there are virtual lightyears of distance between these two titles when it comes to their aesthetics, they share a similar obsession with the truest frontier of investigative snooping: what we do, and who we are, when we’re hanging out online. Orwell is, almost by default, the more forward-looking of the two, focused as it is on social media, the transmission of “harmful” ideas, and the responsibilities of security and privacy watchdogs to keep people both safe and free. Hypnospace, meanwhile, is a work of brilliant quasi-outsider art, recreating with pitch-perfection the earliest days of the Geocities/Angelfire/webring internet, then sending you diving into message board feuds and faux-Java plugins to unwind a deeper mystery. What it lacks in investigative rigor, it more than makes up in digital nostalgia.
Hard-boiled or half-baked? Orwell is the better detective game—asking players to make actual inferences and use a bit of legitimate deduction at points—but Hypnospace has the Chowder Man. Toss-up.
Contradiction (2015) and Her Story (2015)
What’re the facts, Jack? In hindsight, 2015 was a high-water mark year for the unlikely resurgence of full-motion video in games—especially for mystery and detective stories. In stark contrast to the aforementioned L.A. Noire—a game that deployed much-hyped facial models to ape the look and feel of a classic detective story, without ever meaningfully interacting with its “let’s figure this thing out” heart—Her Story relies almost entirely on the reading of an actual human face for its investigative impact. (In this case, that face being that of actress Viva Seifert, who vacillates between enigmatic, dissembling, and disarmingly open.) Meanwhile, Contradiction offered a far more traditional take on the detective genre, lifting heavily from the “spot the lie” gameplay of the Ace Attorney games for its major mechanical hook.
Hard-boiled or half-baked? Contradiction is utterly charming, in a “British local theater production” sort of way. (Rupert Booth is a never-ending delight as the unflappable Inspector Jenks.) But it’s ironic that the better game about spotting lies and unraveling mysteries is Her Story, which doesn’t actually have an in-game way to call them out at all.
Return Of The Obra Dinn (2018)
What’re the facts, Jack? Playing out in a series of grisly, beautiful tableaux, Lucas Pope’s “insurance investigation simulator” tasks players with figuring out the names and fates of an entire 19th-century sailing ship’s crew full of people, pieced together with the help of a magical artifact that lets you see and hear the final moments of their lives—and deaths. Magical pocket watch or not, though, successfully fulfilling your duties on the Obra Dinn relies heavily on a heady mixture of observation, deduction, intuition, and occasional bursts of educated guesswork that makes Pope’s game the gold standard to beat in the interactive detective genre.
Hard-boiled or half-baked? There’s something creatively infuriating about the fact that Obra Dinn is jaw-droppingly gorgeous in addition to its merits as a detective simulator. Leave something for the rest of us, Pope!
The Invisible Hours (2017)
What’re the facts, Jack? Consider Tequila Works’ under-played gem a stand-in for the “walking simulator” genre as a whole: games that are, by-and-large, almost entirely concerned with wandering around an environment and piercing together all the terrible things that happened there in the past. But while games like Gone Home and What Remains Of Edith Finch put you in the shoes of amateur detectives sifting through warmed-over mysteries, The Invisible Hours goes the full Agatha Christie, dumping a cast of mysterious characters in an isolated, storm-blown mansion and waiting to see who dies first. More of an interactive play than a traditional adventure game, The Invisible Hours allows the player to move time forwards and backwards as they haunt the mansion of the murdered Nikola Tesla, learning all about secret identities, deadly indiscretions, and the utter dickishness of Thomas Edison.
Hard-boiled or half-baked? Like Her Story, The Invisible Hours has little in the way of a traditional ending, instead offering players a more freeing conclusion for a genre that is, at its core, about the joys of comprehension. Which is to say, the game ends when you think you’ve understood enough of what’s actually going on, in a way that feels much more satisfying than a more traditional climax might.
Deadline and the other Infocom detective games (1982 and onward)
What’re the facts, Jack? Any good gumshoe knows there’s nothing new under the sun, and these early text-based titles from interactive fiction pioneer Infocom acknowledged how satisfying unraveling a mystery could be, even without a lot of fancy graphics getting in the way. A bold departure from the company’s earlier Zork games, Deadline foregoes cave-crawling and Grue-dodging in favor of wandering through a mansion full of suspicious characters, all set to move at their own suspicious schedules. (A trick that later Sierra title The Colonel’s Bequest—analyzed exhaustively, and brilliantly, in the WAYPTW? comments by regular commenter Shinigami Apple Merchant—would adopt for itself six years later.) Infocom would later expand the whodunnit fun with two loose sequels, 1983’s The Witness and 1984’s Suspect.
Hard-boiled or half-baked? Innovative or not, anyone who’s spent much time with the old Infocom canon will tell you that it was aimed at an altogether more patient class of players, the kind of person who thrived under easily ruined puzzles and restrictive time and inventory limits. If you’d like to get a feel for text-based investigation of a slightly more modern turn, you might want to try Jon Ingold’s excellent, noir-heavy Make It Good, originally released in 2009, instead.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments (2014)
What’re the facts, Jack? There have been a lot of games made over the years about Arthur Conan Doyle’s prototypical sleuth—mostly by Ukranian developer Frogwares—but the majority of them have been pretty elementary adventure games, if you’ll forgive us a rather irregular pun. (Sorry, sorry.) Where Crimes & Punishments gets things right is in its embrace of ambiguity: Rather than explicitly tell you when Holmes and Watson are following the correct course through its various mysteries, the game forces players to make logical (and ethical) leaps of faith from time to time, making it feel less like you’re marking off the checkboxes in a big book of puzzles, and more like you’re approaching the level of the great detective himself.
Hard-boiled or half-baked? Despite a few regrettable forays into more mainstream adventure game puzzles, this is still the closest that games have ever gotten to stepping into Holmes’ distinctive deerstalker hat. (Meanwhile, as personal partisans of the “little gray cells,” we continue to hold out hope that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot might someday get a similar treatment.)
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (2010) and Zero Escape (2009-2016)
What’re the facts, Jack? All four of these games share a similar trait: They’re mystery stories in genre, but not in mechanical form. Which is to say, the actual actions you perform in each title—manipulating the environment with your spectral powers in Ghost Trick, navigating convoluted escape rooms in the three Zero Escape games—are wholly divorced from the more compelling (and entirely external) effort to unravel their twisty overarching plots. For detectives, then, the game becomes working out what’s actually happening before the game explicitly spells it out for you, whether that means deciphering the clues left in plain sight about the true identity of Ghost Trick’s pencil-haired protagonist Sissel, or sussing out the truth behind the gas-masked antagonist Zero in 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and its two genre-bending sci-fi sequels.
Hard-boiled or half-baked? Ghost Trick plays remarkably fairly with some of its biggest twists, making it a treat for the narrative investigator. The later Zero Escape games, meanwhile, occasionally border on silly with their devotion to branching narratives and multiple timelines. But the central “trick” of the first game is so strong that it can make up in goodwill for a lot of goofy conversations about prisoner’s dilemmas and the Monty Hall problem.
This is, obviously, nowhere near a complete list of all the games that are exploring spaces of deduction and inference in modern—and not-so modern—gaming. (And yes, we hear your cries of “Whither Danganronpa?!) Together, though, they come together to paint a picture of a genre that’s still evolving, as designers come to terms with the fact that “figuring out” and “understanding” can be just as compelling verbs as “jump on,” “shoot,” or “kill.”