There’s nothing quite like solving a good mystery. Games allow the player to become part of the process, to don the detective hat, and uncover the truth. Whether as attorneys, investigators, or ordinary people, these games put our puzzle-solving skills to the test! The player might have to pay close attention to background details and the smallest of discrepancies. They may need to talk to NPCs for their witness statements (and opinions). Finally, of course, one needs solid logical ability to eliminate suspects and find the true culprit.
Mystery and detective games have been a mainstay from the interactive fiction era of gaming. Now, of course, many games incorporate mystery-solving tones to them–there’s almost always a hidden truth or a deeper conspiracy waiting to be uncovered. Games with an investigation element focus more on finding the true perpetrator of a crime and bringing justice to the victim. The following games are some of the best in the genre and offer multiple ways to interact with an investigation.
1. L.A. Noire
Film noir might be cheesy on the silver screen, but it’s outrageously fun to play through. Inspired by the genre, this game takes place in an extremely well-researched version of 1940s Los Angeles. It’s a slow process of hunting for clues and interrogating suspects with snatches of melee combat in between. You might even need to note NPC reactions to determine whether they’re being truthful! You play Cole Phelps of the Los Angeles Police Department, investigating a variety of intriguing cases. These range from arson to serial murder… tying into a deep and satisfying story.
Among the most stand-out parts of the game is its world. It’s far from an open-world experience–the game itself is quite linear–but the atmosphere and the sheer amount of detail more than makeup for it. From the more obvious details such as dresses and automobiles, to even tiny things people might not notice at all. Who would look twice at a half-eaten meal or a discarded period-authentic wrapper? Detective Phelps would, of course. The game relies on you to catch all these little details and incorporate them into your decision.
2. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Things get funny and just a little bit strange in this trilogy of visual novels. As the title suggests, you play an attorney called Phoenix Wright, and his main goal is to prove the innocence of his clients. In pursuit of this noble goal, Wright gets up to all kinds of sleuthing–snooping around crime scenes, speaking to witnesses, accumulating facts, and constructing a case. Everything comes to a head in the courtroom, where Wright faces off against the prosecutor. It’s very satisfying to present the unassailable evidence you’ve collected to pin down the true culprit.
This is one of Japan’s best visual novel offerings localized to English. It’s both silly and dramatic–no somber judgments here! It even spawned that rather famous “Objection!” meme. The trials may be ridiculous, suspenseful, sometimes both. Witnesses wallow in the drama while Wright remains delightfully deadpan. Personal backstories of the various characters become more obvious during the progression of the game. There’s some character development as well, as Wright makes friends and finds himself caring for these people he now knows.
3. Disco Elysium
This detective game is very different from others in the genre: it’s an RPG! It has no combat, however, just skill checks and dialogue–even in action sequences. You play an amnesiac detective working to solve a case–and the mystery of who exactly he is, and what he did to wake up with no memories. You can decide how to shape your character in the process of uncovering his past… making him anything you like, even a truly terrible detective. Characters remember what you ask and say to them, and your actions have consequences on the rest of the story. Beautiful art and the driest of black humor round off this game.
The player character in this game has two main mechanics you can use to mold him: skills and thoughts. Skills range from all sorts: like the standard RPG perception and endurance, to more unusual skills like inland empire and authority. Thoughts provide state buffs and pieces of the story. It’s a game that gives you an immense amount of flexibility in character development.
4. Paradise Killer
An open-world adventure game in the fantastically weird setting of Paradise Island, here you control the investigator Lady Love Dies to find who’s behind a series of brutal murders that’s taken place here. This game is the opposite of linear–there’s no scripted sequence of events, the player’s welcome to explore at their own pace and follow any thread of investigation they like. There are clues everywhere that can be picked up in any order. There’s no pressure to follow up on a particular lead, so you can follow the plotlines that matter most to you.
The characters and environment in this game really make it shine. Lush backdrops, sweet tunes, and vaporwave neon make the game a treat for the senses. The characters each have their own motivations, backstories, and richly interconnected pasts that can be uncovered by talking to them… or gossiping about others, of course. There’s a surprising amount of depth and politics beyond the NPC’s wonderfully strange exteriors.
5. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Another localized visual novel series from Japan, this one takes a very different approach to mystery solving. No longer is the player trying to bring justice. Everything begins when the students of Hope’s Peak Academy arrive to find that what they thought was an elite school was actually a trap. The only way to escape is to murder one of your fellow students–and get away with it! This is bad, but then students start dying, and it is up to the player to look for clues, question witnesses, and cross-examine suspects to find the culprit. Best not to get it wrong, though… or everyone’s dead!
This is a pretty evil plot to get caught up in, but the distinctive illustrations (covered with plenty of neon pink blood) and fun, richly developed characters make the story come to life. This is why it’s always shocking when the mystery unfolds and reveals who the killers are. You can even befriend the characters by interacting with them between murders, which gives you certain buffs in the trials to determine the culprit. Monokuma doesn’t help, watching on with glee and egging on would-be killers. When successfully caught, he executes them in an absurd fashion, too.
6. The Return of the Obra Dinn
A unique mystery game with a distinctive art style and approach. It’s up to you, an insurance investigator, to figure out what happened aboard the Obra Dinn. This merchant ship drifted into port with no crew and piles of bleached bones on deck… but you have a pocket watch that can let you glimpse the last moments of a dead man’s life. Along with a shout, glimpses of others, identifying marks–it’s still no small task to figure out what exactly happened on board, but the game holds your hand through none of it. Every clue fits in somewhere, a giant jigsaw puzzle only you can put together without needing to force your way through, but the solution isn’t always obvious.
The game is in full 3D, rendered in an extremely limited palette and a style reminiscent of the earliest video games. It’s a bold choice, but it gives the game an unforgettable atmosphere. The ship is also accurately rendered, with room for sixty crewmen onboard–all with their own mystery to solve.
7. Her Story
This is another visually distinctive entry-a live-action game. There’s no action here–everything takes place within an old-fashioned computer screen. In this computer is an archive full of clips of seven interviews held with a murder suspect, and the only way to retrieve them is by typing in certain keywords. As a result, the clips arrive non-linearly, and as you watch more of the interviews, you get a clearer picture of the case. It’s an interesting experiment in narrative, as it’s entirely directed by the player, and players watch the clips in different sequences each time.
As you watch the clips, there’s a tracker provided that lets you know which clips you’ve watched, and which ones you haven’t yet. Some clips require a complex combination of keywords to retrieve. Depending on how much you’ve uncovered, your story may differ wildly from others, who may have seen clips you haven’t–and vice versa. It’s a very different way of looking at the genre–one that tells you things about both the player and the suspect.
8. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
A stealth and puzzle game set in a truly lovely slice of countryside, this game follows Paul Prospero, Supernatural Detective. He is on his way to meet a young fan when he hears about his disappearance–and several grisly murders in the neighborhood. By using his own supernatural power to view the past and piecing together the clues, he’s able to figure out what happened to Ethan Carter. But there are also other kinds of paranormal activity he has to contend with in this small and mysterious town.
This is a visually stunning game with mild horror and puzzle elements. A mild sense of dread and loneliness is set off by the lushly rendered natural surroundings of the open-world universe. You’re encouraged to wander it, and there’s no problem with picking up clues out of order or the wrong way around. While it claims not to hold your hand, there are enough clues available to make for smooth gameplay.
9. Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments
Examine intensely detailed and atmospheric crime scenes to reveal clues, and piece them together to arrive at the truth. Baker Street’s immortal sleuth Sherlock Holmes returns to solve some more crimes in this game. Like in the BBC series, it’s possible to freeze the scene and examine people in detail while talking to them, giving you ammunition in interrogations. It pays to be careful, though–as you can be wrong and end up pinning the crime on the wrong person.
The game has plenty of puzzles and brain teasers, making it a good choice for players who like that element. There’s a large cast of memorable side characters, too, across six unconnected but individually fascinating cases. Holmes is the acerbic genius that he is in the books, with the game incorporating a ‘deduction space’ mechanic when it’s time for him to evaluate the evidence on hand.
10. The Wolf Among Us
This game, released in five episodes, adapts a graphic novel series called Fables. It’s set in a fantasy noir version of New York City, where a werewolf Sheriff called Bigby tries to protect runaway fairytale characters hiding among normal humans. It can be violent (and gruesomely so) but also deep, touching on issues of corruption, exploitation, and justice. The story follows a tight and linear progression based on the novels, but the actual detective work is smart and well-incorporated.
The game sits in that grey area straddled by all noir media–there’s no real winning, per se. Sometimes tough choices have to be made. At the same time, Bigby has to choose between being menacing and compassionate in his dealings, as his werewolf nature tends to violence. A bright and interesting supporting cast makes the game truly come alive, even if not all your choices end up being meaningful ones.