I’ve been on a bit of a detective game bender lately, both with board and computer games. Thought I’d try writing some of that up here.
Now, what do I mean by a detective game? Basically some kind of game where you’re trying to solve a mystery or crime by finding clues, deciding which ones are important, and making deductions (or ridiculous leaps of intuition). I feel all of these aspects need to be present in some form. If you just get all the facts up front, it’s not a game but a story. For example when the player has to find out the facts, they can come up in any order, which can greatly affect how they are interpreted. If you only gather facts but don’t make the deductions yourself, it’s just some kind of elaborate hidden picture game. And of course every clue can’t be important, some almost certainly need to be red herrings.
Below is my list so far, with links to posts with more detailed thoughts. (Some of these are still unplayed, so they might not match my criteria at all or suck otherwise). Any further suggestions are be welcome.
- Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (details later in this post)
- Watson & Holmes: From the Diaries of 221B (boardgame)
- Sherlock Holmes Consulting detective (boardgame)
- Sherlock Holmes: Devil’s Daughter
- Her Story
- Deadline (1982 text adventure)
- Agatha Christie - The ABC Murders
- Colonel’s Bequest
- Detective Grimoire
- Deadline (2017 boardgame)
- The Trace
- The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes
- Chronicles of Crime
- Return of the Obra Dinn
- Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures
- Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game
- Hidden Agenda
- Undo: Curse from the Past
- Sherlock: Last Call
- Make it Good
- An Act of Murder
- Color the Truth
- Pocket Detective
- Last Express
- LA Noire
- Contradiction - Spot the Liar
- Blade Runner
- The Deed: Dynasty
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments
In SH:CP you walk around in 3d environments as Holmes, and look at different objects until an action prompt pops up. Then you interact with that object until the game tells you you’ve done everything that’s possible. That might be rotating an object and finding the important details, staring at a person to do the classic Holmes trick of figuring out just from a few details that they are a recently impoverished retired Major who served in India and has an opium problem, reading a snippet of text, or exhausting all the non-branching conversation options with a person.
Sometimes the objects you need to interact with aren’t visible by the plain eye, but you need to trigger the special detective vision or detective imagination of Holmes. But the game will always tell you when those abilities need to be triggered. There are also a bunch of tedious minigames for lockpicking or doing various kinds of experiments. The best part about these minigames is that if you wait for about 30 seconds, the game will let you skip them.
This sounds miserable, right? Actually it’s really good. The things you learn from interacting with the objects form a little cloud of facts. As the player, you can combine facts to form deductions. If the murder happened at 9pm, and somebody claimed to have gone to bed at 7pm, you could make the deduction that this person has no alibi.
Sometimes a combination of two facts could be interpreted in two different ways. The player then needs to choose between those two interpretations, but sometimes specific interpretations of different deductions might conflict. (You can’t deduce both that the stiff committed suicide and that he was murdered). Your primary goal is to come up with an arrangement of those interpretations that’s self-consistent, so that you can accuse that person of the crime.
And here’s the good part, there are multiple self-consistent interpretations, all of which lead to different final conclusions on who did it and how. And since you are Holmes, whatever you say, goes. A potentially innocent person will get railroaded by the police based on your infallible deduction, and you’ll be credited with having solved the case.
Is it then irrelevant which option you go with? No. You’re also told what proportion of other players arrived at the same result, and while the game doesn’t tell you whether you got the right answer by default, there’s an in-game way to find out. This is brilliant because while the process of gathering facts is technically speaking totally mechanical and something you can’t fail at, there are subtle textual and environmental hints that don’t show up as “facts” in your dashboard. And if you want the correct solution (rather than just some solution), you need to use those as well.
So it’s a system that where you can’t really get stuck, but where really paying attention and thinking about the case is still rewarded. The game has 6 separate cases, with somewhat uneven quality. I’ve gotten the intended solution in all 5 that I’ve played so far. One was a bit too heavy-handed and thus too simple, another I’m convinced could not actually have happened in the way implied by the intended solution (but I chose it anyway, due to reasons). But even with those caveats, I’ve enjoyed them all.