Detective games

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

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.

Maybe I’m not following you, but is there no in-game failure for railroading the wrong person?

I’m presume your not-a-game-but-a-story criterion is ruling out Phoenix Wright, because otherwise, Phoenix Wright.


Blade Runner
Hotel Dusk
Cruise For A Corpse
Anything from Wadjet Eye Games
Discworld Noir

Crimes & Punishments was recently one of the Games with Gold on Xbone. I’d enjoyed Testament, so I picked it up. I just finished it the other day.

In a lot of ways, these games are kind of terrible. C&P really gives you almost no information to go on to choose the “right” ending to a case, which is aggravating from a gamer point of view. The puzzles are generally non-existent to supremely easy. And the mechanics themselves aren’t that well done.

Despite that, I really, really enjoyed both games. There’s something about them that feels like modern incarnations of classic adventure games. And while classic adventure point & clickers are enjoying something of an indie renaissance, it’s nice to see something a little bigger budgeted (though probably not by much) come out.

Another recent game that was kind of crappy but I really enjoyed (and you may want to add it to your list) was Murdered: Soul Suspect. It has some of that adventure game feel, some similar deduction mechanics to C&P, and decent production values. As a game, again, it’s crap. It feels like a story that would’ve been better served as a novel or movie, but I had a good time with it.

None at all! Sure, the final cutscene might show the poor sod proclaim their innocence as they are dragged away in chains. But that’s exactly what a guilty person would say, right?

Hmm. I don’t know if I could handle that. It seems, I don’t know… Sloppy, or something? I guess I need that in-game consequence for failure.

It was one of the things that really bugged me about LA Noire. You could completely bomb out on the interrogations and the game’s story would just chug along anyway. The only consequence was a low star rating (oh no!) and a cutscene of the chief bitching you out.

I played Sherlock Holmes: Crime and Punishment when it was a free GwG game on Xbox too, and really enjoyed it (and have enjoyed the other Frogware Holmes games too). I liked that it gave you the freedom not only to find and connect clues to draw conclusions, but also to reach the incorrect conclusion and arrest the wrong person. That’s oddly freeing, to have that kind of conclusion because, as mentioned, it’s not a fail state, just an alternate solution. Now that Telefrog mentions it, I liked that about LA Noire as well. Seemed more real to me that way.

It’s my exaggerated sense of justice, I think. I need the evil-doer to pay for their misdeeds!

Tragedy Looper (board game) though I would find someone to teach it; it can be difficult to grok on your own.

It is an experience I would recommend to everyone, but I do believe the first taste needs to be with the right group (players who really like figuring things out).

Very interesting thread. Thanks jsnell. I’ll try to put more time into SH: C&P (free on Xbox) when I get the chance. This sounds like a very interesting new genre.

I also have LA Noire, but for the 360. I was hoping they’d add it to the Backward Compatibility list at some point.

And I like your name for the genre too. It’s simple, and doesn’t involve any annoying acronyms like MOBA or weird condescension like “Walking Simulator”, or overly mechanical description like “Hidden Object games”.

I love Tragedy Looper, but it’s a very different kind of game. There’s no story (or even theme besides the Groundhog Day conceit), and the actual deduction is very rigid and formal. What I mean is that there’s a predefined and known matrix of events and consequences; if a given event happens with certain characters in a specific room, you can easily enumerate the possible implied values for the hidden state (the plot, subplots and character roles). And then if you find other sets of possible states, it’s an easy mechanical process to find the possible intersections.

The real meat of the game is in the adversarial process by which the players try to trigger events that cut down the state space as much as possible, while the master tries to force the loops to end as quickly as possible in ways that provide them as little useful information as possible.

(Though it being all mechanics doesn’t mean there can’t be some good emergent stories. Tragedy Looper is the only game ever where we’ve intentionally locked a totally innocent person in hospital alone with a serial killer, with the predictable results. “We’re the good guys, honest!” You can’t prevent an unspecified bad thing from happening without breaking a few eggs and killing a few innocents.)

I do believe there is some deduction involved at least if you only play a scenario once. I only played it one time but having to figure out what was happening (hey wait that person wasn’t the killer, how can that be moments). Granted you have to go through things more then once by looping but I felt like a detective of sorts. :)

Let me recommend both Witness and Deadline from Infocom. Old-ass text adventures, yes, but you play a detective: talk to witnesses, gather evidence and present the evidence to solve the case. Both are exceedingly challenging and enormously fun with the typically great writing that Infocom was known for.

I was just going to recommend The Witness. It was one of my first and favorites. In addition to Deadline, they also made Suspect as part of the same series.

If old stuff is your cup of tea, you might also look for '80s graphic adventures Borrowed Time and the gleefully crazy Tass Times in Tonetown–both developed by Interplay and published by Activision.

[quote=“jsnell, post:11, topic:120211”]
(or even theme besides the Groundhog Day conceit)
[/quote]The core theme is less Groundhog Day and more When They Cry, what with the premise of a mastermind causing incidents that the protagonist has to solve, and changing those incidents to accommodate new information learned by the protagonist. (This applies more to Umineko than to the linked Higurashi, which is made more evident by some of the incidents and plots added in the expansion.)

The When They Cry games offer a good sense of solving a mystery, except that there’s zero interaction whatsoever beyond advancing text. Similarly, the Zero Escape games are full of mysteries being solved, but that’s done by the characters during the novel segments, not by the player. As such, they’re going to have the same issue as Phoenix Wright.

I love the idea behind this thread, and I’ll be following along.

Detective fiction has been one of my favorite literary genres since childhood (I’ve even written some very amateurish stuff, both short stories and novels - but it’s very difficult to pull off effectively, and I eventually gave up on the idea). So you’d think I’d have been all over it when the genre made the transition to computer gaming. But I always had doubts about its ability to pull me in like a good novel or film.

While I have bought quite a few PC detective games over the years, I don’t think I’ve played a single one of them, fearing that they would either be too difficult, or have some odd kind of learning curve. Dumb reasons, but I’ve always sucked at adventure games in general, and most of the ones I’ve bought have fallen into the Adventure category. I need to just buckle down, pick one, and dedicate myself to it. LA Noir for instance appeals to me greatly (at least the idea behind it), but I’ve not yet bought it, and I’ve avoided even Youtube videos about it because I want it to be completely fresh to me when I finally get around to it.

Anyway, I’ll be reading as much as you guys care to write about the subject, whether it be regarding specific games, or just the game theory in general.

I’m not even sure what I’m looking for in a detective game, but to start with, I guess I’d appreciate a good one with a decent hint system until I get my footing.

Yeah, Suspect. It’s been awhile, but I don’t remember thinking as much of that one as the other two. I just remember getting annoyed at having to track down characters…IIRC, they tended to move around the map quite a lot. Also, there were several really important timed events that, once missed, was basically game over.

I didn’t have as good a time with Suspect, I guess.

I am very happy this thread exists. That’s about as much as I can contribute at this point, except to add that the packaging for these games (grey box releases in particular) was amazing and, for me, unfailingly had a big impact on the playing experience.


Oh man, I remember feelies. Now I feel old.

Cool modern (PC only, sorry) utility for use with text adventures: Trizbort (website, git repo). Simply launch your game in Windows Frotz or whatever, enter SCRIPT, define a log file, and point Trizbort’s automap feature to that file. It will automatically begin drawing and updating an editable map as you interact with the game going forward. Each object it draws seems to be linked to a room in the game world. It even detects issues and prompts for intervention when it needs to.