Ranking Mystery Games by How Much Detective Work You Actually Get To Do

I want to be a detective, but video games won't let me.

I possess a curious talent. Sit me in front of a thriller, and I’ll tell you how it ends. It doesn’t take long; a quarter of the way in, maybe, and I’ll know who the killer is, who’s lying, who’s having an affair with whom. It’s a curse, really.

Clearly, my destiny is to be a detective. But I’m no boot licker. I’m only going to use my gift to break open juicy crimes in video game land. There are so many detective games out there — that’s countless mysteries to solve, an endless list of possibilities! There’s no way the majority are interactive Where’s Waldos blown up into three dimensions that ask the player to click anything vaguely suspicious… right? RIGHT?

Let’s find out. Join me as I explore a selection of detective games and grow steadily more baffled about how seldom I’m actually allowed to be a detective.

Return of the Obra Dinn

Lucas Pope’s follow-up to Papers, Please continues his trend of casting the player in ostensibly mundane jobs; this time as an insurance inspector. Hold on, it gets better. Your job is to investigate the titular Obra Dinn, which has returned to port without its crew, to calculate what the East India Company has to pay out in damages. To do so, you must find the crew, work out how they died, who (or what) killed them, and how it was done.

It’s a great start. Everything in this non-linear adventure is a mystery, from the aforementioned deaths to how this magic pocket watch that takes me back in time works. It’s not hard. Within a couple of hours, I correctly deduced that the captain ate everyone — including himself — and left the ship. Top marks for efficiency.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a genuine detective game. It offers a robust set of detective tools and a compelling, albeit supernatural, mystery. I’m in heaven! It actually feels like I’m unraveling something. Why is that arm sticking out from beneath a cannon? Let’s find out together.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

It’s time to go back to school. Except this time, school’s out… for murder. A teddy bear traps you in an empty high school and to escape all you must do is kill everyone else. It’s so anime and I am into it. Danganronpa mashes up seven genres as you make friends, only to watch them fester in their own blood, before searching for clues in a point-and-click adventure to use in a Phoenix Wright style trial in which you shoot (with an actual gun) other people’s arguments.

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Another game that lets me do detective work. There is an actual mystery that has dead ends and branching paths, to which the solutions aren’t simple. Was I wrong? Are detective games all they say there are? Plus, I get to take breaks between gruesome murders that should psychologically scar all these digital teenagers to get to know this purple-haired lady. Those are nice gloves. I sure hope they’re not hiding anything.

How is this anime migraine that’s a weird mix between Ace Attorney and Hatoful Boyfriend also the most compelling detective game I’ve ever played? Loses marks for including an unsolvable mystery: how the characters get their hair to stay like that.

Legal Dungeon

Come with me on a magical adventure to a nondescript east-Asian police department where we have one job: fill out paperwork. As the new lieutenant, you must trawl through documents to find… the suspect’s name and sometimes, if you’re lucky, their date of birth!

At least I get to interrogate suspects. That’s some real detective stuff. Why are they throwing swords at me, though? These forms are really difficult to parse; I’m getting everything wrong. This man did nothing wrong, why am I charging him with grand larceny? I can fill out forms incorrectly in real life, why is this game making me do it in my spare time?

Maybe detective work is trial-and-error, and maybe it involves pixelated swords to the face, too. I don’t actually know. But the only thing I detect is frustration… and more paperwork.

Chinatown Detective Agency

Back on track. This one has “detective” in the name! You’re Amira Dharma, a private investigator in a neo-noir, near-future Singapore. Sounds promising. For thousands of dollars, you solve mysteries from murders to where some old stamps come from. All through the investigative magic of… Google.

It’s okay, I’m sure detectives use Google. I’ll click “web” and get started. Oh, it minimizes the game and opens an actual browser. Need to search for something else. It opens another browser. Within an hour, I have twelve separate windows open and my computer’s breathing like a smoker. This is just middle-school homework made into a game. I think I’m investigating. But it feels wrong.

Solving mysteries through surface-level Google searches is novel, I guess? You just have to hope other people haven’t ruined Google’s algorithms looking for the same thing. This isn’t using my detective gifts, it’s just munching on my computer memory like a goblin. Chinatown Detective Agency? More like ChinatownGoogle Agency. Got ’em.

Disco Elysium

You’re a drunk, troubled detective out to solve a murder despite the fact you’re too alcohol-dependent to remember your own name. Accompanied by a partner who’s got his shit together and thinks you’re embarrassing. This is the stuff. Cliched to the max. That’s okay, they’re cliches for a reason, right? Investigate the community of Martinaise to discover the mysteries of the town and understand the complex politics that led to a man’s murder.

I want to be true to myself, so I’m wearing this kimono the entire game. But, I’m also wearing a tie, so folks know I mean business. Better examine the body for clues; get this investigation going. Wait, I can’t. I have to roll some imaginary dice to avoid throwing up. Why are you doing this to me? I’m too pretty for Dungeons & Dragons! Oh no… this isn’t a detective game. It’s just a story in which progress is gated behind arbitrary, invisible dice rolls. It’s a Fallout game.

Enjoy being cast as a decorated detective that isn’t allowed to detect. The game’s conclusion renders all inputs and investigation (the latter of which is completely out of your control) meaningless. It’s just… a book. If I wanted to read a book, I wouldn’t be playing a game. Had high hopes for you, Disco Elysium – but then, hope is just disappointment that hasn’t happened yet.

L.A. Noire

You’re a detective in Los Angeles of the 1940s. Be ready for a jaunt through Golden Age Hollywood as you solve crime after crime after grisly crime. Wow… America is unsafe!

Look, this is a Rockstar game, so we all know what to expect. Restrictive objectives and questionable writing. But maybe there’s some actual detective work? Let’s go investigate a scene. Okay, just point-and-click stuff. I’m used to this. At least it’s not paperwork. Now chase the suspect. Wait, I veered a millimeter off the prescribed path and have to start again. Okay, got him. Time for the interrogation. This is it, this is where the detecting begins. I know it. What’s that? I have to work out when this man is lying… through facial expressions… in a ten-year-old game? I don’t know when I am lying most of the time and you expect me to wade through the uncanny valley and tell you when this potato-faced man is fibbing?

I can’t do this anymore. Why won’t detective games let me be a detective? Don’t they know it’s my destiny? You can just call it something else instead of lying about it being a detective game. Because that’s a lie I can catch without staring at Rockstar’s digital renditions of constipation. How about we solve the mystery of how this copy of L.A. Noire ended up in the bin?