Developer: Perfect Entertainment
Based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, this send-up of hard-boiled detective fiction has a distinctly British sense of humour. Its shadowy, rain-soaked setting, Ankh-Morpork, is brilliantly atmospheric, and it manages to both mock film noir and be a loving homage to it.
Police Quest: Open Season
Developer: Sierra Entertainment
While Sierra’s series usually casts you as an ordinary cop, Open Season makes you a homicide detective. Set in Los Angeles in the 1990s, it’s the most realistic game on our list, heavy on real-world crime scene protocol and procedures.
Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars
Developer: Revolution Software
An American lawyer on holiday attempts to solve the mystery of a fatal Paris cafe bombing. The first Broken Sword is still the best, deftly weaving real-world history with murder and conspiracy. George Stobbart is proof you don’t need a badge or a gun to be a detective.
Developer: Team Bondi
Inspired by pulp detective fiction and too many film noirs to list, this lavish crime thriller is a change of pace from Rockstar’s usual open world output. It’s a slow, methodical game of clue-hunting and suspect interrogation, set in a stunning recreation of 1940s Los Angeles. The city isn’t a GTA-style playground, but an elaborate film set for a broad variety of cases, from serial murders to stolen cars. It’s more linear than it seems, and the action sequences are clunky, but a rich atmosphere, masterful world-building, and intriguing investigations make up for it.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments
Frogwares has been making Sherlock Holmes games for years, but struck gold with this one. It’s one of only a few games in this feature that actually make you feel like you’re doing some real detecting. Clues gathered from the detailed, atmospheric crime scenes can be pieced together in Holmes’s mind, and the conclusions you draw might not always be correct. A classy, understated game, evoking classic British TV detective dramas. There’s the odd badly designed puzzle, but otherwise this is one of the best examples of the genre.
Developer: Westwood Studios
This point-and-click adventure perfectly captures the mood of Ridley Scott’s classic dystopian sci-fi film. Playing as a rookie Blade Runner called Ray McCoy, you’re tasked with hunting down a group of rogue replicants. The story mirrors the film a little too closely, but McCoy does a lot more detecting than Deckard. Much of the game is spent scouring the rainy, neon-lit streets of a futuristic Los Angeles for clues. Brilliantly, there’s a random element when you start a new game, and you never know which of the characters might be a replicant—including yourself.
Set in the Land of the Dead, Grim Fandango sees a skeletal salesman, Manny Calavera, become embroiled in a shady conspiracy. It’s not a traditional detective game, but its visuals and atmosphere are so steeped in film noir imagery that it feels like one—and cracking the conspiracy involves some sleuthing.
The Last Express
Developer: Smoking Car Productions
Set aboard the Orient Express in 1914, The Last Express is a superb crime thriller with a unique real-time structure. You have limited time to solve a variety of mysteries on the train, including the brutal death of a passenger—who also happens to be your friend. There’s never been another game like it.
Developer: Quantic Dream
Before it turns into a bizarre fantasy/sci-fi story at the halfway point, Fahrenheit is a brilliantly tense thriller. The opening scene is the highlight: you cover up a murder as one character, then investigate it later as a homicide detective. A confused mess of a game, with some superb moments.
Developer: Joshua Nuernberger
This cyberpunk adventure takes place on a distant planet in the Gemini system. In a rainy Blade Runneresque urban setting, a cop called Azriel Odin is trying to track down his missing brother. There are two playable characters, whose stories eventually become entwined.
Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon
Developer: Access Software
With its sleazy jazz soundtrack, gritty monologues and trenchcoat-wearing hero, this is an unashamed homage to film noir—but set in 2042. Murphy’s a booze-soaked PI down on his luck, as they often are, who finds himself on the wrong side of a doomsday cult.
Sam & Max Hit the Road
This adventure is one of LucasArts’ most fondly remembered, and with good reason. It follows freelance detectives Sam (the dog) and Max (the rabbit) as they track down a bigfoot who’s gone missing from a carnival. The case takes them across the United States, and it’s genuinely funny throughout.
Developer: Wadjet Eye Games
Funny how one of the best detective games on PC was made by a lone developer. The Shivah was developed by Wadjet Eye Games founder Dave Gilbert, and features as its unlikely hero a grouchy, middle-aged rabbi. It’s short, but it’s remarkable in its lack of hand-holding. A former member of his synagogue has been murdered under mysterious circumstances (aren’t they always), and he takes it upon himself to find out why. It’s a mature story that deals with issues of faith and morality, but with a few jokes too. Make sure you play the enhanced Kosher Edition.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
Developer: Monolith Productions
This horror game is notable for a lead character who both investigates crimes CSI-style, and beats drug addicts to death with steel pipes. The detective bits take a back seat later on, but early sections are reminiscent of Seven’s grisly crimes.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Developer: The Astronauts
In this atmospheric first person indie game you play Paul Prospero, a private investigator with supernatural powers. He’s able to bring a crime scene back to life long after it’s happened by studying the clues, and uses this ability to uncover the dark, twisted secrets of the disarmingly beautiful, yet eerily empty Red Creek Valley. Where have all the people gone?
Developer: Cryo Interactive
And now for something completely different. This obscure old game, renamed Conspiracy for its CD-ROM release, sees you working inside the KGB at the end of the Cold War, trying to root out corruption. A very different take on the detective genre, and brutally, punishingly difficult. You have been warned.
Developer: Access Games
Taking its inspiration from David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks, this is one of the strangest games on PC. It’s the tale of an FBI agent hunting a serial killer in a small American town, and the semi real-time structure means you have limited time to investigate crime scenes and interview its deeply weird citizens. People either love Deadly Premonition or hate it. It’s a quirky, broken game with a distinctly Japanese sense of humour, but there’s nothing else like it on PC. Or anywhere.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers
Developer: Sierra Entertainment
Another classic ’90s adventure, set in a city not often featured in games: New Orleans. Knight is investigating a series of voodoo-related murders. He’s no detective—he’s an author researching a book—but that doesn’t stop him from studying crime scenes and interrogating suspects. Sins of the Fathers was inspired by Alan Parker’s brilliant neo-noir film Angel Heart, which dealt with similar themes. Knight is voiced by Tim Curry, and would go on to star in another two games. A remastered version of Sins was released on Steam in 2014.
The Wolf Among Us
Developer: Telltale Games
Based on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic series, this episodic adventure from Telltale has a distinct film noir feel. It’s set in a world where fairy tale characters are real, and living in secret in New York City. The severed head of a girl on the doorstep of reluctant hero Bigby Wolf triggers its dark mystery.
Shadow of Memories
This forgotten Konami game (called Shadow of Destiny in North America) sees you travelling between time periods, trying to solve the mystery of why someone keeps murdering you—and why you keep waking up afterwards unscathed. A bizarre curio with some really interesting ideas. Shame about the PC port.