There are few things more enjoyable in a work of fiction than a good mystery. Those impossible crimes that make the gears in your brain churn. Inexplicable murders, mysterious disappearances, and perplexing riddles. And while reading or watching such stories in novels, TV shows, or movies is a lot of fun, games let you go one step further and take part in the investigation yourself, experiencing the satisfaction of cracking a case first-hand. The following games are the best examples of virtual sleuthing that you can play on PC today.
Return of the Obra Dinn
Year: 2018 | Developer: Lucas Pope | Link
The crew of the Obra Dinn has mysteriously disappeared, and it's your job, an insurance investigator, to find out what happened. Using a magical pocket watch you can revisit the exact moment of a person's death, and through these vignettes you piece together their name, how they died, and who (or what) was responsible. This is an immensely satisfying detective game because it trusts you to solve each mystery yourself with almost no hand-holding.
Read more: Return of the Obra Dinn review
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments
Year: 2014 | Developer: Frogwares | Link
Frogwares has been making Sherlock Holmes games for years, but it 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 remarkably 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 UK TV detective dramas. There’s the odd badly designed puzzle, but otherwise this is one of the best examples of the genre.
Read more: Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments review
Year: 2019 | Developer: ZA/UM | Link
Disco Elysium is a detective RPG of improbable depth. It's part Planescape: Torment, part police procedural. Your fatally hungover detective peels himself off the carpet, naked except for a pair of soiled underpants, and begins the laborious process of piecing his broken mind back together, while simultaneously attempting to solve a gruesome murder on the wrong side of the tracks. The beauty of Disco Elysium, aside from its gorgeous art, superb writing, and inky black sense of humour, is sculpting the grotseque lump of clay that is the main character into any kind of detective you like—including a bad one.
Read more: Disco Elysium review
Year: 2019 | Developer: Tendershoot | Link
You've been hired as an Enforcer: an internet detective tasked with hunting down illegal content on the GeoCities-inspired Hynospace. This garish simulated '90s internet, inspired by the golden age of the web, is hiding all kinds of illegal content: pirated music, copyright infringement, harrassment, malicious software. And you really have to work to find the offending material, infiltrating hacker collectives, locating hidden pages, and cracking passwords.
Read more: Hypnospace Outlaw review
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy
Year: 2019 | Developer: Capcom| Link
In this series of funny, weird visual novels you play as an attorney. But don't worry: you get to do plenty of detecting too. Phoenix is incredibly hands-on when it comes to his work, and you'll spend much of your time outside of the courtroom snooping around crime scenes for clues, interrogating people, and constructing a case. And once you've pieced everything together, taking your evidence into court and assaulting the suspect with cold, hard facts is a thrill. There are three games here, and they're all incredibly long, so you'll definitely get your money's worth. And it's all worth it for the moment when you corner the suspect and nail them with a piece of irrefutable evidence.
Read more: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy review
The Flower Collectors
Year: 2020 | Developer: Mi'pu'mi Games | Link
Inspired by Hitchock's Rear Window, this neo-noir adventure game takes place entirely in an apartment overlooking a plaza in 1970s Spain. You play as an ex-cop in a wheelchair who witnesses a murder and takes it upon himself—with a little help from an unlikely ally—to crack the case. It's very simple and light on interaction, but the story and voice acting are fantastic, and it's amazingly atmospheric. I also love how it forces you to get to know the plaza, the people who live around it, and the routines of the locals, to help you sniff out who murdered this guy and why. The politics of post-Franco Barcelona also give the story a unique edge, teaching you a little something about history in the process.
Year: 2020 | Developer: Kaizen Game Works | Link
This is a detective game where you're free to investigate on your own terms. While the investigation phase in most detect-'em-ups is scripted or at least gently guided, Paradise Killer is open-ended. You explore at your own pace, pick up clues in any order, and create links to make the crime you're investigating, hopefully, a little clearer. This makes exploring extremely rewarding—doubly so because of the vividly weird setting and the catchy, eclectic soundtrack.
Read more: Paradise Killer review
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Year: 2016 | Developer: Spike Chunsoft | Link
A group of students think they’ve been invited to study at an elite school called Hope’s Peak Academy, but have in fact become unwitting pawns in a sinister, deadly game. Trapped in the school by a mysterious villain called Monokuma (pictured above), the only way to escape, or ‘graduate’, is to kill another student and get away with the crime undetected. And when students start dying, it’s up to you to search for clues, interview people, then make your final case in court. And if you pin the crime on the wrong person, everyone dies.
Read more: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc review
Year: 2011 | Developer: Team Bondi | Link
Inspired by pulp detective fiction and too many films 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 stunningly authentic and well-researched recreation of 1940s Los Angeles. The city isn’t a GTA-style playground, but an elaborate film set for a variety of cases, from brutal serial murders to stolen cars and arson. It’s more linear than it first seems, but the rich atmosphere and intriguing cases make up for it.
Read more: Why I Love: The City of L.A. Noire
Year: 2015 | Developer: Sam Barlow | Link
What’s interesting about Her Story is that everyone’s version of the story will be different. You take a non-linear path through its mystery by searching a fragmented archive of video clips, and the story becomes clearer with each one you uncover. This unique freeform structure, combined with understated and believable police interview clips, makes it a bold narrative experiment. And piecing together the story really makes you feel like a detective.
Read more: Her Story review
Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars
Year: 1996 | Developer: Revolution Software | Link
An American lawyer on holiday in Paris takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of a fatal cafe bombing. The first Broken Sword is still the best, elegantly weaving real-world history with a tale of murder, cults, and conspiracy. Lovable hero George Stobbart is proof you don’t need a badge or a gun to be a good detective. This globe-trotting adventure whisks you away to a number of memorable locations, from a Syrian marketplace to a cosy Irish countryside pub, and its deft balance of mystery and humour is note-perfect.
Read more: Why I Love: Broken Sword's Irish pub
Murder By Numbers
Year: 2020| Developer: Mediatonic | Link
Part crime drama, part picross anthology, Murder By Numbers is a surprise coming together of mystery visual novel and grid-based puzzle solving. Mediatonic's detective adventure features a flourish of sharply dressed characters, garbage ex-husbands, prickly detectives, glitzy award shows, and cute robots. Plus at one point a giant stiletto crashes into the side of a drag bar. It's fun, flashy, and has decent puzzles. Think Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney but with more murder and maths.
Read more: Murder By Numbers review
Year: 1999 | Developer: Perfect Entertainment
Based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of comic fantasy novels, 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 be both a parody and a loving homage to film noir. However, despite being an adventure game, there's very little puzzling. At least not in the traditional sense. It's mostly a game about talking to people, leaning on them for clues, and opening up new lines of investigation to edge closer to the truth—which actually makes it a truer detective game than most.
Year: 2016 | Developer: Osmotic Studios | Link
Being a detective isn’t always about being a force for good. In the dystopian Orwell you’re a government agent who’s been given permission to pry into people’s personal lives, digging through private chats, emails, and social media profiles to pin crimes against the state on them. Privacy be damned. It's a spiralling conspiratorial thriller, and throws in enough twists and surprises to keep things interesting all the way through. It's not at all subtle (it's called Orwell, after all) but it's a well-told mystery framed by a captivating, morally dubious storytelling device.
Read more: Orwell review
Year: 1998 | Developer: LucasArts | Link
Set in the Land of the Dead, Grim Fandango sees salesman Manny Calavera becoming embroiled in a shady conspiracy. Think Glengarry Glen Ross meets Casablanca, but with writer/creator Tim Schafer's trademark sense of humour. It’s not a traditional detective game like some of the others on this list, but the visuals and atmosphere are so steeped in film noir imagery that it feels like one—and cracking the conspiracy involves a touch of sleuthing.
Read more: Grim Fandango Remastered review
Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon
Year: 1994 | Developer: Access Software | Link
With its sleazy jazz soundtrack, gritty monologues, and trenchcoat-wearing hero, Under a Killing Moon is unashamedly an homage to film noir—but set in San Francisco in 2042. Murphy, a booze-soaked PI down on his luck, suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of a doomsday cult. At the time, this was one of the most expensive games ever made, with a budget of $2 million. This was largely down to its combination of 3D environments and live-action FMV, which still has a certain charm, even if it hasn't aged that well visually.
Year: 2011 | Developer: Joshua Nuernberger | Link
This cyberpunk-flavoured adventure game is set in the far future, and takes place on a distant planet in the Gemini system. In a rainy Blade Runner-inspired urban setting, it follows cop Azriel Odin as he tries to track down his missing brother. There are two playable characters, whose stories become entwined. This is another game that has the feel of a detective game rather than being one outright, but sometimes that's enough to scratch the sleuthing itch.
Read more: Gemini Rue review
Year: 1997 | Developer: Westwood Studios | Link
This adventure game perfectly captures the mood of the 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 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 secretly be a replicant.
Read more: Returning to Westwood's Blade Runner
Sam & Max Hit the Road
Year: 1993 | Developer: LucasArts | Link
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. Although I should note that, despite the fact that its heroes are detectives by trade, Sam & Max is more in line with other LucasArts adventures from the era, with absurd puzzles and leaps of logic. But I won't hold that against it, because it's a classic.
Read more: The making of Sam & Max Hit the Road
The Last Express
Year: 1997 | Developer: Smoking Car Productions | Link
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 since.
Read more: Crap Shoot: The Last Express
Year: 2005 | Developer: Quantic Dream | Link
Before it goes all indulgent and supernatural at the halfway point, Fahrenheit (also known as Indigo Prophecy in North America) is a brilliantly tense thriller. The opening scene where you cover up a murder scene as one character, then investigate it later as a homicide detective, is a highlight. A confused mess of a game, but one with a few standout moments.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers
Year: 1993 | Developer: Sierra Entertainment | Link
Another classic ‘90s adventure, set in a city rarely 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 as he hunts for the truth. Sins of the Fathers was inspired by Alan Parker’s brilliant neo noir Angel Heart, which dealt with similar themes.
Year: 2010 | Developer: Access Games | Link
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 a semi real-time structure means you have limited time to investigate crime scenes and interview people.
Read more: Deadly Premonition review
The Darkside Detective
Year: 2017 | Developer: Spooky Doorway | Link
This reference-heavy and winning adventure is pretty traditional when it comes to point-and-click puzzle design, but the funny writing and great characters make it. You play as Francis McQueen, and along with sidekick and foil Dooley, you solve cases with a hidden supernatural element. FTL's Ben Prunty provides the excellent, atmospheric music.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Year: 2014 | Developer: The Astronauts | Link
In this atmospheric first-person indie game you play as Paul Prospero, a private investigator with supernatural powers. He’s able to visualise a crime long after it’s happened by studying clues, and uses this ability to uncover the dark, twisted secrets of the disarmingly beautiful Red Creek Valley.
Read more: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter review
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Year: 2015 | Developer: CD Projekt RED | Link
Geralt of Rivia is basically a fantasy gumshoe, who begins most quests by using his witcher senses to look for clues. He even has the gruff voice and weary manner of a film noir detective. Solving murders, rooting out corruption, and exposing liars are just a few of the cop-like activities he indulges in.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
Year: 2005 | Developer: Monolith Productions | Link
This grimy, underappreciated horror game is notable for featuring a lead character who both investigates crimes with high-tech equipment and beats drug addicts to death with a steel pipe. The detective bits take a back seat later on, but early sections are reminiscent of Seven’s gruesome crime scenes.
Year: 2006 | Developer: Wadjet Eye Games | Link
The Shivah was developed by Wadjet Eye's Dave Gilbert and features the unlikely hero of a 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.
Read more: Crap Shoot: The Shivah
The Wolf Among Us
Year: 2013 | Developer: Telltale Games | Link
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.
Read more: The Wolf Among Us review
Year: 1992 | 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.
Shadow of Memories
Year: 2002 | Developer: KCET
This forgotten Konami game (called Shadow of Destiny in North America) sees you traveling 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.