In one of her best books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie puts these words into the mouth of her least favourite character, Hercule Poirot: “Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth. The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.”
All detective stories are an attempt to reflect this. Uncovering the truth through clever reasoning, observation and logic is wondrous. You are forced to look at the world anew: a misplaced chair is no longer just a chair, but indicative of a killer’s escape; a removed lightbulb tells us the killer did not want to be seen. In the eyes of a detective (or a great detective writer), everyday objects are imbued with alien significance. They no longer fit where we think they fit and when we find their proper place, a clear picture emerges. Poirot was a great detective because he obsessed over order and was more sensitive to misplacement. Sherlock Holmes could see tiny stains on a hat and understand the entire life of its wearer.
Whether portrayed through literature, films, TV shows or video games, detective stories ideally invite us to participate in a grand puzzle, allowing us to slot the pieces into place alongside the characters. But sometimes, TV writers deprive us of the opportunity to do so. A classic example is when our detective flourishes some evidence he obtained from his almost magical sources. In the Sherlock Holmes TV adaptation Elementary, for example, Sherlock has access to a hacker group who can simply “obtain” necessary info. There is no way for the audience to have done that – we are held at bay, as though we were a magician’s audience rather than the detective’s companion.
Not so black and white … The Bafta-winning Return of the Obra Dinn. Photograph: Lucas Pope
In video games, though, the player has to solve the mystery themselves; there are no cheap parlour tricks here, and that necessitates some especially clever techniques when it comes to design. Detective games are sometimes sourced from the greats of literature, such as The ABC Murders, based on the book of the same name by Christie – but not always. The Bafta-winning Return of the Obra Dinn is a self-contained black-and-white mystery set on a merchant ship whose crew is long dead, and is one of the best detective stories around. Since Gabriel Knight in the 1990s – an endearingly trashy series of adventure games about supernatural investigators fighting evil – games have been refining the art of a great mystery story.
Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games (2002-21), made by an independent Ukrainian studio, are for me the epitome of detective games. They are full of brain-testing puzzles themed around everything from picking locks to chemical solutions to plant properties. Every story gives you the requisite clues and evidence for you to solve the crime – but you are at liberty to figure out the true criminal, how the crime was carried out, and what the punishment should be, and you can interpret a single piece of evidence in a way that leads to a wrongful arrest. In a murder case about plant poisoning, is the main suspect the angry son of the deceased, or does the fact the son knows nothing about plants rule him out?
These games let you wander Sherlock’s mind palace, where the evidence is summarised, allowing you to make connections between suspects and evidence and reach your (sometimes incorrect) conclusions. But making mistakes is a key part of puzzle-solving. Being given the freedom to make a wrong deduction is part of what makes these games so interesting.
Frogwares reuses some of the same detective mechanics (including the mind palace) in its open-world Lovecraftian game The Sinking City (2019). Unlike in the Sherlock Holmes games, it’s possible to miss clues entirely during an investigation in this creepy fictional 1920s Massachusetts, and that can change the conclusions you reach. Players take on the role of a private detective, Charles Reed, who’s plagued by visions, nightmares and headaches since the disappearance of the USS Cyclops, the ship he served on during the first world war (a real ship that vanished without trace).
The Sinking City creates an incredible, creepy atmosphere that captures what it is like reading a Lovecraft story – and many of Lovecraft’s main characters were investigators, even if they weren’t specifically detectives. In the story The Call of Cthulhu, Thurston is piecing together notes left behind by his great-uncle, and a large portion of the action is dedicated to a detective, Legrasse; in The Horror at Red Hook, the main character is Detective Malone.
Gangs of Tokyo … Judgment is set in a fictional part of the Japanese capital. Photograph: Sega
The Council, from 2018, meanwhile, is set in the late 1700s and features occult and secret societies as well as classic detective adventures. Players take on the role of Louis de Richet, who discovers that his mother has been missing for some time since arriving on an island owned by a shady lord. Like your classic Christie setup, there is a small, quirky cast of characters who all have some excuse to be there, and some motivation to have committed the crime the detective is solving.
Judgment is a 2018 Japanese genre piece set in the fictional Tokyo district of Kamurochō, and places you in the white shoes of Takayuki Yagami, a private eye investigating some grisly gang murders. In this game, solving the crime is only the beginning of a hardboiled and gruesome story involving plenty of brawls, alongside analysing clues and interviewing witnesses. Though its detective mechanics are not as refined as those of Frogwares, Judgment’s choices still matter and the clues are real stepping stones towards a conclusion, not magician’s parlour tricks.
Detective games are as varied as their characters, but they all tell a story pieced together by some clever person – and with help from the games’ writers and designers, you get to be that clever person. A great detective game balances the satisfaction of a logic puzzle with the interpersonal drama of the best stories from screen and page. When they get it right, there’s no better way to experience a mystery.