Crime plots can be found everywhere in the gaming world – from simple casual games to complex RPGs. But what do detective games have in common? The answer is as simple as it is banal: We always try to solve a case as investigators – no shit, Sherlock! So the points of contact are primarily in the plot. But what is there for detective games? And perhaps the biggest mystery: Why are there relatively few good crime novels in the gaming world?
As hobby investigators, we go on a search for clues, identify the pearls of the genre and make an unconventional plea for an underrated genre of games. But we also find some corpses in the basement that we want to relentlessly drag into the daylight.
We play bad cop – bad cop: challenges of the genre
Detective games come in a wide variety of shapes and colors, but most of them are more of an insider tip. Even the mother of the genre, the narrative thriller adventure, has only a few box office hits. Why are many detective games so unsuitable for the masses? Or, to put it more provocatively, what is so difficult about creating a good detective game?
Of course, a good story on the screen doesn't have to be a good game and vice versa. Detective adventures are strongly tied to a coherent storyline, but shouldn't neglect the gameplay. This is exactly where the crux of the matter lies: Many detective games fail because of this middle ground. Often either the puzzles are boring or the story is so flat that the hunt for the perpetrator is no fun. Without a coherent narration, we don't really care who Lieschen Müller's murderer is. We just don't get drawn into the mystery. A good detective game needs a meaningful combination of plot and puzzle elements. That is why there is a special affinity to point & click adventure: They are often designed to be very narrative, but also allow puzzles that fit perfectly with the tricky murderer hunt. In the detective game, however, the narration often takes up more space than the puzzle passages. However, we will look at this case again later using specific examples.
<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/430x/2012/10/Cognition_-_An_Erica_Reed_Thriller__The_Hangman_Trailer__2_HWC_StartScreen.jpg" alt = "Overly strong cops are often a weakness in detective games. For example Erica Reed in Cognition.”/>
Source: Phoenix Online
On the keyword Lieschen Müller: The characters must also convince and captivate. It's not that easy to invent something new, because murder and manslaughter have already occurred a thousand times in different media. The detective genre has copied a lot from them, maybe even a little too much. The virtual adventures are full of cool cops who are just not allowed to show any feelings, sherlock-like combination geniuses and sexy investigators with leather jackets and motorcycles. We constantly encounter tough loners or stereotypical bad cops – characters with a cool facade, but who lack depth and which we have unfortunately seen a hundred times. At this point, therefore, a small plea for strong characters in the detective game – and that doesn't mean tough dogs, but authentic, imaginative characters who sometimes step out of line.
Well thought-out story, logical puzzles, interesting characters: the demands on a detective game are pretty simple, one might think. Nevertheless, it is not easy to find good representatives in the huge oversupply. There is the classic murder hunt, mystery stories, thrillers, children's thrillers and, and, and. We have taken a closer look at a few copies and sniffed through innovation and genre clichés. We go step by step to the secret of what makes a good detective game and go on the hunt for the perfect crime adventure.
Classic: Elemental, my dear Watson!
Source: PC Games
The classics of the detective genre are often a homage or even an adaptation of popular crime stories: from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie. The former is the protagonist of what is probably the most important crime series: Sherlock Holmes by Frogware. Sherlock Holmes – The Secret of the Mummy began so angularly by today's standards that we would rather put it in the case files and ushered in a series of puzzle games about the famous investigative genius. The first titles in the series were rather sluggish, graphically unappealing point & click fossils. The will of Sherlock Holmes (2012) and Sherlock Holmes – Crimes and Punishment (2014) as highlights of the series, on the other hand, have already received significantly more attention. The latter shines above all with detailed graphics and an exciting game structure with which we can feel like a real detective. We make keen observations, gather clues and draw our conclusions from them. The will of Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, has a particularly well-thought-out, dark main plot full of dark secrets, but was not yet at the level of its successor in terms of play.
<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/430x/2016/06/Sherlock-Holmes-The-Devils-Daughter-PCGAMES-Test-Review-Tattan-pc-games.jpg" alt = " She is the source of all evil: the eponymous child in Sherlock Holmes – The Devil's Daughter.“/>
Source: PC Games
Unfortunately, what Frogware cannot do at all is the representation of children. They are often not only unbelievable, but sometimes also really scary. Graphically, they look like life-size dolls or human-like gnomes who make precocious comments with completely exaggerated whispering voices. The game studio never seems to have noticed, because in Sherlock Holmes – The Devils Daughter (2016) they even make a child the central figure in the plot. No wonder that the game was comparatively flopped and – to put it casually – killed the success of the series. We combine: The culprit was frogware with annoying quick-time events and absurd synchronization in the company office. Quicktime events in a puzzle game? Unfortunately yes.
For example, we have to endure a seemingly endless stealth chase or, like Indiana Jones, we have to fight our way through a maze full of traps. This may be perfectly fine in other games, but it's totally out of place in a number of quiet puzzle adventures. With every little action, we have to endure minigames and skill puzzles, especially so that we don't have to complete another quick-time event to pick a nose. But was the famous master detective and crime story hero murdered with this less popular game? The answer is a resounding "yes and no!" and depends heavily on the direction of the next title in the series, the one under the name Sherlock Holmes – Chapter One Will be published in early 2021. In addition, we shouldn't be too harsh with the latest Sherlock part. The Devils Daughter was comparatively disappointing, but not a completely unsuccessful game.
But it's not just Sherlock Holmes
<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/430x/2020/09/The-Raven-Screenshot-2–pc-games.png" alt = "The cute police officer Zellner in The Raven is finally not a bad cop, but refreshingly different.”/>
Source: PC Games
We experience a detective story that could hardly be more typical in The Raven – Legacy of a Master Thief (2013), a point & click by the German developer studio King Art. The plot and the characters mostly work according to the scheme F, but that is exactly what makes the game incredibly nostalgic. The Raven lives from the fact that every character and every setting is reminiscent of old black and white crime novels and makes you smile with all kinds of allusions to Miss Marple and Co. The Raven has only one catch and that's a big one: Not only is it hugely bugged, the gameplay is poor to say the least. We usually only click our way from A to B and through long, but at least well-voiced dialogues. The nostalgia, the cinematic music and the cute characters make up for the tough game mechanics a little. Above all, the likeable main character, the aged sergeant Zellner, who with his gray mustache and quirky jokes is refreshingly untypical for a detective game, is convincing.
At The ABC Murders (2016) is a direct adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel in simple but cute graphics that are reminiscent of Telltale Games. If you are looking for a really classic murder hunt in the typical point & click manner, you will find it here. The game principle overlaps with Sherlock Holmes: Here, too, we are allowed to look for clues with our investigator Poirot, examine suspects and ultimately network all clues. Just like a real detective. In general, the game is charming, but also quite "smooth" and therefore free of creative experiments or major surprises. The cute graphic style also ensures that there is no great suspense of crime. It's entertaining and coherent, but it's not a revelation.
<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/09/ABC-Murders-1-pc-games.png" alt = "The ingenious detective Poirot and his friend Hastings are the main characters of Agatha Christie adaptation The ABC Murders.”/>
Source: PC Games
On the other hand, it becomes much more unusual in Knee deep (2017). It is an indie adventure about actors who bring an interactive crime story to the stage. Right: a video game about a play about a detective story. Basically, the adventure still has a common crime setting. Blogger Romana, local reporter Jack and the typical tough detective K.C. Gaddis investigate a celebrity suicide in a small town in Florida. The plot of the game is linearly divided into individual scenes, which limits the freedom of action enormously. The majority of Knee Deep therefore consists of a kind of visual novel: We talk to suspects and select dialog options that always have certain consequences.
<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/430x/2020/09/KneeDeep-1-pc-games.png" alt = "Knee deep is a virtual version of an interactive play full of decisions and weird dialogues.”/>
Source: PC Games
In between we have short point & click passages, which, however, seem rather half-baked: We simply click on a few objects one after the other, without much inspiration – it really wouldn't have needed it. Furthermore, our characters have to put their findings into police reports or newspaper articles over and over again in the course of the game. We decide on their content, which in turn influences the course of the story. The unusual setting of a theater and its backdrop, as well as the black humor dialogues make Knee Deep bizarre, but also very unique. If you are looking for puzzles and freedom of movement, this is the wrong place. In return we get very weird humor and lots of decisions. You should have a pretty good command of the English language to be able to understand the crazy sayings.
The last "classic" detective game could be described as a puzzle adventure: Unheard (2019). Here we are a generic agent charged with solving cases using audio recordings. We see the speakers as simple points on a map that depicts the floor plan of a building (easy to see in the trailer above). We move like a shadow from room to room with a fictional character and eavesdrop on people. If we missed something, we can just rewind. So we just have to find out what happened based on what was said, the voices and the position. Only if we pay close attention can we close a case and get a new one.
The basic idea is quite unique, but voice acting is often overstated and not taken very seriously. Since the focus of the game is completely on the speakers, they are allowed to exaggerate a little. Unheard is more of a shorter casual game, but an unusual and creative one.
Mystery: The truth is out there somewhere …
Source: PC Games
After all of the savvy, but fairly conventional, noses, we long for a little more mystery. Fortunately, the detective adventure genre is full of games with psychic events. In the field of mystery crime, one name definitely has to be mentioned: Jane Jensen. She is the author of narrative detective games full of occult secrets that walk the fine line between realism and fantasy. Jensen's adventures are particularly popular because of the dense atmosphere and the winding plot. Neither graphically nor in terms of gameplay, the thriller adventures reinvent the wheel, but Jensen manages to leave a lasting memory with each of her works.
Jane Jensen's probably best-known work, Gabriel Knight – Sins of the Fathers (1993), marked the beginning of a popular adventure series. This revolves around a worn-out horror author who becomes an investigator in the realm of the supernatural. In 2014 the game was re-launched as a 20th Anniversary Edition and replaced the pixel type with a rather simple, but definitely game-ready 3D graphics. A special feature of the new edition by Gabriel Knight are the detailed, hand-drawn cutscenes in graphic novel style. Chic, comic-like cutscenes are commonly found in Jensen's works. Unfortunately, with Gabriel we are again playing the prototypical macho investigator with a hard shell, who every woman lies at his feet. The dark tale of voodoo cults in mysterious New Orleans and the interesting background knowledge that we soak up while playing, however, carries you away. Gabriel's nonchalance between lousy sex allusions and bad pick-up lines is so exaggerated that it becomes a real entertainment factor as ironic trash.
<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/09/GabrielKnight-9-pc-games.png" alt = "The new edition of the classic Gabriel Knight – Sins of the Fathers convinces with cutscenes in graphic novel style.”/>
Source: PC Games
It becomes similarly stereotypical at the beginning of the mystery adventure Gray Matter (2010), also by Jane Jensen. Unfortunately, the beginning of the story is an absolute cliché orgy: A vicious hobby mentalist with a leather jacket and motorcycle falls for the typical upside-down signpost on the country road after just a few minutes. Then of course her machine also blesses the temporal and she seeks refuge in the pouring rain in the creepy 08/15 villa – which is of course also inhabited by a scary scientist. After this cliché kick-off, the action starts very slowly until it starts rolling.
Source: PC Games
But once you get through the start of the game, the mysterious story develops an impressive pull – despite or perhaps because of the calm narrative style. But this is not due to the principle of the game, because the puzzle chains are rather uninspired. The idea of solving puzzles with sleight of hand also sounds more exciting than it is actually implemented. Ultimately, however, you stick with it. This is mainly due to the mysterious background story, the great music and the atmospheric cutscenes. The latter bring the emotional story to life in an exemplary way.
Also belongs to the series of Jane Jansen thrillers with supernatural events Moebius – Empire Rising (2014). Of the ones mentioned here, it is probably the weakest Jensen game. But it still has a few special features. No, it's not the graphics again – the movements of the characters are incredibly angular for a work from 2014. In contrast to the other Jensen titles, however, the game has some special science fiction elements.
Source: PC Games
In this adventure we play Malaki, a brilliant historian with a photographic memory, brilliant and equally arrogant. Anyone who has seen any crime thriller in the past ten years should be familiar with such characters. He is supposed to clear up strange repetitions in human history for a client, which gives the game the exciting sci-fi component.
To solve the case, he embarks on a journey that, due to various fateful twists and turns, is much more dangerous than initially assumed. Fortunately, Malaki is supported by ex-soldier David as a loyal bodyguard. The game has some nice, unusual logic puzzles about historical figures and the dynamic between the two main male characters is soulful and heartwarming. Many of the puzzles, however, are repetitive, the image of society is old-fashioned and the female characters are uncomfortably stereotypical. The delicate, modern romance that suggests itself between the two protagonists is well done, but cannot hide the shortcomings.
A few mysterious insider tips …
<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/430x/2020/09/Painscreek-6-pc-games.png" alt = "The abandoned place that we are in The Painscreek Killings examine looks very idyllic at first glance.”/>
Source: PC Games
Crime stories are often full of mysterious locations and hidden clues. Many detective games are therefore walking simulator, such as The Painscreek Killings (2017). In the latter, one moves from the first person perspective through a seemingly tranquil place where the mayor's wife was murdered. In the meantime, however, Painscreek has died out and we are trying to find out the secret of the violence on our own. To do this, we first walk through an extremely large number of streets that look the same, find thousands of locked doors and at first glance we can't do much. This may seem frustrating at first, but as soon as you have discovered the first clues – mostly keys, diary entries or old notes – you quickly tasted blood. The abandoned city quickly develops a mysterious, slightly oppressive atmosphere. In addition, as detective we are free like never before: We decide for ourselves when to close the case with our previous knowledge. The open investigation work is done realistically and ripples along without a great tension curve. You won't find any action in it. The quiet, mysterious plot and the simple, exploratory gameplay go perfectly hand in hand, but you need a little patience.
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In The Testament of Sherlock Holmes the master detective investigates uncanny and cruel murder cases in London. (Source: Focus Home Interactive)
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