In the footsteps of criminals: In search of the perfect detective game

We have a passion for murder and manslaughter! True crime series are gaining popularity, and every Sunday there is a crime scene shooting in Germany. Yes, we have a creepy penchant for murder. Not surprisingly, crime stories are also an integral part of the games. We take a closer look at the seemingly overlooked niche genre of detective games – and shed some light on some interesting representatives from recent years.

Crime plots can be found everywhere in the game world, from simple casual games to complex role-playing games. But what do detective games have in common? The answer is as simple as it is banal: we’re always trying to solve a case as investigators – no shit, Sherlock! Thus, the points of convergence are primarily in the plot. What about detective games? And perhaps the biggest mystery of all: why are there relatively few good crime thrillers in the gaming world?

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As amateur researchers, we set out to find clues, identify gems of the genre and make unconventional arguments for an underrated genre of games. But we also find a few skeletons in the basement that we want to ruthlessly drag out into the light of day.

Classic: Elemental, my dear Watson!

Classics of the detective genre often pay homage or even adapt popular crime stories: from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie. The former is the protagonist of arguably the most important crime series: Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes. “Sherlock Holmes: The Mummy Mystery” started out so angular by today’s standards that we’d prefer to put it in the case file and herald a series of puzzle games about the famous investigative genius. The first games in the series were still pretty sluggish, graphically unappealing fossils of the point-and-click type. The Will of Sherlock Holmes (2012) and Sherlock Holmes – Crime and Punishment(2014) as highlights of the series, on the other hand, have attracted considerably more attention. The latter is distinguished above all by its detailed graphics and thrilling gameplay structure, which make us feel like a real detective. We make keen observations, gather evidence and draw conclusions from it. On the other hand, The Will of Sherlock Holmes has a particularly well-designed dark main story full of dark secrets, but has yet to reach the level of its successor in terms of gameplay.

What Frogware, unfortunately, doesn’t know how to do at all is display children. Not only are they often unbelievable, but sometimes they’re genuinely scary. Graphically, they look like life-sized dolls or humanoid gnomes, uttering over-developed comments in a completely exaggerated squeaky voice. However, the game studio never seems to have noticed this, because in Sherlock Holmes – The Devil’s Daughter (2016) they even made a child the central character in the story. Unsurprisingly, the game comparatively flopped and, roughly speaking, killed the series’ winning streak. Combine: The culprit was Frogware with its annoying quicktime events and absurd synchronisation in the company’s office. Quicktime events in a puzzle game? Sadly, yes.

For example, we have to endure an almost endless stealthy chase or make our way through a maze full of traps like Indiana Jones. That might be fine in other games, but completely inappropriate in a series of silent puzzle adventures. With every action, however small, we have to endure mini-games and skill puzzles, just so we don’t have to do another quick event to pick our nose. But has the famous master detective and crime game hero been killed off by this less popular game? The answer is a resounding “Jane!” and largely depends on the direction of the next title in the series, which is entitled Sherlock Holmes – Chapter One .Released in early 2021. Also, let’s not be too harsh on the last part of Sherlock. Despite its comparative disappointment, The Devil’s Daughter was not a complete failure.

But it’s not just Sherlock Holmes

We’re faced with a detective story that could hardly be more typical in The Raven – Legacy of a Master Thief (2013), a point&click from German development studio King Art. The story and characters are largely formulaic, but that’s what makes the game incredibly nostalgic. The Raven thrives on the fact that every character and every location is reminiscent of old black-and-white crime novels and makes you smile with all sorts of references to Miss Marple and Co. Raven has only one snag, and it’s a big one: not only is it very glitchy, but the gameplay sucks, to say the least. Mostly we just click our way from A to B and through long, but at least well voiced, dialogues. However, the nostalgia, cinematic music and likable characters make up for the sluggish gameplay mechanics. Above all, the sympathetic protagonist, the elderly Sergeant Zellner, who is refreshingly atypical for a detective game with his grey moustache and quirky jokes, is convincing.

The ABC Murders (2016) is a straight adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel with simple but cutesy graphics reminiscent of Telltale Games. If you’re looking for a truly classic murder hunt in typical point-and-click style, you’ll find it here. The principle of the game is the same as Sherlock Holmes: here we can also search for clues along with our investigator Poirot, interrogate suspects and eventually put all the clues together in a network. Just like a real detective. Overall the game, although charming, is fairly “fluid” and therefore devoid of any creative experimentation or major surprises. The cute graphical style also ensures that the game doesn’t contain too much of a crime thriller. It’s interesting and coherent, but it’s not a revelation.

On the contrary, it becomes much more unusual in Knee to Knee (2017). It’s an indie adventure about actors who bring an interactive crime play to the stage. That’s right: a video game based on a play about a detective. In fact, the adventure has the usual crime setting. Blogger Romana, local reporter Jack and typical tough-as-nails detective KC Gaddis investigate the suicide of a celebrity in a small Florida town. The game’s action is linearly divided into separate scenes, which severely limits your freedom of action. As such, much of Knee Deep consists of a kind of visual novel: we talk to the suspects and choose dialogue options that always have some consequence.

There are short Point&Click passages in between, which, however, seem rather immature: we just click on a few objects one by one, without inspiration or much puzzle solving – it really wasn’t necessary. Also, during the course of the game, our characters have to recount their findings repeatedly in police reports or newspaper articles. We decide on their content, which in turn affects the course of the story. The unusual setting of the theatre and its setting, as well as the blackly humorous dialogue, make Knee Deep quirky, but also very unique. If you’re looking for puzzles and more freedom of movement, this is not the place for you. In return we get some very quirky humour and lots of solutions. You must speak English well enough,

The latest “classic” detective game would be the adventure puzzle game: Unheard (2019). Here we’re a regular agent tasked with solving cases using audio recordings. We see the speakers as simple dots on a map depicting the floor plan of a building (clearly visible in the trailer above). Like a shadow, we then move from room to room with a fictional character and eavesdrop on people. If we miss something, we can simply rewind. So all we have to do is figure out what happened based on what was said, voices and position. Only if we pay close attention can we close the case and get a new one.

The basic idea is quite unique, but the voice acting is often exaggerated and should not be taken too seriously. Since the main focus of the game is entirely on the speakers, they are allowed to exaggerate a bit. Unheard is more of a short casual game, but is unusual and creative.

Mystery: The truth is out there…

After all the tricky but rather ordinary investigations, we crave some more mystery. Fortunately, the adventure detective genre is full of games with supernatural events. Among detective thrillers, one name definitely needs to be mentioned: Jane Jensen . She is the author of predominantly narrative detective games full of occult mysteries, balancing on the fine line between realism and fantasy. Jensen’s adventures are particularly popular because of their dense atmosphere and intricate plot. Neither graphically nor gameplay-wise, crime adventures don’t reinvent the wheel, but Jensen manages to leave an indelible memory with each of his works.

Perhaps Jane Jensen’s most famous work, Gabriel Knight – Sins of the Fathers (1993), is the origin of the popular adventure series. It revolves around a jaded horror author who becomes an explorer of the supernatural. In 2014, the game was released as 20th Anniversary Edition .again on the market and replaced the pixel art with fairly simple but definitely playable 3D graphics. Features of the new Gabriel Knight edition include detailed, hand-drawn cutscenes in the style of a graphic novel. Chic comic cutscenes are commonly found in Jensen’s work. Unfortunately, with Gabriel we are once again playing the prototypical macho investigator with a hard shell, at whose feet every woman falls. The grim tale of voodoo cults in mysterious New Orleans and the interesting background knowledge we absorb during the game still pulls you in. Gabriel’s sloppiness between lousy sex references and bad pick-up lines is also so exaggerated that it becomes a real entertainment factor in the form of ironic thrash.

It becomes equally stereotypical at the start of the mystical adventure Grey Matter (2010), also directed by Jane Jensen. Unfortunately, the beginning of the story is an utterly banal orgy: a gothic amateur mentalist in a leather jacket and on a motorbike hits a typical upside-down sign after only a few minutes on a country road. Then, of course, her car dies and she seeks shelter in the pouring rain in a creepy mediocre villa, which, of course, is also inhabited by a sinister scientist. After this cliché, the beginning of the plot begins very leisurely, until it spirals away.

But once you survive the beginning of the game, the mystery story becomes impressive – in spite of, or perhaps because of, the quiet narrative style. But it’s not because of the gameplay, because the puzzle chains are pretty boring. The idea of solving puzzles with sleight of hand sounds more exciting than it actually is. But in the end, you stick with it. This is mainly due to the mysterious backstory, great music and atmospheric clips. The latter bring the emotional story to life in exemplary fashion.

Mebius – Rise of an Empire (2014) also belongs to Jane Jansen’s series of crime novels with supernatural events . Of those mentioned here, Jansen’s performance is perhaps the weakest. Nevertheless, it does have a few features. No, again, it’s not the graphics – the character movements are incredibly angular for a work of 2014. However, unlike Jensen’s other games, the game can come up with some special science fiction elements.

Malarkey, a brilliant historian with a photographic memory, is brilliant and equally overbearing. Anyone who has seen any crime thriller in the last ten years should be familiar with such characters. He has to unravel strange reoccurrences in human history for his client, which gives the game a thrilling sci-fi element.

To solve the case, he embarks on a journey that, due to various twists and turns of fate, becomes much more dangerous than originally anticipated. Luckily, Malarkey has former soldier David as his loyal bodyguard. The game has some enjoyable, unusual logic puzzles based on historical figures, and the dynamics between the two male protagonists are heartwarming and touching. However, many of the puzzles are repetitive, the images of society are old-fashioned, and the female figures are unpleasantly stereotypical. The gentle, contemporary romance on offer between the two main characters is well done, but cannot hide the flaws.

Some cryptic insider tips

Crime novels are often full of mystery locations and hidden clues. That’s why many detective games are walking simulations, such as The Painscreek Killings.(2017). In the latter, you navigate a seemingly tranquil first-person location where the mayor’s wife has been murdered. Meanwhile, Painscreek is extinct and we try to solve the mystery of the act of violence ourselves. To do this we first traverse an extremely large number of alleyways that look the same, find thousands of locked doors and at first glance there is little we can do. This can seem frustrating at first, but as soon as you discover the first clues – mostly keys, diary entries or old records – you immediately taste blood. A mysterious, slightly oppressive atmosphere quickly develops in the deserted town. Also, as detectives, we are freer than ever before: we decide for ourselves when to close a case, given our previous knowledge. The open investigative work is realistic and flows without much tension. You won’t find any action in it. A calm, mysterious storyline and simple exploratory gameplay go hand in hand, but it does require a little patience arenagadgets.

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