I don’t know about you guys, but I really love it when a game makes me feel like a genius. If anyone knows me, you’ll know I’m far from it, but through clever game design and just a little brainpower, video games have the power to deliver eureka moments that make me consider why I didn’t pursue a career in quantum physics or something equally complex.
Puzzle games have the ability to do this through carefully crafted challenges, but there is a new sub-genre of games emerging that effectively make the entire game one big puzzle, and if you’re a true crime junkie, you’re probably one step ahead of me. Yes, we are discussing Detective games today.
There are a number of games out there that place you in the shoes of amateur sleuths, detectives on a beat, or retired cops with a score to settle, and your role will be to analyze the world around you, gather clues, build a case, and solve a mystery that the developer has meticulously crafted for you to break apart.
These games typically offer rich narrative, expert world-building, a band of colorful characters, and careful game design to make sure players are never so deep in the minutia that they can’t retrace their steps and pick up the scent again.
You may be wondering what games in this genre offer the richest of these experiences, and if you are, you’re in the right place.
We intend to provide a killer list of excellent detective titles for you to break out the ol’ magnifying glass and get stuck into. So, without further delay, here is Indie Game Culture’s list of the Best Indie Detective Games!
It would be very easy for us to play things fast and loose with the term ‘detective game’ and throw just about any puzzle game in here, but we are about authenticity here. So these are the criteria that we will be employing to make sure this list only offers the finest detective games on the market:
- All games on this list must offer a gameplay format that requires the player to use logic to make discoveries
- All games must employ mechanics around themes of deduction, social deduction, exploration, or case-building
- We will be considering games that don’t necessarily place you in the role of a traditional detective, but have you solve a mystery regardless
- All games must have an aggregate Metacritic Score of 65% or higher
- All games must be indie games, obviously
Okay, it’s time to crack the case; off we go!
The Best Indie Detective Games Of All Time
Developer: Lucas Pope
Metacritic Score: 89%
Is there a more fitting way to open up this list than with Luca’s Pope’s 1-bit deduction-based masterclass that is Return of the Obra Dinn? In my eyes, absolutely not.
Return of the Obra Dinn sees you play as an insurance representative who must come aboard a ship called the Obra Dinn and analyze the remnants of its former crew to determine the cause of death for each individual. The only problem is, if everyone’s dead, there’s no one left to tell the tale.
Luckily, though, you have access to a magic pocket watch that can react to certain objects and relics on the ship, allowing you to jump back in time and witness still vignettes that will at least hint at the potential cause of death.
The beauty of this format is that you will never have all the information, and will need to use logic, reasoning, and educated guesswork to fill in the blanks, with some info being blatantly obvious, and other threads of info proving to be very hard to follow indeed unless you are really on your game.
Return of the Obra Dinn is a meticulously crafted and obscenely clever title that I would highly recommend to any detective worth their salt.
#2 – Paradise Killer
Metacritic Score: 81%
Developer: Fellow Traveller
The judicial system is pretty cruel at times. You don’t need to be guilty to go down for a crime; the prosecutor just needs to build a case that proves you are.
Paradise Killer is an open-world detective game that takes that notion and runs with it, placing you in the shoes of Lady Love Dies as she must solve a murder mystery by interviewing suspects, following leads, and uncovering evidence to build a strong enough case to go to trial.
The most interesting aspect of this game is that you can do this at any point in time; you can go after the leads that interest you while ignoring others, and ultimately, the ‘real truth’ remains ambiguous even after the trial is concluded and the game draws to a close.
It’s a detective game that gives you all the power, but, equally, allows you to fail miserably if you don’t have all your ducks in a row, and in my eyes, that’s what a good detective game should do. So, if you want to uncover the truth in this zany Japanese accusation epic, then be sure to try it out real soon!
#3 – Disco Elysium
Metacritic Score: 93%
I’m at a stage in my career where I’ve officially run out of superlatives to throw at Disco Elysium, as it truly is the most perfect CRPG game out there, and that includes Baldur’s Gate 3; sorry, DND fans! But hey, I’ll rattle around in my noggin for some more.
Disco Elysium is a CRPG detective game where you play the role of alcoholic, amnesiac Harry Dubois, who must team up with partner Kim Kitsuragi and solve the case of The Hanged Man.
However, this only scrapes the surface of lies in wait for you in Revachol, as you’ll uncover a much deeper plot through this investigation, have to engage with some of the deepest characters in gaming history, decide where you land on political and social issues aplenty, and will routinely have to dig Harry out of some very awkward and comical situations, as the man isn’t exactly the most traditional detective. As Kim says himself, ‘his methods are… unusual.’
Thanks to the rich world to explore, the sublime amount of detail packed into every crevice of the map, and the many branching paths the story can take based on your actions, this is a detective game that keeps on giving. So stick on your Horrific Necktie and get on the case!
#4 – Deadly Premonition
Metacritic Score: 68%
Developer: Access Games
The general narrative around this one is ‘this is the best bad game I’ve ever played,’ and it’s a narrative that I more or less agree with.
Deadly Premonition is a hard sell for a lot of gamers, as it’s a game with obnoxiously punishing survival/life-sim mechanics that will have you maintain sleep, hunger, and hygiene. Not to mention, the game will ask you to really refine your time-management and orienteering skills as well.
This, for a lot of players, made this one an annoying and needlessly difficult affair. But, if you come at it from another angle and truly immerse yourself, you’ll find that this is one of the most intriguing and zany detective games around.
The real draw of this game is the manic B-movie nature of the gameplay and story. It’s like a Hideo Kojima project on steroids, with imaginary friends, long talks with your cup of coffee, and bumps in your pay packet for taking a shave. You get the picture: it’s odd, and you’ll either love it or hate it; there’s no in-between.
What I would say here is, to give it a try, as while this was many folks most hated game of 2010, it was also many people’s favorite. So play this one and find out what camp you find yourself in.
Metacritic Score: TBA (Early Access)
Developer: ColePowered Games
The biggest criticism leveled at most detective games is that after you solve the mystery, there’s absolutely no reason to go back around for another lap.
The games on this list, minus a few, tend to have no replay value, and that is largely seen as an occupation hazard of making a detective game. However, thanks to some clever procedural generation, Shadows of Doubt offers up an infinite detective sandbox where the mysteries and cases never stop coming.
Shadows of Doubt is a Cyberpunk detective sandbox where you will be placed in a fully explorable city populated by diverse individuals randomized right down to their blood type, occupation, romantic partners, and fingerprints, and you will need to solve cases by exploring, following leads and often through some clever improvisation.
The amount of data on show here, and the need to lean on procedural generation does ultimately mean that cases do sometimes feel similar to the last, but it’s very dependent on how willing you are to immerse yourself and roleplay as a vigilante detective.
You get out what you put in here, is what I’m saying, as the emergent, bizarre moments are what make each player’s experience with this game unique.
It still has some way to go before it can be hailed as a truly infinite source of vigilante justice, but even in this raw state, Shadows of Doubt is a very impressive detective game worth trying out.
#6 – Papers, Please
Metacritic Score: 85%
Developer: Lucas Pope
You may find it a surprise that Lucas Pope has popped up again, but it shouldn’t be all that suprising, because the man is a genius when it comes to making bureaucratic procedures engaging.
In this title, you play a border control officer on the border of Arstotzka, a fictitious region within the Soviet-Bloc, and your role is to review passports and documents and then decide if someone gets in, or gets turned away.
It sounds simple, but due to the fact that you must earn enough money to feed your family, you’ll be faced with difficult moral decisions throughout, and your reasoning will be tested as new rules and legislation are passed as the game progresses.
You’ll have to ensure you make enough strong judgment calls to appease the higher-ups and keep your family safe, while bending the rules just enough to survive in the ever-deteriorating social climate of Arstotzka.
It’s a staggeringly powerful game that shows how your decisions on the few can affect the lives of many, and it’s well worth a try if you haven’t already.
Further Reading: Paper’s Please Demake Released To Celebrate 10-Year Anniversary
#7 – The Case Of The Golden Idol
Metacritic Score: 79%
If you’re like me, and you wish you could clear the cache in your brain and play Return of the Obra Dinn all over again, then The Case of the Golden Idol might just be the next best thing.
This title will also have you examine a series of tableaus and extract information from the scene, asking you to identify each of the people in the scene, along with a synopsis of what’s going on.
The only real difference here is that this is presented in a point-and-click format, and the information is gathered in a method akin to William Burrough’s ‘Cut-up method.’ There’s one for the heads.
You’ll need to extract this info in the hope of uncovering the secrets of the Golden Idol and the evil entities that are trying to get their hands on it.
It’s all about reading between the lines and picking up the minute details and implications that the game is throwing down. If that sounds like something that’s right up your street, then you need to give this modern detective oddity a try.
#8 – Strange Horticulture
Metacritic Score: 83%
Developer: Iceberg Interactive
If you fancy yourself a bit of a green thumb but also have a knack for detective work, then Strange Horticulture is a game that fits slap-bang in the middle of that rather peculiar Venn diagram.
This title sees you take control of a store called Eponymous Strange Horticulture that plays host to a series of peculiar, otherworldly plant life, and your role is to use your amateur botany skills to deduce what these plants are based on existing info in your botany guide, through conversations with customers, and through careful research.
The initial mystery basically boils down to ‘what the hell are these plants,’ but before long, you’ll see that these plants are linked to a strange mystery involving the Occult and some mysterious evil that lurks within the region. Plus, you’ll be heading out into the somewhat altered Lake District to find new species of plants for your inventory.
One could argue that this is a bit more a traditional puzzle game than a detective game, and that is somewhat true early on, but as this game progresses, the pendulum will swing, and you’ll very much feel like a botanist detective on a beat.
This is a wonderful and fresh take on the sub-genre and perfect for all you guys who just can’t seem to keep your real-world house plants alive.
#9 – Lucifer Within Us
Metacritic Score: 76%
Developer: Kitfox Games
Seeing as everyone is talking about the resurrection of Cyberpunk 2077, take a moment to reflect on the Braindance sequences from that game where you would have to examine footage for clues.
Well, Lucifer Within Us represents what that would look like if that process was actually implemented in a thoughtful and engaging way.
Lucifer Within Us is a title that will have us analyze footage to build a case for three separate murders, taking testimonies from various suspects, and then using the clues uncovered in said footage to question, contradict, and poke holes in their logic.
It’s a game where you are constantly being lied to, and your job is to decipher who is telling the truth and when, then proceed to push for more answers.
The only criticism I would have about this game’s overall format is that there’s nothing stopping the player from brute forcing their way to solutions, as there is no penalty system or system that only verifies correct answers after a series of good guesses.
However, if you play as the developer intended, you’ll experience a wonderful plot about corruption and murder, enjoy stellar voice acting and writing, and feel like a true detective when you see through a character’s facade.
#10 – Among Us
Metacritic Score: 85%
If you’re looking for a detective/deduction game with replay value, not to mention an accessible game for any level of gamer, then Among Us is the ultimate option.
However, as this is going on, one or more of the crew will play the role of the Imposter, and the innocent crew members will need to work together to deduce who’s killing everyone aboard the ship.
This is a game that succeeds based on the company you keep. The gameplay is pretty bare bones, but with the right group of people, the situations you find yourself in, the lies you will tell to convince others of your innocence, and the thrill of being the killer all culminate in a social deduction epic like no other.
It’s a game that’s perfect for quick gaming sessions and can be played on mobile devices, making it the most accessible game on this list by some distance.
So, if you feel like you are as perceptive as they come and can read people like a book, then Among Us is the perfect way to prove it!
#11 – The Outer Wilds
Metacritic Score: 85%
Developer: Modus Games
Okay, so this is probably the most out-there addition to this list, but stay with me here, because this game is just as much a detective game as any other on this list.
The Outer Wilds is a title that sees you trapped in an infinite time loop, and you must repeatedly explore the mini-solar system around you to gather information and clues, which will ultimately allow you to break the time loop and solve the mystery.
Now, you may not be interviewing perps or solving a murder, but through exploring planets, working out how each biome works, and gathering information left behind by the Nomai; you’ll slowly piece together enough clues to go about deconstructing the time loop you’re permanently cycling through.
The Outer Wilds offers an incredibly dynamic open world where each moving part links to another in a meaningful way, creating a domino effect that you can examine and decipher, experimenting until you find a key piece of the puzzle.
It’s another game that I wish I could wipe my memory of to play fresh all over again, and if you still haven’t had the joy of blasting off into this one, then I envy you, I really do.
#12 – The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter
Metacritic Score: 82%
Developer: The Astronauts
I think of all the games on this list; this one is probably the least like a traditional ‘detective game’, and you literally play as a private detective. That being said, I think there’s enough mystery and intrigue to make a case here.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter sees you play as aforementioned detective Paul Prospero, who has received a letter from Ethan Carter, a lost child linked to a series of murders, and it becomes your job to find this child and protect them from harm in this rural town that plays host to some evil occult entities.
The game offers a series of puzzles to solve, and allows you to explore and examine the world at your leisure in a game that feels akin to walking simulators like Gone Home, Dear Esther, and What Remains of Edith Finch, and only through careful analysis will you be able to piece together the story unfolding before you.
This is definitely a mystery that happens before you in a linear fashion, rather than one you actively solve and influence, but for a more narrative-focused and casual detective game that doesn’t require too many synapses to fire on all cylinders, this is a great option.
#13 – Whispers In The West
Metacritic Score: TBD
Developer: Infinite Whys
Detective games, and being a detective in general, tend to be a pretty solitary affairs that see you painstakingly examine documents and wireframe corkboards into the dead of night, but it needn’t always be that way.
Whispers in the West is a murder mystery game that supports up to 4-player co-op, allowing you and a few friends to jump into a Western epic and solve complex cases together.
The game caters to this co-op format by giving players unique characters with their own perks and pitfalls throughout the investigation, with the sheriff demanding the respect of the locals, but the Outlaw character having the ability to get more out of the general riffraff, for example. It means that everyone has a way to influence the conversation, and then you can pool these facts and leads to form a case.
The individual cases presented are strong throughout, and the presentation is equally competent, making this a wonderful joint venture for you and your detective buddies to get lost in.
#14 – Her Story
Metacritic Score: 86%
Developer: Sam Barlow
It wouldn’t be a list of top-tier detective games if we didn’t have at least one FMV game here to represent this niche branch of the sub-genre.
There are plenty to choose from, but if you want the best of the best, I would recommend Her Story, a game that has you analyze police interviews and conversations with Hannah Smith, as you try to decipher whether this woman is guilty, or innocent.
Through sifting through a police database, and using search terms to turn up clips relating to your search, you can uncover a series of non-linear clues that will help you make sense of the mass of information and media before you. But through intentional omissions and the fact that you don’t know what questions have been asked, you’ll still need to really dig deep if you want to truly understand all the context here.
It’s a wonderful game of deduction that allows you to draw your own conclusions and go about your investigation in any way you choose. It’s not a game that holds your hand at all, but if you are willing to put in the effort, Her Story is one of the richest detective narratives on the market.
#15 – Frog Detective: The Entire Mystery
Metacritic Score: 82%
Developer: Worm Club
Then, before we wrap things up, we will finish on a much more lighthearted detective game than most of the games occupying this list. Frog Detective: The Entire Mystery is a collection of all three games in the Frog Detective series, offering three short mysteries to solve, which all-in will only take you a few hours.
The games in question aren’t complex mind-bending mysteries, but rather super-accessible, kid-friendly, cozy games that allow you to enjoy wacky, humourous writing and cute cel-shaded visuals as you solve simple puzzles.
It’s truly the ultimate beginner game for all would-be-detectives who need a place to start on their journey to uber-perceptive super-sleuth, and it’s really cute into the bargain as well; what more could you ask for?
Then, before we close this case and do all the necessary paperwork, we want to rhyme off a few other detective titles that don’t quite fit on this list, but could still be worth checking out if you are a big fan of detective games:
- L.A. Noire
- Telling Lies
- The Ace Attorney Series
- Murdered: Soul Suspect
- The Murder of Sonic The Hedgehog
- The Danganronpa Series
- Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
- Lost Judgement
- Heavy Rain
- Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishment
- Ghost Trick
- Hauma: A Detective Noir Story
So there you have it, fifteen absolutely wonderful indie detective games sure to sate your appetite for mystery and natural discovery.
I’m someone who craves these A-ha moments in gaming, and this sub-genre has loads of fantastic options that are all too keen to make you feel like an absolute brainiac.
I hope that this list has helped bolster your gaming wishlist, and as always, thanks for reading Indie Game Culture.
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