When you play a video game, you’re seeking information. You click to examine an item, pan to explore a space, and scroll through collected artifacts, conversation quotes, and discoveries. The act of playing is one of inquiring, and that’s why I think the detective/mystery genre is one of the greatest gaming inventions of all time. The process of seeking, gathering, and deciding aligns perfectly with the experience of finding the answer, the solution, the secret to a mystery.
These games tend to be single-player, but the style lends itself well to group sessions with a partner or friends. When you play a mystery game, you usually don’t need to fight for the controls to have fun; instead, a collective mental space emerges where part of the delight is debating suspects, gasping at the same realization, and clapping at the ultimate reveal. These moments opt for careful contemplation over quick reactions, allowing players to discuss what they want to do next together, as a team.
Some of my earliest gaming memories are from detective games, and it’s a niche genre I’ve pursued relentlessly since then. So, I am pleased to share, for your chilly-weather gaming pleasure, the best detective video games of all time (with updates!*).
The 15 Best Detective Video Games
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Phenomenal. Influential. Legendary. Is this an overzealous commendation of Ace Attorney? I personally do not think so.
The first Ace Attorney was released in North America in 2005, and the train of spiky haired lawyers defending the wrongfully accused hasn’t stopped since. The title character’s catch-phrase, “Objection!” even has its own meme. For much of the first few games in the series, you play as underdog lawyer Phoenix Wright as he investigates crime scenes and dukes it out in the courtroom. The differing gameplay modes are refreshing as you unpack the secrets of each case and its suspects, fighting for justice. And just when you think that’s getting boring, there’s an element of the fantastic to spice it up.
Despite all the surprising twists and turns of the cases, the power of this series is its heart. The characters are earnest and complicated, providing an authenticity not often found in games. Of the 11 releases to date (including spin-offs), I’ve played 10 of them. While the latter entries get a little sillier, they’re still fun for loyal fans. I recommend starting with the original Ace Attorney Trilogy, currently a steal as a combo package. From there, you can hop right to 2021’s Sherlock Holmes-inspired Victorian-era spin-off, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles.
Where to Play Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy
$29.99 on Nintendo Switch and PC (via Steam), or free to start on Apple iOS.
If you like Phoenix Wright and also 1700s Napoleonic France and old timey bird art, follow up on the above with Aviary Attorney, a clear homage (in name and in blend of courtroom and detective action) to Ace Attorney.
That’s not to say it’s a copycat. Aviary Attorney is a brilliant crowd-funded use of public domain art, humorous writing, and devastating multiple endings. A worthwhile binge, especially on the Switch.
Where to Play Aviary Attorney
$19.99 for the Deluxe Edition on PC or Mac (via Steam) and on Nintendo Switch.
The Nancy Drew Series
I struggled to know where to start for this blurb because it is one of the most treasured gaming experiences of my life, and I could write a whole essay about it.
I was given Nancy Drew: Treasure in the Royal Tower for a birthday gift as a child probably by someone who knew I was a burgeoning feminist gamer. Because it was rated Teen, my mom sat down to play it with me, and because my younger sister was my younger sister, she sat down to watch us. This game delighted and intrigued us, bringing us joy during stressful times. It started a multi-decade holiday tradition where the three of us would pick a game and play it over a long weekend or series of weeks.
The Nancy Drew games are smart, just like their heroine. It’s necessary to take suspect interviews seriously, the wrong angle potentially shutting someone down. Clues and puzzles abound. The voice acting is spectacular enough to make up for the somewhat robotic human models. It’s especially impressive considering these games were made by one small studio, Her Interactive, staffed largely by the same team for decades. (The journey of these games is chronicled here in this great longform piece at Kotaku by Elizabeth Ballou).
The Nancy Drew games are made with such love and care. The following are my favorites. Play in order if you can to marvel at the growth of their worlds and also to catch some inside jokes:
Best Nancy Drew Computer Games
- #4 Treasure in the Royal Tower
- #5 The Final Scene
- #7 Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake
- #9 Danger on Deception Island
- #10 The Secret of Shadow Ranch
- #11 The Curse of Blackmoor Manor
- #13 Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon (featuring the Hardy Boys!)
- #17 Legend of the Crystal Skull
- #19 The Haunting of Castle Malloy
- #21 Warnings at Waverly Academy
- #24 The Captive Curse
- #25 Alibi In Ashes
- #26 Tomb Of The Lost Queen
- #27 The Deadly Device
- #28 Ghost Of Thornton Hall
- #29 The Silent Spy
Where to Play Nancy Drew Video Games
Available on PC (a few are on Mac) for $9.99-$19.99 directly from herinteractive.com. I do not recommend the handheld spinoffs—not the same!
The Wolf Among Us
The greatest disappointment about The Wolf Among Us is something you probably already know—that studio Telltale Games folded before being able to make a proper sequel. (A follow-up has since been announced, but development has been slow.)
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give this graphic novel-turned-adventure game a chance. I played the first chapter as an Xbox Games With Gold sample, then promptly bought and binged the remaining episodes with my partner in one evening, trading the controller between chapters.
You play Wolf, an anthropomorphic version of the classic Big Bad Wolf. This Wolf’s a detective that solves crimes, starting with the disappearance of Snow White. (Oh, yeah.) The writing and voice acting are riveting. The world’s an exciting exploration of corruption and classism. And it’s all wrapped up in the clever guise of a classic fairy tale.
Where to Play The Wolf Among Us
$14.99 on PC (via Steam), Xbox 360 and One, PlayStation 3 and 4, iOS, and Android. First episode is free.
I remember getting stuck in Hotel Dusk when I was 12 and giving up on it. However, I dusted off my Nintendo DS and this cartridge during the pandemic, and wow—I’m so glad I had an excuse to binge this 2007 gem.
Hotel Dusk takes full advantage of the DS’s dual-screen feature, and is played on its side so it’s literally like a book. The protagonist, Kyle Hyde, is stuck overnight at a hotel in the middle of the desert and uncovers a massive mystery of theft, deceit, and love. The art style and music are incredibly memorable, and the game’s journey is so satisfying that I’d recommend unboxing your old DS, scoping the Amazon/eBay/GameStop used bins, or finding an emulator ASAP.
Where to Play Hotel Dusk
Honestly, it’s a bit difficult to find. The going rate on eBay and Amazon for Hotel Dusk ranges anywhere from $15 to $40+.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
In 2019, indie studio ZA/UM launched its first game, Disco Elysium, a weird depressing detective point-and-click game. It then won dozens of awards, and after having finally played it this November, I can see it was for good reason.
At the beginning of this game’s steampunk world, a man wakes up in a dingy hotel with no memory of who he is or what has happened. Players soon learn the amnesiac man is an alcoholic cop who has purposefully drank himself out of his mind because he is so depressed while on a murder case investigation in a bad, unloved city district. If that sentence bummed you out, then good, because so will the rest of this beautiful game.
There is incredible voice acting, hand-painted sets, and heart-wrenching quests. Inspired by D&D-type skill checks, Disco Elysium: The Final Cut allows you to customize your detective with different strange characteristics and skills that can shape not only your journey to solve the case, but your own life to date and where it goes from here.
Note: Big content warning on this game for pretty much every bad thing you can think of. Not for the faint of heart/mind, young of age, or folks of polite sensibilities.
Where to Play Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
$39.99 on PS4 and PS5, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Mac, and PC via Steam and Stadia. Note: The Switch port is apparently a bit rough, so avoid it if you can.
Do not tell my partner I wrote about this, because he’ll get very angry about the ending.
I have forgiven Firewatch’s story misgivings, thanks largely to its mesmerizing aesthetic. You play a 1980s fire ranger who stumbles upon something peculiar happening in his park. The game is especially delightful in its design, eschewing a traditional mini-map in favor of an in-game paper map you pull out of your pocket. Traverse a lovingly rendered state park to fix minor issues, talk over the radio to another ranger, and uncover the secrets hidden in the park.
Where to Play Firewatch
$19.99 on PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
Tangle Tower is a phenomenal, fully voiced mystery with delightful puzzles, a gorgeously playful aesthetic, and a mesmerizing mystery. A pair of detectives enters a family’s castle to solve a “locked room” murder mystery, reveling in secrets that span multiple generations.
My only gripe with Tangle Tower is that I wish the last act went on for just a bit longer than it does. That being said, it’s definitely still worth your time, and one I consistently recommend to people. Great start for introducing people to games.
Where to Play Tangle Tower
Free on Apple Arcade; $19.99 on Nintendo Switch, Mac and PC (via Steam), Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Best for anyone who likes puzzles, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is an incredibly heartfelt game about a criminal low-life who becomes a ghost and has the chance to solve his own murder.
Sissel’s able to inhabit inanimate objects, talk to animals and other ghosts, and rewind time within certain intervals to uncover clues in the mystery. A ticking clock provides a sense of urgency and helps propel the story forward, while the game’s Rube Goldberg-inspired puzzles get increasingly more difficult the further you progress.
If that’s not enough to entice, Ghost Trick has the same visual and sound designers as the Ace Attorney series. So even though the gameplay is wildly different, it’ll be a familiar joy to explore.
Where to Play Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Free to start on iOS; also on Nintendo DS, but you won’t find it.
During the first hour of Paradise Killer, I thought, Eh, this is too weird even for me, I’m not gonna like this. And then I played it for 10 hours.
This game is eccentric, and not just because it takes place in an alternate universe afterlife, or that a naked blue demon pops up around the map and heckles/supports you, or that your name is Lady Love Dies, or that your best friends are a Kenyan assassin-turned-Lyft-driver and her Turkish skeleton bartender husband. You’ll be dying to solve the mystery (sorry, it was right there).
What’s perhaps most fascinating about this game is that you’re able to make the case for anyone to be the villain—meaning there are multiple endings and ways to play. In this world, you’re the arbiter of truth and justice.
Where to Play Paradise Killer
$19.99 on PC (via Steam) and Nintendo Switch.
The Forgotten City
I’m incredibly impressed with The Forgotten City, a game that started as a fan-made mod for Skyrim and grew into a time-loop mystery game worthy of its own attention.
You play as a person from today’s world who gets trapped in a secret, ancient Roman city. This city abides by the Golden Rule: If any of its ~20 inhabitants commit a sin, all will be turned into golden statues for the rest of time. You’re told someone is going to break that rule today, and it’s up to you to figure out who, and why.
The game is a delightful mix of sleuthing (suspect investigation, searching for clues, etc.) and action, all wrapped up in the time-loop mechanic. Notably, your items carry over upon a failed run, meaning you can steal a secret letter, activate the Golden Rule, then loop back to the beginning of the day afresh with the evidence in pocket. I came to deeply care about some of the citizens, especially the friendly farmer who greets you every time you re-enter the city. I, more than once, literally shouted, “My guy!” when I emerged to see Galerius there.
The Forgotten City rewards your investment and time, thoughtfully revealing new opportunities to interact with the environment and townspeople as the player deepens their understanding of the overarching plot. So rarely have I been satisfied with a game’s ending, and this is one of best I’ve experienced, mystery game or not.
Where to Play The Forgotten City
$24.99 on PC via Steam; $29.99 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch; free on Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass.
Return of the Obra Dinn
David Silbert and I recently discussed Return of the Obra Dinn to celebrate its three-year anniversary.
A quick recap by David:
Five years ago, 60 souls embarked on a voyage along the East India trade route, only to disappear. Now, the ship has resurfaced—and everyone aboard is either dead or missing. How did these people suffer their untimely fates?
And why I think it’s fascinating:
One, how it continues to evolve on its own systems, unraveling and re-raveling, gracefully keeping the player engaged all the while. And two, that this was a one-man creation. The detail and finesse at every layer of this game shows the love of its creator in its very DNA.
Read our longer, spoiler-free reflection on Obra Dinn here.
Where to Play Return of the Obra Dinn
$19.99 on Mac and PC (via Steam), Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Less of a true mystery and more of an investigation, What Remains of Edith Finch continues to haunt me. It’s a beautiful foray into discovering what has happened to an extended family, navigating their since abandoned home. Each room of a family member leads to a new interactive chapter that is as riveting as it is depressing.
We wrote a full review here, if you want more context. You’ll never forget What Remains of Edith Finch.
Where to Play What Remains of Edith Finch
$19.99 on PC (via Steam), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch; $4.99 on iOS.
Murder by Numbers
Guest hype by David:
I love Murder by Numbers. Not just because it’s a detective game, or because it features a bopping soundtrack from Ace Attorney and Ghost Trick composer Masakazu Sugimori. I love it because it puts a Black woman in the driver’s seat, while bucking almost all stereotypical trends.
You play as Honor Mizrahi, an American actor who must put her fictitious detective skills to real-world use to discover the truth behind a series of murders. Aiding her is an exuberant robot, named Scout, who has lost his memory.
Where to Play Murder by Numbers
$14.99 on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Stadia.
Best “Reverse Detective” Game: Overboard!
As in, you’re a criminal, lol. Worth mentioning here because indie studio Inkle! takes its signature novel-style gameplay to the next level by incorporating various witnesses, a chic visual style and music, big time replayability, and a ticking timer and location feature that would be welcome in any detective game.
You’ll play through multiple runs of this reverse detective game as Valerie, a young British theater star on her way to America who’s just thrown her horrible husband overboard, desperately trying to scheme her way to freedom before the ship lands. You’ll piece together creative ways to befriend or betray other characters, find and plant evidence, ask snarky God NPC for advice (yes, you read that right), and/or just kill everybody.
Where to Play Overboard!
$5.99 on iOS; $14.99 on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Mac.
Best Detective Board Games
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
A brilliant game that takes style and gameplay guidance from Dungeons & Dragons with a book of details and clues, team agreement on pursuing choices, and the encouragement of roleplaying.
Hunt A Killer
Each box comes with paper evidence, knick-knacks, and clues, with a goal to solve at the end of each box. By the end of the subscription, you’ll have solved the mystery. Read more here.
Honorable Mentions: Good Mystery Video Games
Heavy Rain made gaming history for its dramatic, multi-branching story, but it’s very problematic and I have avoided it 🙂
Unfortunately the best case in this game is the tutorial—it’s the only one where you’re really showcasing analytical thinking skills. Skip the game and watch the movie.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
I was excited by the chance to take the B-man himself on an investigation, using “detective mode” to help Gotham, but this turned out to be mostly an overpowered x-ray vision. It was a fun touch to classic Batman fare, which is fine, but just not the primo crime-solving content I crave.
The Red Strings Club
A charismatic cyberpunk blend between bartender simulator and corporate espionage explorer that unfortunately doesn’t quite stick the landing—but if it’s on sale, sure why not.
Teaching young girls and boys that they too can catch a thief in a theme park or cruise since 1998.
I don’t know why I have just never been compelled to play one of these games, but the sheer number of sequels means I’m in the minority so check out a trailer.
The story of a recently attacked cab driver who’s pressured by Parisian police while trying to catch a serial killer before it’s too late. Extremely well-written customer dialogues, visually intriguing with its neo-noir aesthetic, and has great custom music. I personally find this one better than a cyberpunk game with a similar concept, Neo Cab. My only gripes are that I wish there were more cases and a few less glitches.
Great for younger audiences or anyone who’s uncomfortable with ICKIER bits. Fun, sweet, and playful. It’s also on Apple Arcade, which is a plus.
Detective Games I Haven’t Tried But Plan to Soon
- Grim Fandango Remastered
- Frog Detective 2
- Genesis Noir
What Are Your Favorite Detective Video Games?
Do you agree with my picks? Did I miss one? Have a suggestion of what I should try next? Tell me in the comments. Seriously. I always need more mystery games.
- December 2021: added Disco Elysium
- January 2022: added The Forgotten City, and to the to-play list, added Genesis Noir and Backbone