There was a point in the detective game Thimbleweed Park where I just gave up. What started as calm evidence gathering and careful note-taking spiralled downward into an abyss of manic and desperate mouse-clicking. I clicked on every inch of every scene, dragging and dropping all the objects over each other so I didn’t miss any special item uses. I talked to every NPC three, four, five times to no avail. Logic and reason had long left me, my deerstalker had been blown away by a gust of frustration, and my magnifying glass had smashed into oblivion from annoyance. I couldn’t figure out what the game wanted from me.
I understand that the point-and-click mystery of Thimbleweed Park leans on tongue-and cheek-humour rooted in the genre’s history of obtuse puzzle solving. But this one, small part of the game took the biscuit. It harked back to the LucasArt games, where some clues were on the brink of pure – if charming – abstraction.
Clue-gathering and crime-solving has come a long way since the pixelated puzzles of the past – yet even now, it’s still difficult for detective games to balance both story and mechanics in a way that makes you feel like a real sleuth.
Where’s the obsessive note-taking? Scribbling down names, dates, locations, hair colour – any details that might be useful. The lightbulb of inspiration, the rush of finding a snippet of information, or the slow grind of figuring out the clues? Using good ol’ logical deduction and reasoning, that’s real detective work! And it’s been all too rare in PC gaming – until very recently.
Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn and Sam Barlow’s Her Story create two chilling detective narratives that capture this feeling. Both games perfectly portray the logical reasoning of detective work, leaving the crime-solving completely to the player. There are no quick time events, dialogue trees, or hint pop-ups. Just a mystery placed before you.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, you play as an insurance evaluator and must investigate the disappearances of 60 crew members and passengers who spookily vanished from a merchant ship several years ago.
Using your skull-engraved pocket watch, you can return to each person’s moment of death and investigate the scene. After you solve the fate of a crew member you scribble it down onto a page in your journal. You’ll leave only when every individual case has been solved.
Her Story has the same self-contained layout. It takes place in one location, on the fuzzy computer screen of a police database. You’re delving into an old archive to watch fragmented interview footage of a woman talking to a detective about a 1994 murder investigation.
Wanting to know the truth about the death, you’re tasked with watching a whole database of clips, listening to the woman’s side of the story and piecing together what happened. There are no other characters or events – just you and the computer desktop. When I was playing I felt like a true detective, rummaging through the archive, poring over every word said and avidly taking notes.
These self-contained mysteries are at the core of how these games make you feel like a real detective. The events on the Obra Dinn and in Her Story happen years before you even look at the evidence.
With other detective games, their stories take place in the present, within the mystery. The criminal is still at large, and you must solve the mystery before the murderer strikes again. While this makes for some great adventures and thrills, it can make the crime-solving aspect feel very linear and structured.
Having your character approach a mystery that is firmly in the past is like tackling an intricate puzzle. There’s nothing to unlock, no witnesses to interrogate, and no way you can change the outcome of the situation. All the information is there – you just have to piece it together.
Both Her Story and Return of the Obra Dinn use their restrictions to create a perfectly encapsulated mystery. You’re not part of the story; just a voyeur peeping into the past. They’re concise and self-contained, locked away in a dusty, leather bound journal or hidden on the hard drive of an outdated police computer.
There are no hints, no glowing objects or illuminated footprints to follow, just you and the mystery laid before you. Your greatest skill in these games is your ability to listen and observe, and that’s why detective games are better now than they’ve ever been.