Why Aren’t There More Murder Mystery Games?

Pause with me for a moment, if you will, to ponder on a question: why is the murder mystery such a rare and poorly delivered genre in gaming?

Murder mystery/crime procedurals are a mainstay of television and books. Libraries and bookshops have entire sections devoted to the solving of homicides, somehow putting this incredibly specific branch of fiction on the same level as entire sweeping genres. Heck, even science fiction and horror get confusingly put in the same place, while working out who it was that done it has shelf upon shelf all to itself.

Then look at your TV listings! The biggest shows are always about the untangling of many a murky killing, from the international success stories like The Killing and Luther, to daft murder-of-the-week offerings like NCIS, CSI, Castle and Elementary. Never mind the gleeful fun of iZombie, in which a psychic zombie helps a cop solve crimes. Or the recently started Lucifer, where Satan himself gets bored of hell, comes to Earth, and – yes – helps a cop solve crimes. (The last two are based on comic books, of course.)

But in gaming, the murder mystery seems to be entirely confined to very occasional, usually very dreadful point and click adventure games. As a narrative device, it’s all but absent from our gaming lives, and I find that confusing.

It is true that Rockstar attempted to address this with LA Noire, a game that received astonishingly positive reviews despite being absolutely bloody awful. (A game seemingly developed in an alternative universe where adventure games hadn’t ironed out every ridiculous mistake during the 90s, so they could all be made again.) But after that, what have you got? Instead of solving murders, mainstream gaming seems to obsess on the “Hero’s Journey”, and ignores pretty much every other narrative possibility.

Her Story came close, in some ways. It certainly pushed open a very interesting door, through which I wish so many would follow. Last year’s other noticed FMV release, the poor Contradiction, took a swing at it but missed. Um, 2013’s The Raven was almost a good Poirot-esque murder mystery, that then fell spectacularly apart in its second and third parts. Oh, and those god-awful Sherlock Holmes games. It’s not exactly a section at Waterstones, is it?

And yet what a perfect structure the whodunnit is in which to set a story, and most especially, one with a satisfying ending. This doesn’t need to be a point-n-click – it could be anything, from FPS to space sim. You just need to have a dead body at the start, a bunch of suspects along the way, and eventually a path of clues that leads you to a successfully solved crime. Whether you get from one to the next by stealthily chopping the heads off armed guards, or negotiating trades with alien races, really doesn’t matter.

Perhaps the fear is “linearity”. Not the fear of being linear, since the vast majority of games are, but the fear of emphasising it. If there’s just one right answer to your arching mystery, then it’s made clear to the player that you’re inevitably heading that way, and progress is defined by correctly finding the intended path. It’s presumably far harder to give the impression of possibility. And yet that’s just an interesting obstacle to overcome, the sort of challenge that should drive a development team to think, think bigger, be more imaginative. (And no, the answer is absolutely not to let there be different possible murderers, because that means you’ve written a pile of plops.)

There’s a reason so many people are transfixed by the genre, why it dominates shelves and schedules – it’s because it’s gripping, confusing, involving, and ultimately, satisfying. You go from not knowing to knowing, and at some point along that journey, you solve it. Gosh, that’s a rewarding moment, and a moment gaming could allow to flourish.

So why not? What is it about the genre that doesn’t translate? Why is it so rare in our field? You tell me.

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  1. Premium User Badge

    WombatDeath says:

    I don’t really know how a game would allow the player to input and confirm a theory, without some sort of multiple choice system that would preclude proper sleuthing. I mean, I may have noticed that the colour of the suspect’s shoe polish matches the smudge on the victim’s skirting board, but if I haven’t noticed it, it’s going to become very apparent to me when I’m encouraged to “confront suspect re: shoe polish on skirting board”.

    Possibly some sort of clever text-parsing system would work, but “insert magical AI here” isn’t much of an answer. So, my best guess at an answer to John’s question is “it’s probably harder than it looks”.

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      WombatDeath says:

      Also, on a tangential topic: I love Agatha Christie novels but by god it pisses me off when Poirot or Marple confront the villain with a bizarre theory with flimsy or no supporting evidence, and the villain says “yeah, fair enough” instead of “prove it, you deranged nutter”.

      • gunny1993 says:

        And this is the difference between Gumshoe and Classic British detective novels.

        Also: link to youtube.com

      • Apologised says:

        That is exactly what happens in Evil under the Sun. Poirot details out how the murderers did it, right down to the smallest detail and they turn around and basically go “Prove it then” and Poirot admits he’s got fuck all.

        He get’s them later as they’re checking out with a different murder though.

        Hell, it even happened to Columbo once, except he already had her on a Hit & Run murder charge and the title of the episode was “A Bird in the Hand.”

        Sherlock Holmes literally has nothing but theories the whole time in almost all of his books, but since everyone knows it’s the motherf*ing Sherlock Holmes they assume he knows everything from the start and usually confess before he even says anything.

        • spaced says:


          Regarding Holmes and his reputation preceding him, one of the reasons I really enjoyed the Cumberbatch Sherlock series was that he didn’t really have a reputation, and where he was a known quantity (like among cops), his reputation alienates him from people and makes him a target. Made it kinda Batman-y for me for some reason. :)

    • Flopdong says:

      There are several major problems with making a good mystery game. The most obvious problem is AI. Making a convincingly human character is incredibly difficult already, and it is much harder for a mystery game because human interaction is such a major part of solving a good mystery. Being able to ask questions of someone, and see how they react is critical. Do they get frustrated? Are they a good liar? How do they handle oddball questions or an overly aggressive tone? Everyone has a different approach for how they would get information from someone, and covering them all would be a nightmare. The voice capturing alone would be a daunting task, nevermind all the coding necessary to make it work.

      Secondly, environmental awareness/observation are a integral to a good detective story, and gamers are notoriously bad at finding even obvious cues. I shudder to think of how many times I have spent several minutes trying to open a door, only to figure out there is a giant lever RIGHT THERE with a blinking light above it. In books and shows, a critical piece of evidence is frequently found by accident, the protagonist drops his wallet and when he picks it up he notices a bloodstain under the couch or something. This would be hard to emulate in a game without ruining the sense of mystery. If all of the important clues have a giant “press A to investigate” arrow above them, it makes it really obvious what is important. A good mystery needs a few red herrings to lead you down the wrong path

    • Yglorba says:

      Does it require the ability to go into a proper theory, though? Most games “cheat” to an extent; the idea is to let players suspend their disbelief and feel like they’re there, not necessarily to flawlessly replicate the experience (which often isn’t possible short of actual AIs.) Romance in games, say, is never going to be realistic. Half-Life 2 may give you a lot of guns, but you’re not really leading any sort of resistance against the alien overlords, you’re going down a mostly-linear corridor shooting stuff. The narrative is a fiction, like in a movie or book; the gameplay is just meant to help you get into that fiction, not to literally and authentically reproduce the full fight against the Combine or whatever.

      Look at, say, Phoenix Wright or the recently-released-on-the-PC Danganronpa. They do a pretty good job of making the player feel like they’re solving the mystery (and providing situations where you have to solve key parts of it bit by bit.) Yes, you’re forced towards certain answers, but I see that as the same thing as how Half Life 2 ultimately forces you towards certain destinations — the key to making a good game like that is always to hide the rails and to make it so the player can suspend their disbelief while they’re playing.

    • feamatar says:

      What if there are many false options and you can convict the wrong person? Or you could make yourself ridiculous? Or if you select the wrong option the story goes on but someone wrongly dies?

      If the game is short, but there are multiple scenarios, and you cannot reload, then you have the tension. And if you start over, maybe the killer is a different person and you should look for different clues, and different conversion points are the good one.

    • tortortor says:

      Papers Please sort of solved this, didn’t it? There’s an “inspection mode” where you can highlight things that don’t match, and then start an interrogation. I imagine you could do something similar to compare two statements or pieces of evidence that don’t match.

    • funkstar says:

      The last Sherlock Holmes game (Crimes and Punishments) kind of did this with you putting together theories from clues you have seen but the options only showed up if you’d found them in the environments, plus it was entirely possible to choose the wrong suspect / means / motive and still progress through the game

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Was this article inspired by Pip and Matt Lee’s conversation on the Daft Souls podcast?

    • John Walker says:

      It was not. I confess I have not listened.

      • Premium User Badge

        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        Since on mobile you can’t see the author until you view the article I assumed this was a Pip article because they basically talked about this exact thing while discussing the Poirot game Pip has the beta for.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    “it could be anything, from FPS to space sim”

    Murder mystery space sim would be amazing! Travel to remote parts of the galaxy. Hang out in sleazy bars on dilapidated space stations to get info from the mysterious creature behind the bar. Interrogate space pirates that are smuggling weapons to decades long warring races. Stealth yourself into hidden mob base in an asteroid belt. So many awesome possibilities.

    Definitely with John that a murder mystery game done right could be incredible. I don’t know much about the genre, but I assume text adventures are full of them?

    • Premium User Badge

      Philopoemen says:

      Look at something like The Expanse – it shows that it could be done well, and in a mature way rather than Bioware’s rather polar way of looking at things.

  4. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    I really enjoyed the Raven, even though it was a bit sloppy towards the end. It had a bit of a Sunday Night Good Telly charm that I wish more games would adopt, rather than trying to be all moody and dramatic about things.

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      Risingson says:

      But it really lost its interest in the third act, with a much m;re bland character and a party of pixel hunting in barely lit environments.

  5. Sir_Deimos says:

    I think the biggest obstacle for murder mysteries is the sense that everything needs to have replayability these days. There’s a sense that a game you can only play through once isn’t worth buying because it has a definitive ‘end state’. A mystery where there’s only one victim and one murderer doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for multiplayer or “NEW GAME+ mode!” to be game features. This isn’t to say any of this is a good thing, I wish there were more games focused on a singular experience with a ‘start’ and ‘end’.

    One game genre I think this would particularly work well with is Rogue-likes. Let the player fail and learn from their mistakes for the next time. Maybe the killer kills again (or even kills the player for getting too close!), or if you take too much time, you’re giving the killer a chance to cover the trail. There’s a lot of ways to do this well without using procedural generation do the work of good game design. Give me paperwork to pour over like witness schedules so I have to plan who, where, and when I talk to people – let people give different testimony based on these things (they’re not going to talk about their boss at work, but if you catch them leaving their house… etc.)

    • Llewyn says:

      Let’s face it, Infocom could have annually remade Deadline with new stories and made a lot of people very happy.

      • Llewyn says:

        ^for the last 30 years, I meant to say.

      • Baf says:

        There have been some Deadline-esque misteries from the amateur IF community, but nothing close to one a year. I personally highly recommend Make It Good, by Jon Ingold of 80 Days fame, although (not to get too spoilery) it takes a turn that makes it less of a pure mystery. Christopher Huang’s The Act of Murder is also notable for doing some randomization for replayability, although it doesn’t take all that long to see all the variations (if not all the permutations of variations).

    • tiltaghe says:

      “One game genre I think this would particularly work well with is Rogue-likes.”

      Your explanation is interesting but, without procedural generation -which is best avoided for a tightly knit, compelling mystery-, it comes down to memorizing and repeating solutions over multiple playthrough, doesn’t it?

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    The best example in my opinion is probably Colonel’s Bequest, which I replayed a couple of years ago. It has that sort of Agatha Christie setting and plot, lots of shady characters with possible motives, and a mystery that you may or may not entirely solve in the time available.

    A lot of RPGs also have a murder mystery side quest, or in the case of Ultima VII the first area and introduction to the game involves a grisly murder that you must investigate. I’ve also played one recently in Shadowrun Hong Kong, and I guess Shadowrun Returns has the initial set-up being a murder mystery.

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      What I meant to add to this was that an RPG would make for a good detective game, perhaps concentrating on this rather than saving the world. Solving various other crimes, and finding a central conspiracy or it culminating in chasing down a serial killer or something.

    • Premium User Badge

      Dukey says:

      Absolutely. The Colonel’s Bequest was what sprung to my mind while reading this too.

      One way of avoiding the linearity of only having the correct solution advance the plot would be to have the possibility to get to the end of the game and either reach the wrong conclusion or reach no conclusion at all. That way there is potential for replayability without going down the silly ‘it’s a different murderer every time!’ path.

      It’s been a long time since I played The Colonel’s Bequest, but the thing I remember loving about it was that the whole plot was happening whether you knew about it or not. You could miss vital clues and still figure things out later on. Or you could ‘win’ the game by getting out alive and still not really know what was going on. And then the whole thing was short enough that you knew it was actually worth trying again to see if you could achieve a different outcome.

      Really somebody just needs to start remaking this game with different stories and settings and a modern interface. The mechanics behind it need basically no updating at all.

  7. Premium User Badge

    hemmer says:

    The Blackwell Games kinda gave me that vibe, even though they weren’t technically murder mysteries I guess?

    But yeah, pretty sure there’s a bigger audience for this than most people would think. We love our dialogue choices and like to feel smart.

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    Risingson says:

    Juat because they fell out of grace. All the examples mentioned had their game (there is a game named “Murder in Space”) but just like the Wing Commander school of linear gaming, some people up there must not love them.

    The Phoenix Wright games were among the latest successful entries in doing (and making laugh out of) typical murder mysteries. Every other reason has already been explained in this thread.

    • iucounu says:

      Phoenix Wright was the one that immediately sprung to mind, although it never really grabbed me.

      • draglikepull says:

        The Phoenix Wright games are essentially a series of murder mysteries (roughly 5 in each game), and they’re excellent. They are largely visual novels though, perhaps not “games” in the sense of a point-and-click adventure or an RPG.

        Relatedly, Hotel Dusk took the mystery novel format and did some really interesting things with it. Neither it, nor Phoenix Wright, has ever come out on PC, though.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    Different suspects in new games for replayability? I remember Ripper doing that. It only made the plot seem more arbitrary.

    Btw: Murder She Wrote was not precisely brilliant…

  10. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    Hold on, isn’t Shadowrun Returns a murder mystery?

    Isn’t Random Access Memories?

    What kind of mystery are you missing exactly, John?

    • Premium User Badge

      Lars Westergren says:

      I’ll add Aviary Attorney to that list. Pip spoke positively of it. I played through the tutorial, liked it a lot.

    • maninahat says:

      Well it’s a turn based rpg with a mystery plot, but an emphasis on combat and tactics. By that logic, most FPSs could be counted as mysteries too.

      I think what John is getting at is where the mystery isn’t just the player motivation, but integral to the mechanics and gameplay as well. Her Story is a true mystery game in that respect. Firewatch and Gone Home too, to an extent. I am hoping these inspire more.

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    moms says:

    “Castle: Never Judge a Book by it’s Cover.”
    I’m pretty sure that one game, tried to murder the entire ‘murder mystery game’ genre, all by itself.
    I don’t mind little puzzles, I even kinda like the hidden object ones. They lend themselves well to a mystery theme.
    But, honestly, Castle had me remove a pearl from an empty gas can, by using a turkey baster to suction it up(which I had to travel miles to get)… instead of, you know, just turning the can upside down, to have the pearl drop into my hand.
    And yeah, there was a murder, but it was easily forgotten about, with all the silly running around.
    So, something like “Castle” would go into the ‘puzzle mystery game that features a murder’ category
    While something along the lines of “Her Story” would be a straight up ‘murder mystery.’
    And I would really like to play more of those.

  12. thekelvingreen says:

    Deadly Premonition was almost good. I still think there’s potential in that approach.

    Aside from that, the only murder mystery game I’ve played is The Detective Game on the C64, but I always got killed off by the murderer before I could solve the case.

  13. Knurek says:

    Let me tell you about our lord and saviour, Danganronpa.
    Recently released on PC to boot.

    Hadn’t we had Aviary Attorney released recently as well?

    There’s 999, there are Phoenix Wrights, things like Banshee’s Last Cry as well. There’s Telltale’s Law and Order and CSI games.

    There’s also, uhh, Kara no Shoujo games, if you don’t mind the occasional (bad) sex scene and not occasional (also bad) dead end straight out of Sierra game.

    • sdfv says:

      Spot on. There are in fact a bunch of good murder mystery games, with many released recently. It’s just that the vast majority of them are console games out of Japan and are Anime As Hell, so they aren’t even on this writer’s radar.

  14. DuncUK says:

    I remember loving Cruise for a Corpse back in the day. It was by no means a great game, it relied on the player making progress before literally ticking a clock onwards by ten minutes which would shuffle NPC locations around, trigger events and unlock new dialogue. In some cases, the player simply had to enter a location from the correct direction so as to overhear a conversation that unlocked new dialogue options. This was especially unforgivable since the game also had a fast travel system that would circumvent the scripting. Nonetheless it had a great period setting and pretty amazing animation for its time, plus a decent slice of French weirdness as it was developed by Delphine Software.

    However, it had a terrible bug that nearly ruined the game for me… near the end, you enter a room and are supposed to do something. If you leave at any time then the scripting broke and no amount of re-entry would allow progress to continue. I only founsd out after phoning one of those premium rate hint lines (from a payphone so as to hide it from my parents) to discover that the blocker was something I simply wasn’t able to do.

    • Premium User Badge

      zapatapon says:

      I remember not enjoying Cruise for a corpse, because I got the impression that the game developers wanted to mimic a murder mystery without really understanding what made a murder mystery interesting. Apart from the dreadful mechanics, the plot left me utterly disappointed since all the information you painstakingly gather about all protagonists turns out totally irrelevant to understand the mystery because of a twist ending. (Well, that is how I remember it anyway, admittedly it was a long time ago)

  15. st33dd says:

    I wrote and GMed a murder mystery for TTRPG Mouse Guard.

    Whilst super fun, it was a total clusterfuck to manage. The players decided they wanted the murder weapon at the beginning of the session before the murder had taken place. The leads and trails I’d planned out I changed on the fly, just so they’d actually stumble upon the right clues. All the advice I’d received before the session was telling me not to bother, that it would be terrible unless I introduced 10 people into the plot, and further more to invent some bullshit poison for the event (because every GM out there has an inferiority complex – assuming that any science they try to employ will be thwarted by the players).

    It feel like there’s a bit of a stigma around Murder Mysteries, requiring that you must be This Smart to even entertain trying.

    Trying is in fact enormous fun. That’s not to say it’s easy though.

    • gunny1993 says:

      I’ve never had fun TTRPGing a murder mystery as a GM, i always feel like i’m railroading too hard just so I can get the players to find a logical link to the clue or whatever.

      Conversely I like being a player in such systems as gumshoe where clues are literally told to you as you enter an area.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Mouse Guard is wonderful, but mystery investigation is definitely not something it would support well. Try GUMSHOE by Robin Laws.

  16. Ivan says:

    When I first played it, I thought the murder mystery in Chapter II of The Witcher 1 was pretty fantastic. It even had a snazzy emergent gameplay-esque thing where I bumbled into thinking the wrong guy was the culprit, accused him, killed him, only to have to have the villain taunt and mock me for being so stupid at the culmination of that particular plot.

    The Witcher 2 has a similar thing down Ioverth’s path, but it’s a little more clumsy and rushed and thus not as interesting for my money. Weirdly, I don’t recall any diversions like that in The Witcher 3, because a lot of the quests were more clearly delineated as A or B choices rather than long, winding, mysteries.

    • bill says:

      That part of The Witcher 1 ws what sprang to mind for me too.

      The implementation (or at least the dialog) was pretty clunky at times, but it was a really nice unexpected thing in an RPG. (Other RPGs may have done similar things, so don’t sue me if that’s the case!)

      The nice thing was how open they left it, and how you came across (or didn’t come across) clues while seemingly going about your business. Meaning that you could miss lots of things, or spot only some of them, or spot them all… and therefor you could get it totally wrong or right.
      And a fair number of the clues were red herrings or ambiguous, so you felt like you had to put them together.

      I think it’d be a pretty good way to implement a murder mystery game.
      Have a fixed linear story, but not a fixed linear discovery or it or a fixed outcome.

  17. christmas duck says:

    Interesting point of reference here would be the Crime Dossiers published in the 1930’s by writer Denis Wheatley ( link to denniswheatley.info ) which were big folders of fictional crime evidence (interviews, photos, even physical samples) with the solution in a sealed envelope.
    In a bit of an inverse of some of the kerfuffle around Her Story last year, the dossiers were published and sold as literature causing one reviewer to write that they were “More a game than a book and certainly not a novel”.

    They were republished in the 80’s but not again since, they sound like they’d make great candidates for being converted into videogames…maybe Inkle or someone should get on it.

    • christmas duck says:

      My bad, apparently they were make into videogames! But this was in the late 80’s early 90’s so they’re probably due another go by now

  18. gunny1993 says:

    I think the problem is, people not knowing what they want their MM to be. For instance there is a MASSIVE difference between a classic British MM such as Poirot or Sherlock Holmes and American gumshoe i.e. maltese falcon.

    I think the Biritsh style does not work in games at all and the American style can result in the Hero stuff that you see in L.A Noir.

    British MM is all about the payoff, look at Sherlock Holmes for instance, the majority of cases are solved using evidence never presented to the reader, obviously that’s going to be unsatisfying for the player.

    Hardboiled stuff tends to ignore the ending in favor of focus on the chase, look at the Maltese Falcon, the ending of that is nearly irrelevant. To me this style fits gaming more appropriately but can result in hero following stuff, since hardboiled has a large tendency to get the character repeatedly beaten up whilst wandering around.

    As said by the extra credit people, I think the WItcher 3 is a great detective game that made both the hunt and the payoff interesting, but for a more contempery setting, i don;t know if it would work.

    I think a decent MM is going to be either a highly complex open world game, L.A noir but much better, or a highly linear game in the style of telltale, each will have its strengths and weaknesses

    I will end by saying: WTB telltale Dresden Files, literally would kill you all for that.

    • Nixitur says:

      I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that British murder mysteries are “all about the payoff”. I’d say that’s quite true of Sherlock Holmes, but not nearly as much of Poirot or Miss Marple. Especially in the latter case, you can often reasonably follow along because Miss Marple, for the most part, does not have unlimited resources and contacts as Poirot does.

      And let’s not forget that even British murder mysteries are incredibly varied and would require completely different approaches. Sherlock Holmes is heavily about staring at the crime scene really hard while Poirot and Miss Marple are almost entirely about the people involved.
      The former would be difficult to do without making things too obvious (just collecting all the brightly glowing clues can’t be enough, but making it too obtuse would be bad), while the latter would be difficult to do because it would require an extraordinary amount of writing, possibly voice acting and a very nuanced conversation system.

      • gunny1993 says:

        I admit i’m rolling in some sweeping generalizations and that not everything is so binary, i’m more applying it on a spectrum where sherlock would probably be on the classic side and something by Raymond Chandler would be on the Hard boiled side.

        Speaking of which I think Chandler himself in the essay he wrote with “the simple art of murder” gets the comparison down fairly well, even if he is somewhat belligerent and overly aggressive (but given that we have the perspective of time, it may be understandable)

        I think his critiques and comparisons are interesting, and the essay itself is a good read if you can get past the archaic language so common to his style of writing link to teuwissen.ch

        The Englishman in me does want to tut at him for his dismissal of English writing though.

  19. Anthile says:

    Isn’t that more of a problem with RPGs cannibalizing adventure games? That trend probably started with Ultima VII, which, I think started out with a murder mystery but obviously went well beyond that. Considering how influential the game was and, well, still is, it seems almost commonplace now to have a murder mystery sidequest in your game, be it a thinly veiled Jack the Ripper analogue, a Rashomon situation or something more hardboiled in tone. Pretty much every Bioware game has one of these. They’re in Borderlands 2, Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed and the gods know what other games. A lot.

  20. deadly.by.design says:

    First picture: Angela Lansbury or The Log Lady? You decide.

  21. ChemicalCutthroat says:

    I know it isn’t PC at all, but the Phoenix Wright series on the handhelds have been great Police Procedurals. But they work really well in that weird portable space.

  22. Germansuplex says:

    Witcher 3 does it pretty well for being in an entirely different genre. I don’t even mean the *actual* muder mystery quest it has, but all the “CSI: Narnia” stuff in there.

  23. SuddenSight says:

    When I read the title, I kind of agreed with you. But after thinking for a bit, I think you are hugely off-base. In part because there ARE a lot of murder-mystery plots in games. These can include framing devices (see Westerado, many text adventures, and so on) as well as plot motivators (so many text adventures, but I’ll name-drop Heavy Rain).

    But we still have *less* murder mysteries than in books or movies. Why? Games suck at dialog, movies and books excel at it. Dialogue is fun to watch or read and cheap to write or film. So movies and books include lots of it. But reactive dialogue is difficult, and packing a game with lots of non-responsive dialogue typically adds too much down time.

    Murder mysteries are great in books and movies because they give you an excuse to explore every character’s life story. Really dwell on everyones motivations. That kind of emphasis on background fluff would be called “boring” in most other contexts.

    Meanwhile, what does a murder mystery GAIN you if you can’t use dialogue? You say it is a good idea for an FPS, but *is it*? Think about all the critique of Bioshock Infinite for having so much mismatch between the gunplay and the story. Now imagine a protagonist gunning down 100 baddies, then wailing “but who killed Fred?” It’s ridiculous.

    You need a motivation to kill in FPSs. A murder mystery alone is not enough – it must be a murder mystery and some evil oppressors that deserve to die anyway. At which point, why did you need the murder mystery? Just run with the evil oppressor story.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Think witcher 3 did it well, i.e. the monster hunts. Short 20-30 minutes of a combination of interesting dialogue, chasing down leads, looking for clues, the occasional choice of morality, good variance of plots, motives and means and each one can culminate in a satisfying fight or mercy.

      I think it worked in that because it balanced all the elements so well, and used it as an excuse to find interesting items and veiw new unexplored territory.

      • Ivan says:

        That’s a good point – I guess I just didn’t think of them as “murder mysteries” since they were really more “monster contracts” first and foremost, and there wasn’t a suite of choices since Geralt would always remark, “Hmm, that’s a grubblywubble footprint, one must have a nest nearby!”

      • SuddenSight says:

        If you are talking about the Skellige mystery quest line, I remember that one and regret not remembering in time to include in my own post. That was definitely a good quest line, though, again, they did have to include other factors (royal inheritance) to motivate the player to care about *this murder* while also killing a bunch of people. And the Witcher isn’t really a high (human) bodycount game anyway.

        • gunny1993 says:

          Not just the specific quest line, literally any monster hunt mission, if you remove the context of monesters etc, you get left with a hardboiled detective style “A guy solving problems with sav and guile for money because he’s poor as sod”

  24. iucounu says:


    Each episode of this LA NOIRE-style series is a different case, in which a rich person commits a murder and is hounded to their doom by a shabby little man with the implacable tenacity of a Greek Fury.

    The game is split into investigation scenes and conversation scenes, as in NOIRE. In the first of the former, Columbo pokes around the crime-scene in a point-and-click manner, looking for the one piece of off-kilter evidence that tells him it’s a murder (and, essentially, who dun it.)

    In conversation scenes, as Columbo, you have two major conversational strategies: disarm and unsettle. Your goal is to disarm the murderer with disingenuous prattle until he or she is comfortable enough to take maximum psychic damage from the sucker punch that is the Unsettling Question.

    There are also Social Status contests involved in conversations; Columbo’s Status starts at 0 and the killer’s Status at 10, and points are lost or gained at the expense of the opponent. Different conversational options are available depending on the relative Status of each party.

    You are time-limited; the conversation can only go on so long. Unsettling options reduce the length of the conversation. There are only so many conversations with the killer that can be had; canny use of conversational tactics is needed to extract the maximum information from the killer while simultaneously raising their panic level.

    Panic is important because to apply the coup de grace Columbo will need to manipulate the killer into incriminating themselves, and only high-panic killers will fall for it. Related is the suspicion level – killers must not be too suspicious of Columbo’s acumen or they cannot be trapped. Suspicion and Panic can be increased or decreased in various conversational ways, independently or concurrently.

    Columbo has a limited number of powerful Special Attacks, including Just One More Thing (an automatic Unsettle at the very end of a scene), and My Wife’s A Big Fan Of Yours (powerful Disarm, increases Columbo’s Status). These can’t usually be used more than once per episode, so timing is important.

    … anyway, something like that.

    • Windows98 says:

      I would play that.

      • JackMultiple says:

        Me too! I watch Columbo on MeTV everytime it comes on, no matter how many times I’ve seen the episode.

        Oh, just one more thing, sir, I hope you don’t mind. Not to take away from your idea, because I love it… but I’m not sure Columbo is a murder “mystery” per se, because we know whodunnit, how he dunnit, and why he dunnit, before Columbo even comes on the scene. The fun as you say is watching him “stumble” into the solution.

        Now if they would leave that part out of a game, then you could uncover the mystery along with Columbo. And “Dog”!

        • iucounu says:

          Yeah, I reckon that, like the show, Columbo wouldn’t know HOW the crime has been committed – but he does generally latch onto the villain as soon as he spots the first clue. It’s the audience who gets the blow-by-blow account, and in the game you’d only get that right at the end. You’re having to play your cards right (and it does feel like it might be a card game) to tease clues as to how the murder was committed out of the villain.

  25. Mix says:

    I’d absolutely love to see a Stealth Action RPG based on Murder She Wrote. You’d play as Angela Lansbury’s character. The goal of the game would be to murder each level’s target, then plant evidence in a convincing enough fashion that you can successfully convince the authorities that another character committed the murder. Then you write a bestselling novel about it, maintaining your cover as a harmless old author lady who happens to be in the right place at the right time to solve murders that just won’t stop coincidentally happening around you.

    Think L.A. Noire meets Hitman: Blood Money.

  26. Shake Appeal says:

    Now wait a second, those Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games aren’t all bad. Not at all. In fact, the Jack the Ripper one is one of my favorite murder mystery experiences in gaming, even with its (many, many) flaws. And they’ve been getting progressively more involved and interesting. The last one, with the six different (but related) cases was the best one yet.

  27. christmas duck says:

    “If there’s just one right answer to your arching mystery, then it’s made clear to the player that you’re inevitably heading that way, and progress is defined by correctly finding the intended path. It’s presumably far harder to give the impression of possibility. And yet that’s just an interesting obstacle to overcome, the sort of challenge that should drive a development team to think, think bigger, be more imaginative.”

    I wonder if a solution to this might be to drop having a solution at all, the well worn film/tv/book trope of having the detective confront the killer who then instantly confesses works great for that medium as it gives the lead character a tidy hero arc, but in most real crime investigations you get nothing of the sort, you just have to be confident in your analysis of the evidence and that you’ve not missed any key evidence or lines of enquiry to the contrary. Come the end of the game you need to present your evidence, name your killer and… that’ll be it, were you right? Well it’ll definitely hold up in court, you presented enough evidence and found all the holes in your suspects version of event so, probably? Don’t worry about it.

  28. LennyLeonardo says:

    Seems like the way to avoid the ‘one solution’ problem would be to make a game which gives a group of players tools to create their own murder mystery which they play out as a group. Or at least make a user-generated content style game like Trackmania. Not sure how either would work, though.

  29. Geebs says:

    Here’s the exact reason: if a murder mystery novel gives enough information to allow the reader to guess the killer before the final reveal, it has failed. A murder mystery game has to give the player sufficient information to solve the case. It’s simply not possible to resolve this contradiction in a properly satisfying way.

  30. Unsheep says:

    Really, LA Noire was awful ? despite getting overwhelmingly positive reviews by both media folks and consumers ? I think you are self-delusional.

    • iucounu says:

      It wasn’t awful, it just didn’t quite work, and that rather tanked the whole game (beautiful though it was in many ways.) The interrogations never felt right – too much trial and error, not enough data on how or why you chose right or wrong to work out how to play it effectively. Also, I couldn’t have given a shit about the GTA-lite driving and shooting bits – they felt like padding around the mechanic that the game was supposed to be about, and which is was consistently failing to make enjoyable.

      • iucounu says:

        To elaborate: time and again I’d pick a conversation option that I thought was going to go one way, and my character would do something completely mad that I’d never expected. I really needed to be able to see the line of dialogue, not just something vague like ‘Disbelieve’ or whatever, which could either play out as the sleuth going ‘Oh yeah?’ or lunging across the table.

        • Haplo says:

          The story I was told was that early in development, the three options you could choose were actually three different ones, with different names… These ones were more aggressive in general. They went ahead and based the writing etc off these options, then at some point later they renamed the three base options. The problem was that by then the writing and the voice acting had been done, the result being that each of the three actions felt off-base.

      • Unsheep says:

        If you didn’t like the game I can’t really argue with that.

        My experience of the game was the opposite though. Part of the charm and fun of the interrogations was that you did *not* have all the information, all the answers. The fact that the interrogations were so difficult was to me a crucial part of the game.

        People today talk about ‘accepting failure’ in games like Dark Souls and XCom 2, yet this is also relevant for other games. For example, in LA Noire you could mess-up your whole investigation if you failed an interrogation. In other words there’s a risk of failure involved.

        Having multiple outcomes is also one of those things that add replay value to a game. If the interrogations were easy there would no need to design multiple outcomes for each investigation, consequently the game would have much less replay value.

        While I enjoyed the action and driving parts of the game, the optional side-activities, were you could race criminals and so on, were not interesting to me. I only did the main missions in the game.

    • kwyjibo says:

      LA Noire was good.

  31. Baf says:

    The more I think about it, the more I think the answer is: Because they’re unnecessary.

    The whodunit is basically a way to inject a ludic element into an otherwise passive medium. The reader or audience makes guesses about the mystery’s resolution, and tries to spot the significance of the clues, and in the end, when the truth is revealed, experiences a sort of epiphany in which your understanding of the story is transformed and you re-evaluate the significance of everything you’ve seen.

    A good adventure game does pretty much the same thing whether it’s in the mystery genre or not.

    Another related factor: In a mystery, the detective can withhold his deductions from the reader. This is what makes the epiphany work. Poirot usually has a good idea of the solution at the very beginning of a case, and his investigation is devoted to either confirming or filling in the gaps in his conjecture. But only at the story’s climax does he let the reader in on what he was thinking. Putting the reader in the detective’s place makes this technique difficult.

  32. wisnoskij says:

    While TV and novels can make it fun, games really cannot. Murder mystery is all about talk to NPC X, talk to NPC Y, sleep, talk to NPC X, confront NPC Y about the content of his waste bin. Etc. etc. You can have a good story, and a well made game and it will still be boring, because that is just what the genre is in game form. PnC adventures share a lot of similarities, mostly murder mysteries fall within the pnc genre. But in the end murder mysteries are just adventure games without puzzles and with far fewer locations, aka really really boring. talking to NPCs is always a clunky experience, and it is even worse when it is the same NPCs over and over again, talking about the same thing over and over again.

    • christmas duck says:

      If it’s the NPC’s which are the problem you could always snip that out, have the player do stuff like poking about the crime scene and going through the victims personal affects for clues and possible suspects whilst detectives Snibbles and Bucklebury actually handle all the interviews, meaning the player can just spin through transcripts or recordings after the fact (which it a much better system for handing interrogations in a game imo, you can check and re-check answers without awkward “Tell me yet again about your new fridge.” dialogue options).

      • Dustandwater says:

        This seems like a perfect solution!

        There is an excellent game I played on iOS called The Trace: Murder Mystery Game, which I think did a fantastic job of this. It was all crime scene investigation, wandering around inspecting every thing that seemed out of place and piecing together the clues in the right way to make deductions.

        That game had several crime scenes all part of one crime. I really hoped they would release a new “episode”, as seems to be the terminology these days, but so far nothing more has come of it. A bigger version of this would be perfect!

  33. wadeithan says:

    To my mind, the answer of why there aren’t more games like this revolves around when you know the answer to the mystery. There have been plenty of games I’ve played that had mystery sections, and frequently I either figure out the answer waaaaay before the character does or I have no idea what the answer is until the character says it. While that can be fun in a movie or novel since the narrator and/or protagonist aren’t you (“Hey, I figured it out before Sherlock Holmes did,” or “What does Holmes know that I missed? I have no idea what he’s going to say next”), in a video game, you are supposed to be the character you are controlling. That sudden disconnect between my real self and my digital self, when I’m shouting at the monitor “It was that guy” while having to continue searching for clues for another half hour before my character can solve it, it is decidedly unfun.

  34. Premium User Badge

    InfamousPotato says:

    For anyone interested in a less-linear murder mystery game, I’d highly recommend Consortium. I’m afraid to admit that I never solved that murder.

  35. lupinewolf says:

    There’s 2 major problems with it that need discussing if we are ever going to get a proper murder mystery game:

    1) We like looking at brilliant minds solve misteries. You are not a brilliant mind or you would be out there solving crime. So how can the game give you a mystery that’s, on the one hand, solvable by everyone from your grandma to your kid, and on the other, makes you feel like a great detective? We like to watch detectives work, and we may guess some things that they deduct themselves, but it’s always someone else doing the solving. It’s fundamentally different.

    2) How can the player present theories to the game without using multiple choice systems and whatnot, which inherently limit or drives the player in a certain directon? That’s a hard one.

  36. NephilimNexus says:

    Either murders will be randomly generated and make no sense, or not and offer zero replay value.

  37. surgeonufo says:

    I quite enjoyed the Carmen Sandiego games as a young kid, there was a lot of having to find clues and getting warrants and interviewing suspects.

    I also enjoyed LA Noire, although had a hard time telling when people were lying. It kept me hooked till the end, though.

    I wonder if this would be possible to do multiplayer, sort of like The Ship mixed with mafia? One player is the killer with a specific target, in an enclosed location, the other players have to figure out whodunit. Some sort of system for leaving/cleaning up clues, and personal objectives that the other players have which would make them seem fishy to each other (you must be holding a knife, you must try to implicate player B, whatever) could make it an interesting, and replayable, game.

  38. KramsDesign says:

    Hehe, exactly my thinking too John! Since finishing up on my last game Anna’s Quest, this genre is exactly what I’ve been working on ever since – feeling super excited to share more on this new game in time ^^ but I do admit, all the questions you bring up about making a game work are justified, definitely not an easy thing to pull off. But I’m giving it my best shot at least!

  39. Stone_Crow says:

    I know it’s a ball ache but eventually you’re going to have to buy some batteries for your remote John, watching this much ITV3 is bad for you.

  40. whatisthismerde says:

    I enjoyed (ie played straight through) 2 murder mystery games recently: Murdered Soul Suspect (from the humble bundle, best $1 I ever spent as it got me Life is Strange Episode 1 too) and Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

    I used the demon counters cheat to make Murdered a pure murder mystery/horror/walking simulator and I loved it. Played it straight through. Even with the demons neutered, I still felt a pleasant frisson and helping the dead people was cool too.

    Vanishing of Ethan Carter is also a murder mystery in that it shows you murders, lets you find clues and reconstruct the stories behind them and then flips everything around. It is also the most beautiful thing I have played for a while – every part of the valley is gorgeous and scary at the same time.

    • kool says:

      I actually love both those games myself, and i think especially Murdered: Soul Suspect is really underrated, it’s only problem in my opinion is that it’s kind of overpriced at full price for the amount of game you get.

    • christmas duck says:

      M:SS is an interesting one, I do wonder what was the deal with the demon bits, they really come across as something added too late/mandated by higher ups when someone got cold feet about a lack of combat.

  41. Premium User Badge

    Philopoemen says:

    Max Payne (the game, not the movie) was a murder mystery in the narrative, to an extent.

    But games try to create emotions about characters motivations, so most game Murder Mysteries (narrative-wise) are in the end revenge stories for the main character.

    The thing that annoys me about murder mysteries in general is that evidence is secondary to confession. Makes great TV and movies, but not how it works in the real world.

    Besides, I think I’m up to about 50 murders I’ve helped investigate over the years now, and most of them aren’t that mysterious – the spouse did it.

  42. asmodemus says:

    I would have thought the most successful example of the genre in gaming (historically speaking) would be the Carmen Sandiago games. Sure they’re not murders per-se but structurally they absolutely could be and the methods of clue gathering and whatnot certainly fit the mystery genre.

    Admittedly these games were almost on the educational end of the spectrum but it’s interesting that something so successful in the early years of gaming has all but fallen by the wayside.

  43. Baron Bacon V says:

    Man, my favorite murder-mystery title isn’t even an actual game. I have put an obscene amount of time into Trouble in Terrorist Town in Garry’s Mod. Such a fun bloody mode. One of the few multiplayer games that actually takes advantage of the often times stunningly retarded multiplayer gaming community by integrating the internet’s stupidity into the game on a mechanical level.
    For those that have not played it, it is an asymmetric murder mystery multiplayer game in which a team of killers (traitors) try and take out a team of innocent people without arousing any suspicion, with a few overpowered detectives on their tail, adding an extra complication to matches.
    The game’s popularity has sort of faded lately with other Garry’s Mod modes rising up (such as the inexplicable “Murder” mode, which is basically a stripped down version of TTT, and Prop Hunt because youtubers play it). If you have not tried the mode, you should play a few rounds, almost every match has memorable and fun moments (and I figure that you already own GMod, since you are visiting this site).

  44. Premium User Badge

    Haldurson says:

    I have a better question — you have photos from 3 relatively poorly written TV mystery shows. I know from my brief watching of two of them that they often had mysteries with INCORRECT solutions to them, that did not fit the facts as presented. The truth is that writing a clever mystery where the solution is not obvious, but can be deduced from the facts as presented, and has no internal inconsistencies is hard, certainly beyond the writing skills of the average television writer (at least if you take the shows you display photos from as being averagely written).

    I remember my mom liked to watch “Murder, She Wrote”, and the couple of times that I joined her, I ended up yelling at the TV screen because the solution presented was physically impossible. Writing a good mystery is hard. Hell, writing good TV is hard, which makes writing a good TV whodunit is nearly impossible, and that conclusion is supported very well from the evidence at hand. Combining both of those, with the computer genre should be downright rage-inducing.

  45. JoeX111 says:

    I kind of want someone to make Gone Home, but with you playing as a private eye piecing clues together. Instead of searching a house for your family, you are breaking into apartments, rifling through offices, tracing a web of clues.

    But, of course, I basically just described the non-FMV sections of Tex Murphy.

    • whatisthismerde says:

      murdered soul suspect and vanishing of ethan carter (as i mentioned in another comment) have this structure

  46. Unsheep says:

    Part of the problem is that RPS, and indeed the vast majority of media channels, only seem interested triple-a titles, artsy indie games and Telltale games as far as adventure games go.

    You are complaining about a topic and sub-genre that you don’t actually seem serious about or even interested in. There are plenty of good murder mystery games that have been made by indie developers, you just can’t be bothered looking very far.

    • celticdr says:

      Not to sound rude but I would love to hear some examples.

    • Premium User Badge

      alison says:

      I have to agree with this. This whole article seems to pretty much ignore the existence of modern adventure games, whether they revolve around a murder mystery or something else. Come on, even the most acclaimed AAA adventure game of last year went there (Life is Strange). Just looking through my library, which is strongly biased toward sci-fi adventures, i see stuff like Technobabylon, Primordia, Dex, Gemini Rue, The Journey Down, Resonance, A New Beginning… Some featured murders, all featured mystery. There are countless more outside of the sci-fi genre. 1954 Alactraz, A Golden Wake, all those supernatural ones i never played (Blackwell?), Nancy Drew mysteries, comedies like Edna and Harvey, fantasies like The Inner World… The joy of these games is exploring locations, looking for clues and engaging in dialog as the story is slowly revealed, and when it’s well-written the big climax is at least as satisfying as any novel. Certainly, there are very few “open world” whodunits (Consortium is the only one i can think of off-hand), but as other commenters have mentioned, it kind of takes away the point of a mystery novel which is that you are deliberately being kept in the dark by the writers so that the story beats play out as intended.

      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I love RPS and i get all of my gaming news from here, but when it comes to adventure games i pretty much just rely on Steam reviews and proven publishers like Daedalic or Wadjet Eye because decent coverage in the media is either non-existent or the writers seem to miss the point of the genre, which is that is a deliberately structured form of player-paced storytelling that has more in common with novels than most arcade games.

  47. Nyarlathotep says:

    Hacknet also springs to mind, the plot starting pretty much the same way as Shadown Run returns, i.e. a dead’s man switch.

    And, like others mentioned, many quests in The Witcher 3 are all about finding murdering monsters/people. Although admittedly they all rely on the witcher sense mechanic with Geralt explain everything to the player, but I think it still works.

    I get what you are saying John, but I think there are many games out there (mentionned in this thread) that already fit in that “murder mystery” slot, even though most of them are not marketed as such.

    • Nyarlathotep says:

      Oh, and the Wolf Among Us, too!

    • celticdr says:

      Witcher sense did make everything a bit too easy in that respect – pretty much every monster contract I had I held down the witcher sense button and away I would go… that said there was really little else that CDPR could do when their world had such a busy (read: beautiful) environment.

  48. celticdr says:

    The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel – easily my favourite MM game of all time – I am biased, as a kid I read pretty much every story Conan Doyle wrote.

    I like the idea of a game like LA Noire (being a fan of noir genre films) however I found that game a bit too linear in regards to when you interrogate the suspect in which order you needed to ask questions, etc… and it had a bit too much hand-holding (I know I have to go to the diner to question the next suspect, quit f&*ken telling me Rockstar!).

    IMO the biggest hurdle to ‘why aren’t there more murder mystery games?’ is that to AAA games publishers the perception is that the audience for these games is so niche it isn’t worth the effort, and to indie game devs there is simply far too much writing involved for it to be feasible to make these games with such a small team.

  49. Hirgwath says:

    I thought Life is Strange had a really fun deductive mechanic with the corkboards in episode 4. I’m not a fan of traditional point and click adventures (by virtue of not playing many) but I would have played a whole game revolving around that mechanic for sure.

  50. darrrrkvengeance says:

    i think the most enjoyable part of a mystery story (murder mystery or not) is that “aha!” moment where you all of a sudden understand the way the pieces fit together and the story takes on a greater sense of depth and meaning for you. importantly, though, i think i feel a pretty similar sense of satisfaction regardless of whether that “aha!” moment is something i’ve personally figured out or something that’s been revealed.

    for example, To The Moon isn’t what most would consider a “mystery” game; but as a player, you’re really motivated by wanting to figure out the answers to these various questions and the meaning of these various conversations and mementos that don’t initially present much significance to the player. and, without spoiling anything, when you get the reveal that makes all the oddities of the early game now make sense, it feels really rewarding — notwithstanding that you haven’t really done much from a gameplay standpoint to have “earned” that reward, other than simply persevering through the story for several hours. would the game be a better one if you actually had to take greater pains to “solve” the mystery? i’m not sure it would, though i suppose there’s a point of view that considers it currently to be barely a “game” at all.

    about Her Story (which i love) the less said the better, so as not to spoil anything. but i think that strikes a pretty good balance between what’s revealed to you and what you discover for yourself, which maybe allows you to take more ownership of the “solution” than a game like To The Moon.

    on the entire other end of the spectrum, however, you could take a pure logic game like Hexcells — which has no narrative whatsoever but whose gameplay is entirely about revealing “clues” and using them in tandem to complete a puzzle. from a gameplay perspective, maybe finding a way to combine Hexcells-like problemsolving with some kind of compelling narrative would make for an enjoyable mystery game?