One of the most beautiful and unique aspects of the interactive medium is how developers are always finding ways to subvert and take news spins on a genre. In an industry that has increasingly become watered down by triple-A releases that essentially rehash the same gameplay mechanics, there are just as many developers using the confines of previously defined gameplay to experiment and change the way a mystery unfolds.
We saw this in previous generations with games like Myst and even the original Resident Evil; they took something inherently familiar, but completely changed the game through innovative design choices.
Let’s take a look at some of the best examples of video games that bend genres to unfold a mystery.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
A game that has kind of gotten lost during the frenetic passage of time (but one that you can still get on the Xbox marketplace!), Condemned: Criminal Origins is a first-person investigative horror title that launched with the Xbox 360. Condemned introduces players to Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent hot on the trail of a serial killer at-large called “the Match Maker.” At the same time of the investigation, the city and his surroundings have undergone a drastic influx in crime, with suspicions leading to something nefarious and potentially supernatural.
It’s in Condemned’s utilization of horror, forensic scanning, puzzles, and the manner of delivering the story itself that it takes the mystery into a then (and perhaps still) modern FPS form factor.
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog
Released as a free-to-play title for Sonic series fans, The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog is a hilarious and well-rendered homage to Clue that you simply wouldn’t expect from the platform hedgehog character from the 90s. On Amy Rose’s birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog is murdered and all of his friends—including fan favorites like Tails and Knuckles—must sleuth around aboard Amy Rose’s birthday spot, the Mirage Express.
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog is a playful take on the older-style point-and-click adventure merged with the popular visual novel genre of games; where this really bends genres is in how it treats its subject material with a level of maturity that has historically been less common. It is exceedingly refreshing to see.
It’s like someone took an HP Lovecraftian tale and merged it with…Moby Dick. But really, it kind of is. Dredge is a mystery set on the open and haunted seas, with players taking on the role of a desperate fisherman trying to make ends meet. You are given a semi-open-ended aquatic world to set sail in, in search of a catch that can bring in the dollars. Problem is, there’s something out there, and it isn’t just in the deep depths of an uncharted sea.
The game uses a day-night cycle to play out its story, allowing for players to actively investigate the mystery plaguing the waters. When you are first encountered, seeing something amiss, be it hallucination or something actively flanking you out there in the dark waters late at night… or when you catch your first mutated sea creature, you know Dredge is posing a mystery that changes the way one sees horror, game sim, and the sport of fishing.
Murdered: Soul Suspect
A game that went largely unnoticed during its initial release, Murdered: Soul Suspect is a third person mystery-thriller adventure that has players taking on the role of a detective that’s dead. Through different abilities—particularly possession—players must dart through living beings and across crime scenes in search of the “Bell Killer,” the same person that murdered you. The game merged the noir and a classic investigative thriller, with gameplay mechanics that were refreshing at the time.
Similar to LA Noire, or even Stubbs the Zombie, Murdered: Soul Suspect equips players with the tools to feel at once liberated and confined to their character, resulting in a game that feels just as much like a platformer at times, complete with countless collectibles, the Bell Killer always seems to be one step ahead.
Talk about a game that desperately needs to be rereleased on modern consoles. While PC players luckily have access to a remastered edition on Steam, if you are looking to kick back with a PlayStation DualSense or those Nintendo JoyCons, you’ll find that it’s still a no-go. However, Killer7 is one of the best examples in gaming of a title that bends genre itself to become its own unique breed.
In the game, players take on the role of the “killer7,” a high-caliber assassin group that all happen to be one person with multiple split personalities. Players are able to actively switch through those personalities to utilize their different unique abilities while they fulfill contract kills that range from horrific, surreal, and just plain bizarre. Killer7 carries a confident and dazzlingly original sense of style, and clearly, designer Suda51 found inspiration across genres and made sure to feed it into the game.
A surprise hit when it was released in 2022 across PC and consoles (and Xbox Game Pass), Immortality takes the interactive film medium into new territory. The premise is simple yet instantly alluring: Model and actress Marissa Marcel is a natural onscreen and looks to be the next best thing. Unfortunately, her films never see release, and Marcel goes missing.
Players are left with this odd Lynchian mystery to solve, playing effectively the role of an editor or archivist as they comb through the footage. What makes the game so addictive (and frightening) is how the initially disparate footage starts to tell its story, and how another thread entirely begins to poke through, making you wonder if you yourself are being hypnotized by Marcel’s onscreen magic.
We’ve all seen Memento, the early Christopher Nolan film about a guy with no long-term memory. Full of inventive narrative trickery, it was and still is a standout. In Twelve Minutes, some of that same energy finds itself in this indie arthouse mystery gone amok. Players watch as a man and his wife seemingly have a nice night in when a detective knocks on their door, accusing the wife of murder, only to end up in a skirmish that results in her own death.
The game plays out during the same 12 minutes, as the title suggests, where players are able to rewind time and find sense in a seemingly senseless act. Though it can be frustrating at times, Twelve Minutes demonstrates how the point-and-click mechanic, when merged with inspired and experimental film concepts, can create a mystery that isn’t told in its usual path of breadcrumbs. Players get to feel like they are in full control of a broken moment in time, where every single object and motion is suspect.
Pentiment is quite literally like a living medieval text, woodcut, or painting. Akin to other narratively driven adventures, players take on the role of one Andreas Maler, who has taken on an apprenticeship to hopefully one day become an illuminator himself. It’s 1518, and long before moveable type, human hands meticulously render each letter of a published text. It’s a noble and inspiring way to begin the game… and yet things come crashing down when someone is murdered, and accusations run rampant.
Players are right in the middle, and through intricate dialogue trees, open-ended investigation, and quests, the mystery unfolds as intricately as one of the game’s illustrious renditions. It really feels like you’re part of history being rewritten.
Featured still from "Dredge" via Black Salt Games