Peak August: It’s sweltering outside and—if you’re anything like me—you’d rather stay indoors with the AC blasting than go outside.
With so many anticipated games coming out in the fall (like Starfield and Mortal Kombat 1), it’s ironic that the tail end of summer (when we’re indoors the most!) always yields a drought in the video game arena.
But never fear! This just means there’s an opportunity to fill those leisure hours of late summer with backlog titles from yesteryear. If you’re intimidated by what’s out there, and there is a lot (especially if you factor in summer sales, Game Pass, etc.), it’s okay. We’ve got you.
We've rounded up some of the best mystery-focused video games from yesteryear to keep you satiated—and cool—till the fall “harvest.”
Undoubtedly a title that’ll forever grace lists touting examples of video games as art, Firewatch is also a masterfully paced story-driven game. Players don the role of Henry, a man at a crossroads. His wife has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, which causes him to take a job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest. Over the course of his year-long gig, he bonds with another fire lookout named Delilah and begins to uncover a dark mystery of the forest.
The game delves into some pretty mature themes without becoming heavy-handed, and also manages to balance gameplay (particularly through episodes of forest hiking) with deft dialog. Firewatch is one of those games that everyone, not just the hardcore players, should play through to its conclusion. An added plus: the game is back on Xbox Game Pass!
Gamers around during the popularity of Myst might recognize the name. 7th Guest is among the first generation of point and click mysteries and adventures whose focus was less on sprites and gameplay and more on images and video. Where Myst was more cryptic, 7th Guest opts for a bit more of a conventional murder mystery.
A serial killer and drifter named Henry Stauf builds a fortune and empire around making toys. He uses his success to erect a mansion, the setting of the game. Players wake up in this mysterious place and are soon tossed into a Clue-like exploration through Stauf’s bizarre home. If you’re looking for something retro, 7th Guest is perfect for a late summer escape, and if you end up waiting until the fall…word has it that the game is being remade for Playstation VR!
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is one of those games that might not look like much on the surface. The game's intentionally subdued marketing and presentation—touting a desktop computer, a cubicle, and the eponymous Stanley, the protagonist of the game—makes it come off as a modest indie title for puzzle aficionados. However, it happens to be one of the best examples of fourth-wall breaking story choice, with players given an active role and the game on-the-fly commentating on your choices.
Stanley comes-to in what seems to be his cubicle at his soul-crushing desk job working for…who really knows. Clever and endearing voiceovers (delivered by actor Kevan Brighting) act as cues, guiding players through an increasingly odd mystery that defies both the concept of “game” and “reality.” There really isn’t anything else like it.
Kentucky Route Zero
Some games feel like they were directly pulled from somebody’s subconscious. Kentucky Route Zero is a crowd-funded indie adventure that places players in the role of Conway, a trucker on yet another one of his deliveries. Things get weird real quick when his route points him through “Route Zero,” a highway and town in Kentucky that soon becomes a place of untold mysteries.
Kentucky Route Zero is one of those games that can make players feel weird; its prioritization of story and atmosphere rather than familiar gameplay mechanics call to mind Lynchian themes and other oddities. It’s a game that makes it clear that the main character is a mystery. An added incentive for potential players looking to get lost on Route Zero, the game recently received PS5 and Xbox Series X upgrades.
Famicom Detective Club
Originally unreleased in the US and developed exclusively for the Famicom Disk System, the Famicom Detective Club consists of two murder mysteries designed to play out like a text adventure.
The first game, called The Missing Heir, pertains to an amnesiac who turns out to be a detective investigating an unresolved murder, which soon leads him to the Ayashiro family, a coveted plot of land, and the possible connection to the works of a serial killer.
The second game, The Girl Who Stands Behind, introduces players to a 15-year-old runaway turned police assistant as he, alongside detective Shunsuke Utsugi, investigate the recent murder of a high school student named Yoko Kojima. Like any complex mystery, it is seldom solved on mere surface-level detail. Soon they are led to believe there’s a connection between the murder and the “Tale of the Girl Who Stands Behind,” which describes a ghost that follows close behind.
The duology became quite sought after over the years by collectors, so much so that fans even worked on English translations for the games. Nintendo has since released the games on the Switch, so now there’s really nothing keeping people from diving into the past for a little murder mystery escapism.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster
Similar to Firewatch, The Suicide of Rachel Foster is a story-driven mystery set to the heavy undertones of loss and grief. Players follow a woman named Nicole Wilson who is haunted by her past as she makes the snowy trek up to her family’s abandoned Timberline Hotel. She's dreading the visit, but she doesn't have a choice. She's the last of her bloodline after the death of her father, Leonard, and she must assess the hotel and what must be salvaged. However, she finds herself trapped due to an incoming blizzard, and Timberline’s hallways and labyrinthine secret passageways soon reveal more secrets about Leonard’s affair with a teenager named Rachel Foster.
One of the game’s highlights is its setting. The Timberline is directly and unabashedly inspired by the Overlook Hotel, and does an extraordinary job of making you feel trapped and alone in a sprawling estate. The game goes to some really dark places too, and by that I don’t just mean dark hallways and secret chambers. With topics ranging from suicide to child sexual abuse, this isn’t a game for those sensitive to such triggers. However, if one can stomach it, The Suicide of Rachel Foster offers a mystery that’ll stick in your mind long after the game’s conclusion.
I feel like I keep adding this game to lists, but I can’t help it: Norco is one of the best story-driven games I’ve played in years. The game is set in the eponymous town of Norco, Louisiana during an impending ecological disaster. Kay, our protagonist, returns home after hearing that her mother has passed away. When she arrives, she finds that her brother has gone missing, and so she does her due diligence to pick up the pieces of her family.
Norco’s point and click gameplay style yields an excellent sense of atmosphere that almost always makes the player feel like there’s doom on the way. Yet as players piece together the story tree, Norco is undoubtedly going to surprise and perhaps even enlighten. It’s also perfect for those seeking a complex narrative, complete with philosophical quandaries and existential mysteries.
Go into Norco on a night when your calendar is clear, a night when you can’t sleep. If you let it, Norco will leave a real lasting impression.
Featured still from "The Suicide of Rachel Foster" via Daedalic Entertainment