Video games about real world crimes are a step too far

True crime might be fine for podcasts or documentaries, but not video games

I was trawling through the Xbox store the other day, looking for something new to play. And then I saw it. The game looked very much like the sort of thing that appeals to me. Puzzles. Darkness. Story. But what I felt wasn’t excitement. It wasn’t even intrigue. I think the best word I can find right now is: revulsion.

This Is The Zodiac Speaking is a new game by Polish studio Punch Punk Games – also responsible for the rather good 2018 point-and-click adventure Apocalipsis – and casts you as a journalist attempting to unmask the identity of the Zodiac Killer, a real-life serial killer who terrorised northern California in the late-’60s and early-’70s.

The Zodiac Killer was never caught, and to this day, remains one of America’s biggest boogeymen. He was responsible for five brutal murders, but he claimed responsibility for 37 through a series of letters he would post to local newspapers, including a cipher that has never been decoded. It’s easy to see the appeal; the Zodiac Killer is a real-world version of Batman’s Riddler.

This Is The Zodiac Speaking
This Is The Zodiac Speaking. Credit: Punch Punk Games

It was only a matter of time before the true crime genre made its way to video games, the most popular entertainment medium in the world. True crime is everywhere in 2020, from podcasts to yet another Netflix documentary series. But I’m no great critic of the trend. When true crime is done well – when it tells the stories of people taken from us or when it leads to new information that can heat up a long cold case – then it makes for worthy media.

None of these claims can be made for This Is The Zodiac Speaking, which only serves to embolden the celebrity status of whoever was – or is – the Zodiac Killer. It’s worth remembering that the Zodiac case is still an active investigation and that many of the victims’ family members are still alive. What, you might ask, of David Fincher’s incredible 2007 film, Zodiac? Well, it’s surely a different experience being told a story rather than living inside of one. All of which poses an interesting question about what sort of subject matter is acceptable to be adapted for video games.

Many years ago, new video games would be showcased in the windows of stores. A console with a looped demo of a new release would be hooked up to a screen in an attempt to attract passers-by. I vividly recall seeing one such display in 1999, the year EA released the World War II-themed first-person shooter Medal Of Honor. I remember seeing an old man – certainly old enough to have served in said conflict – watching the rolling recreation of D-Day with the most quizzical of looks. It always struck me as extremely distasteful.

Medal Of Honor 10th Anniversary Edition
Medal Of Honor 10th Anniversary Edition. Credit: EA

There’s a scene in the original Jurassic Park where the scientist Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, critical of InGen’s work cloning dinosaurs, says something that can be loosely paraphrased as “just because you could, doesn’t mean you should”. It’s something worth thinking about when we think about the entertainment we consume, video games or otherwise. If we eat bad food, we become fat. Similarly, if real-life tragedies like the lives lost to the Zodiac Killer become entertainment, what will that do to us? What impact will it have on our humanity?

If you like puzzles and mysteries on a criminal slant, there’s plenty out there to test your investigative chops. Some of my personal picks include Disco Elysium, The Wolf Among Us, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter and, one of my favourite games in recent years, 2018’s Return Of The Obra Dinn. Let your imagination run wild, while leaving real world tragedy outside the gaming realm.

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