Could we use VR and contemporary game design to solve cold cases?

Turning gaming’s obsession with guns, death, and murder into a force for good

A couple of months back, James McMahon wrote a thoughtful op-ed that posited games about real-world crimes were a step too far. He wrote about This Is The Zodiac Speaking, a new game by Polish studio Punch Punk Games that casts you as a journalist attempting to unmask the identity of the Zodiac Killer, a real-life – and never caught – serial killer who terrorised California in the late-’60s and early-’70s.

But where James sees revulsion in such an idea, I see opportunity. Of course, any media that glamorises murder or elevates its perpetrators to celebrity-status can go straight in the bin – on this point James and I are thoroughly in agreement – but it’s curious to me that for a medium that’s so obsessed with death and violence, there are so few titles that utilise the careful eye and meticulousness of gamers to help solve crimes.

Video games are full of death, of course. But beyond vague inferences of good and evil and occasionally a big, revenge-is-sweet showdown, there’s often very little accountability for it. Take Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, for example; long hailed as one of gaming’s most loveable rogues, Drake is both a treasure hunter and a serial killer that butchers dozens of purported enemies without ever being held culpable for his actions. I don’t know which is quicker: his wit or his trigger finger.

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire. Credit: Rockstar Games


There are surprisingly few games that successfully deliver a suspenseful whodunnit, though. I’d say L.A. Noire probably comes closest with Cole “1247” Phelps, a cop working his way up the ranks in 1940s LA. By the time he hit the big leagues as a homicide detective, he’d survey the scene, examine the body, collect clues – including deciphering which ones were pertinent to the case and which were not – interview witnesses, and from there, use this information to make deductions. I can’t say it was a perfect experience – Phelps’ manic mood swings always made interviews a little sketchy, let’s face it – but it was certainly enough to sustain the myth of what detective work entails in my head, anyway.

Perhaps what enticed me most, though, wasn’t just that L.A. Noire let me live out my detective fantasies, but also that almost every crime scene is inspired by a real-life incident. Developer Team Bondi “meticulously researched stacks of original articles reported in the newspapers of the day to cull authentic elements of real-life crimes that would inspire the in-game cases” and that, my friends, is the bit that fascinated me most. The idea of working the scene of a fictional crime scene is one thing: the thought of working a real case – a real cold case – is undeniably more appealing.

Yes, I used the word appealing. Yes, I know you probably think there’s something wrong with me now. But look, there’s a whole subculture of this out there. I’m a Murderino – the term given to people with an interest in true crime, particularly murder – and I have no doubt someone else in your life is, too. And now – thanks to the rise in popularity of true crime documentaries like Making A Murderer and The Keepers – it’s no longer my own dirty little secret.

Making A Murderer
Making A Murderer. Credit: Netflix

Heavy Rain came really, really close, too, albeit aided by a fictional VR headpiece that did all the heavy lifting for detective Norman Jayden. Jayden’s fancy ARI – Added Reality Interface – enabled him to quickly and efficiently survey crime scenes and instantly access databases for research, too, and these segments of the game – times when Jayden was required to collect clues to progress the case of the Origami Killer – intrigued me. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

Given the similarities between how a gamer methodically approaches problem-solving, it’s perhaps a surprise, then, that there aren’t more games that task you with methodically working a crime scene, interviewing suspects, and reach an evidence-based conclusion. A few titles have attempted it – and fewer still have successfully pulled it off (Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, I’m looking at you) – but I’m surprised we don’t have a greater selection of whodunnit mysteries.

I suspect some would think it’s utterly without taste to present a real-life cold case, and yet there’s something nonetheless compelling about armchair detective work. We’re increasingly seeing examples where the combined effects of internet sleuths have led to meaningful convictions, such as the case of Abraham Shakespeare, the lotto winner murdered by Dee Dee Moore, the crowd-sourced efforts that collectively helped find both the Golden State Killer and the sick fuck at the centre of Netflix’s Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer documentary.

Don't F*** With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer
Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. Credit: Netflix


So, I wonder, what could be achieved if a crime could be fully, if artificially, recreated within the confines of a video game? What if a 3D representation of the scene could be shared with millions of gamers and task them with assessing the scene and going through all the information known about the victim? While it might seem a little tactless, many of these cases – often complete with graphic photos – are already scoured and pulled apart in internet forums and YouTube videos. Would asking gamers to do the same be any more problematic?

Like my obsession with urban exploration, it’s a little unbelievable to me that we don’t already have a fully-formed genre around this kind of mechanic, particularly as it seems so well suited to video games and the people who play them. While undeniably amateurs, gamers are nonetheless hardwired to carefully survey a scene, looking for inconsistencies. We spend half our lives pouring over seemingly inconsequential notes and journals and exposition-heavy audio recordings in games – I reckon that could make us well-suited to doing the same in a true-crime mystery or two, too.


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