On TV and in non-fiction, the true-crime genre is improbably popular. We love to dive into unexplored cases, peek at police procedure and try to understand the motives of criminals. For those of us whose lives are (mostly) safe and crime-free, it’s entertaining to see society’s underbelly. With serial killers you can multiply all of that interest by two or three.
The Zodiac Killer is in the upper, most glorified bracket of serial killers. You might have seen the 2007 David Fincher movie, Zodiac, or the TV series Mindhunters which featured him fleetingly. The Zodiac Killer has found a place in the public consciousness, particularly in his native America, mainly because he was never caught, but also because of the brazenness in which he taunted police with ciphers, letters and newspaper adverts.
But while TV and books are comfortable delving into true crime, gaming has largely skirted round it. There are a fair few reasons: a ‘whodunnit’ doesn’t work if you know who did it; a lot of modern crimes have surviving victims or families, so a video game seems churlish, and peeking into the mind of a criminal will often mean playing as them. That would be a step further than even Manhunt, and it feels like a crossed line.
This is the Zodiac Speaking is fascinating, then, as it does base itself on a real-life serial killer. It attempts to shine a light on the unsolved Zodiac Killer case, and it’s done in collaboration with America’s #1 true crime network, Investigation Discovery. Knowing the pitfalls, we were eager to see if they sidestepped them, and whether there was a future for the genre. The partnership between Punch Punk Games and Investigation Discovery certainly sets it up for success.
This is the Zodiac Speaking pits you as fictional journalist Robert Hartnell, which makes sense, as the Zodiac loved journalists. He had his favourites and would send them letters (bemusingly, one of the Zodiac’s victims had the surname of Hartnell, making the choice of name for the journalist confusing/odd and never truly explained). Otherwise, it’s a wise choice, as a fictional character gives the devs the licence to explore a close relationship with the Zodiac that never existed, and gives you realistic access to crime scenes.
You’re recently divorced, alcoholic and dealing with the trauma of being attacked by the Zodiac, so you’re not in good nick. To work through the trauma, you flash back to the confrontation you had with him, and try to understand how the Zodiac might have killed his victims through exploring their crime scenes. Depending on the mode you chose at the start, you will either be stalked by the Zodiac Killer as you explore (Serial Killer Mode) or you will only be followed by a doomy, droning soundtrack (Story Mode).
All of this is done in first-person and combat-free. You navigate character-free environments in the dark (why can’t the journalist ever put in a day shift?), looking for interactive elements that will add a clue to your journal, or give you items for very lightweight puzzles, like tape to wrap over an exposed wire. If you collect all of the clues in an area, they can be ordered chronologically to complete the scene. There are some choices to be made too, and they have an impact on your ending. As the ending comes into view, you realise the game is less about unmasking the Zodiac Killer than it is about dealing with trauma and understanding the nature of his crimes.
Enough of the talk. How does This is the Zodiac Speaking play? Does it set the stage for other true-crime games?
Graphically, it’s a shonky PS2 game. Environments are blocky and lacking in character, with barely anything to make the areas believable. You’re almost always exploring in the dark, presumably so that the buildings can be smeared in grey to avoid any detail and barely any character models are needed. Pop-in and graphical glitches are common, but the screen tear is relentless, probably the worst I have encountered. I’ll often give a free pass to tear, and rarely care about it, but it felt like I was watching the game with my head wrapped in cellotape.
Musically, the game has a pounding dirge that’s undoubtedly tense, but you hear it almost all the way through. When the Zodiac is wandering nearby, it’s atmospheric; when you’re in the toilet at the journalist’s house, you begin to get anxiety headaches. No wonder the journalist was a wreck – he had industrial clanking in his eardrums 90% of the time. This is the Zodiac Speaking desperately needs to know when to turn up and turn down its tension.
Controls are okay until you need to interact with anything, and then things get slippy. The reticule is over-eager and the click areas are small, so you’ll be fumbling to pick up a key as the Zodiac draws near. That’s probably realistic, but not in an enjoyable way. Exploration is also joyless, as there will be countless things of interest that you will want to explore or travel beyond, but only a few will reward you with the ‘interact’ reticule.
Then there’s the story and voice-acting. I feel bad for bashing every aspect of the game, so I will keep it brisk: the narrative is near incomprehensible. It skips backwards and forwards in time as well as into memories, dreamspaces and hypnotherapy, and I’d given up caring when, where or which reality I was in. The dialogue swings between dull and bizarre, with some unintentionally hilarious delivery, particularly from The Zodiac. It’s bemusing considering that it was co-authored by Polish laureate Paszporty Polityki.
The final word should be on the lack of finish. In my time with This is the Zodiac Speaking, I’ve hit frequent game-halting bugs, requiring me to restart and even reinstall the game. Improvements are planned for launch, but it’s hard to say with any confidence whether issues will persist.
If you pitched This is the Zodiac Speaking to us at a Dragon’s Den, we would have given you the money. A true-crime hunt for the real-life serial killer, in partnership with the Investigation Discovery channel: it feels like a no brainer. Unfortunately, like the infamous scene from the Hannibal movie, it feels more like someone else is spooning your brains out. This could have been the gateway to more true crime games on the Xbox One – instead, it’s a gateway to something a little more hellish.