Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital on gamifying Jack the Ripper 125 years after Mary Jane Kelly was murdered, her badly mutilated body found by a rent collector seeking her arrears on the morning of November 9, 1888…
I always knew it was going to be tough to make a game based on Jack the Ripper. At first glance it may seem that this is not a difficult title to do. After all, you've got a mystery to solve (very game-esque!) and the procedural process of the police investigation - also full of game-esque content.
However there are a couple of issues with this seemingly straightforward approach. The first is that most of the existing Jack the Ripper board and digital games use the police-murder hunt as a core dynamic. Second is that we're not making a pure game - the idea is to create a playable documentary, so we're also looking to stick to real events - and of course they never found who he was. (As an aside I'd suggest Frogware's Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper as a good example of this approach to the game).
So what is a playable documentary? We have no idea - that is one of the aims of the project. Our project, JtR125, represents one of six new collaborations between filmmakers, academic researchers and creative companies as part of the REACT Future Documentary Sandbox, a nationwide programme to explore the theme of Future Documentary funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
For me, I see it as trying to weave together facts and real events into an interaction method that is driven by the player and offers them game-esque ways to connect. So we want it to be playful, but also have a serious side. We want it to be engaging but also impart knowledge. We've had some experience of trying to meld facts and gameplay with NarcoGuerra and Endgame: Syria, but this is a much bigger undertaking.
For one, we have proper documentary and simulation experts in the team, Patrick Crogan, games and digital media expert, University of the West of England, and Professor of Media and Journalism at Middlesex, Janet Jones, so it is much more of a collaboration. And secondly, we have been able to spend much more time on iterating the design thanks to the support of REACT and the sandbox process.
Initially I thought we could do this by trying to create an immersive experience allowing the player to really see the streets of 1888 London, but during the research for this we came across Paul Begg's CSI: Whitechapel book, which does a good job of the high-res 3D recreations.
As with the police-procedural game type, given it's been done now already, there is less motivation to venture down this route. I've also been really impressed with Papers, Please and Dys4ia - both of which show how you can take on a sensitive subject without needing to pile on the polygon count.
There are other things we'd like to do with this approach too. I'm keen to look at the social history of the time. The case of Jack the Ripper is important for a number of reasons. It was a catalyst for social change regarding the extreme poverty of Whitechapel.
It was key in pushing the police to develop proper forensic techniques to investigate crime. But it also holds a mirror up to darker sides of our society - how the victims cease to be women and become mere objects as either bodies or evidence. We want to use the methods that gameplay is good at to try and make the social history come alive, and ensure the women who fell victim are remembered.
So we're not going to make a first-person Ripper game about the killer, we're much more interested in the society that created the conditions that allowed this to happen and the plight of his victims. The fact that 125 years later we're still talking about this suggests to me that there are lessons still to be learned.
The events themselves were a catalyst for social change. It was also a key time in the birth of a number of areas of our society, notably the tabloid newspapers and forensic science. We're keen to create an interactive documentary using the medium of games and allow the player to explore the issues and events themselves.
You can find out more here and on the REACT site here.
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