**SPOILER/CONTENT ALERT! Plot elements of This is the Zodiac Speaking will be discussed here for the sake of critique. It also includes a description of the death of a young girl. If either of these factors are troubling, then please tread carefully while reading.**
“Come kill me, I seem so brittle.”
In 2006, a UK TV show called Psychic Private Eyes followed the adventures of three of the UK’s best psychics and ghost whisperers, deducing crimes by talking to the dead. Beyond a general lack of good intentions, the most horrific episode involved the trio attempting to solve the murder of a young girl. This results in the deduction that her remains were buried underneath another grave in an actual graveyard, with pesky human rights laws getting in the way of their vigilante work.
My point is that the art of being a medium, or believing to have some spiritual connection to the dead, is dubious at best and hideously offensive at worst. There’s a vulnerability to the bereaved that some find easy to manipulate, whether it be for the endgame of fame, power, or sick egotistical pleasure. It’s something that resonates in some capacity to a playthrough of This is the Zodiac Speaking, and whether that’s for better or worse? We’ll see.
This is the sophomore release from Polish developer Punch Punk Games, a video game rendition that depicts the murders of the Zodiac Killer. We play as Robert Hartnell, a potential nod to famous Zodiac obsessive Robert Graysmith, depicted by Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2007 film Zodiac. Mr. Hartnell attaches himself to the case in a rather unhealthy fashion, culminating in dream therapy sessions which see him not solving the mystery, but rather… I don’t know.
There’s an odd agency to This is the Zodiac Speaking, but it fluctuates and dissipates over time. The actual timeline of events regarding Robert’s story are unclear, and the game never explicitly states the impact he has on the chain of events. Given the actual historical context of the Zodiac Killer there’s a lot of fiction you could create, and This is the Zodiac Speaking certainly tries, but in a completely different direction than you’d expect.
For example there’s the murder of one Cheri Bates, which has been disputed profusely as a Zodiac killing. This is the first case Mr. Hartnell latches himself onto, which partially sets off a deep dive not just into Robert’s consciousness, but the work of the Zodiac Killer themselves. Why? Well, it’s complicated when it comes to the narrative, but in gameplay it’s a rather mundane affair.
This is the Zodiac Speaking not only has you inspecting crime scenes, but also locations where the Zodiac Killer is setting up for the main event. These locations are usually constructed from witness testimonials, with the dream therapist initiating the scene for you. From there, you begin to piece together the actions of the Zodiac Killer, but only one thing matters.
Despite what the game may imply, there’s no real detective work going on. Clues are merely optional choices for you to find, and the real puzzle is setting up the chronology of what happened when and where. It’s always four specific events, and the game never punishes you for being sloppy, unless you count an arbitrary threat as a punishment.
During these dream sequences, a manifestation of the Zodiac Killer will stalk the maps looking for you. If he catches you, you’re brown bread and you have to start over, so you have to deduce the crime somewhere safe and find a part of his infamous cipher before you can leave safely. It’s an odd execution which ultimately doesn’t pay off due to how half-hearted the inclusion is.
The whole “you die in your dreams, you die for real” presentation isn’t the bad part; it’s the fact that there’s so little gameplay connected to it. There’s no hiding mechanics or even hiding spots, you can only crouch or sprint for a short time. While the Zodiac Killer isn’t frustrating to play against, it’s the lack of any mechanics that makes it tedious.
A quick side note: if you do end up playing This is the Zodiac Speaking on console, be warned that the game has no stick dead-zones. If your controller suffers from even the slightest amount of drift, then be prepared to drift right into the Zodiac Killer’s view. It’s a negligible albeit annoying problem the gameplay has, but this can be removed via a “story mode” that gets rid of the Zodiac Killer in-game.
As is the case with a lot of these narrative-heavy titles with an obligatory threat, it’s a welcome addition. However, this suffers from the same problems that SOMA‘s “No Monster” difficulty mode has, in which the threat being removed also removes everything the game has, beyond its writing. Does This is the Zodiac Speaking have more than SOMA without the threat? Yes, but not by much.
Outside of the dream sequences, you’ll also trawl around Robert’s house, watching in vain as it accumulates more rubbish blocking doorways. It’s a sign symbolizing his obsession with a case he has no right to be obsessed in, but it’s not smartly done, it happens off-screen with no build-up or commentary. You’re able to inspect all of these discarded cans, empty cigarette packets, and unfinished TV dinners in their low-poly glory, but there’s no need, as no new info is ever retained.
A good example of this would be when Robert attempts to piece together the events of the real-life murder and attempted murder of Cecilia Ann Shepard and Bryan Calvin Hartnell, respectively. Robert knows the dates, he has the information not just in the level, but it’s been in his journal, yet it feels more like you have to crowbar your way into a solution.
Even if staring at a packet of Rothmans really hard was the answer to finding out whether it was really Arthur Leigh Allen committing the murders, one deduces it’s not exactly a selfless endeavor. This is more of a character study regarding Robert, and it’s a pretty awful one at that, once again lacking agency and any sort of arc beyond worrying obsession. He speaks with a repetitious tone, failing to show any emotion, even as he describes gruesome details and visions of bodies being brutalized.
It all feels tasteless. Robert supposedly helps his victims before they die, leaving him with a complex that matters ultimately to him and him alone. Soon, it becomes less about the obtuse mystery of the Zodiac and how it haunts Robert, and more about Robert’s past which you shouldn’t care about. Robert is a blank slate, a one-note character with no traits, no quirks, and no motivation beyond what the game promises he has somewhere.
Part of the problem comes down to the lack of NPCs. Aside from the dream therapist lazily enabling Robert’s dangerous mental tendencies, no one is there to comment on Robert’s actions, only Robert himself. He repeats constantly that he’s haunted by the Zodiac, haunted by the victims, all the while still trying to detour the game’s narrative to his own childhood suffering. It reeks of both self-importance and lethargic writing.
The only person who ever comments on just how lost Robert is is his ex-girlfriend, Monica, but she’s out of the picture before he even starts wrecking his house. Everything, from the way Robert repeats several times his suffering and results to the way the story suddenly departs from the initial mystery, lacks focus. This point is amplified tenfold with the aesthetic, but in a good way.
This is the Zodiac Speaking sets up an uncomfortable visual style that makes a lot of sense, given the mystery of the game’s villain. No one has a face, just ‘60s hairstyles and concave features where their eyes should be. Every building beyond Robert’s house is both defined and undefined, adding to the dreamscape that Robert sets himself up in each session. It definitely helps, more so than the completely unnecessary film grain added to each dream sequence that cannot be turned off.
Before each level starts you’re treated to an overview of the level, and it’s usually awash in one main color. Suddenly, the environment is covered in a thick fog, and a grotesque layer of film grain removes a good chunk of the surreal. The fog hiding a potential draw distance setback is fine but the film grain is a touch too far, removing a lot of the allure the art style has. That being said, even with these setbacks, the game has some problematic performance issues.
The lack of dead zones for the joysticks is one thing, but the game’s performance is an obstacle more intrusive than that. Screen-tearing, frame-rate drops, dialogue skipping— This is the Zodiac Speaking has some fairly unavoidable problems when it comes to actually playing it. Punch Punk has addressed a lot of the problems the game has with a patch coming soon, but it should be stated that problems do exist at time of writing.
One struggles to find a point in This is the Zodiac Speaking. One of America’s greatest mysteries is derailed by a need to showcase a boring character, with a twist you won’t see coming due to how nonsensical it is. This is a game marred by tastelessness, unafraid to exploit a decades-old mystery to make no points, and aims to confuse under the guise of “surreal horror”.
Still, none of this matters. Again, this isn’t about the Zodiac Killer, this is about a man who’s pissed off with his ex-girlfriend and uses his obsession to either justify her murder or attempt to reconnect with her. The primer for this decision depends entirely on your preference in photos, with the emotional climax beforehand being the death of Robert’s best friend, a young black girl named Goose, by the hand of Robert’s father.
It’s a bleak scene. It’s a nihilistic scene. It’s… an offensive scene, one made up completely by the writers and that fails to be a competent catalyst for any decision you make afterwards. It’s grasping at straws for sympathy, and it’s even more sickening to consider it when the game was already trying to do that, implying domestic violence between Robert’s parents.
This is a game about the Zodiac Killer. This isn’t a game about the Zodiac Killer. This is a detective game. This isn’t a detective game. This is a true story. This isn’t even a true story. Robert Hartnell does not exist, and neither do his parents. This is a game excavating sadness from a place it shouldn’t. Goose didn’t have to die. There was no reason for Goose to die. Goose died because the game wants it, not the world. A child died for the sake of a child dying.
What could’ve been an interesting look into the theories surrounding the Zodiac Killer a la Room 237, the game instead goes down an exploitative route, all to justify the existence of a faceless man. A man who doesn’t deserve happiness. A man who doesn’t exist.
Is that the point? Whether it is or not, it doesn’t deserve to have a point.
This review of This is The Zodiac Speaking was based upon the Xbox One version of the game. A review code was provided for this purpose.
A borderline offensive look into one of the least interesting characters 2020 gaming can offer, with a red herring of a hook decaying in front of it.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.