A playable documentary about Jack the Ripper

November 2013 marked the 125th anniversary of the last known murder by notorious and still-strangely-fascinating serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  Despite being linked to five—and possibly more—grisly homicides in London in the late 19th century, the Ripper was never caught and his crimes never solved.  This has led to innumerable and varied depictions of the Whitechapel events in popular media, from films to video games.  The latest exploration of the Ripper mystery combines these two forms and comes to us from Auroch Digital, the creators of many current events-inspired games, such as Endgame: Syria and NarcoGuerra

The game, JtR125, is in development as part of the REACT Future Documentary Sandbox, a project intended to explore the theme of the “future documentary” through collaborative works that break the current mold of documentary storytelling.  Thus, JtR125 will be both a video game and a documentary, blurring the lines between media forms, examining the Jack the Ripper legend from a new angle, and hopefully—like many of Auroch’s “GameTheNews” projects—presenting gaming in a more earnest light.  “If we can achieve even some of what we’re trying to do, then I hope this game will be another title that forces critics to take gaming seriously,” Tomas Rawlings, of Auroch Digital and lead developer on JtR125, told Gamezebo.  “There is no reason why gaming can’t talk about serious issues, communicate important political points or anything for that matter. Gaming has always been a fun format; we’re showing how it can do much more than just that.” 

As part of their inclusion in the REACT Sandbox, Auroch Digital and Rawlings have been paired up with games and digital media expert Patrick Crogan of the University of the West of England, and Professor of Media and Journalism at Middlesex, Janet Jones.  This collaboration between experts in multiple media focuses will allow JtR125 to extend its reach across disciplines and players.  “The best documentaries and journalism of the future will not be simply read or watched, but played,” Professor Jones told us.  “Games are superior in their ability to handle data effectively and deal with the systemic issues behind a story, and we want to show how powerful this hybrid form can be. There are many important social themes that come from the exploration of Victorian culture and certain parallels with today, and what better way to draw attention to these than by gaming the documentary.” 

Working with experts outside of the gaming industry specifically is also beneficial, said Rawlings: “The collaboration is really important. It’s really changed the way we approach the development. Often, as a games designer, a lot of the work happens in my head—I just think about the game until the ideas click into place. Here I’m sharing them with people who don’t think like games designers and so my assumptions are challenged—and that is helping build a better game.”

JtR125

That game will explore the facts of the Jack the Ripper murders in London without chaining players to a linear progression.  “Players will make choices,” Rawlings said.  “The player takes on the role of a journalist in 1888 [and] needs to find the story to get into print for their readers. They need to figure out where the witnesses are and get them to talk. This gives them options in what stories the paper will print. The players are striving towards conveying to their readers the nature of the crimes, and so in the process, come face to face with the nature of the evil that committed them and the society that they are contained within.”  Dr. Crogan added: “JtR is doing something interesting with the game form that is based on the ‘what if’ mode of computer simulation. The player will play as one or more personages from the time of the murders, so if we get it right they will face some game challenges that will give them some insights about the things different people (like investigative journalists or ‘working girls’) faced in living in the East End under the shadow of the Ripper murders with their associated police and media frenzy.”

This “playable documentary,” as Rawlings calls it, is thus focused more on the period and environment of the Ripper murders rather than aggrandizing the killer himself.  “We’re going to be mixing the words/ideas of experts on this period in history with playable environments. So unlike other Jack the Ripper games, we’re going to be bounded by the real events,” Rawlings said.  “So what we’re building is more about the player engaging with 1888 London—discovering its dirty secrets and how it resonates with today.” 

To enrich that world and its authenticity, JtR125 will have plenty of in-game support from the clippings, dossiers, and other documents compiled on the murders and period in which they occurred—some of which are notably gruesome.  “We need to make this accessible to a younger audience,” Jones said.  “Think of it as a BBC documentary with an announcement saying that some content may not be suitable for the under-twelves. The problem isn’t using blood and gore (that’s a gaming staple), it’s that we are using it in a factual context. A bit like the news. There’s an ethics panel guiding our decisions as game makers and documentarists, so we will have plenty of time to work this through. We don’t want to shy away from using some of the disturbing images, but we have to be careful not to be gratuitous.”  These real world items will also shape the gameplay elements.  “Our player is a journalist and their job is to uncover,” Rawlings said.  “The game gives the player the key areas of Whitechapel in 1888 and tasks them to find the news stories within that section of the city. We’re going to be using lots and lots of actual newspaper material from the day, so that aspect is going to be steeped in history.”

The real challenge—and eventual measure of success—for JtR125 will be how well it balances its two essential components, the fact-presenting documentary and the open-ended video game.  “This is the real nub of the development process,” Jones said.  “It’s really quite close to the docu-drama genre (Hillsborough, Cathy Come Home, One Day in September) in that we’re playing around with reality whilst making the experience as authentic as possible and at the same time signaling where we’ve taken some  dramatic license. It’s a work in progress.  E.g., should we invent a newspaper that is a composite of newspapers of the time or use a real one?

“A slavish link to reality may not be best for the game. They say that documentary is a ‘fiction (un)like any other’ (Bill Nichols) and we can’t avoid blurring the lines between fact and fiction with something of this kind. The testing will hopefully draw out whether we’ve pitched it right.”

You can follow the progress of JtR125 and how it meets this challenge at the JtR125 site and the REACT Sandbox blog.