Imagine you're sitting at your desk late at night investigating reports of suspicious individuals in the hopes of ultimately tracking down murderers, kidnappers, and other violent criminals. Except for the crickets chirping outside, it's completely quiet as you tap keys, examine clues, and search through text messages, photographs, police reports, and other bits of evidence spread out over your desktop.
Then, behind you, from somewhere from within your silent, darkened house, there's a muffled thump, so faint you almost aren't even sure you heard it.
Spooky, sure. And it gets worse because now you have to leave your desk and go investigate the sound. Opening doors, peering into dark rooms with your flashlight, checking the windows—wait, wasn't that window locked last time I looked? And did I briefly catch a glimpse of someone just outside it?
Scrutinized is a game in which you play a desktop detective, invading people's privacy by hacking into their phones, checking their search history and recent purchases, examining their social media posts and police records to find out if they're criminals. But it's also game where a serial killer is constantly trying to break into your house and murder or abduct you while you're doing this methodical, engrossing detective work.
And it scared the absolute crap out of me. After a few nights of detective work, the creep lurking outside finally got in. Usually you can stop him if you investigate the noises quickly enough—catch him trying to unlock a window, or spy him on your security camera and turn a light on, and he'll flee. But I was too slow this time, or I simply missed hearing the noise he made during his most recent attempt. I got up from my desk, looked around, and didn't see anything—but he was suddenly right there beside me. It was a big-time jump scare and a game over.
Thing is, Scrutinized doesn't need to be played as a horror game. First, you can turn off jump scares in the options menu—the killer will still be trying to get in and you'll need to prevent that by checking around your house whenever you hear a noise. But if he does kill you, the screen will just fade to black. He won't leap from your closet or grab you from behind while you're at your desk. It'll just be game over, no sudden jolt of fear.
And Scrutinized even goes a step further—in detective mode, you don't need to worry about anything but your desktop. There's no killer out to get you at all. You can just solve cases. After that big scare, that's how I'm playing.
A warning before I explain the detective stuff: A few of the investigations I've done in Scrutinized revolve around domestic abuse, abduction, forced imprisonment, and animal abuse. There are pictures—fake ones, the developer assures us—of abused and battered women that some might find genuinely upsetting.
"Please note that the people in this game are 100% creations of fiction," says the Steam Store page. "Their pictures are A.I generated, and any images found in the game are fabricated or stock images."
The detective work begins with a suspicious person report, filed by someone in your neighborhood. You know how the Nextdoor app works, right? Where people are always freaking out because they saw someone acting "suspiciously" in your neighborhood? The reports in Scrutinized are a lot like that—sometimes you wonder what they're even worried about, but other times it does seem like something criminal might be going on.
Quite unethically, you investigate by taking the details from the report and digging into the suspect's life. You can search the DMV for their ID based on their description, and if you have their name you can hack their phone with a (typically pretty easy) minigame. You can crawl their social media account, look through their text messages, search history, and photos. You can even retrieve receipts from stores where they recently made purchases.
From there, it's up to you to determine if they've committed a crime. If you think they're guilty, you attach their ID and drag whatever bits of evidence you think proves their guilt onto the report and send it to the authorities. If you don't think they've done anything illegal, you can shred the report and move on to the next one. File too many false reports, and the game is over.
Honestly, the most satisfying reports are the ones where you can find an innocent explanation for someone's behavior. A woman seen loading a bundle into her trunk, with a human hand sticking out, can be explained by finding texts where she talks about an art project and a photo of a model hand she purchased. A huge fight between a married couple, followed by the wife's disappearance, could be explained because they split up and she simply moved out. It's kind of a nice feeling to shred those reports—it reinforces that people are way too paranoid and jump to conclusions far too quickly.
But there is a heck of a lot to be paranoid about in Scrutinized, even with the horror aspects of the game turned off. Your town is full of hired hitmen, abductors, abusers, murderers, psychos, vigilantes, and many reports will lead to some disturbing text messages, photos, and crimes.
Where Scrutinized gets tricky is some of the gray areas. Do you report a guy because his search history shows a few too many questions about how to prepare human meat for consumption? If someone is expressing thoughts of murder, but hasn't actually murdered anyone, or even threatened to murder anyone, how do you handle that? Many cases are pretty obvious when it comes to innocence or guilt, but not all of them are.
It's engrossing as hell, though. I enjoy snooping around in people's texts and photos, looking at their social media posts, and dragging bits of evidence onto the report and faxing it off to see if I made the right choices. Yeah, it's super unethical to hack into someone's life just because a nosy neighbor thinks they're up to something, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun. (In a fictional setting, that is.)
And I'm definitely happier playing Scrutinized as just a nosy detective than the version where some dude is trying to break into my house and kill me every night. Yes, I'm committing a ton of deeply illegal hacking crimes myself, but I don't deserve to die for it. You'll find Scrutinized here on Steam—it costs $10.