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Beckett – Videogame as Literary Artefact

By Des Barry.

Review of Beckett, the game

Simon Meek, Beckett , Developed by The Secret Experiment, Kiss Publishing

What is Beckett? Beckett is, designer Simon Meek says, “a literary work of fiction”. Its experimental alembic is that of a videogame. It is influenced textually and in spirit by, of course, Samuel Beckett, by William Burroughs and, visually, by Jan Švankmajor. I am not a gamer—what drew my interest were the connections to writers who are part of my personal canon. That the game was being featured by the V&A Dundee’s design exhibition (https://www.vandadundee.org/news-and-blog/blog/simon-meek–designing-playable-stories) suggested that its graphic content might have more to it than the quasi-realistic or filmic iterations of the medium. I’m not a gamer—but I am interested in multi-platform stories: using prose, film, photography and graphics to tell a single story that allows for tangents.

On his blog, Meek states that, “Beckett is a story told as a game.” Its underlying theme, he says “is the nature of reality and what it is to exist… We’re all reality fragments in other people’s mental reconstruction of an event. We’re all part of an existential jigsaw: real in the moment, abstract in absence.” The visual aesthetic of the game is cut-up, collage, Dada. The development company, The Secret Experiment, calls the game Surrealist Noir.

Beckett tells its story through text, image, film and the in-game choices made by the player. Beckett is a “trace-agent”, a kind of private detective in search of a missing person in the city of Burough. The dystopian world in which Beckett lives is not too distant in time and circumstance from our own, a parallel world. The player discovers the details of the shadowy city as they negotiate its streets, bars, markets, restaurants, hospitals and building sites. It’s a world of societal inequality with a precariat surviving day to day under government systems of thought control, surveillance, media manipulation and medication for those who suffer from Soft Paranoia. If you stop taking the meds for your Soft Paranoia, the controllers might want to bring you in. The game plays with the mental state of the player who is piecing together the story in response to the images, soundscapes and the fragmentary texts; and the gamer will soon discover that Beckett is none too mentally stable himself. In moments of pause, Beckett encounters manipulative newspaper stories that appear through Burroughs-style cut-ups. The designer has taken a disturbing and superficially bleak (read contemporary) scenario and, through it, reveals very human responses of people trying to connect with each other or just to get by. Game choices made by the player may seem to lead nowhere but they all expose the fabric of the world.

The background graphics for the city streetmaps are elegant and simple, for the most part in sepia. Against these backdrops, the discoverable detritus is made up of posters, scribbled notes, pamphlets for real estate, medical texts, creatures in decay, boxes like the constructions of Joseph Cornell, and archival medical films. Some of this is relevant to Beckett’s search, but all of it is relevant to his state of mind. Meek has produced the graphics and constructed the physical objects in the game, as well as composing the dark soundscape within which the city unfolds. The world is multi-layered. Stories overlap. In graphic novel sections, the story breaks into colour. Visually, the simplicity facilitates a gateway for the imagination to invent a world as with a book, rather than through elaborate cinematic reconstructions of a world in the vein of Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft.  

Like an old-fashioned boardgame – Monopoly pieces that have escaped from the lunatic asylum – each character Beckett encounters is represented by a symbol – insect, coffee pot, jeweled brooch, lipsticked mouth, seashell – which leaves the player free to invent appearance and the sound of verbal exchanges in much the same way as reading a literary text. The verbal exchanges are often via typewritten text or graphic exposition. Some of the character symbols suggest creatures from David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or scenarios from the creepy close-up bug scenes captured in early David Lynch.

Beckett the trace agent is searching for Peri, a young man who is mentally ill. Peri has stopped taking his medication for the Soft Paranoia that afflicts those who have broken down under the dystopian pressure. Looking for Peri, Beckett gets lost in memory, speculation, contemplation of his own existential horror and grief at the loss of his lover, Amy, and both of his parents. When Beckett’s investigations take him into The Hospital, the domain of a character known as The Reality Principal, the environment becomes seriously disturbing. The Reality Principal is a psychotropic nightmare, a bureaucratic mind controller charged by the government of Borough to control the minds of its citizenry through drugs, lobotomy and electroshock treatments. On the way through The Hospital to the Reality Principal’s office, it’s possible to look in on the activities in a number of operating theatres and laboratories. The designer has peppered the journey with literary references and leaves room for the player’s own correspondences; pointing and clicking on each room opens up film clips, some of them reminiscent of the movie version of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. Memories of the horrific subterranean hospital in Kobo Abe’s Secret Rendezvous also came to mind. There are some seriously disturbing discoveries to be made in the hospital, perhaps the most intense part of the game. Another Burroughs link I made is that with Blade Runner – A Movie, not the Blade Runner of Ridley Scott, but Burroughs’ caustic look at the medical industry.

Review of Beckett, the game

One of the more interesting aspects of the game is that the player is sometimes required to make ethical choices, all of which have consequences for the direction of the story and the player’s experience of the world. Beckett is a trace agent. He’s been charged to track down a young man who has stopped taking his medication. The boy’s mother is marked for elimination. How much is Beckett prepared to be party to that? Is this a game? Is this a manipulation? After playing once, I began a conversation via email with Simon Meek, Beckett’s designer. I told him that I’d gotten stuck a couple of times and when I felt that I’d missed something it wasn’t easy to go back. He replied, “I wanted a sense of determinism in the game and the way it was played – a frustration that is often felt in life. The narrative is designed to ensure that anything you miss will be addressed in a different way – so by missing something you may find something else as a result… This idea of a dynamic narrative is something I’m really into. The idea that while the story may be fixed, the path through it and the way the world responds to you isn’t.”

I went on and found my way to the end, or at least to one of the possible ends. The decisions that the game-player makes cause the story to squirm under the influence of the choices they make. As each decision can take the characters in a different direction so the player can return to the game to discover more… or to get stuck again… but having traversed a different path in which new discoveries are made.

There is a lightness to the names of the characters juxtaposed with the realism of their dark psychologies: Beckett’s anomie tempered by anguish for his lost love, Amy; Amy’s mental condition and how that has affected her behaviour toward Beckett; the traumatised psychological states of the missing Peregrine and the woman with whom he’s in love, Joan (a reference to Joan Vollmer, perhaps?). The literary fictive aspect of Beckett is sustained by genuine psychological insight into mental illness and how each character’s mental state (and that of the player) is in turn is affected by the dystopian milieu of the city of Borough. Again the question: What is Beckett exactly in literary terms? Perhaps a novella in game form. The prose is fragmentary and enigmatic and it works in tandem with image to create its effect. The interiority triggered by experience of the game undermines straight narrative and in places can evoke as much deep unease as a literary novella of psychological horror in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe but with more than a nod to William Burroughs.

As a multi-platform literary narrative, Beckett is a successful prototype for a hybrid literary/graphic form that has substantial artistic potential in its combination of text, image, film, found objects, movement and music. Its pared-down style leaves the user’s imagination as free as when reading a work of literature. It is fragmented in that it’s constructed from cut-ups and found objects. It’s a collage. It works as a piece of Dadaist art. Beckett, the game, doesn’t compromise by aiming for some kind of “digital realism” or filmic virtuality. It is literary and visual. It has more in common with George Braque and Cubism than with a narrative driven comic book.

After having played the game a number of times, there’s still more to uncover in the world of Beckett. Possibly, a player who is familiar with the conventions of gaming could discover more of that world in a shorter time than someone like me who is completely unfamiliar with the form. But perhaps unfamiliarity with the gaming genre is no disadvantage. That inexperience didn’t undercut—maybe even enhanced—the pleasure and the discomfort of a reading of the game as text, the intimation of infinite possibilities of a literary artefact as game and the game as literary artefact.


Des Barry

Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta, 3:AM Magazine and in anthologies including Sea StoriesLondon Noir and Wales, Half Welsh. He is an occasional Butoh performer. His alter-ego David Enrique Spellman wrote Far South, published by Serpent’s Tail. He tweets from @farsouthproject.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 7th, 2018.