The author of Beckett reached out to me and suggested I have a look at it. So did a couple of unrelated people on Twitter. But when I looked at the website, I couldn’t figure out what it was meant to be: the premise, the play experience, how long it was likely to take. What was this thing? No one seemed eager or even able to describe this game to me. It was only after I’d downloaded and played a bit that I encountered this explanation. It has a clearer plot overview than I could really offer myself.
I’ve played the first several scenes of it now. I’m not sure whether I will play more: it is off-putting, intentionally so, and I am not sure whether it’s giving me enough to make me put up with its off-putting qualities.
But here’s what I can tell you so far. Mechanically, it is a point-and-click adventure, albeit one with a fair amount of text, and set in a moody sepia world generally viewed from above:
As for genre and premise: I am not quite sure of the ground truths of the world, yet. The place is old-fashioned and noir-ish. The protagonist appears to be a form of detective, though he “doesn’t do domestics.” People use physical paperwork and old-fashioned desks. Images hung on the wall look like they come from the 1920s. At one point we visit a bar and to enter we have to speak through a buzzer at the door; it suggests a speakeasy. Someone tells us to plant a bug, and the bug that we see is of the animal variety, shown in video and from a disquieting proximity. Indeed, insects appear frequently and in contexts where you might not expect to see them, including at one point on the neck of an attractive woman, as though it were a kind of jewelry.
I am not yet sure whether this is because the setting is a fantasy with frequent insect appearances, or because the protagonist is mentally ill and hallucinating or misunderstanding what he sees, or for some other reason. The story certainly introduces the possibility of characters who do not accurately perceive reality, including in an extended story insert:
So, fine. A certain amount of ambiguity about the nature of the world, I can handle. Treat it like speculative fiction, whether it turns out to be so or not. Hold a number of competing hypotheses about the nature of the universe, and await further evidence.
But a number of other things about the game are calibrated to produce alienation and perhaps even revulsion. Descriptions often dwell on the least appealing bodily aspects of people and things: excreta, nostril hairs, urine in the street. There is the aforementioned interest in insects, close-ups of.
Then: there’s no voice over, but there is a soundtrack. As part of this, the game plays a symphony of mouth-smack noises every time a certain character is meant to be speaking. I never thought of myself as squeamish about noises, but I find this effect supremely unpleasant and was moved to mute whenever it started happening. I have the impression that the protagonist is meant to dislike her and find her disgusting. Good job, then, game, of provoking a deeply visceral reaction. But ugh.
And in return for this, what? The experience is certainly unusual, the aesthetic conception distinct from most things I’ve tried. Sometimes that’s enough. I’ve played a bunch of Tale of Tales games that were not all precisely enjoyable but where I felt glad at the end that I’d gone through them. Bourbaki’s if was a discipline to read.
I think, though, that Beckett specifically resonates with the wrong things for me, and I’m not sure I will pick it up again. The positive review in 3AM Magazine sees this as a nihilist and Dadaist piece. But I don’t at the moment want an artwork to make me feel more hopeless or more distant from my fellow humans.
“You don’t have to play this,” says one of the early instruction screens for Beckett. Maybe I’ll take it up on that.