Playable for free online here: http://maryhamilton.co.uk/detritus/
Mary Hamilton’s “Detritus”, like last week’s game, is written in Twine – but unlike “Solarium”, “Detritus” is not using Twine to tell a story so much as to experiment with the creation of a self – which, of course, is a kind of story in its own right.
I picked this game because I wanted to write about travel this week. I’m about to go on a multi-continent research trip for my day job, which makes travel a very pressing concern – and being the sort of person who is on my fourth country of residence in five years, leaving previous lives behind, which is the proper subject of “Detritus”, is something I have a vested interest in exploring. “Detritus” has five loosely connected ‘acts’. In each one, you/the-protagonist unpacks or repacks a collection of objects: the detritus of a life. By doing so – by choosing what to take and what to leave, from a limited collection of options – you/the-player construct a persona for you/the-protagonist. Objects become signifiers of values, emotions, memories.
Much like objects do in the physical, waking world.
“Detritus” is not a speculative fiction game – it is set in England, as much as it is set anywhere, and everything in it is something that a young person could own or acquire in the world we live in. What is of interest to – oh, not just SFF writers, but all writers – about this game is how it uses a very gamified mechanic (the object-selection) to create a deep sense of character. The objects which you/the-player choose in Act One will define what objects are available to you/the-protagonist in Acts Two through Five – and these objects become a synecdoche for the self which is assembled out of them.
The choices in “Detritus” are circumscribed, far more than they are in other Twine games I have played. There are more choices available than there are choice-making moments. In Act One, when you/the-protagonist unpacks a box of teenage belongings at (what I presume is) your sixth-form residential school, you can quite easily slip out of the assemblage portion of the game and into the narrative sequence of Acts Two through Five without meaning to, simply by following the “wrong” Twine branch. These circumscribed choices highlight that the self which you/the-player are creating is an iterated self: you can refine it, you can add to it, but one choice irrevocably shapes future possibilities.
The irrevocability of choice is underscored by the game’s clever use of omniscient narration. While you/the-protagonist are permitted to make choices about what sort of person you are, the omniscient narrator tells you/the-player what will happen to you, no matter what you do in this particular inflected moment. Omniscient is a fascinating tool, and especially effective in these sorts of games which highlight the slipperiness of personal agency: you/the-player are indeed choosing, but you are choosing from a pre-selected group of options not under your control, but in fact under the control of (select one or all) you/the-player / the omniscient narrator / the game’s writer. This can be disorienting. It can also be distressing: the emotional punch of “Detritus” is located in being unable to be fully in control of what you can take with you.
In Act Three, the creation-of-self via selection of objects abruptly becomes an act of desperate survival. Faced with the aftermath of an abusive relationship, you/the-protagonist must select some of what you brought with you to run away with. You reassemble yourself: and this reassembled self is a defense against being hurt. Against being the sort of person who can be hurt. The objects which you take with you are coded as ways of being in the world, with the explicit subtext of you/the-protagonist attempting to create a new persona who cannot be harmed as you previously were.
Which makes Act Four even more devastating: in Act Four, you cannot use your objects as a synecdoche for your self, reassembled or otherwise, because you are under a very sharp time constraint to make choices about what you take with you as you again run away from a bad situation. This is a fascinating use of a Twine mechanic I have not previously encountered: choices grey out and become unavailable on a timed counter. If you do not move fast enough, you don’t get to make the choice of yes this or not that; the choice is made for you. Thus, you/the-protagonist stop being an assembled, object-based self, and become a self who is engaged in rescuing objects – and thus in rescuing memory.
In Act Five, you/the-player help you/the-protagonist disassemble that self, for the purposes of leaving everything behind.
I will not here write much about Act Five: it is most effective as an experience. But the functional mechanic of Act Five asks you/the-player to engage in a process of setting yourself free.
Which is in a great part what travel is, or at least travel as a means of re-creation. A person is not the same person in a new setting. It is possible to leave yourself behind. It is possible to want to.