by Andy Kelly
Hypertext / Twine Game
Derelict was written by Andy Kelly, @ultrabrilliant on Twitter, writer for PC Gamer, and contributor to Edge and The Guardian, amongst other places. It’s a short — I played in less than an hour — interactive horror science fiction story.
Like most people, I go through the story once on my own before reading what other people say about it, especially since this is a freely-provided online version. Go check it out on itch.io. I’ll wait for you to get back.
If you went off to experience the story for yourself, welcome HOME; and if you didn’t go off to explore the story yourself you’ll have missed the reference, so I recommend you do before going further.
One of the great things about Twine games is that I see a new format of story practically every time I see a new game. Twine is an accessible platform for writing interactive fiction, but it’s truly the ingenuity of the authors that brings the medium to life.
Derelict tells the story of the Orkney, a ship on an interstellar mission from the solar system to a colony 49 weeks’ travel away. All you know upon embarking on this interactive quest is that it’s your job to find out what happened to the missing crew of a vessel found drifting in space.
The conceit of the narrative is that you are examining the retrieved data from the black box found onboard the vessel, piecing together a narrative to inform your corporate superiors what happened to their investment.
Interactive narratives such as this one are interesting primarily because they often put you in the shoes of the implied reader of the story, instead of divorcing you the reader from the person the story is talking to. In this case, you have an in-story explanation of why you are trawling through reports, chat logs, and sensor sweeps: you’re the investigator figuring out the events as they occurred leading up to the discovery of a derelict ship.
I don’t know whether it’s the influence of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or the various military science-fiction novels I’ve read, but when a narrative delves into the daily lives and interactions between members of a crew aboard a space-faring vessel, I fall in love immediately.
This is a short piece, which is in some ways disappointing, and in others is perfect. What Kelly did with this story was give us just enough information, and the tantalising knowledge that there was more to read that we just didn’t recover, to know something important about these characters. We empathise with the pair who are clearly romantically interested in one another, we know that the corporate spy/representative is just doing his job as well he can when the rest of the crew think he’s on the ‘other side’, and we uncover just the briefest of rumour about the captain’s former partner.
These things all come together for us, the readers, to feel genuine horror when something happens to the crew. In typical horror science-fiction fashion, the crew falls apart roughly one member at a time until only a few are left. For a short time, we become embroiled in the lives of these men and women… only for that façade to crumble when we remember why we are reading the logs.
I said, “that we just didn’t recover” earlier and this is the other aspect I wanted to highlight. This narrative, short though it may be, gives you as the player/reader a direct role in the narrative through the interface of the webpage. You take on the role of the Sonmi employee who is trawling through recovered data. The highlighted hexadecimal ‘buttons’ are surrounded by those that cannot be clicked. What was in those files? How much more would we know if those had been recovered? What’s behind the screen!?
The interactive element adds a layer to the story that enriches the narrative, and the upside is that it’s easy for both the reader to imagine those extra pieces of story, and for the writer to imply that there are other parts to the story to see. Some may consider this a short cut, I suppose, but Kelly purposefully wrote a short piece, so we must forgive him.
We need more stories like this. Derelict is a fun, short romp through an easy-to-navigate system that gives you a sense of a wider world and more to discover that I find irresistible.