Main menu Close main menu Main menu Menu ×


Dan Hett on his recent experimental videogame series

Author: Dan Hett

When I joined the FutureEverything Fault Lines programme, I had a reasonably clear direction of travel in terms of what I was exploring (along with a little bit of impostor syndrome, but that’s another blog post entirely). My work was almost wholly focused on our perceptions of the technology that pervades our existences, which took the form of a lot of exploratory live digital performance and, increasingly, a strand of work focusing on encryption, privacy and surveillance – as part of this I had an RFID chip implanted into my hand, among other things.

Things didn’t work out quite as I’d planned, however. A few months after the programme began, my trajectory in life was altered completely when my younger brother Martyn was killed in the Manchester Arena terror attack. In the short term aftermath of course, everything had just stopped – the experience was complicated and difficult and extraordinarily intense, and my work went on instant hiatus as I, my family, and the city, began to deal with what had happened.

What I didn’t expect was that the nature of my work would change radically too. I’d actually returned to making things within a few weeks, finishing the code and installation of Naho Matsuda’s amazing every thing, every time project – it felt good to be putting something positive back into the city, and having a hand in a project that lit up the streets a little bit was really positive.

Ironically, one of my planned pieces of work at the time was for a residency at the Open Data Institute in London – I produced a couple of large-scale paintings that contained securely encrypted transmissions. One of the main reasons for pitching this work to the ODI was the dialogue at the time around the UK government trying to control encryption technologies as a means of making the country safer from extremists. I’d even joked about sending one of the paintings to the prime minister, safe in the knowledge that the message stored in the painting was cryptographically secure – little did I know she’d later use what happened in Manchester to discuss these very issues, badly. This strand of work will certainly continue in the future, my existing undertaking suddenly convincingly underpinned by a very real experience.

The biggest change in my work however was that I returned to experimental videogames to begin to explore what happened – both the actual experience itself, but also aspects of the aftermath too. I have a history within this space, as the instigator of the Manchester Game Jam here many years ago. Over the years I’ve built, or helped build, dozens of challenging and genre-busting interactive projects and wholly unsellable but interesting experimental games – the medium is one I’m very at home in.

This push into experimental games was almost accidental at first. I’d been writing a lot, right from the moment everything had happened, desperate to ensure I didn’t lose any of the thoughts and details that formed this huge event that was still unfolding. Some of this writing ended up as the first very small game, c ya laterrrr – an interactive fiction project that follows my journey through the first couple of days after the attack. It’s rough and unedited, and has all identifying information stripped out. Looking back, I think the main driver for choosing to put my writing into this form was that interactive fiction allowed me to not just get the story down, but also get down some of the decisions I didn’t make – going through such an intense few days meant making hundreds of tiny but difficult decisions, and the game allowed me to really fill in some of the ‘what ifs’ in a way I couldn’t get out by just writing it down. There’s a pathway through the game that reflects my actual experience, and many thousands that don’t.

I began to really think about videogames and the themes I was addressing – is interactive fiction really a videogame? Or is it something else? We saw recently in Bandersnatch that perhaps ‘game’ isn’t quite right when your real agency is still limited to pre-defined pathways set out by the creator of a piece – but there’s a narrative value in there for me, even if it’s as basic as using the form to simply ask ‘what if?’.

Much of this pondering (along with some of the ‘not a game!’ feedback on c ya laterrrr) led into me creating The Loss Levels, in which I tried to tell the same story in the most classic game-like manner possible: a literal arcade game.

The Loss Levels is a custom-built arcade cabinet that forces the player through a series of rapid narrative microgames, pushing them at high speed through fragments of the experience, rendered as primitive (and authentic) 8bit games. The effect this has is a whirlwind of rapid narrative, where players have almost no time to figure out how each one is controlled, and what to do. Critically, the game cannot be won or lost – players always land at the same endpoint. The whole thing was geared to really interrogate player expectations of the arcade game experience, presenting a challenging narrative within a framework that we’re all familiar with: the glowing arcade cab sat in a public space.

The Loss Levels was an unexpected success: from it’s first commissioned placement at the Now Play This festival in London, it was picked up by Sheffield Doc/Fest and included in the Alternate Realities show at the festival, as well as the subsequent tour (ask me about the logistics of shipping a full arcade cabinet to Buenos Aires some time!).

I also began to use my games work to explore other more specific aspects of what I’d been through – although I’d told the story quite directly through the first two small games, I’m also always interested in games that focus in on unconventional narratives and experiences. One of the key elements that had pervaded my life over the first few months after the attack was the hostile press intrusion I encountered – this was something that obviously I’d never been through, and the constant and ferocious attention and demand was something that I found hard to articulate in words. So, I turned to games, producing another small experience, Sorry To Bother You – the name taken from a handwritten note pushed under my door by a Telegraph journalist looking for an interview, many hours before we’d found out my brother had been killed.

Sorry To Bother You places the player directly into my perspective, and tasks players with using my mobile phone (those are indeed my hands), while thousands of messages stream in. Players must quickly ‘like’ the ones that are genuine messages of concern or condolence, while trashing the ones that are thinly-veiled journalist requests. The game is short and difficult, and within a few minutes ramps up to being unwinnable – this is of course an intentional design choice, there was no winning this scenario in reality either. The kicker with this thing is that every message the player reads was taken verbatim from the messages I genuinely did receive. In a few moments of gameplay I was able to show players the intensity of the experience more effectively than I ever could by describing it. Videogames have a unique directness in this way that I’m always keen to harness, and that I respond well to as a player of other people’s games.

These small works were created very instinctively, and although they’re each only really prototype-scale, the dialogue and feedback generated by them was really exciting – particularly when I hear something like “I’ve never thought of it like this before”, or even “I didn’t realise games did this stuff”. For anyone involved in or playing leftfield videogames this seems a little obvious, but what I realised was that much of the audience playing these games was doing so for the first time, or certainly engaging with these themes for the first time in a meaningful way. Videogames have an enormous power to share and demonstrate knowledge and experiences and concepts to people, and for me the sweet spot is when they’re able to tell a story that couldn’t be told as well in other forms, particularly when that audience isn’t typically a games audience.

Much of this thinking has influenced my next piece of work, which is currently in production – Closed Hands. This is a significantly larger undertaking than the tiny micro games I’ve built previously: so big in fact that I’ve formed a micro studio, PASSENGER, with a few others in order to get it off the ground. Closed Hands is a deep interactive fiction project, completely fictional, that examines seven intertwined human stories during a crisis similar to the one that altered my own story. The aim of this work is to use the unique storytelling power of videogames to examine the events leading up to and and following the event, showing the story from many perspectives, uncovering a depth and breadth of insight that I couldn’t get across in more static media forms. It’s very early days for Closed Hands, but I’m excited to see where it leads – videogames literally aren’t talking about this stuff at all, and for a medium so rich in narrative flexibility it feels like the right time to try.

Further reading

Dan Hett's collaborations with FutureEverything