When Glasgow-based artist Simon Meek realized games weren't giving him the kinds of experiences he craved most from the medium, he set out to change that by founding his own studio, which he dubbed The Secret Experiment. The developer's inaugural project, Beckett (published by Kiss Publishing Ltd.), makes its debut on Steam today. I spoke with Meek over Google Hangouts to get the inside story on Beckett – the first video game selected for inclusion in the U.K.'s new V&A Museum of Design, opening on September 15.
Inspired as much by the point-and-click adventure titles of years past as it is by the Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, Beckett's perhaps best described as an interactive work of mixed media. The game, which Meek himself calls "playable fiction," aspires to tell a literary story within its surreal, neo-noir trappings. Its assets run the gamut from digital art and film to photography and print.
"I wanted the game to feel very visceral," Meek says. "With the advent of computer graphics – across film and games and everything – what the audience gets, time and time again, is the director's vision of how they interpret the text. If we're shown an alien, then that is the alien the director wants us to see. The imagination of the player doesn't need to do much."
He offers the counterexample of the theater, where a simple tree prop might transform an entire stage into another reality in the audience's mind. "One of the things I wanted to do was to give [the player] emotional stimuli, so that they take that and create their own Beckett, effectively." The graphics are merely "abstract blueprints," Meek says. The effect is something akin to virtual collage – dark and twisted, maybe, but also intimate and subjective. Many of the objects seen in the game are physical: taxidermied insects, carved wooden models, raw slices of meat.
"And when you get nice photography of that," he says, "it feels odd and different, and it feels particularly bizarre in a game environment, where we're used to seeing things that are rendered and textured in 3-D engines. But I wanted it to feel much more human. When the player comes into it, I want them to feel that it isn't computer-generated – it's more alive, in many ways."
The result, Meek says, "is intentionally a little bit rough. A little bit scrapbook."
On-screen text, for instance, is generated with procedural randomness. So, while the story Meek has chosen to tell doesn't necessarily change from one playthrough to the next, the game provides sufficient variation to facilitate new and unique ways for the player to discover that story as they navigate Beckett's wild Dadaist canvas.
Meek, who worked for years as a journalist before a stint as a television producer, grew up playing point-and-click adventure games in the nineties, and Inscape's CD-ROMs left an impression. "One was The Dark Eye," he says. "That was sort of a claymation house-exploration game based around the stories and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. It had a bizarre feeling to it – it was all this stop-frame animation that was completely freaky. And that lent itself to exploring spaces and discovering the madness therein."
Meek's television job led into a career in digital media, and for about seven years he ran a hybrid-games division – "an experimental crossover between TV and games" – called The Story Mechanics. "The potential for games as a storytelling form is immense," he says. And, of course, conventional wisdom says that the medium still has a long way to go in that regard. "It's not that games aren't being used to tell stories, but my viewpoint is very much that I want to tell a story using a game."
After he began The Secret Experiment, Meek spent a year and a half prototyping a number of bare-bones ideas and exploring the most interesting facets of them in terms of narrative, visual art, and game mechanics. "It was sort of a three-horse race between a project we had called Stranger, which was this cool stop-frame-animated, Lynchian-type tale. Then Beckett, which was much more of a William Burroughs-inspired idea – an exploration of the dark recesses of the mind. And a sci-fi story called The Mother People, which will probably be our next project, actually. And Beckett just felt right. I'd spent a lot of time exploring ideas and getting a sense of the market."
Beckett arose in reaction to many of the quiet, narrative-focused games of our time – stories like Firewatch, Night in the Woods, and What Remains of Edith Finch. Due in part to Meek's own biases and sensibilities, however, The Secret Experiment's first release doesn't feel like any of those titles.
"I really like [those games], but I think I would describe them as games that are telling stories. Even though they are very much story-driven, I still see them as games first in the way they're developed and presented to the audience," he says.
He compares Edith Finch to a Netflix drama in the vein of Stranger Things, competent and charming but "a little bit teen-oriented," suggesting that games ought to be doing more to push the boundaries of interactive storytelling and challenge their audience intellectually. Rather than heaping praise on every game that manages to tell a solid story, Meek says, we should demand that games be held to the same standard as works outside the medium: Is this game as good as the last novel I read? The last film I saw at the theater? Does it show me anything I haven't seen before?
Beckett's story follows a private investigator searching for a missing person – a common enough premise – but it does so within the context of the main character's fractured psyche, meaning nothing is quite what it appears. An image or object might represent something completely different than what's apparent; as with a work of absurdist literature, it's left to the player to piece together some of the meaning. (The game's title is a clear nod to author Samuel Beckett.)
"Often people say that virtual reality is total immersion. You put it on, and you're in that place," Meek says. "But I would counter that by saying the best example of total immersion I've ever had is head down in an amazing book, at a point where I've missed stops on a train because I've been so captivated by the words, and all that is is black ink on white paper. And theater's the same – total immersion."
When Beckett goes on display in the V&A's new Dundee gallery in September, it won't be publicly playable, but the developer will make the companion book (with a USB copy of the game) and vinyl soundtrack (entirely composed and recorded by Meek) available as part of the exhibit. Like the game itself, the Beckett exhibit will focus heavily on physical artifacts from its creation. Whether Steam users can get on board with its somewhat offbeat approach remains to be seen, but Meek's confident that he's made the statement he set out to make with the project. And, thanks to the studio's financial independence, it's a rare example of total and genuine auteurism in the games world.
"It thrives on being abstract and uncompromised. It's a challenging work. And, in many ways, it was born from a nugget of an idea. I had a character, this notion for the world, and I had the thread of [the protagonist] trying to track down this young man who'd suffered from this mental illness and disappeared off the face of the earth. Although I had the narrative thread, it was over the course of the production where all the nuances and the oddness started to emerge," Meek says.
"It was fun, it was exciting, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the world thinks of it."