(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in January 2021)
“Day 1, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer David Court reporting. The other members of the crew are dead, and the engines remain non-operational, though ship integrity remains good and life support systems are still active. I successfully jettisoned the intruder from the airlock, but it remains alive and continues to try to access the ship. With a little luck I can repair the distress beacon, and somebody will pick me up. This is David Court, the last survivor of the Wretched, signing off.”
The Wretched is a solo horror RPG “experience” from Chris Bissette, a musician, writer and games designer from Manchester. It’s a straightforward enough premise - what if, at the end of the movie, Alien, the creature survived? And what if it tried to get back in? And what if the systems and structure of the ship, itself way overdue a stay in space dock, decided to begin to fall to pieces?
When I think of Solo RPGs, I’m reminded of Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books from the early eighties. A generation grew up with these, not yet spoiled with the adventuring possibilities that later decades would bring. All we could do in those days was play text adventures (GO NORTH. GET LAMP. DIE FROM EXISTENTIAL DREAD), play Dungeons and Dragons after school, or read Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy novels.
The “Choose your own adventure” books were a tamer and more sedate option than Fighting Fantasy, a Beatles to Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone’s Rolling Stones. They didn’t involve dice or statistics for one, which made them fall short of the minimum standards for “A proper game™”. Also, the covers of Choose Your Own Adventure novels featured brightly coloured cartoonish images which made them look more like Prog Rock album covers, whereas the covers of Fighting Fantasy were decorated with vicious monsters or fiendish warlocks.
Although, to the credit of CYOA, Fighting Fantasy never had a title called “You are a shark”. Imagine it. You, being a fucking shark.
The Fighting Fantasy books were perfect. They were portable, and included advanced features such as Save Points (achieved by bookmarking the page you were turning from, just in case you didn’t like the results of your actions) and the ability to simply ignore any dice rolls you didn’t like the look of.
Games have grown up a little since then, and the world of interactive fiction (in both book and electronic form) has matured considerably, covering topics as varied and as brave as depression and mental illness, disabilities and civil rights. This type of experimentation with the form is what gives us gems such as The Wretched.
The Wretched, like the Fighting Fantasy books of old, is a solitary experience. You’re the Flight Engineer of the doomed vessel The Wretched. The crew are slaughtered, doomed victims of a creature you flushed out of the airlock. Now all that is left is survival; to repair the ship and head to safety, or to fix the communication systems and call out for help.
It's played with a standard deck of cards (Jokers removed), a single standard six-sided dice and a Jenga (or Generic Tumbling Block™) tower – It can be played without the tower, but I’d argue – from my perspective – it’s an essential piece of kit.
The rules are straightforward; each day, you roll the dice and draw that many cards from the shuffled deck, resolving each in turn. The Heart suit deals with the ships systems, Diamonds the ship’s structure. Clubs are related to the deceased crew, and the Spades involve the behaviour and activities of the alien intruder.
There’s a chart to consult regarding the meaning and result of each card, and certain events may cause you to have to draw a block from the Jenga pile. If as a result of this the pile topples, the ship has lost structural integrity and the game ends.
At the end of the day, you’ll record what you did during that day in a journal – and it is this journal recording that is the key to the game. The Wretched is a game that’ll give back what you put into it, and the journal of your time on the ship is at the heart of what makes this game tick.
I did my journal over a microphone, and the events of my very first playthrough of The Wretched can be found on my Mixcloud page at https://www.mixcloud.com/david-court/the-wretched-first-playthrough. A warning in advance; please forgive my acting abilities. Olivier, I ain’t.
(As a related aside, as a writer, I found the process of piecing together my journal a fascinating and challenging literary exercise. Because you’re journaling at the end of the day and not during the proceedings themselves, you’re free to describe the events in any order – it was interesting to try and connect these narratively, make them come across as more organic than a mere reading from a chart of things would lean towards. There were also certain items that seem to contradict earlier events, at least in my playthrough, so it’s also interesting to try and work around that – it’s where an unexpected and unpredictable constraint of the narrative method becomes another useful exercise).
If you’re not willing to commit yourself to the journal, this game is not for you. At its heart The Wretched is a game you can win or lose – and boy, will you lose – but that’s not what it’s about. It’s not a standard RPG game – you’ll build the structure of it yourself, and it’ll give back the effort you put in. It might sound a little pompous, but it’s a way of confronting your own existential dread and how to confront a no-win situation. It’s as bleak as can be, but the challenge is in how your character handles it and how they defy the odds.
In my playthrough, there was initial hope – but that faded as the days went on. There were times when I was genuinely wishing for the game to end, to almost deliberately fail on the block pulling exercise. In the end, the tower stayed upright, and the destruction of the ship wasn’t to be my destiny, but you can listen to the ultimate fate of Flight Engineer David Court in my Mixcloud playthrough.
As said, The Jenga tower is optional, but it adds such a level of immersion and tension that I can’t imagine playing The Wretched without it. The stakes with each pull are so phenomenally high. At the end of my playthrough I was hesitant to even breathe heavily on the tower for fear of it falling, and – as luck would have it – as soon as the game had ended, the tower fell without assistance.
The Wretched is available for download from https://loottheroom.itch.io/wretched for the paltry sum of 15 dollars – with this, you get the game and a brilliant ambient soundtrack for it.
Life’s Lottery; Kim Newman (1999) – a rare example of Fighting Fantasy all grown up; Life’s Lottery is an adventure set in contemporary Britain. You’ll guide the protagonist Keith Marion from birth, with wildly differing consequences and storylines all dependent on your actions – sometimes seemingly trivial, at times epochal. Who would have thought that a decision about your favourite character from Man from UNCLE would be so influential on the rest of your existence? It’s part-thriller, part-horror, part kitchen sink drama, Franz Kafka meets Martin Amis. It’s never anything less than fascinating.