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Saturday 16 September 2023

Solitaire: The Wretched

The Wretched is lost. The crew of the intergalactic salvage ship is all dead, bar one. Adrift between stars with its engines having failed and a hostile alien lifeform having stalked and killed most of the crew, you made one last, brave stand. You drove the alien off the ship, flushing it out via an airlock. You hoped that this would kill it. It did not. Having seen it kill your friends and family aboard, it now scrabbles and skitters across the hull of the ship, searching for a way in, for a way to reach its last victim aboard ship—you. Unfortunately, you cannot truly escape it, but you can hold on and hold out for rescue. Someone out there has to find you. First, you have to keep life support going long enough to repair and activate the distress beacon, and then hope that someone will respond, all whilst fending off the predations of the alien lurking on the other side of the ship’s hull.

This is the set-up for The Wretched, a Science Fiction journalling game published by Loot the Room. Clearly and self-confessedly inspired by Alien and similar films, The Wretched is a game about isolation, fear, and perseverance and potentially, survival in the face of overwhelming odds. The game requires an ordinary deck of playing cards without the Jokers, a six-sided die, a Jenga or similar tower block game, and a set of tokens. In addition, the player will require a means of recording the results of the game. It is suggested that audio or video longs work best, and they are in keeping with the genre. A traditional journal will also work too. The Wretched is a played out as a series of days, the player, actually the flight engineer of The Wretched, undertaking a series of tasks each day and responding to prompts before ending the day by recording its events and his thoughts in his personal log. The odds are that the lone crewman is unlikely to survive, either due to catastrophic failure of the ship’s systems—which will happen if the tower block collapses or the alien finding him. There are multiple ways in which the crewman can fail and die, but only two ways to survive. Either repair and turn on the beacon and then survive long enough for a rescue vessel to come or to repair the ship’s engines and blast out of the situation he is in, leaving the alien behind.

The four suites correspond to different aspects of the ship and its environment. Hearts represents ship’s systems—life support, water purification, and the like; Diamonds are its physical structure—hull, opening and closing doors; Clubs are the crew—remnants of their presence such as their rent bodies and their tools and possessions; and Spades are the Creature—physically present or simply knowing that it is out there… Whilst the presence of the Creature veers between ominous and terrifying, the most horrifying of encounters are to be had with the crew, or rather with what they have left behind, both of themselves and their belongings, as well as memories of them. Here is where the sense of loss and perhaps the nature of sacrifices made in order for the player to survive, come to the fore. The player will have between one and six encounters like this each day, the player taking notes in readiness to record the details in his journal or log. Some end with the instruction to remove a block from the tower block game. Several have already been removed at start of play, so the structural integrity of the ship is imperilled from the outset. It is, however, unlikely that the player will go a turn without having to remove a single block.

Physically, The Wretched is cleanly and tidily presented. It is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent.

The is a fantastic economy of emotion to The Wretched. Like every Journalling game, its tension builds and builds, exacerbated by the looming presence of both the alien and the possibility of the tower block game’s collapse—and thus the end of the game. Yet this is made better—or is that worse?—when the player’s reports and thoughts are recorded rather than simply noted down. Recording the daily logs as either audio or video adds intimacy and emotion to the play through, that is far more difficult to capture on paper. If there is an issue with The Wretched, it is that there are limited options to play more than once, but that experience is going to be fraught, frightening, and claustrophobically intimate.

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