PAX East: The Wreck
By: Roberto Nieves
Life is all about routine until something happens unexpectedly, sending routine into calamity. You can prepare for all eventualities in a day, from how long it takes to get to work to what time to eat dinner, but even the most prepared person cannot anticipate the unexpected. A train can be delayed making one late to work and even affecting when to eat dinner. Then, there are those moments where tragedy strikes, and everything is thrown asunder. A car accident, a death in the family, a crime that has occurred. Tragedy affects everyone in some way, shape, or form. Tragedy has the means to cause us to rethink our own lives and the life around us. The Wreck is a game that begins with tragedy, a car wreck that leaves the mother of failed screenwriter Junon in critical condition. With her life in chaos, she will piece together memories and either find a new beginning or a heartbreaking demise. The Wreck was featured at the prestigious PAX Rising booth at PAX East this year, and the short time with the demo has left me reflecting on games and the power of storytelling, especially when that storytelling can address real-life tragedy.
The Wreck is a visual novel adventure with gameplay mechanics greatly inspired by Life Is Strange. In The Wreck, Junon has bottomed out, having taken his chance at being a screenwriter and not going anywhere with it. She receives a grave call from a hospital in France and, upon arrival, is informed her mother is in critical condition following a serious car accident. The diagnosis isn't good, as her mom has a cerebral aneurysm that needs to be taken care of. There's no one else to turn to. Nowhere else to go. All that Junon can do is think and reflect. Her memories are in the past, but perhaps, somehow, in those memories, there is something she needs to make it through this tragedy, maybe even better the present for a potentially brighter future.
Speaking to Florent Maurin, the head developer of The Pixel Hunt, I learned why he was making this game. The Wreck is a collaboration with his sister, and the duo wanted to create something personal, different, but relatable. Using the mind of a screenwriter is an effective vehicle for piecing together memory and better realizing a memory through a specific lens. In the case of Junon, she pieces together memory as if she is writing an episode for a show and better translates the memory with better clarity. Additionally, this is the first game to focus on this perspective from the studio.
The team was greatly inspired by the works of DONTNOD games, who worked on the sci-fi action thriller Remember Me, and, most notably, Life Is Strange. Both games featured an interesting breakthrough in storytelling, such as the "memory remixing" mechanic. This put players in a scene, allowed them to control the elements of that it, change camera angles, and move time both forwards and backward, all to discover an important clue or change the outcome of an event. In Remember Me, the character plays as a memory hunter who can remix memories and completely affect the mental capacities of persons, having people believe something that never happened. In Life is Strange, players can stop time, rewind it, and affect specific events that can have significant outcomes for the story.
In the case of The Wreck, Junon was able to think back to her earliest memories and interpret her memories with her mother and the accident that caused her mother's mortal injuries. The game transitions and zooms in various ways, almost like a thriller I would see on Hulu. The game's use of lighter colors and cel-shading evoke storyboarding as if Junon is storyboarding the episode of a series. Alluding once again to the memory remixing mechanic, the demo had players searching a scene several times, locating important items, and piecing together thoughts and feelings. At one point, Junon thinks back to an earlier childhood memory involving an injured. At first glance, Junon remembers the bird, but further inspection of the scene leaves Junon to believe the bird may have been intentionally injured. It's an effective combination of presentation, subject matter, and storytelling that really appealed to me during PAX East, but there's more to it than what I saw.
Given the subject matter, The Wreck drew me in, probably more than expected. Part of my interest in The Wreck stems from a personal attachment to the subject matter. In other words, I'm a bit biased, or based, as the internet says. A few years ago, my father suffered a terrible pain that brought him to the ground on his hand and knees. He was gasping for air and in writhing pain that wouldn't go away. Gravely concerned, I rushed him to the local Emergency Room, where it took an IV drip of valium to soothe the pain. I kept hoping it was a cramp or appendicitis, but after several hours of pain medication and testing, it was revealed that the pain originated from an aortic aneurysm, one that had not burst but was nevertheless very real. For the unfamiliar, an aortic aneurysm is an aneurysm of the heart, and should it burst, it's a fast, painful death with no chance of recovery.
After nearly two weeks in the hospital, the doctors cleared him to go home, to live with the aneurysm while they kept an eye on it. There were a myriad of thoughts that I struggled with during my day-to-day life. The fact that my Dad, who had held me as a baby, picked me up as a kid, rode roller coasters with me, and even fought a small hive of wasps, was brought down by something unseen and hidden. In moments of trauma, moments of great disturbance, the flow of life gets disrupted. All my thought processes swirled, a mixture of emotions and feelings, some familiar and many others not felt before. Fear, concern, preparation for potential outcomes, all of that swirls instantly. Every day, my mom and I kept an eye on his blood pressure and watched for any irregularities to his day. Even if my Dad said, " I feel very tired," it sent up our guard. Of course, we were on eggshells, as the aneurysm could burst at any time.
For two years, that's what it felt like. I'm no screenwriter, but I kept envisioning every moment I had with my Dad. The good, the bad, all of it. We had our differences and fights, but we were still family. I thought about all those sacrifices he made for me, my mom, sister, and special needs brother. He was a teacher, a US Army Reserves drill Sergeant, and a soccer coach. At one point, he worked three jobs, working as a cargo pallet loader at Newark International Airport. I even remember him coming home, saying hi, changing out of his school clothes, then making the 40-minute drive to the airport. He worked until 9 or 10 on those evenings, heading home and then getting ready to report to school at 7:30 am the next day.
There were many more memories that flooded back. Those winter mornings when it was 5 am, and I'm heading to a swim meet in 15-degree weather. Those airshows he took me at Joint Base McGuire. How proud he was of me to be doing the Disney College Program. How we laughed on our train rides to New York because of a wayward alcoholic onboard. Even the not-so-good memories became like a strip of film, and I was the editor, finding a means for why and how. But, more questions lead to more feelings. Was he proud of me, despite all my setbacks? Was he okay with me not following in his footsteps regarding the military and teaching? It's these feelings that became very relatable in The Wreck. To find understanding, healing, closure, an answer, and perhaps a way forward into a brighter future.
As for my Dad, he would go on to have open heart surgery at Newark Beth Israel, all to eliminate the aneurysm and fix a heart valve. The surgery was smooth, and he would go on to recover nicely until I woke up to him having slurred speech seven months later. Leaping like a ninja, I took him to the ER again. He had a very small but serious brain bleed, an intracranial hemorrhage to be precise, caused by an incorrectly prescribed dosage of Plavix. Once again, the same people that saved his life before saved it again. After some treatment and a few months of rehabilitation and physical therapy, he was back to normal. Today, years later, his life operates as if nothing happened. He is healthy, driving, eating, doing the lawn, reminiscing on his days in the Army, dancing salsa, and watching cartoons. Yup, even someone who was awarded a plaque that says "Sgt. 'Mad Dog' Nieves" is a fan of Spongebob Squarepants, especially Patrick Star. I learned a lot, too much for me to write here, but ever since, I've worked hard to make meaningful choices, especially with my Dad.
I guess you can say I have already experienced The Wreck in a way, but every story, even similar, should be told. Viewpoints and perspectives, while similar, can change and bring a new feeling to light. In the case of The Wreck, the game presents a tale of motherhood, survival, the bond between mother and daughter, grief, and how we cope with grief. My expectations are high for The Wreck, given the team worked on Bury Me, My Love, which was one of the most heartfelt games I played in 2019. Given what I have seen, the team is set to deliver what may be one of the best, if not important, games of 2022.
The Wreck is slated for launch in 2022 for Steam and at least one console. What that console is isn't confirmed, but as the previous games from the studio are on the Nintendo Switch, that's what it most likely will be.