There’s been an explosion. You didn’t see it but you felt the ground move, and now there’s smoke in your eyes and broken glass at your feet. Trying to move around, to piece together what just happened feels impossible. This is the incident at the centre of Closed Hands, an interactive work of immersive fiction from director Dan Hett and PASSENGER studios, presented by HOME as part of Push Festival 2021.
Experiencing the world of Closed Hands means picking through debris after a terror attack strikes at the heart of the fictional UK city of Hartwich. But rather than digging through bricks and rubble, the player instead has to sift through the digital wreckage of chat logs and social media posts leading up to and in response to the incident, untangling the web of human connections that surround the tragedy and seeing how the blast ripples through lives and communities.
The events of the story are presented in an intentionally jumbled chronology. Rather than playing through levels in sequence, excerpts of the story are laid out in a sprawling web, moving outwards from a central point labelled ‘The Incident.’ From there you can dip in and out of the different plotlines, seeing how each character’s story develops and interacts with the others, spotting the moments where characters brush up against one another as you build your own understanding of the attack.
It’s a mode of storytelling that effectively emulates the way we often learn about such tragedies in real life. The way you see on your timeline that some city is suddenly trending, but until you click through and start scrolling you can’t know whether they’ve been blown to pieces or just had a player awarded a dodgy penalty. News sites tweet out contradictory reports as the story develops, posts from eyewitnesses mixed with armchair commentary and paranoid speculation, as new information debunks what you read a moment ago in a tweet that already has a hundred thousand likes. You move back and forth through the timeline like an amateur detective, trying to piece together some coherent story.
In modern video games, one of the most crucial aspects of narrative worldbuilding is a technique called environmental storytelling. Rather than expecting players to read up on the backstory of every environment they explore and every character they meet, designers leave breadcrumbs of information scattered throughout the game and leave it up to each individual to choose how far they want to pull on each narrative thread.
The pioneering genre of this technique were horror games: you might be trying to survive a night in a haunted house while stumbling upon old love letters and diary entries detailing the tragic origins of the skeleton that just chased you down a hallway. Blockbuster open-world games tend to take an iceberg approach to environmental storytelling, with the game’s main story only showing off ten percent of the world beneath the surface. It’s a strategy that entices the player to invest more of themselves into the world, to actively pursue the side plots and try to understand every thread in the tapestry.
Closed Hands presents a world that’s entirely environmental. We get to know the five main characters by following their digital timelines backwards and forwards as they orbit one another through cyberspace, their trajectories drawn inwards by the gravity of the tragedy that unites them. We take an intimate step behind the eyes of a diverse cast, each of whom relates to the attack in their own way, from the journalist trying to find the truth, to the father who fears his radicalised son may have had something to do with it.
For director Dan Hett, Closed Hands is an intensely personal project, a continuation of a body of work on extremism, death, and virtual reality that comes in response to the loss of his brother Martyn in the 2017 Manchester arena bombing. Hett’s work is interested in what is left behind in the wake of tragedy, especially in online spaces, where ‘fragments of digital ephemera have now become intangible virtual memorials’. Our digital footprints may be the most intimate impressions we leave behind, our loved ones picking though the environmental storytelling of old Whatsapp messages and Facebook posts littering our haunted hallways.
At times the experience of playing though Closed Hands is truly visceral, especially during the stories closest to the incident, like a 999 call immediately following the blast. News from the scene of the incident is drip-fed to the player – I hungrily click through each post as the score overwhelms and the doomscrolling impulse overtakes me. These moments in the immediate aftermath of the attack are the most engrossing uses of the project’s interactive format.
The game is accompanied by the tension-building music of Paul Wolinski and Ciaran Mcauley. Wolinski’s previous credits include No Man’s Sky, a sprawling game with innovative procedurally generated sound design, meaning that the score would develop and respond to the player’s actions rather than being a set of pre-written tracks. It’s a technique that’s effectively deployed in Closed Hands, as the ambient background movement begins to swell and shift into the foreground in tense moments, its suffocating bass inducing the anxiety and confusion of the attack.
What few weak points the project has seem to mostly stem from the scope of the story it’s trying to tell. The game introduces itself to us in its opening as ‘an intricate story exploring the lead up and aftermath of a fictional terror attack. The story is told through five main perspectives and dozens of supporting characters over several years.’ It’s an ambitious goal, and one that requires a lot of stage setting, and when the story pulls out from the dramatic epicentre of the incident it loses the sense of urgency that makes the early sections so engrossing.
The other big creative swing that impedes the project’s sense of immersion is its lack of a single player protagonist. Closed Hands instead opts for a multiple perspectives approach. This is obviously in service of its central idea of untangling the myriad lives touched by the tragedy, but at times it leaves the player unmoored and unclear about their own relationship to the story. When we play through a part of a character’s story are we playing as that character? Or are we simply a disembodied presence watching over them? When the narrative isn’t being told through found objects and messages it defaults to third person prose, which distances the player from the characters and breaks the immersion we feel when sifting through digital ephemera.
There are some other features which grate. We’re often given multiple dialogue options to choose from, but these never affect the outcome of the plot, with some as inconsequential as a choice between saying ‘exactly’ and ‘you’re right’, or ‘fingers crossed’ and ‘I hope so.’ It could well be that the intention here is to underline the futility of these choices and suggest that regardless of their actions, the characters would have been unable to prevent the tragedy. It’s an idea that doesn’t quite seem to fit with a story concerned with human connection, that reaching out and trying to communicate would have been pointless.
Closed Hands at its best is an affecting and engrossing piece of work, and the moments where its reach exceeds its grasp are only due to the scale of its ambition. It’s a piece of work that asks us to empathise with the whole world, to feel every human cost and cause of seemingly incomprehensible tragedy.
Closed Hands is available to download. More info here.