If you gave us the ability to rewind five minutes of conversation, we would abuse it. We’d be able to get some choice words off our chest and then rewind to escape the consequences. We would erase any faux pas, and we would use truth-or-dare to find out everyone’s juiciest secrets. In short, we’d become evil.
Luckily the power is in safer hands in The Wreck, a narrative adventure from The Pixel Hunt, the French development house probably best known for Bury Me, My Love. For one, the person using it doesn’t recall that they’ve used it – they have no memory of it, except for a sixth sense that they should change tack in their future dialogue. For two, they’re much better people than we are.
This main character is Junon, who has arrived at hospital to see her mother, Marie, who has experienced a brain haemorrhage. The prognosis is not good: her mother is unlikely to live, and even if she does, then she will be a very different person. The complication is that Marie has forged Junon’s signature on a wardship document, and it is now down to Junon to determine whether the doctors should let Marie die peacefully, or help her fight to live.
This is a compelling, emotionally knotty ball at the centre of the drama, and that’s before further additions made by The Pixel Hunt. Because Junon has a sister, Diane, who is the strong, competent one, and she doesn’t understand why the wardship would have gone to Junon. There’s a sense that Marie likes to rile and antagonise her daughters, and she’s doing it from her deathbed. This is not a functional family, by any means.
There are layers upon layers to this, as Marie and Junon in particular have skeletons in their closet, and they duly get aired over the six hours of The Wreck. But airing them here would be close to a spoiler for The Wreck, which has a delicate hand on what it’s telling you and when. Glimpses of deeper personal horrors are offered and then torn away.
Rather than let the story flow organically, there’s a reasonably rigid structure at play. There are three acts in The Wreck, and each of those three acts correspond with a long dialogue with another character. The first is with Diane, the sister, as she arrives just after Junon at the hospital. The second is with Alex, Junon’s estranged husband, and the third would be such an utter spoiler that we would be justly dragged to hell if we were to tell you it.
In each of those acts, again, the structure is pretty rigid. It’s the rule of threes. Within those three conversations, there are three separate arguments. The conversation gets heated, and you drive away. But that drive leads to a car crash, sending you tumbling in slow motion, and the stuff that flies about the car – a make-up mirror, a toothbrush – can be tapped on to view an interactive memory relating to them. A lighter rewinds to a candlelit dinner with your family; some rosary beads rewind to a documentary you helped to make in a church.
By exploring these memories, an epiphany happens. You realise something you missed the first time round, and return to the conversation to have a more adult, reasoned response to it. Instead of storming off in a paddy and killing yourself in a car crash, you handle the arguments with care and get a much better response. It’s about growing as a person.
Junon, rather than being the soft, insecure and – on occasion – cowardly sister, becomes more assured. She acknowledges where she is at fault, apologises, and holds her own when she’s being walked over. Many of us would take that as a superhero ability, but Junon doesn’t even realise she has it. The rewind is never acknowledged, so either we’re spying a ‘what if?’, or Junon has a kind of fairy godparent.
It is, as you can probably see, inordinately clever. It’s Groundhog Day for the arthouse crowd. In particular, the memory sequences are bordering on the sublime. They are bungee-cord falls through a memory, where you experience them as linear tableaux before the cord twangs and you are hurtling backwards through the same memory, only to be thrown forward again. This constant back-and-forth through the same 3D compositions allows you to find and highlight images and words in the scene that Junon can respond to. Each recollection sparks further recollections, until Junon fully comprehends everything.
The Wreck creates some masterful scenes with this theme, and they get better as the game goes on. One memory frames the happenings as the interior of a dolls’ house, and the bungee cord pulls you through dolls’ house after dolls’ house, like a series of nesting dolls. Another is at an art gallery, as Junon is placed in the centre of the image, like a still life, and we see her change as different frames rotate around her. They are stupendously conceived, incredibly clever, and we couldn’t wait to see what the next one might offer.
But it’s about time we snapped that bungee cord back. We’ve been a touch disingenuous, as we’ve held back the criticism. Because The Wreck is something that should have been exquisite, but bored us rigid for large chunks of time. This is a six or seven hour adventure, and for four or five hours of it, we were clock-watching.
A significant reason for that is the rigid structure, which is far too heavy-handed and cyclical. Once we clued into the rules of three, it was all we could see. It was metronomic, and we were waiting for Junon to storm off to her car, see the same flipping car crash for the fifteenth time (unbroken and presented in its entirety), and go through the same process that we had done many times before. The Wreck may be making a statement about the cyclical nature of our problems – if we don’t face them and break the loop, then we are doomed to repeat them – but we felt like we were the ones doomed to repeat it, over and over. It’s painful. We desperately longed for a skip button so we could get to the memories, which, like What Remains of Edith Finch? are the absolute standouts.
The Wreck contorts itself into awkward, unbelievable shapes to get to the next argument, too. Because Junon needs to storm away to trigger a new memory. The problem is that she’s become a better, calmer person from the previous conversations and the last memory. She’s had a character epiphany, yet never fails to revert back – it’s that bungee cord again – as soon as another argument crops up. She learns, and then she unlearns. And through it all, you’re meant to care. But we just got frustrated. She was a flake who could shed her opinions and character growth like a lizard.
And then The Wreck clearly tries to make some savings. Each memory is returned to countless times, and it can’t help but feel like padding. Junon is meant to be making greater revelations from the events, but it just feels like a retread. That would be fine if the memories were as interactive and rummagable as a photo in the film Blade Runner, for example, but they’re only a game of ‘spot the text’, as you fast-forward and rewind until you see a wall of words that clearly shouldn’t be there.
What a game The Wreck could have been. In its characters, it has enough foibles and flaws to underscore an entire season of Grey’s Anatomy. In its memories, it has created incredibly clever dioramas for you to swoop around, seeing the past for what it really was, rather than how it was remembered. The pieces are there. It’s a narrative adventure that could and should demand all of our attention for six or seven hours.
But The Wreck was such a labour for us to wade through. It’s too structured and symmetrical, making it feel less like a story and more like a syllabus of homework tasks. Everything gets repeated, to the degree that the team could probably take a machete to half of The Wreck and still have too much left over. And it flits like a moth to moments of sadness, without any light in between, making it occasionally arduous.
We deeply wanted to enjoy The Wreck. But even though we shook ourselves and refocused, attempting to regain attention, we found it wandering again. When the emotional wallops finally came, the damage had already been done.
You can buy The Wreck from the Xbox Store
- Beautiful, minimalist art
- Complex character study
- Interactive memories are brilliantly staged
- Playing with the memories is one-note
- Scenes are repeated far too often
- Dreary enough to be close to depression-porn
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to – The Pixel Hunt
- Formats – Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, PC, Switch
- Version reviewed – Xbox Series X
- Release date – 14 March 2023
- Launch price from – £TBC