Detective game “Beckett” is a disturbing, Dadaist trip that makes you question reality

There’s a moment, close to the beginning of the point-and-click video game Beckett, when the titular detective talks to a dissected head in the corner of a bar. The fleshy icon is a City Representative, just like the pair of lips on a barstool is a beautiful woman. The City Representative wants me to plant a strange insect in the pillow of a potential client, who also happens to be a lady’s brooch.

Like a grotesque game of Monopoly, characters and situations in Beckett are represented on-screen by objects and body parts. Part architectural blueprint, part Dadaist collage, the world of Beckett is a noirish nightmare by way William S Burroughs and Franz Kafka. It’s the players’ job to make sense of it all, and to solve a missing persons case that leads down a deep, dark rabbit hole.

“One of the main mechanics in Beckett, for want of a better word, is the player’s imagination,” says the game’s Glasgow-based developer and artist Simon Meek. “If we can fire up the player’s imagination, that’s much better than any games engine.”

Beckett is to be the first video game selected for inclusion in the UK’s new V&A Museum of Design in Dundee, and is pitched by its creator as a “literary work of fiction”. Speaking over the phone, Meek explains that Beckett was born in part from frustration about the ambitions of mainstream games – or lack thereof.

“If I’m being brutally honest, as somebody who loves games I’ve found that the older I’ve got, I’ve had less and less time for them,” he says. “They’ve done a really good job of refining and ploughing the very narrow genres, but it’s a bit like a snake eating its own tail.

“That’s not to say there isn’t experimentation in the games space, but the experimentation all seems to be around game design rather than storytelling.

“I think what’s more interesting are stories that are communicated to the audience via gameplay. Rather than thinking about it as a game that tells a story, I’m all about stories that are told as games. That is at the heart of what Beckett is.”

Impressions and associations

Meek started out as a journalist before moving into TV production, working in a hybrid TV-games division for Scottish company Tern TV. After developing an interactive version of John Buchan’s classic thriller, The 39 Steps, he set up his own company: The Secret Experiment. Beckett is the result, and it’s very much a statement about how stories can be told as games, through systems and spaces as well as text.

First there’s the decision to have characters represented by evocative items; an old brooch, say, or a slice of meat. Meek explains that, as well as being cheap to produce, it’s emotionally stimulating in a way fully rendered models might not be. He tells me a big influence on this aspect was the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, especially the work he did with tactile poetry:

“When [Svankmajer] stopped making films for a while, he made all these works that were designed to be touched not seen. What I found brilliant is that if you did look at the thing, which wasn’t meant to be looked at, it fired off some strange thoughts in your head.”


The crux of Meek’s game is that these strange thoughts are yours, but they are also those of the character Beckett. The world of the game is tailored around the character’s interiority; those lips and split heads aren’t just random objects, but impressions and associations. Pushing this idea further, the player can also only move to certain locations in the game, which Meek describes as a “system of influence”.  

“The player is influencing Beckett around the space,” Meek explains. “If Beckett’s not interested in something, the player won’t have the ability to move towards it. So you’re actually steering him through the story in a way. And the underlying thing is that by the end of the story you get an understanding of who Beckett is.”

Cut-up technique

Meek has taken scissors to more than butcher’s stock and old jewellery magazines. Beckett is a cacophony of images, typography and stock film. Your character’s investigation into a Burroughs-esque existential condition called ‘The Soft Paranoia’ makes dizzying slices across sections of text and photography.

While the missing person premise is a simple throughline, much of what happens around that ricochets between snippets of conversations different characters. This latter aspect is where the influence of Samuel Beckett is seen most clearly, although there are also echoes of the Irish writer’s plays and novels in the game’s absurdist quest for meaning.beckett_3

Whether or not all of this will chime with a video game audience used to hand-led storytelling remains to be seen. Meek says he likes the idea of the “lapsed gamer” in their 30s, weighing up the worth of playing a game in their evening. They’re not comparing it to another game they could be playing, so much as to other artforms that they could be experiencing.

“Games that got you through your teens and 20s on pure entertainment value alone, start to fall down a bit,” Meek says. “There are such great drama series, there are books you want to read… your time becomes more precious. Games might not feel like valuable uses of your time.”

Beckett brings an avant-garde eye to game design, and it’s not afraid to lacerate

If we want to keep people interested in games, then games need to start doing more interesting things. The independence of Meek’s studio no doubt gives it greater freedom to experiment, and the results are convincingly uncompromised. Beckett brings an avant-garde eye to game design, and it’s not afraid to lacerate.

Beckett is published by KISS Publishing Ltd and is out now on Steam.

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