No one is making video games quite like Dan Hett.
Terrorism, grief, radicalisation, press ethics and intrusion – you can count on one hand the number of games that make reference to these issues, let alone tackle them with depth and insight. Sadly, that insight comes from personal experience.
The Mancunian games developer and visual artist lost his brother Martyn in the Manchester Arena terror attack that rocked the city in 2017, leaving 22 people dead.
Like any artist, the trauma and hurt from such a harrowing and affecting incident has coloured his creative output since then.
Take, for instance, the Twine game c ya laterrrr. It consists purely of Hett’s raw, emotional written account of the immediate aftermath of the attack. The player is forced to make the same decisions as Hett, from finding out about the attack to learning about his brother’s death to the haunting visit to the Manchester Arena.
It might seem like a strange choice to pour such a personal story into a video game – but for Hett, this was his canvas for catharsis.
“I wrote c ya laterrrr just because I wanted to get it down and there was no intention of putting it out. I just got it out of my system,” he tells The Big Issue.
”I would say that if I was a painter or poet and the texture of my work changed because of what I went through, people would understand. But I’m not – I’m a guy who makes video games and what I do with video games now has changed.”
A constant theme of c ya laterrrr is the deluge of messages and requests from journalists throughout that tragic time. That theme gave birth to Sorry to Bother You – a simple game where you have to respond to messages from loved ones and delete requests from journalists on a phone.
Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.
“If I’d written a short story about it, it wouldn’t have had the same landing,” he says. “I can show you more in 30 seconds of gameplay – even in a very cartoony, abstract way – than I can in 10 minutes of telling you what it was like and that, for me, is the power of games, really.”
These two games, along with another project The Loss Levels, dealt with Hett’s grief. Now, more than two and a half years after the attack, that grief has “settled” and the developer is embarking on his most ambitious project yet.
Closed Hands takes the decision-making and written format of c ya laterrrr and applies it to five characters including a journalist, a photographer, an intelligence agent and the father of an attacker involved in a fictional terrorist attack.
Hett believes that now is the time to pull back from his own personal story to analyse the same themes on a grander scale but with a wider scope that aims to answer his own unanswered questions.
“That rawness of ‘I can’t believe this has happened’ has gone away to ‘How did this happen and why?’” says Hett, who has also set up the Survivors against Terror group to help victims as well as supporting his mum Figen Murray in pushing for ‘Martyn’s law’ – forcing venues to assess the risk of attacks. “I couldn’t have done this two years ago because everything was too raw but now all of my questions are about how someone my age went through this process to get to that point. It’s all these questions that are bigger than me now. Closed Hands is trying to express that.”
I play this stuff too and I’m as excited as the next guy to play Doom but there are games that are doing other stuff as well
The “unflinching” Closed Hands received its first public outing at the UK’s biggest games convention, EGX, in October, where it shared the show floor with multimillion-pound games such as Marvel’s Avengers and the new Call of Duty.
“The reason I’m at EGX and not a digital arts festival is because I’m interested in not only taking games to the arts scene,” says Hett. “Half of the audience I’m interested in are people in the arts who don’t realise games can do this and think games are all laser beams and aliens.
“The other half I’m interested in is coming to a games audience and saying: ‘This is all great, I play this stuff too and I’m as excited as the next guy to play Doom but there are games that are doing other stuff as well.’
“If somebody plays Closed Hands and says ‘I never thought of this perspective’ then I’ll be really happy with it.
“It happens in things like cinema with things like Four Lions – it’s hilarious but it does the job in the blackest possible way. It would be great if my game can do even a tiny percentage of that.”
Nobody can make games like Dan Hett – but his work is moving the medium forward so other developers can.
Closed Hands will be available on Windows, Mac and Linux in 2020. A demo is available to play for free alongside Dan Hett’s other games at danhett.itch.io