When a terrorist attack is depicted in the media, we’re usually right in the thick of it, perhaps following the perpetrator’s movements leading up to the atrocity, seeing the explosion, or perhaps more controversially taking part in it like in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s infamous ‘No Russian’ mission. The truth however is we’re rarely at the centre of it, but on the periphery, trying to figure out what’s going on, confused by a rush of responses, assuming there had been an accident, before the horror eventually dawns. Even once something like this happens, how then is that story told, and through which outlets or commentators?
That’s essentially how Closed Hands’ interactive fiction unfolds, as we follow five different protagonists literally surrounding the ‘Incident’ that occurs in the fictional UK city of Hartwich. The incident is of course a terror attack, but we never see it, four of the characters indeed only find out about it secondhand via their TV, phone or other screen. The closest on the ground is Marcus, who’s just finishing his shift at a shop in the city centre when it occurs, feeling the tremor, the sound and nearby windows shattering. But even here, what’s more important is what he sees and captures afterwards, and what that spirals into.
The rest of the cast – all Hartwich locals – are similarly caught up in the events in different, loosely connected ways. There’s Beth, a journalist getting to the bottom of the story; Farah, an intelligence operative who tracks signs of extremists; Haziq, a Muslim father whose son is discovered as the second attacker; and Mike, who’s been taken in by the far-right group the English Patriots who plan to stoke hate out of the attack with a march.
It might seem strange that, for a deadly attack, the fatalities are only vaguely mentioned as a number and that there’s nothing here about the victims or survivors – though this is most likely because Passenger’s director Dan Hett had actually already told this story before and possibly didn’t want to repeat himself (tragically his brother Martyn was a victim of the 2017 Manchester Arena attack, which was the focus of his free itch game c ya laterrr).
More importantly, Closed Hands wants us to see the bigger picture behind this incident and its aftermath, similar to how Beth has a choice to go deeper into the story rather than just chasing a big headline or reporting the facts, or the way Farah’s methods for tracking extremist activities apply to both sides of the spectrum.
Rather than just reading a story in a linear fashion with the odd branching path, these characters split into different directions and nodes. These are all fairly short and digestible pieces with the option to jump between any perspective at any time. It’s even quite lax about the idea of branching paths, sometimes opening up both possibilities at once while choosing one path never locks out the other option since you can always revisit it.
Even though this is basically an interactive fiction game, it’s also more than just reading blocks of prose, as some pieces mix things up by presenting the story through other formats, such as IMs, social media feeds, chat groups or emails. Better still, these moments are dressed up as if you are that character at their desktop, which immediately had me thinking of how Telling Lies’ non-linear story was also told from someone’s computer. Closed Hands is however even more accessible as you’re not sleuthing, but simply following each thread and node as you choose. That you’re essentially just reading and clicking along also makes this completely accessible for non-gamers, though the depth and scope also makes it a more complex work than the shorter scrappier Twine games you might associate with this genre.
Some of these nodes go deep into the past, so we don’t just get an understanding of a character’s backstory but also Hartwich’s wider socio-historical context, where the city turns out to have also been caught up in riots due to racial tensions some years earlier. The timeline does however get a bit confusing since there are multiple characters, some whose backstory go back further than others, so it’s not always clear where exactly at when a scene is taking place.
Although each character has a specific purpose or theme, they’re not just archetypes but individuals written with incredible nuance. Marcus is more than just a guy whose proximity to the incident suddenly gives him a higher profile; as a person of colour subject to racial profiling and an easy target of harassment, you can understand why he might be conflicted about stepping up and speaking out. Farah is also more than just the analytical procedural part of the story as she’s also a woman of colour frequently coming up against the stuffy old white men in charge.
The biggest surprise goes to Mike, who could have been an easy Tommy Robinson caricature for us to hate. While you’re not going to necessarily sympathise or excuse him, the opportunity to delve into his past paints a more rounded picture of someone who’s a product of his environment and how small mounting prejudices and resentments can easily be exploited by a group that suddenly gives you a sense of purpose and belonging.
I could honestly go deep into each character here but that would spoil things. It’s however worth dipping into the dozens of ‘extra’ perspectives that add another flavour and dimension to a story that’s much bigger than just the incident. Again, the highlights are ones that deviate from straight prose, like a phone conversation to 999 just after the attack or watching a venue’s inbox flood with complaints after word gets out it’s hosting an English Patriots event.
Despite the huge web of threads that make up Closed Hands, there’s not nearly as much choice as you might expect, a lot of the time you’re just given one button to move you to the next scene while a couple of choices might just change the tone of a character’s delivery without altering the narrative, though some of that is deliberate. In a way, it’s less about player agency and more about showing how people get caught up in events bigger than themselves and outside of their control. Given the challenging themes you’ll go through, a few of the endings might seem a bit too neatly wrapped up but you’ll still come away from Closed Hands with the desire to continue asking more questions about how and why extremism exists in our society, and what we can do about it.