Excalibur

by J. J. Guest profile, G. C. Baccaris profile, and Duncan Bowsman profile

2021

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Number of Reviews: 7
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A rumination on memory, in wiki form, April 12, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Excalibur is somewhere between odd duck and rara avis. Created by a murder’s row of talent, it’s a Twine game built as a fan-wiki for a low-budget BBC space opera from the 70s. There’s some dynamism to it, with a few additional links and comments opening up as you read through the entries, and a sequence that’s more or less an ending. But there’s no puzzle-solving beyond what’s happening in the player’s own head, as they browse through the wiki and mentally assemble each individual jigsaw piece into a mental model of what was going on with the show.

Excalibur’s success, then, is all down to how enjoyable it is to read each of its pages and engage with the questions it raises. Happily, it is a success. There’s an enormous amount of craft on display in how the authors’ have conjured up this two-season wonder, spanning not just plot summaries and character bios, but also backstage drama like writer/director clashes, special-effects mishaps, and more. My upbringing was about 15 years too late and 3,500 miles too occidental to fully appreciate all the references, but I know enough about Windrush and the coal miner’s strike to tell that the story is cannily situated in its time and isn’t just a classic Dr. Who send-up (though I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of that here too).

Of course, just methodically clicking through cast and crew listings for a nonexistent show could get a little dull, no matter how many finely-crafted details and in-jokes there are to find (the Russian-language poster for Terrovator – or “Death Lift” – made me laugh). In a well-considered move, there’s an element of creepypasta to proceedings too, which provides some of the most immediately engaging stuff. As you browse the entries, you come across hints that there could be something odd about the fact that no recordings of the show still exist, or that some of the accidents that plagued the cast and crew had to do with the incorporation of a ritual in the series one finale.

I’ll say that little of this struck me as super original – perhaps I’m biased because I live about three miles from Jack Parson’s old house – and I thought the way the “trivia” and “fan theory” pages spelled out many of the mysteries was less effective than it would have been to just let the player notice this stuff and come up with their own ideas. But overall, this element definitely does the job of providing the sugar-coating that entices the reader to do a comprehensive dive through the wiki (I especially enjoyed figuring out what was up with the crossing-guard and tracking down his comments).

What’s ultimately more compelling is that in amongst all the speculation about whether the show is a (Spoiler - click to show)tulpa and what exactly happened to Old Alfie, Excalibur engages intelligently with the role nostalgia plays in our culture and interrogates the impulses that give rise to these kinds of massive fan-projects. One key perspective comes from the writings of a French existentialist who consulted and wrote a few of the show’s scripts, including one where the character’s experiences seem to presage future developments and even mirror those of their off-screen counterparts ((Spoiler - click to show)Bleak Planet):

"Vaillant defines ‘haunting’ as the ineluctable repetitions of immaterial, atavistic terror birthed by the machinations of human consciousness. In this view, humankind is doomed to face a ceaseless mockery at the hands of its own creations."

He ultimately espouses a radical ethic of forgetting, and in the cast interviews that are some of the last pieces to open up, you can see some of them coming round to this approach too (there’s some in-show mirroring of these ideas too in how the Lethe Ray is used in the final episodes). And the game doesn’t shy away from portraying the negative side of obsessive fandom, largely through the gatekeeping, nerd-raging character of Ian Newell. At the same time, this pro-oblivion theme doesn’t exhaust what’s in Excalibur, not just because of the obvious love and dedication that went into making it, but also in the experiences of the less-crazy fans and the positive connections they’ve developed out of their devotion to this deeply weird (Spoiler - click to show)and possibly made up show. The urge to reify our memories through a shared cataloguing has taken on the very specific form of the fan-wiki at this particular moment in late-stage capitalism – and yes, there’s politics in Excalibur too – but it’s also recognizably the same urge as leads to story-telling at a funeral. The game cues up the difficulty of finding the balance between remembrance and forgetting, a very human dilemma, even as it comes down more strongly on one side than the other.

I noticed a few technical niggles with the game (the “Television Series” category link at the bottom of the “Excalibur (TV Series)” link doesn’t work, nor do any to the character page of Chanticleer) and some typos and inconsistencies (the audio archive page mistakenly lists series two episode 13 as a second episode 11, the Lodestar One page says it should be included in the “Derivative Works” category but it’s not actually listed, and one of the trivia entries for the episode Oneironaut says it was directed by Goulding, when obviously it was really LaGomme). I was also able to sequence-break by accessing the series two episode summaries before they officially unlocked (via the wiki-maintainer’s profile page). Though given that this is meant to be an amateur, fan-driven effort, perhaps all these errors are diegetic! Again, there’s a smart alignment of form and function that means even mistakes help draw the player in rather than drive them away. Excalibur’s great accomplishment is to conjure up a richly realized alternate world in which to get lost, while raising more than enough interesting reflections for when we return to the real one.