Drumming to forget the Killing

Horace is a robot, a litte like Star Trek’s Data. Naive, helpful, open-minded and always eager to develop and improve himself. But Horace also enjoys playing video games with his friends and discovering new forms of music and art. And last but not least, Horace is looking for his place in the world and has to discover that he was designed to be a killing machine. And so it happens that this lovable protagonist executes a seemingly innocent old man in the most gruesome way.

I have never been in the position of wanting to forget something and therefore have no clue as to how I would deal with a heavy blow of fate. Stories, however, are full of cruel deeds that their protagonists commit, experience or witness themselves. Common strategies for those traumatized or abused characters seem to be alcoholism, insanity, or a vendetta. Horace resorts to none of those. He plays the drums to forget.

Personally, I find that perfectly plausible: I’ve tried various instruments in my life and they all have something going for them. But my favorite instrument are the drums. The untamed force, the physicality, and the beat you fill the room with – drumming can be a thrill. It’s animalistic escapism, but also complete control. Having control over a wild beast can certainly give you a bit of a foothold when everything else is crumbling.

And Horace’s world crumbles indeed. Without going into the details of the beautifully told story, let it be said that Horace is thrown into a world where everything he knew is lost. Like a child waking up alone after the apocalypse, Horace desperately seeks safety and structure. But because he’s just a robot – and even more because he is so naive – he is also being taken advantage of. A combo of bad decisions, deceptions, and bad luck leads Horace to face a frightened old man who believes he must defend himself. Torn between loyalty, panic, and doubt, Horace kills the man, who cruelly melts away before his eyes. I had been with Horace for quite a bit at this point in his quest of becoming human and now witnessed him lose his innocence. It was a moment straight out of Breaking Bad. And this time I wasn’t just a spectator – I, as the player, led him towards this moment and saw it all coming.

Afterwards, the very human automaton drives silently through the grim streets of a dehumanized world, and the whole game, which until now had been characterized by humor and lightness, heads down a dark path into the unknown. How can it possibly continue from here on? With drums, of course!

After Horace returns with his accomplices, no one is interested in the tin can’s feelings. At best, he was a useful idiot that defused a precarious situation. But then there’s an uninvolved peripheral character. Not a wise old man, an empathetic wife, or any other stereotypical character. It’s someone who doesn’t understand what happened to Horace, but recognizes that he’s hurting. He doesn’t know what would help Horace, but he knows what he himself does when he is miserable. He plays the drums. So he asks Horace if he would like to try it out. Horace feels seen, and his expression lightens a little.

You could put it like this: the killing of an innocent man is followed by a rhythm mini-game. It seems like it could hardly be more inappropriate. But the game Horace paints its characters so carefully that nothing seems more fitting since it is so personal.

And as I press the predetermined keys and focus on the beautifully crisp beat, for a while, Horace and I both forget that harrowing moment when Horace took an innocent life. But we don’t really forget it.

And then, the game goes on.

Like the little android, the game Horace has not received enough attention. Developed over seven years by British developer duo Sean Scaplehorn and Paul Helman, the game is bursting with detail, subtle humor, and pop culture references. Released in 2019 on PC and Switch, it’s not only a highlight of narrative games, but also an amazingly creative platformer. And so much more.

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