There are quite few games that use the Wretched & Alone system that I want to take a look at, so why not start with the progenitor of of the system: The Wretched by Chris Bissette.
In The Wretched you play as the sole surviving member of the titular spaceship, The Wretcher, after an attack from a nigh unkillable hostile alien. The game starts after you’ve jettisoned the creature out the airlock, though it remains alive and is trying to break back in. You now have two goals: either get the distress beacon back online and survive until help arrives, or manage to get the ship back in working condition and get the hell outta Dodge.
This is a dark game that gets into some heavy content. From the game’s own content warnings, “Some specific content to be aware of: confined spaces, physical injury, solitude and abandonment, death, descriptions of death, hopelessness.” If any of that sounds like too much for you, you’ll want to skip out on this game. However, if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Boy, I sure do wish there was a way to play Alien/The Thing style games.” then this is for you.
A note before going into gameplay. This game comes with a soundtrack! And while I personally was hoping for something a little more ambient, I’m not gonna turn my nose up at game dev approved mood music.
To play you’ll need a six-sided die, ten tokens of some kind, a standard deck of cards with the joker removed, a tumbling tower of blocks (though there are alternatives), and some way to record your thoughts. The game recommends audio or video logs, but written logs will work just fine.
A core mechanic is removing and replacing blocks from your tower à la Jenga. If you’re like me and don’t have access to a block tower the game doc links to a discussion on alternate methods. I went the way of rolling 100 six-sided dice (I recommended rolladie.net) and pulling all sixes from the pool, your shrinking pool of dice acting as a stand in for a progressively off kilter tower. This method is just as tense in my opinion. You quickly go from casually removing 11-16 dice every pull to begging RNGesus that you only lose 2-5 this round.
Each in-game day consists of two phases, the tasks and the log. For the tasks you start by rolling one six-sided die. Whatever your result you pull that many cards, facedown, from the deck. Then, one at a time, you flip the cards over, stopping to consult the operations manual before flipping the next. Each card will describe something you accomplished that day, with some cards calling for you to pull blocks from your tower, others giving slight advantages, and others asking you to simply contemplate on some detail of your survival. The second phase, the log, is when you record all that you’ve done that day. You can be as descriptive, or as short to the point as you feel.
The game has two lose conditions, either your tower falls, representing the failure of your ship’s life support, or you draw all four kings, representing the creature breaching your defences and killing you.
You can play over several sessions, or all in one sitting, which should take you about 30-90 minutes depending on your luck. If you’d like a shorter game place the ace of hearts at the top of your deck, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.
Right when you start the game there’s a short script for you to read for your first log. After I got over the mortifying ordeal of hearing my own voice played back the game was on.
I decided against putting the ace of hearts on top to get a fuller experience of the game. My first few rounds were uneventful, as I roamed the Wretched’s bloodstained halls fixing what I could, while occasionally stopping to reflect on my situation. The water purifiers were among the first to go, and I was stuck drinking ammonia tinged water while I listened to the creature drag itself along the hull of the ship.
Next the climate control started to go. Before I could fix it mold started to spring up on my remaining food stores. While I locked away the spoiled food, desperately hoping I’d caught it before it had time to spread, I recounted to the log how I had survived the attack by hiding in one of these fridges alone.
A few days later, while clearing a potential hiding spot of bodies, the ship’s gravity drive failed, and I had to laboriously drag myself through the ship in zero-G to fix it. Another day wasted. But then, on day ten, a spot of hope. At last I drew the ace of hearts, and with it, was able to repair the distress beacon. I set the card aside, and placed the ten tokens on it. Now after every log I roll my die, and on a result of six I could remove one of the tokens. Once all ten are gone my distress call would be heard, and I would be rescued.
Alas, from then on it’s cascading failure. The next day sewage springs a leak. The day after that malfunctioning doors forced me to spend the day lockpicking. Then, while tinkering with the engine, I heard it.
Something skittering in the air vents up above.
I locked myself in with the spare mining lasers, and stayed there for the rest of the day.
That night the fire suppression system activated while I was asleep. I didn’t hear it go off because I was seeing the creature in my dreams now. It chased me through the ship, and I would wake up before it could catch me, but every night it would get just a little bit closer.
The deck was running low. The creature started to pry off bits of the ship, but I managed to distract it by jettisoning some scrap. Still, the damage was done. My starting pool of 100 dice had been reduced to just one. After my log I rolled for the distress call. Rescue was still days off. I rolled for tasks. Just two cards. I flipped the first one.
It was the final king.
The creature had snuck aboard the ship, and was lying in wait for me under the bodies of my friends.
Take a moment.
The Wretched is a game about hopelessness. It is a game about death and isolation and being made into a prey animal and fear and spaces closing in around you. But it’s also a game about hope, about fighting back, about survival.
Godspeed, flight engineer, may you fare better than I.