When I was a kid, libraries were often Victorian things. Alongside books, they sometimes had funny little exhibits: stuffed owls and old bones and things under bell jars, everything lining the lonely parqueted expanses of paneled corridors and generally in need of a dust. One library I knew in Thanet – the Isle of the Dead! – had a mechanical doll’s house, one wall removed so the skeletal framework of rooms was exposed. Here was mum and dad in the parlour. Here was grandma in the bedroom and baby in her crib. There was a coin slot and a brass switch that triggered a whole bunch of unseen mechanical rumblings and then, when it wasn’t broken, mum and dad would nod their heads over their papers, grandma would sit up in bed and the baby would kick its legs. Maybe there was a dog, too. There’s almost always a dog involved.
The exciting thing was not what these automata did. It was the moment they started to do it – the sudden stirring of the silent and still and fixed and rigid into arthritic, juddering life. A few movements but no more. Mum and dad could nod their heads, but only nod them so far. They were trapped inside the smallest of moments. No wonder really that I have not thought of this family in years. But now Déraciné is here, and I thought about them constantly while playing.
Déraciné is filled with dioramas that come to life, only to perform the tiniest of actions: a bow, the opening of eyes, the lifting of a cap to reveal a bright key underneath. Pull on the PSVR helmet and find yourself two Move controllers, one for each hand. Enter the silent grounds of this old school where a handful of Victorian children live under the blank gaze of a master. This world is very physical, because, once you’re wearing the headset, the place looms around you: ornithology prints, rucks in the carpet, stacks of books and dusty windows. Often, when wandering about, hopping, so as to avoid motion sickness, from one glowing spot to the next, and using face buttons to change directions, you will come upon one of the children, or a golden ghost of them suggesting a past moment, not long since elapsed. They will be very still, fixed and rigid, and then you will investigate and find the little glowing orb that triggers a memory. Maybe they will move a little: a lean, a gasp. They will speak a few words and, from one instance to the next, a story will emerge. Over the course of the four or five hours it takes to play through Déraciné, you will come to know all these children, their quirks, their individual fears and strengths. You will help to prod them through a narrative that’s filled with unusual turns and surprising boundaries between what is possible and impossible, what is in and out of the fictional ruleset. But these children remain automata in the most atmospheric way: unconvincing 3D models, weird hair and teeth, dead eyes, something wrong in the weightless posing of the limbs. Déraciné did not cost too much money to make, perhaps. Perhaps that’s it. But it has also minted a lovely kind of creepiness from its staginess and what I initially perceived as its shortcomings.
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