We must celebrate the notion that games can extend beyond the pressed cardboard and molded plastic of their form, reaching out to move us in unpredictable and startling ways. Games can be art and don’t let anyone advise you differently.
So I approached Holding On: the Life of Billy Kerr with wide idealistic eyes. It promises a particular experience, one that my bones yearn for.
Billy Kerr has me in knots. This is a game that asks you to take on the role of a nurse, providing palliative as well as medical care. You’re taking care of Billy’s heart as well as his mind, or rather trying to. He’s a complete stranger at first but he’s soon more than that.
At face value it’s all so simple. You’re digging through a deck of fuzzy memories, trying to restructure Billy’s past and keep the conversation going. His life is offered in shadowed glimpses; a dying man thrashing about on his bed and spitting pieces of remembrance leaving you to document the fever dream. Much of this game is digging through those cards. Digging, digging, and more digging.
At times I felt like this game wasn’t about Billy Kerr, at least not really. Sure his story is wonderfully written and nuanced, but that’s a smokescreen to soften the blow. Billy is really a facsimile of a human being, the player meant to fill in the outline with their own personal trauma and loss. We’ve all been in a room with death. We’ve seen cancer, heart disease, and automobile accidents. It’s all around us and the aftermath is a constant pall.
Like Billy, my own mother had a heart attack last year. In those days following I suspect I may have been more of a wreck than her. My story’s not unusual. We’ve all known pain.
But that’s just one of the many facets of this work.
Billy’s story is full of weight and care and craftsmanship. Effort is not absent from Holding On. Wonderful flourishes abound such as stress tokens literally hanging around the necks of the medical staff, weighing them down in a brilliant collision of theme and form.
You will grow attached to this cantankerous old man. His dialogue can be charming and as you zip between keeping him alive and keeping him talking, there’s a definite connection. This is where the game finds its place, albeit for brief moments scattered across dozens of minutes.
I know you can feel the distress; a sigh becoming words.
There are issues here and they are many.
The first is one of fairness. This game puts you in this twisted gnarl of constantly deciding whether to provide medical or palliative attention to the dying man. The callous duality here of making each option mutually exclusive is punishing. It’s an artificial gimmick that effectively puts the player in an emotional crucible with no exit.
It can feel irresponsible to neglect Billy’s health in order to keep probing his thoughts, and that doesn’t sit particularly well from an angle of thematic consistency. Kindness shouldn’t come at the expense of doing your job.
No matter which option you choose you lose. Either Billy physically deteriorates or he remains emotionally locked away and you don’t progress towards your goal. In this way, the game constantly grinds at our own ethical wall. As we ride the wave of bad day after bad day, you slowly come to realize it’s not simply about Billy holding on. His narratively structured pain becomes our externalized real-world pain. We’re the ones hanging on, day by day, minute by minute.
Billy can feel stubborn as you dig for a particular clear memory. You must draw through many cards just to get to that one you want. It feels as though you’re trying to focus him, rambling in and out of a foggy drug-induced haze. This is wonderful for awhile, and then it’s excruciating.
The primary mechanism of digging through cards and searching disparate thoughts is clever, but it’s painfully dull. It holds up to a scenario or two as you hang on the words and try to decipher what’s going on in that fuzzy image. As you begin to make those portraits whole you slowly become acclimated. Once you work to construct the same memory for the fifth time you become institutionalized. It’s no longer special and his story doesn’t matter, as it the color fades away we’re left with a rather dry and repetitive system that can’t hold the fire.
As you progress through the 10 included scenarios new systems will be added. Unfortunately they’re more of the same and never really stretch the design beyond its artificial walls. There are more decks to randomly dig through and more actions that force you to split your attention and limited nursing staff. The challenge is there but the excitement is not.
For this system to truly work each scenario would need its own entire deck of partial and clear memories. That’s not feasible so we’re left with a patched together casserole of better and worse times that Billy plays on repeat. Like an old relative who can’t help themselves, he tells the same story again and again and you can’t help but smile and nod along.
It’s simply very slow to get where it wants to go. It feels random and capricious at every turn. When digging for specific memories–those actions that feel workmanlike–you may spend resources to focus the conversation and probe more directly, but Billy doesn’t give one hoot. Random event cards will be pulled and he’ll spit in yer eye.
Perhaps the most grievous affront is how apathy combines with a somewhat stingy drip of narrative. I became attached to Billy and his story, but not his game. The most meaningful developments in deciphering his history come from the conclusions of each session, but even here it’s a few sentences of a few words. Worse yet, it feels as though you can deduce much of his background relatively early on, occasionally feeling as though you’re earning information you’ve already intuited.
So I turned my back on Billy. We couldn’t make it. We couldn’t hold on.
I skipped whole scenarios. I bypassed the work and read cards that I didn’t earn. I played a couple of the later scenarios but I mostly had enough and was fine to admit it.
Billy’s conclusion was powerful. I don’t know if it was worth the larger effort, but it did hit me in the gut. I stared at those final few cards for an indeterminable amount of time.
And I’m fine never seeing this man again. I’m fine never shuffling another deck of partial images I’ve partially seen over and over again. I’m fine not stressing the labor of medical care and staffing.
Billy Kerr didn’t make me whole, rather, it stepped into the void and disappeared.