The arrival of a long-awaited ship can signify the fulfillment of a great many promises: the return of an expedition, a trade mission, or of loved ones. The incoming vessel bridges the vast divide of the ocean, if only momentarily. A moment full of potential.
That potential is full of uncertainty. We think we have an idea of how events will play out, but we are not sure of anything in life. We have to make do with that limit to our control, however much we may dislike or fear it.
On August 11, A Ship Sailed into Port, a recent game by Cameron Kunzelman, is about making do. The titular ship gently approaches the harbour of a city, accompanied by a bittersweet piano score by Jack de Quidt, who also worked on Castles in the Sky. The music bobs along with the ship on the waves. We don’t control the ship. We just wait for it to come in.
In the mean time, we go about our job: editing an online news publication. There’s only so many resources to go around, and we have to decide which features to run prominently. Celebrity gossip will probably draw in the most clicks and ad revenue, but some of the more serious news items perhaps warrant our attention as well. After all, isn’t that our duty as journalists? These decisions can be tough, and we don’t know how they will pay off in the long run. Do we sacrifice journalistic integrity in order to make rent? These are the realities of the online publishing business.
This aspect of the game vibrates at the same frequency as the themes of labour and capitalism in Cart Life or Kentucky Route Zero, for example. We’re seeing more games about people trying to make do. It’s sometimes difficult to bear, because the theme of ‘sink or swim’ is familiar to many of us. Ultimately, though, these are realities that need to find artistic representation in games. Contemporary troubles in a contemporary medium.
Near the end of On August 11, A Ship Sailed into Port, our journalists discover news of the worst kind. An impending disaster threatens the city. This is our chance to do something before it is too late.
But it’s already too late. While the ever so gentle music keeps flowing, people die. Could the disaster have been averted? Did any of our choices really matter? We don’t know.
The arrival of a ship can spell a doom that no one expects. An empty ship glides along the quays of Delft, without a crew to dock it. The helmsman is dead at the wheel. People ashore wonder what happened to this ghastly ship, as the vessel is connected to the shore. Instead of wares, rats swarm across the divide, and the ship brings but one lover: that final one.
When all is lost, when the time of choices is behind us, we are finally free. We celebrate and make the most of the time we have been given. We feast and dance on the market square, thankful for the little things. This work by Kunzelman and De Quidt is small, but I am thankful for it. It offers us a hand, an invitation to accept our limits.
Film stills from Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1978).