What is a video game? If a game is defined by graphics, sound, and player interactivity, then Trawl certainly qualifies. If a game requires a goal with a beginning and an ending, then, well, the point becomes arguable. But if a game is only a game when there is a challenge to overcome, or adversity to face, then Trawl is surely something else. And in the face of a review, it’s almost unfair to judge it by the conventions of video games.
In its entirety, Trawl takes place on a small boat as it drifts across a nondescript body of water. It’s dark and foggy, and there are no shores or any scenery to be spotted. Rain falls ceaselessly through the night, and your goal is to trawl for objects, using a large net at the back of your boat. When you find three objects, the game disallows you from picking up any more.
You are then encouraged to sit at the typewriter in the cabin and write a story about the three items you found. There are no rules to writing the story, and no right or wrong way to do it. In fact, you can write without collecting the items, or you can finish the game without writing a damn thing. At this point it becomes clear that Trawl is not a game, at least in any traditional sense. Trawl is an interactive creative writing prompt.
Objects are found randomly, and are pulled from a sizable database. I didn’t discover my first repeat until my seventh or eighth playthrough, and my subsequent playthrough had no repeats. That said, some items are very similar, such as a left boot vs. a right boot, or a vinyl record vs. a broken vinyl record. The idea of finding inspiration in the items you discover makes for a novel idea, and it even works.
I wrote a story about a disgruntled barber who drugged victims and locked them in a cage, all based on a straight razor, a hypodermic needle, and a key. It was a thoroughly ridiculous story, but one I never would have thought of if I hadn’t found that set of items. Trawl provides an atmospheric and original approach to writing your own story, and to deciding how the items you found ended up in the water.
To write a story, you sit at the typewriter in the cabin, complete with all the rules of an old fashioned typewriter. Backspace doesn’t work properly, and if you hit the end of a line halfway through a word, you’re stuck with it. And spell-check? Forget about that high-tech futuristic nonsense. There’s no virtual bottle of white-out, so you’re stuck with whatever mistakes you make. When you finish a story, you put the pages in a bottle, and chuck it out over the side of your boat. Doing so saves a copy of your story to a folder, and resets the game.
As a typewriter simulator, this works fine. But if you’re serious about writing a story, it’s a pretty silly way to do it. Microsoft Word or even good ol’ generic Notepad provide technically superior alternatives. Trawl isn’t efficient, but then again it’s not supposed to be efficient. It provides atmosphere and peace and a moment to breathe. The pattering of the raindrops and the clacking of the keyboard are more important to Trawl’s identity than any kind of technical achievement.
But is that really enough? There’s nothing quite like Trawl, but the sum of its parts are easily duplicated. Superior writing prompts can be found with a simple Google search. There are ASMR videos and mp3s that provide focused relaxation, and higher levels of interactivity can be found in almost any other video game on the market.
Even if we forgive Trawl’s differences and accept it for the entity that it is, it still falls short technically. Graphically, models are blocky and basic, and surfaces feature flat colors without texture. The user interface is minimal at best. There’s no way to adjust most of the settings, nor is there a detailed map of the controls. The mouse look can’t be inverted, a controller can’t be used, and you can’t view any of your past writings in-game. There are trophies to earn, but there aren’t even any pictures to differentiate them. Minimalist is one thing, but “atmosphere” is not an excuse for the omission of basic features.
Though I appreciate the ingenuity of the developers in creating an original product, I can’t recommend Trawl. There’s so little content for the asking price, and that content isn’t even top quality. Few people will get more than an hour of enjoyment out of it. As unique as it is, Trawl is so niche and so minimalist that it will appeal to few people, especially long term.