Excalibur and the Search for Lost Media

As much as I love interactive fiction in general concept, I haven’t actually explored very many of the web-based hypertext games that make up a huge swath of the genre. There are a few that I’ve really enjoyed, but I find that I often get too easily distracted from text that’s just open in a browser tab—it’s not nearly as easy for me to get immersed in it as it is in something like a downloadable visual novel that includes a soundtrack to immediately set the atmosphere. When I came across Excalibur, however, I knew I had to give losing myself in its universe a try, so I put on the new album Dark In Here by The Mountain Goats, and dove right in. And ironically, since Excalibur imitates the experience of browsing through a wiki site, it probably would have been perfectly fitting to get distracted by other browser tabs for a while and come back to it later—but despite by predilection for that kind of thing at other times, all I found myself alt-tabbing to do was tell a few friends in different group chats “guys, Excalibur rules.”

Written by J.J. Guest and G.C. Baccaris alongside other contributors, Excalibur presents itself as a fan-made wiki for a cult sci-fi television show of the same name about the interplanetary adventures of a crew of escapees from a dystopian Earth. A victim of the BBC’s old policy of re-using video tapes (a true-to-life detail which is the reason for lost episodes of some real shows like the original Doctor Who), Excalibur the show-within-the-story has been completely lost to time, rarely ever acknowledged elsewhere on the internet and existing only in semi-reconstructed format by fans who made their own home recordings and collaborated to fill in missing details from memory. As you explore episode summaries, trivia, and more on the Excalibur wiki, you’ll come across hints at multiple possible explanations for why the show’s existence seems to have been so thoroughly expunged from the memories of everyone except this small group of fans—including conspiracies, curses, parallel universes, and the possibility that the contributors to the wiki are simply confused or lying. But what’s more important than finding a definitive answer to the mystery is what you’ll come to discover about the people who’ve dedicated their lives to the search for answers about it, and the relationships they’ve built with each other in their strange little community online.

It was that aspect of Excalibur that drew me into it so fully, because I happen to have a personal interest not only in “lost media,” but also in the idiosyncrasies of the internet communities that spring up around it. It’s fascinating to watch a group of people come together to pore over obscure search results based on vague memories of something they saw as children—to witness the triumph when they finally find what they were looking for, the surprise when it turns out to be different from how they remember it, or the disappointment and denial if their efforts turn out to be fruitless. I’m still keeping an eye on any developments in the ongoing quest for the nonsensically titled Saki Sanobashi, an allegedly lost horror anime someone described their experience with in a 4chan thread in 2015. After a video by youtuber Whang brought the search to more prominence four years later, someone came forward on reddit with convincing evidence that he had been the original poster, and admitted that he had made it all up; he was trolling. But rather than put an end to the whole story, his confession seems to have only invigorated some members of the community, who became convinced that this new poster was an impostor, and began dedicating even more resources to proving him wrong. Others turned their attentions to creative work, inventing their own renditions of the story as they remember or imagine it. I love to check in on what the Saki fans are up to once in a while, and a part of me hopes that one day their efforts will be rewarded by finding what they’re looking for—but on the other hand, maybe they’ll actually be happier if the search goes on forever.

Excalibur perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of these communities I find so compelling, and it does so at the same time as interweaving several beautifully crafted narratives about the show, its creators, and its fans, full of fun little details and nods to Arthurian legend and other literature. I could have browsed the Excalibur wiki forever, even without the eventual updates that bring some progression to the story. My first playthrough to a conclusion of sorts lasted less than an hour—in fact, it was almost perfectly timed with that album I was listening to—but I woke up the next morning eager to get back to it and uncover anything I might have missed along the way. My favourite character to delve into the details about might have been significant Excalibur superfan Anna “DameDuLac” Sprague, and I was also delighted to uncover that the wiki can send you down plenty of rabbit holes about the most tangentially related subjects, just like browsing any non-fictional equivalent. It’s truly impressive how much passion the writers put into this project.

If you have any interest in lost media, internet fandom, cheesy old sci-fi shows, or just good interactive fiction in general, I highly recommend taking at least a little bit of time to see what the Excalibur wiki has in store. My only minor complaint would be that since the story is programmed in the Twine engine rather than a more detailed simulation of a real website, you can’t just open a link in a new tab, and it’s easy to get lost and forget which page you were planning to read next. But there is at least a “back” button, as well as a home page and several lists of categories that help you find your way around—and I wouldn’t be surprised if the potential for losing track of what exactly you were doing was actually an intentional part of the user experience. It’s a story, after all, about flawed memory and fruitless searches, and about the meaning you can find yourself along the way.

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