Interacting With Fictions: Eurydice

By RPS on November 30th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.


RPS friend and ally Leigh Alexander writes a short series about Interactive Fiction. This is part one.

Interactive fiction was my first love, before the arms race. I’m the war bride waiting at the docks for the great return. In the meanwhile, there’s the Interactive Fiction Comp, my annual love letter, the missive that lets me know that the singular creature I adore above all others is still alive and well.

I played many of the contestants in the run-up to last week’s big announcement, and I have four games I want to talk about. Three of them — the one I like best, the one I found the most touching, the one that won overall – placed in the judges’ top three. Then there’s the one that went overlooked.

For today, let’s go with the one I like best; it lets me keep talking about lost love and how bad we want it back.

Eurydice was my favorite overall among the contest entries, and it placed second. Its creator remains anonymous, but it’s so well-written I suspect there’s some storied IF lord or lady behind it (despite the fact the author apologizes for limited programming skills). I hope I find out who made it, so I can thank them for this beautiful little game.

It rewards Greek mythology nerds in particular. Okay, so if you’re a Greek mythology nerd, skip this bit: Eurydice was one of the daughters of the sun god Apollo, a nymph who trod on a venomous snake and died on the day of her wedding to Orpheus, legendary lyrist and son of the muse Calliope. He loved her wildly. Most tragic celebrity wedding in Olympian history, probably.


Famously, the pique of Orpheus’ mourning earned him his way into the underworld, where the god of the dead and his captive wife Persephone themselves wept (for the first time!) and took pity, allowing him to escort Eurydice back to life on one crucial condition – Orpheus could lead her out and back to the upper world of the living, but should he look back over his shoulder only once, even to ensure that she followed, all bets were off. You might guess how that parable ends up (the Bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot’s wife ends up a pillar of salt, holds parallels).
Eurydice-the-game also casts you as a grief-stricken lover in search of the late Celine: You know this from the heartache that bleeds from the spaces in the spare, restrained prose that is the game’s great strength. In its opening room, some of the hooks are without pictures and the empty shelves are a “skeleton”; preying on the text player’s instinct to OPEN everything, investigating the wardrobe leads to the protagonist actually climbing inside, seeking the ghost of Celine’s scent on the clothes that still remain.

Every word of the game is carefully chosen, immersing the player precisely in the cocktail of emotion that is loss – the stiff-jawed endurance, the numbness, the twinges of latent agony that are everywhere like a black river flowing on beneath ice.


It’s poignant, beautiful misery, and yet there are dry aches of wit everywhere: We are, we divine, in the home we shared with Celine and our housemates, where a collection of well-meaning mourners has gathered in the living room (“you could always just retreat,” the game promises). We do not want to have to talk to them, but should the player engage their conversation, the result is a brilliant illustration: Social obligation wars with private grief, discomfort and awkwardness hangs like a pall. We can’t intrude on what they’re feeling, but privately we feel they have no right to invade on our mourning.

Parser-based interactive fiction has faced a major challenge in making mainstream inroads: Even people who ‘get’ the appeal of the form recognize the inherent dissonance between the immersive nature of crafted prose and the frustration of trying to communicate complex objectives to a parser.

Eurydice handles this with masterful delicacy – the basic directives of the game are easily understood, so that the player can navigate them with the organic intuition of a mourner stumbling through a lonesome fog, called inexorably by clear direction like a timeless widower plodding hungrily for the underworld. Every excruciating detail, from an “anaemic”, lonesome early winter light to the infuriating haze of living room chatter enforces the player’s objective clearly.


You want Celine back. You need her back. “Other places lie elsewhere,” the game handwaves bleakly as it urges you to a river, a “snake of moving darkness.” At its bank, a boatman.
In your room you’d picked up a lyre you can’t recall ever having owned. Getting it now?

The game takes players on an exquisitely-paced journey to a surreal and haunted infirmary that acts like the land of the dead. Where Eurydice truly excels is what it does with this relatively-simple framework – there are a few different endings, and it takes a crafty and persistent player to discover them all. Play it a lot – and most of all, like a quest to defy death, when it tells you no, don’t let it.

I’ve played it many times now, and its sensitivity to detail is such that I discover some new and haunting affordance every time. There are shades of Silent Hill 2 overhanging it in that the fate of our heroine lies in exploring the game world for what isn’t said – what kind of hospital ward is this, who were these inscrutable wandering ghosts to her?

I love Eurydice not only because it’s an impeccable little piece of IF, but because it illustrates the frightening and brilliant potential of the medium to actually illuminate and enrich our experience of lore and literature, to my mind a better objective for the form as a whole than to aim for some artificially-intelligent, infallible parser system. For this one, very simple commands let the player access surprising breadth and depth.


The game should be commended for its understated narrative consistency throughout, its willingness to play subtly with the player’s hope in the face of a mad and impossible quest as with the strings of a lyre.

The myth of Orpheus was intended to be a cautionary tale against defying the Gods and the natural order – the subtext suggests that one who truly deserved his bride would have been eager to die with her. The classic tale mocks the sin of seeking a go-around in the course of life and death; the game brings into breathless relief what a common and natural urge that is.
I’ll be looking at a few more of the IF Comp entries in the days ahead – meanwhile, please read my Gamasutra feature from earlier this year on why I think the present climate’s more favorable than ever for an IF revival.

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30 Comments »

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  1. onetruepurple says:

    Three words: Don’t Look Back.

  2. AJLange says:

    Thanks for writing this. It really is a lovely game and I hope more people check it out based on your review.

    When the game went up in the comp, it had a little blurb (now gone) that said something like “This is a short game about grief. Yeah, whatever.” So I had the feeling that the author was somehow embarrassed about the game and thought it wasn’t good enough or too personal to release. I hope now that they’ve seen it lauded they feel better about this.

    • rawrty says:

      I love that RPS covers IF from time to time.

      I sample the entries in ifcomp from year to year, but I tend to look for games that resemble some of the old Infocom classics (Lost Pig from 2007 is one of my favorites in this style). Every now and then I happen upon one that surprises me by pushing the genre in a different direction and turns into something special. Eurydice sounds like just one of those and I probably would have missed it entirely if not for this piece. I’ll definitely be giving it a go later this evening.

      • epoxy putty says:

        This year’s winner, Andromeda Apocalypse, is very similar to Planetfall, just so you know.

  3. Premium User Badge

    maninahat says:

    I had a go and immediately got stuck trying to figure out how to go up or down stairs. Apparently “go down stairs” isn’t clear enough. Nor is “go to the ground floor”.

    I shouldn’t play these games, I find them incredibly frustrating. Especially in the ones where I do make any actual progress, only to inevitably get stuck in a situation that probably has some absurdly simple solution, but won’t accommodate all the absurdly simple suggestions I make.

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      Faldrath says:

      Basic “move” commands usually go like this: n(orth) w(est) s(outh) e(ast) u(p) d(own). Combinations like ne, or sw, are also possible. “Examine” is also common: “x wardrobe”. Then you “take” things, or “talk to” people, or check your i(nventory).

    • Premium User Badge

      Lambchops says:

      Me too. It took me several goes until I realised that a simple “go up” or “go down” did the job after having tried “go upstairs” “go up stairs” “use stairs” “climb stairs” “go to living room” etc.

      I want to enjoy IF, I really do, and I understand people can’t think of everything but if something that is relatively simple becomes slightly frustrating I naturally assume that there will be further frustration lying ahead.

      Not to be completely negative, from the review it sounds like an interesting concept (I really like the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and have the urge to listen to Anais Mitchell’s wonderful Hadestown again) but I think the interface of IF just isn’t for me I’m afraid.

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        maninahat says:

        I think there is a way around it though. Simply have a word soup of verbs at the bottom of the game. That way, if you want to climb stairs, just select the “go up” verb. That way, I won’t spend ages imputing the incorrect (but perfectly valid) directions. Considering every action in the Monkey Island games could be boiled down to 9 verbs, it seems do-able. The only typing needed would be to specify the object.

        • Leigh Alexander says:

          Here’s an important tip that might help you if you’re frustrated by the language IF requires — Eurydice, like most modern IF I play, includes the ability to type “HELP,” and it’ll explain to you in plain language what kinds of directional commands it does and does not understand.

          Most IF authors these days even customize those menus to the game in specific, in case there are special commands. Writers understand the quirks of the parser aren’t innate to everyone and it’s common for them to implement provisions designed to teach you.

          It’s like any other kind of game: Easy to grasp once you learn the controls.

          • girard says:

            What those built-in tutorials won’t help you with is the many times when, say, you need to “shake” your jacket, but inexplicably, you need to use the word “rip” (and NOT “tear”) to do so. Or when you want to interact with one of the few objects explicitly indicated in the sparsely adorned gamespace only to be told you don’t see what you were just told you saw. Find-the-verb is to be expected in these games to some extent, but not when the “right” verb doesn’t actually describe the resulting action – an action which involves a verb you HAVE tried but that wasn’t implemented!

            This game is peppered with numerous mechanical issues/omissions that I found irksome even as someone who has been playing IF for over a decade (I’m surprised to see it lauded for an attention to detail – it’s really sloppy), and those, combined with the florid, freshman-fiction prose (which I will admit is a subjective failing, and might work for other people – but it felt like the language used wasn’t conveying anguish so much as presenting a catalogue of overwrought, “clever,” but cliched synonyms and similes for anguish) made it a real clunker to me.

            I’m currently working through the top 5 from the competition, and so far the first two (and worryingly, the TOP two) have been really disappointing, evincing most of the weaknesses of contemporary IF and none of the strengths. That said, I’ve just started Guilded Youth and am already finding it charming and well-written, so I still have hope that there will be a few gems this year!

  4. Bob says:

    I don’t know if Interactive Fiction is for me, although as Leigh Alexander writes so beautifully I’ll certainly read the the rest of the series.

    Jeez RPS, you certainly enlist people who can paint pictures with words.

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    AmateurScience says:

    I have a looong train journey tomorrow, haven’t tried IF for a while. I shall give this a whirl, beats marking lab reports anyway.

  6. MistyMike says:

    Not a fan. Calling text adventures ‘interactive fiction’ is a bit like calling comic books ‘visual novels’, it’s a term meant to make the genre look more serious. Also the IF moniker serves as an excuse to minimize interactivity and puzzles. A text adventure is only as good as its parser which needs to be robust and feature a lot of custom messages for unusual actions (like the Infocom and Legend classics used to), the IF ones are notoriously basic.

    • datom says:

      What? Modern IF has much more innovative and responsive parsers than the Infocom classics. Some games are entirely built around the parser.

      This seems a strange complaint, in an area that has developed the furthest since the Infocom era.

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    Faldrath says:

    I’ve just played it, I got what’s probably the most common ending, and… wow. This is beautiful. Thanks for posting this.

  8. bill says:

    I can’t say I hugely enjoy IF, but I do feel that they can be much more varied and ambitious in terms of the themes and stories they approach. Hopefully this will filter into more gamey games and we’ll have a few less stories about space marines and killing foreigners.

    • karthink says:

      I only play the winners in each IFComp and the themes have been unbelievably varied, in terms of both the setting of the game to the puzzles and the mechanics.

      Taco Fiction is completely different from Violet is completely different from Lost Pig is completely different from Floatpoint.

      And for a gamey game created as Interactive Fiction, you should try Gun Mute. It’s charming.

  9. captain nemo says:

    Interesting. I’ll give this a go

  10. Prokroustis says:

    This was beautiful. Thank you.

  11. JP says:

    FYI, RPS readers: FreeIndieGames editor and guest RPS writer Porpentine has an incredible game in IFComp called “howling dogs”… play it and check out what Emily Short had to say about it:

    http://emshort.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/if-comp-2012-howling-dogs-porpentine/

  12. Kein says:

    Too heavy language for non-native readers to actually read and understand what is this article about. I’m losing anything of value?

    • El_Emmental says:

      As a non-native too, I kinda struggled a little bit on some sentences, like these:

      – “You know this from the heartache that bleeds *[ from the spaces in the spare ]*, restrained prose that is the game’s great strength.”

      – “the stiff-jawed endurance, the numbness, the twinges of latent agony”

      – “Social obligation wars with…” (I didn’t know “war” could be verb)

      – “Parser-based interactive fiction has faced a major challenge in making mainstream inroads: Even people who ‘get’ the appeal of the form recognize the inherent dissonance between the immersive nature of crafted prose and the frustration of trying to communicate complex objectives to a parser.”
      (ok, now re-reading it again I think I got this, I think it’s the lack of comma and the word “parser” that confused me)

      – “bleaky”, “affordance “, “breadth” (vocabulary… I should read some books in english)

      ps (to the author): I love to read some more complex and elaborate english, don’t butcher your next posts, be even more audacious instead ! :)

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