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Hands On: Elegy For A Dead World

A Tale In The Desert

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Elegy For A Dead World is undeniably quite a diversion for the developers Dejobaan Games, they behind AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity and Drunken Robot Pornography. It’s an extremely sedate concept, that aims to turn anyone into a storyteller.

Video games increasingly are offering us spaces to be creative, whether it’s within extremely refined systems such as simulators like the Sims, or more lately, sandbox worlds with construction and recipes. But when it comes to writing, that effort tends to be left to the developers. Elegy For A Dead World attempts to flip that around, creating an inspirational backdrop to encourage you to write stories or poetry. Especially if you’re someone who doesn’t consider yourself a writer.

It is, in its delivery, incredibly simple. Controlling a spacesuit-wearing character, you stroll/hover along side-scrolling landscapes, prompted to write your imagined events of what have happened there. Haunting, drifting music, accompanied by a wistful, broken landscape, certainly pushes things toward a more sombre tone, but of course what you write is entirely up to you.

Playing through the updated preview level today, I found myself wanting to tell an ambiguous story of a guilt someone wasn’t going to let change their actions. Someone who, perhaps, causes such devastation to a landscape because of an unnamed need, and lives with the malefaction haunting him. Finish the length of the ‘level’, and it offers to let you save and publish the story, which puts it into the archives for others to discover via Steam. Read another person’s story, and you can choose whether to give it a recommend, meaning liked tales will rise to the top for others to discover.

I first played the game when it was entered into the IGF Awards toward the end of last year, and I think a great demonstration of its effectiveness is how completely differently I approached a story for the same scenario then. The setting may influence tone to some degree, but it really doesn’t confine interpretation, and in that sense it takes gaming into a really unique territory.

The big change I’ve seen since last year’s version is to include a number of different prompts for a landscape. You pick a title for the story at the start, and reaching flagged writing points, it puts up the framework of a sentence for you, letting you fill in the gaps. Sort of madlibs, but presumably intended to be slightly less mad. My instinctive response to it is to not like it – it feels restrictive, and it certainly suggests a greater likelihood of more homogenous results.

But then again, I remember how infuriated I’d get at school when a teacher would say, say, “Write a story about being lost. You could be…” and then go on to list a bunch of ideas that I would then want to mentally cross off a list of potential ideas in my head. It drove me crazy. But that’s my neuroses, and I know that others, when presented with something so vague, would feel paralysed by choice. Such examples are a doorway to creativity. I think this feature will be what makes it fun for some, while annoying others. Importantly, you can delete the pre-existing text, and indeed start the level completely blank, although this option is currently a little too obscure and buried in the list.

When you read someone else’s story, rather than being required to labour through wandering the same scene again (which I think would become a tiresome process when not trying to absorb atmosphere and thinking about your own ideas), they’re displayed like a picture book, the relevant scene cropped and framed, the text below. It’s a lovely, smart way to deliver someone else’s text, and gives it am immediate literary quality.

And there, I think, is where Elegy will really succeed. It’s lovely to write your own short tale, but it can be even more fun to then read how many other people interpreted the same material. Just how diverse it can be, how vividly different from your own their imagination might be. At the moment, obviously pre-release and in a very limited form, there are only a few other entries in there, and nowhere near enough to push the facetious responses to the bottom.

The game is still on Kickstarter, cutting it fine with four days to go, and just over four grand (at the time of writing) still to make. It’s very likely it’ll get there, which will help them to finish painting and animating the remaining worlds, to add more music, and they suggest, even some puzzles.

I really love the ideas behind this project, and I’m intrigued to see if it can all come together to feel like a coherent game, something that can keep me returning to it, especially to hook me in to read others’ stories. They’re aiming to complete it by March next year, so hopefully we’ll find out then.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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