Eidolon Diary: Diarising Eidolon

Eidolon is a beautiful survival game inside which John starved to death on video back in August. We asked Jack de Quidt, writer for The Tall Trees, to live a little longer and write a little more about his experiences with the game.

When you first open up your journal in Eidolon you’re met with wonderful, terrifying blankness. You have no objective. You have no map. You have nothing in your inventory. There are spaces for these things, but they’re utterly empty. One icon in particular drew my attention – a little hand-drawn pencil that opened a tab with a single blinking cursor. I closed my journal. I looked out at the landscape. I opened my journal again.

I find myself in a dreary and beautiful landscape of which I know little about.

Eidolon is a game about uncovering mysteries. It disguises itself as Proteus, perhaps as a survival game in the vein of Day Z, but at its heart it’s something unique. It’s Candy Box, it’s A Dark Room, it’s the discovery of secret doors in houses you thought familiar. This means there are going to be some minor spoilers, though I’m going to keep almost all of its surprises secret. I walked down the hill.

At the base of the hill is a quiet lake.

I’ve found a fishing rod. Who left it beside the lake?

I wasn’t role playing – as it stands there are around 70 in-game pages of notes and none of them talk about how wet my feet are from walking through the marshes or how good blackberries taste. Instead I tried to take notes based on how I was feeling, sitting late at night on the floor with some beer, a proxy explorer. That’s why, occasionally, we get notes like:

I ate 40 blackberries by accident.

Because I did.

Eidolon’s survival mechanics are, for the most part, pretty gentle. They’re the punctuation as you move through the world, stopping occasionally to make a camp –

Startled by the rediscovery of my own campfire.

– or catch some fish:

Awoke to beautiful blue fog. Could barely see other side of Lake. Fished, cooked fish.

Occasionally my notes become slightly panicked as I run out of stuff to eat, but in comparison to other survival games which essentially hit you with a hammer as soon as you get a little peckish, Eidolon taps you on the shoulder and says “how about a snack?”.

Need to head south over a mountain to another lake, then southwest from there.

Eidolon revels in walking and exploration. The gameworld is enormous, with distances rendered comparatively realistically. It takes a long time to get from one place to another, and probably the majority of my notes are about my struggles and processes to get to where I want to go.

I’ve found some sort of map, hand drawn, of the local area.

The maps, and there are several, are all diegetic. You don’t appear on them at all, instead having to work your position out through landmarks and lakes and the bands of rolling hills.

I believe I’ve found my location on the map. It is getting sunsetty. My plan is to follow the river down from the easterly lake I am at to goodness-knows-where.

My heuristic at this point was to pick an interesting looking place on the map and go there.

Still raining. A little hungry. Will eat a fish.

It was beautifully mundane. The world is gorgeous, pastelly and impressionistic – fat polka dot clouds scud gently across vast skies, forests roll away into darker forests.

The pines I saw looming on the mountain descent were small, perfectly shaped pine “bushes”. They are cute and small and I wish I saw more of them.

Sometimes I encountered things in the wilderness.

An object on the ground some distance away.

Sometimes my discoveries were fun.

It was a little fox! Maybe this was the coyote I heard. I am reassured and starving.

Sometimes my discoveries were assuredly not fun. One of my notes just reads:

i got attacked by a horrible cat.

(I never encountered Horrible Cat again. There was, however –

Saw a bear and ran away.

And –

I can see either a deer or one of those Horrible Cats some distance ahead. It certainly has hooves. I don’t think Horrible Cat had hooves.

It’s probably still waiting for me.)

The primary antagonist of the game was (and still is, it hasn’t changed) The Spectre Of Getting Lost. Lots of games have tried to nail Getting Lost as a mechanic, but I’ve never seen it achieved as comprehensively and terrifyingly as in Eidolon.

I think I’m walking back towards where I began. This had better be worthwhile. I do hope I haven’t read the map/compass wrongly.

Cartography is not my strongest suit.

When I start descending I’ll know for sure I’m on the right track.

Concerned I’m reading my compass wrong.

I became obsessed with my inability to read a compass.

I don’t think I am. I hope I’m not. Will double check.

Checked again, definitely heading in the right direction.

That occurs seven notes before:

Fear I’m off track in a big way.

I imagine that to some people this feels too much like a chore. I’ve always loved maps inside and outside of games and the idea of treating an open world as a great spatial puzzle was what first drew me to Eidolon. Besides, when it pays off, it pays off magnificently. Burying yourself in a landscape, muddling and calculating and inching your way through it means that when something even slightly amazing happens, it’s A Whole Thing.

Oh my god the stars have come out.

At night I’d often set my course with the compass and walk looking directly up at the sky. Occasionally I’d pass beneath the canopy, or under the branches of tall bushes before emerging out into a clearing with the stars arching wide above me. Your first night in Eidolon, Horrible Cats permitting, is a certified Video Game Experience.

But even still, this isn’t Eidolon, not yet. What exactly the game is unfolds itself to you piecemeal, each revelation arriving just before it feels you’ve been exploring too long. Your first clue comes when you open your journal and find that alongside your paper notebook is a slick grey tablet like thing called a Luxe Device. It has a little signal indicator in the top left that (as far as I can tell) doesn’t seem to change and ostensibly seems to track your status effects. It’ll tell you when you’re hungry, or too cold, or ill.

Emblazoned in the centre of the device, though, is a warning that says “Due to your distance from a beacon, your vitals are subject to extreme changes, including death”. No context is given, but the first piece of the puzzle is already nestled within your journal.

The inventory objects that I acquired at the start of the game were represented in the world as tiny white glowing cubes, hovering at eye level. Collecting one gave me a fishing rod, or a compass, or a bow, or:

Binoculars! There were binoculars on top of the watchtower. I am so happy about this.

The first time I saw a green cube, then, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Two flashing lights. Strange bird sounds. One of the lights looks green – perhaps another map?

The lights are opposite each other across a small cold river.

I picked the green cube up.

A letter. From the year 182.

Letters, let’s be honest, have existed in games before now. Most recently, Gone Home basically put us down in a Letter and Note Storage Facility and let us go wild. What struck me most about this was not just its rarity – I’d already been playing for an hour and a half, quietly exploring – but its style. The letter begins:

“Its been half a moon sins we left our blood in the storm & shadow of nite…”

It continues, introducing new ideas so thick and fast that my notes afterwards struggled to keep up.

Somebody fleeing some other people, a community, her name’s Ada? In a group with others. She’s tracking myths or stories, can’t find any in the ruins (?) that she finds.

This is a lot of new information to me.

She says she’s heading west to find “great skeletal leviathans” in the hope that they “hold their answers”.

The difference that this immediately made on the landscape around me was profound.

The landscape has changed now, knowing of skeletal leviathans and people fleeing others through these pines, down this river.

A couple of pages later I write.

Concerned now by the noise and light my campfire makes.

Below the letter in my inventory, I found two small buttons. One said “Ada”, and one said “Oldtown”. Clicking each button caused a glowing light to be emitted, presumably from my Luxe device, and go dancing off among the trees.

It took me a long time to work it out – Eidolon’s world is so vast that testing theories takes a while – but these green lights lead you to the nearest relevant thing within the world. Each discovery you make has similar keywords, and as the world around you blossoms with narrative you pingpong around the map from character to character.

A house, completely swallowed by blackberry bushes.

There’s so much I wish I could tell you, mundane and exciting. The moment I realised that the clock on my Luxe that I’d been navigating by had been entirely broken all this time. When I saw that my map had writing on it, among the trees.

When I caught sight of – something – vast, colourful, game changing through the darkness ahead of me. When I read about the cats. When I found the bridge. Danica Hemberly and Anders and MHZ and #FiveYearsGone.

But I can’t – I can’t because to talk too much about them would be to rob this wonderful, strange game of its power, and also because I am still so far from finishing it. Last time I played, the game’s plot took a swerve to a place that I would never have guessed, but looking back seemed entirely plausible.

When you sleep in the game, you dream about eidolons. Every night. These dreams manifest as four line stanzas drawn at random from Eidolons by Walt Whitman.

Dreamt of earth eidolons.

say my notes, and the next night I close my eyes and, in stark letters on the screen, dream:

“Of every human life,
(The units gather’d, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed, left out,)
The whole or large or small summ’d, added up,
In its eidolon.”

Jack de Quidt is a writer and composer for The Tall Trees and co-creator of Castles In The Sky, a videogame wot RPS has written about previously.

You can read more Survival Week articles over here.

32 Comments

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    Thanks for this. A lovely piece. Eidolon is a flawed game, IMO – I really think the actual survival, the mechanics of not being dead, is pretty pointless – but I cannot stress enough how astonishingly good the writing is. Not flawless, and if you’ve read any post-apocalyptic fiction you’ll have seen many of the ideas it deals in, but it’s still some of the best writing there’s ever been in a videogame of any description and it would make a wonderful little linked short story collection in its own right. It is also amazing how gently, subtly and skilfully it ties in with the poem – the writing itself, the landscape, the world the developers have created. It is wildly literary and intelligent and yet not in the slightest bit pretentious (EDIT: As in unlike, say, Braid IMO, Eidolon wears its aims and ideals on its sleeve and clearly and concisely measures up to them all. Its thematic aims and ideals, at least.)

    I guess it was never going to be a huge success and I can totally understand why a lot of people wouldn’t get much out of it but I still think it’s a crying shame the game’s basically flopped. :(

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    yhancik says:

    Yes this pretty much echoes my own enjoyment of Eidolon – it’s been one of my favourite recent gaming experience.

    I can understand how the “light survival” bothered some people, but I enjoyed it that way – it’s not realistic, it’s not “challenging” but it fits in the whole experience (and actually participate to it).

    • Eight Rooks says:

      I disagree that it adds anything. Gather a few bits of tinder, sit by a body of water, catch about a hundred fish, cook them, there, you’re basically sorted for the next fifteen or twenty hours. Sleep when it’s dark, avoid the animals, only cross rivers at their narrowest, you’re simply never going to die. It becomes an annoying routine rather than any kind of discipline. I honestly think the developers’ time would have been better served ditching the survival element entirely, putting more world detail in and pitching it as a pure walking simulator. It’s already much, much better than Dear Esther et al as it is – why not take it all the way?

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        yhancik says:

        I agree it becomes a routine, and I think that’s the nice thing about it.

        I think you agree with me that actions in a game don’t all/always have to be a challenge. You’re indeed never going to die, because it’s not the point, I think. In the same way that cleaning the blood at the beginning of Fahrenheit wasn’t a challenge with penalties, just a very mundane activity (well, except it’s blood, okay :p) that puts you in the shoes of the player character.

        That’s how I experienced it, though. Maybe it helps that I never really expected it to be a survival.

        • Eight Rooks says:

          But the survival does nothing to put you in anyone’s shoes, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t have a body, and as far as I know the game has nothing in it to say who you are (not really a spoiler, the game has no ending, even when you’ve picked up all the story fragments). It isn’t remotely realistic and it takes, what, thirty seconds of thinking about it to see how unrealistic it is? It’s just a placeholder, a mistake they didn’t correct – after all, they were originally going to have the green cubes be pieces of paper etc. before they thought that’d be silly (how did they survive for hundreds of years), so they just changed them into floating dots of light. The survival elements just feel like things they left in because, well, gotta have something to do, right? Or else you’d just be walking around everywhere. I applaud Jack’s skill in writing down how he felt about it, but I still think it’d be a better game if they removed it altogether. Put it this way – I would not play Eidolon without the stories. I don’t think the world and its rules are remotely detailed enough to stop me getting bored after maybe a couple of hours. I’d happily carry on playing if they snipped the survival out, even if they didn’t put anything else in.

          • TimePointFive says:

            The Long Dark is the game you’re looking for. Here’s hoping they flesh out the story modes nicely, because they nailed open-world wilderness survival.

          • Eight Rooks says:

            Replying to myself because your reply is too far down the tree – I also own The Long Dark. ;) I like it, though I worry that’s potentially too weighted towards hardcore survival, and there’s no real writing in there yet so I can’t compare the two. I still like Eidolon a whole lot, though! There’s no way it would be a potential game of the year for me, but it’s definitely one of the highlights – I repeat, I think the writing is absolutely amazing at times. It’s “just” post-apocalyptic fiction, sure, but it’s brilliantly done and the cumulative effect along with the setting is often extraordinary. I wouldn’t play the game without the writing, but I think the writing does gain a lot by being in a game.

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    Aerothorn says:

    Whatever flaws Eidolon may have, I think we can all agree that it criminally undersold. I can’t find the blog entry, but the creator wrote up a sales postmortem where it sold 1800 copies.

    1800.

    That’s family-and-friends numbers. That’s *nothing*. I cannot name a single commercial game that has ever sold that little, and even in the digital indie space that’s peanuts. That’s “now I’m starving to death and can no longer make video games” money, except the creator somehow lives in the Seattle area on $13,000 a year.

    I guess this shows the importance of marketing, but I don’t really get it. There is no title on the market like Eidolon, it is, if nothing else, distinct – and in a world where the overwhelming majority of games, good and bad, are derivative of other games, doesn’t that mean something?

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      JimmyJamNYC says:

      I agree. I bought the game based on John’s prior playthrough and it’s a little gem. 1800 copies is ridiculous.

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      yhancik says:

      Do you have a link to said post-mortem? This is sad news!

      • Eight Rooks says:

        It was on Gamasutra, but the link doesn’t seem to be working, and while their search does show it as a result the link won’t load for me. He – Kevin Maxon, one of the leads at Icewater – got some people angry because he explicitly said he’d made the game while pretty much skimming the breadline, living on the bare minimum and getting a bunch of people to contribute work for nothing, and several of the replies insisted it must have been a con job or something otherwise immoral. To be fair Icewater seem to have been students straight out of game design courses and he, at least, did come off as a touch naive – on the other hand, some of the responses seemed to basically imply that even if you get people willing to work for you like that, you shouldn’t accept, and I’m not sure I think that’s always the case (unpaid internships/paid in exposure, sure, that’s bad, a bunch of people doing it for the love… maybe not?)

        • MasonB says:

          I think the fact that it was a collective revenue share model makes it better. If you read the link he says that people knew up front that it was revenue share, and that the other people were part time (i.e. they were doing this on the side and had other ways to support themselves).

          • Eight Rooks says:

            Oh, yeah, I didn’t mean I thought it was bad – I read the blog entry when it first went up, and I thought the people jumping on him seemed awfully… draconian about it? Like I said, they made it sound as if to accept that little money was always bad, no matter what the circumstances, and I couldn’t really agree. Just saying that Kevin’s responses did come off as a bit… wounded kid who can’t see why anyone could possibly be alarmed.

        • TimePointFive says:

          What I’m most surprised by is this being made by a 10 person team. I thought it was much leaner; look at the two brothers who made Miasmata AND their own engine…

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Much as I love it I don’t agree it’s wholly, or even in large part original. You’re wandering around a large, empty landscape composed of intentionally lo-fi, stylised art, looking at things for the love of it, picking up pieces of a story, deciding what order they fit together in and What It All Means. I don’t mean it as a criticism, necessarily, but if that’s not Dear Esther mashed up with Proteus I’m not sure what would be. It’s more than the sum of its parts, sure! But you can still clearly see what those parts are.

  4. cqdemal says:

    This is my favorite game of 2014 so far and, by a country mile, the best “walking simulator” I have ever had the privilege of playing.

  5. Canadave says:

    I really need to start playing Eidolon again. And I do mean start again, as on my first time playing I smartly decided that I should shoot an arrow at a bear to see if I could kill it. Several arrows and one mauling later, I found myself injured and feverish, and proceeded to limp, bleed, and vomit my way across the Pacific Northwest for a time. Needless to say, it got a bit tedious, so I think I really ought to just take it from the top again. And that I should really stay away from anything large and furry.

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      Aerothorn says:

      I don’t want to put any spoilers in public comments, but…there would be absolutely no benefit to restarting. Don’t do it.

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    Harlander says:

    I don’t know how this passed me by, it sounds pretty delightful

  7. captain nemo says:

    I was surprised how much I enjoyed this, that putting together the jigsaw pieces of other people’s lives was so engrossing. Hearing the call of a bird of prey in the distance would also pull me onwards.

  8. Christian says:

    This sounds really great, I have no idea how I missed this (maybe because I have yet to watch an RPS-video-feature?). And for 15,- ($) this might really be worth it.

    Although after reading the mostly positive reviews of Proteus, buying it and being so bored I quickly uninstalled it I’m a little unsure.

    Has anyone tried this game, Proteus and Salt (I quite enjoyed the demo) and can tell me how it compares to those two?

    • captain nemo says:

      I’ve tried Proteus as well as Eidolon. I find Proteus a kind of abstract musical instrument puzzle (with a little walking). Although the graphics are quite abstract in Eidolon, I got sucked into the world, enjoying the gradual reveal of what happened to the people and the place. It also can take a *long* time to walk to a destination in Eidolon. You need to like walking simulators.

  9. Chaz says:

    I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with Eidolon so far. Still got loads to discover simply because the scale of the world is so vast. Don’t be fooled by the Proteus style graphics as it really does manage to capture the awesome scale of your surroundings, be it walking through towering forests or looking across huge lakes to distant mountains. It’s the first true exploration game I’ve played where I’ve felt as if I am indeed walking through a huge wild endless landscape. As noted in the article getting lost is a very likely possibility. Breaking out of thick woods and climbing hills to find reference points to locate yourself on a crude map is almost the game in of itself. Navigating your way from A to B without getting horribly lost often feels like quite an accomplishment.

    Despite the simplicity of them, the graphics are actually very convincing. You can take very pretty screen shots of Eidolon at almost every turn and yet they only do it half justice. It’s only when you play the game and start moving through the world that you really get a sense of its vast scale and beauty. Seeing the clouds drift across the sky as the sun sets and the stars come out is quite magical. Oddly despite its very stylised graphics, I’d have to say that Eidolon has one of the most natural feeling openworld environments I’ve ever set foot in.

    Yes unraveling the story is very intriguing and it’s well written, but for me personally it’s just a footnote to the glorious landscape, a means to draw you from A to B. The game is really all about the journey and discovery. It feels like a sort of lonely post apocalyptic road trip by the last man on earth. A very serene and relaxing game.

    If reading anything about it makes you feel a little intrigued then just give it a try. I wasn’t expecting a great deal from it when I bought it. I thought I’d just support the dev with a purchase, give it a bit of try and see what it’s like, but it ended up really surprising me and I think I’d definitely put it in my top 5 games I’ve played this year list.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      As I said further up, I can’t agree the world is interesting enough to support long-term play without the writing. Getting lost is meaningless, really – what does it matter where you are? It’s almost impossible to die and unless you know Washington State like the back of your hand you’re not really going to have a clear destination in mind anyway. I never once referred to the maps, just set off and started walking, and never felt “lost”. And there’s just not enough detail for me to ignore that every tree is exactly the same, every bush, every fern. No animals (yes, yes, they’re in there, but you’ll pretty much never see them), no birds (other than the hawks, which are just directional arrows), nothing moves, water’s a flat blank plain, nothing going on but clouds and rain – I dunno, it’s not like I can’t see the appeal full stop – I took plenty of screenshots myself – and I don’t want to rant and rave like some random Steam troll demanding indie devs stop ruining his manshooters… but I’d never have bought it if the world was all there was.

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    phuzz says:

    I’ve only played a couple of hours so far and have been loving it. Mind you, I’ve had quite a different experience.
    For starters, I’ve not really got lost yet, I think my old scout master must have taught me well when it comes to orienteering.
    Secondly, all I’ve found apart from the compass and fishing rod, is one old newspaper article, an obituary, which didn’t seem to link to anything else (I’ll look for buttons to press when I go back).

    Loving this game though. Sad to hear it only sold a few thousand copies, I might have to buy another one for someone.
    Tell you what, first person to reply with their steam name, I’ll gift you a copy.

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      phuzz says:

      Turns out there’s a lot of Cruso’s on steam, what’s your email address? that might be the easier way to do this

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        phuzz says:

        On it’s way, you might want to remove/edit your reply to remove your email now.
        Hopefully this’ll give the dev enough money to buy the nice dog food this week.

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        phuzz says:

        On it’s way.

      • Crusoe says:

        I got it, thanks! Incidently, your friend add popped up, then disappeared before I could accept. Oh, Steam :/

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          phuzz says:

          No worries, just do something nice for someone else and pass it on :)