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(I'm Not Sure) Wot I Think: Epanalepsis

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Most of all, I’m not sure wot I think of Epanalepsis. I’ve played it through three times now. I still have very little idea what it’s about, both in terms of its cloaked narrative, and its reason for being. And yet I find myself looking at it somewhat fondly.

In this extremely minimalist adventure, you play three characters, each 20 years apart, in a super-basic pixel world (I’d go so far as to say a badly drawn pixel world), each encountering mysterious figures who seem to be trying to explain to them that they exist within looping repetition of their actions. Few choices are available to make along the way, very few.

Epanalepsis is, I’ve since looked up, the repeating of a word or phrase, either side of intervening words. “The king is dead, long live the king,” for instance. How this applies to this game… still working on that. It appears to be exploring notions of fate, futility, the consequence of choice, and perhaps even the nature of videogames, or so it appears.

But in the end, I think I’m beginning to settle on its actually being an opaque piece of deliberate confusion.

There’s real contempt for its characters. First, in the 1990s, is Rachel. Unemployed, maybe sort-of still with her dealer girlfriend, living in an apartment paid for by her parents. She’s smart, but deliberately avoiding the need to be. She’s Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites. She slumps along, in the laziest self-destruction.

Then comes Anthony, 2013, a dedicated MMO player in a house filled with the most expensive versions of things he doesn’t use, and the boxsets for games he hasn’t played. Of a poster on his bedroom wall he says, “I don’t really get ‘Crate’ as a game. I think it is mostly for kids. The memes are really funny, though, and I’ve spent a couple hundred hours tooling around. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, though. Just someone who is interested. Someone gave me this poster.” He owns a top-of-the-range record player because someone told him it sounds better, but listens to music on his phone. Oh, it’s just relentless on Anthony. Of a local bakery he says,

“I was eating at the Bake every day for a while. The coffee was okay, and the cookies were excellent.

Then I read a review that just really took them to task for their butter melting technique.

It wasn’t the same after that. I stopped going.”

Finally it heads to 2033, where you’re indirectly in control of a robot, in some sort of governmental research laboratory (that appears to have a number of indie developers in cryostasis). Some terrorists appear to be up to no good, or indeed some freedom fighters appear to be up to some good.

The game is easily finished in an hour, when you take time to look at everything, and in doing so, properly explore each character. You could also blast through it again in 15 minutes if you wanted to see the alternative paths. But its brevity is not a problem – it says what it wants to say in the time it takes to say it.

But at the same time, I’m struggling to work out if Epanalepsis is any good. It makes some wildly spurious claims on its Steam page, like, “Experience an authentically recreated 1990s.” Um, no. Experience a crudely drawn pixel apartment, street, and bar, with minimal interaction. Although kudos to the audio, which evoked memories of my favourite era of music.

The lack of interaction is problematic too – it describes itself as a point and click adventure, but it really isn’t. Not least because you awkwardly move using the keyboard, either left or right, and throughout the game you interact directly with a total of five objects. There are fewer choices.

So why aren’t I just writing this off? Because I feel like whatever it is it’s trying to say, it’s trying to say it in an interesting way. Then again, I find myself cross by how it describes itself on its website:

“Epanalepsis is a narrative-heavy point and click adventure game that explores sixty years of urban life. The player follows three characters in the 1990s, 2010s, and 2030s. Each has their own problems to work through. Each deals with the unique problems of their individual time periods. Each comes into contact with something strange beyond the pale.”

It doesn’t explore 60 years. It explores fifteen minutes of three years. It’s not “narrative heavy” at all. It has three characters describe stuff in some rooms around them, and then odd people say oblique things about time to them. And none deals with a problem in any sense at all. But they do come in contact with strangeness.

So, where does that leave me? Annoyed by the over-selling of a minimalist concept. Confused by what it was actually trying to say, but glad that it’s so widely open to interpretation. (Or perhaps I’m just being thick.) Glad to have added a new word to my lexicon. And most of all, not sure wot I think of Epanalepsis.

You can get Epanalepsis on Steam.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

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

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