I didn’t really want to write about Evangeline

Evangeline [official site] is a free short game that’s loosely about grief. I didn’t want to write about it, as it’s not very good, and then I started writing about that, and then it all got a bit complicated.

There is a hefty dilemma when it comes to reviewing small indie games that simply aren’t very good. While there’s a valid reason to warn people away from losing their money to heavily promoted full-price plop, oftentimes when writing about a tiny team’s minor project, finding out it’s bad is matched for the reader with finding out it exists. In some ways you’re making people aware of something in order to tell them to ignore it.

It’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s not unusual for a developer to get in touch after their game’s received a kicking, to say that they’re both grateful for the feedback, and for the awareness the article has raised. It seems even if we post to say, “Good grief, don’t play this!” a lot of people respond by saying, “Ha! I WILL play it! Take THAT Rock Paper Shotgun!” Or perhaps less parodically, “Actually that sounds like exactly my sort of thing.” All publicity isn’t necessarily good publicity, but good can come of it, it seems.

Flip back. What if the game’s free? Surely then you’re just being a complete dick to bother writing about it on your website read by literally millions of people? “See this free thing you didn’t know about? I think it sucks!” What a jerk. Then flip the other way: what if the free game’s PR has been repeatedly contacting you to write about it for over a month, even sending you DMs about it on Twitter? At that point, writing about the thing might be the only way to make them stop.

However, I think we can all agree there’s one more element that could be added in to this back-and-forth that really makes the decision final. What if the bad, tiny, unheard-of, free game whose PR won’t stop nagging is about the developer’s experience of grieving a loved one? Exactly. Er, oops.

I think the very best description of understanding another’s grief comes from the first Lemony Snicket book (more recently perfectly delivered by Patrick Warburton in Netflix’s splendid adaptation):

“If you have ever lost a loved one, then you know exactly how it feels. And if you have not, then you cannot possibly imagine it.”

I discovered this was true after my dad died just over a year ago. I had been fortunate enough to reach 38 years old without experiencing true grief, and learned that until I met it I simply hadn’t been able to empathise with it. I’d thought I had, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know the eternal gut-punch, the sensation of your reality being dragged down from the inside as if someone had put a black hole in the centre of your being. I didn’t know how long it lasted, how profoundly it changed you, how it radiated into every part of everything. And honestly, if I’d read that last sentence before 2016, I’d probably have thought, “That sounds dreadful, but I’m sure it’s a bit of an exaggeration.” As Snicket’s Daniel Handler so precisely states, “you cannot possibly imagine it”.

What I’ve discovered about myself, since, is this new-found empathy through exposure is still extraordinarily specific. Or perhaps “bigoted” might be a closer description. Evangeline is a game made by a developer while experiencing the grief of losing his grandfather. And honestly, my first thought before I’ve even loaded it is, “Grandfather?” Because I was never close to either of mine. One died before I was old enough to form memories, the other was a kind, gentle man with whom I had no meaningful connection and who died before I was a teenager. I have discovered since, even as I stand on the precipice of middle age, that I almost pathologically reject the notion that others have deep, close, vital relationships with their grandparents, and their loss is devastation. I have to stop myself and almost physically force the empathy through, rather than so lazily rely on reflecting on my personal experience and assuming it should be the same for everyone else.

I don’t believe I am especially unusual in this, and I think it is a massive risk when attempting to portray one’s own grief for others to experience. I think it’s even riskier when abandoning written prose and attempting to convey these feelings through something technological. In this case, I don’t think the risk has paid off, and I think it’s not because of the message, but because of the technology.

Evangeline is a mess.

I think you’re supposed to forgive that when it’s about someone grieving a loved relative.

I’m not sure I can.

You begin in a garage, next to an inert car, in a crudely textured bland cul-de-sac. In the first few seconds the colour drains from the world until it’s monochrome. And that’s rather brilliant, in that it speaks to me. I recall waking up to a normal world, then remembering (dad’s dead), then the metaphorical colour draining from my reality and another day spent in unwanted mourning. Unfortunately what I did next in the game was pick up the first interactive object I found – a trash can – and tried to put it on the bonnet of the car. It floated magically two feet above it. So I stacked quite a few things on the magical vortex before going outside, and seeing weird splits in the textures, broken shadows, and a general clumsiness. That’s not good enough for most games – is it good enough when the game’s free and it’s awful to complain about it because it’s someone expressing their pain? I don’t know. Probably not.

The unexpressed aim in this first “day” is to look at a vase on someone’s balcony. Doing so brings colour back into the world. Um, sure. Unfortunately that’s not the level solved, because what you have to do is look at the vase for long enough for a little dial to pop up, and then for longer still for the dial to fill, and then it’s done. That’s not very good.

Day 2 is called “Trash Day”, prompting you to assume you’re supposed to do something with the metal bins in the garage, even though everyone had their bins out on day 1 too, and will still have them out on day 3. So I put the bins out in front of my house, in the equivalent position to where everyone else in the neighbourhood had put them, and nothing happened. I looked at the vase again, and colour returned, but no dial appeared. So I moved the bins around, tried different spots, and nothing happened. In desperation I began reading the Twitter feed of the developer, because their site mentions people could ask for hints there, and found a thread where someone else was equally mystified. They said that one needed to put the trash can in the same spot as their neighbour’s. I’m pretty sure no neighbour would welcome that, and oddly this arbitrary and untelegraphed choice triggers a splash of colour to return. If you get the right bin of two identical bins, that is. So look at the bins? No. Look at the bloody vase seven houses down again, and this time the dial appears. What?!

See, this is the problem. Evangeline is a bad game. Its rules are arbitrary and irrational, unexplained but unintuitive. And they get progressively worse than described above over each of the six days. These poor design decisions are not part of its attempts to express its meaning or emotions, but simply poor design decisions. And you may yet be thinking, “So what, John? This is a game by some dude who was feeling really shit. Give the guy and his team a break, you arsehole.” Except for the hiring the PR who sends email after tweet to ask us to cover it. At the very least, I hope you can see the dilemma.

There are a couple of side narratives that occur, one via someone who drops their updated diary on the same spot on the sidewalk every day, which is plain weird but nothing compared to the person who sellotapes their daily hand-written personal thoughts to their car window. It ensures your inability to leave the cul-de-sac by blocking the open end with a moving lorry, sofa and boxes coming out of the back, but they’re there for day after day, as if abandoned and forgotten. Levels require you pick up objects that become impossible to interactive with if they touch the floor. Objects pop in and out of existence as you turn the camera. It is a poorly put together game.

Whether the ending will be meaningful to you I cannot say. I found it to be the equivalent of writing your intended message on the end of a cricket bat and then repeatedly whacking me about the face and neck. But that will clearly vary. Either way, were you to have a prescient ability to know what you were meant to be doing in each of the days, you’d finish the game in under 15 minutes. So it would either delight you quickly, or not trouble you for long.

There you are. It’s free, it’s short, you didn’t know about it before just now and now you do and you know I think it’s not very good. I don’t feel good about that, you likely don’t feel good about that, but perhaps you’ll have become intrigued and decide to take a look anyway. Perhaps you’ll offer them some money after finishing it when prompted. I dunno. Death sucks.

You can get Evangeline for free by signing up to their mailing list. A Steam version is due next month.

From this site

35 Comments

  1. Snowskeeper says:

    Well, that was probably one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve read in the last couple days.

  2. Someoldguy says:

    Thanks for writing this, John. I found the parts about death, grief and empathy very meaningful and you managed to articulate it in a way I’ve never been able to.

    • Jeremy says:

      Agreed, I lost my mom in April last year, and there really is no way I could have imagined what grief would look like, and how it would affect me.

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      John Walker says:

      I didn’t find room to include the other Lemony Snicket quote on the subject, but I figure it makes sense to put it here as it’s so much better than anything I wrote:

      “It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”

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    Nauallis says:

    Wait, so what do you do in the game? What’s the game part of the game? Completing simple tasks to remind the player that even in the face of overwhelming grief, time continues to move inexorably forward… and so it’s important to at least focus on simple tasks? I mean, it’s a good message for a grieving person, but why would somebody then play this?

    Either way, thanks for the blurb exploring epistemology and metaphysics; I enjoy your introspective articles.

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    subdog says:

    This is Good Games Writing.

  5. gwop_the_derailer says:

    Well, time to go back and read A Dad in A Dungeon again.

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    Nianox says:

    I loved reading this. Thank you.

  7. AyeBraine says:

    That’s synthesis I guess. Taking one thing (the grief which happened to be a theme) and another (the dilemma of not-good, awkward games being promoted) and get a third thing – the implied paradoxical feelings and moral position of a person who made the game and people who might play it. That’s really cool wordcrafting.

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    syllopsium says:

    It can be quite specific – I did actually like my grandparents (all now gone, the ones I knew were close to 90, so not bad innings), and I have various bits of their stuff (half my pans were my granny’s, for instance) so you can never quite forget, not that you should.

    I’d rather play a game to escape, and think of them now and then, though. Looking at vases to ‘bring colour back into the world’ is definitely not my personal way of dealing with things.

  9. NotGodot says:

    The last word on this sort of thing is Harold Bloom on David Foster Wallace:

    “[He] seems to have been a very sincere and troubled person, but that doesn’t mean I have to endure reading him.”

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    Der Zeitgeist says:

    This is why I’m paying money for this site. Keep it up.

  11. thedosbox says:

    Add my thanks for writing this.

    Its rules are arbitrary and irrational, unexplained but unintuitive.

    Accurately describes how I felt when my mum died.

  12. darkteflon says:

    This is why I come to RPS.

  13. celticdr says:

    “the first Lemony Snicket book (more recently perfectly delivered by Patrick Warburton in Netflix’s splendid adaptation)”

    I think it’s actually Neil Patrick Harris in the new Lemony Snicket Netflix show… though I could imagine Patrick Warburton as Count Olaf I don’t think he has the range to pull it off.

    Edit: Wow, Patrick Warburton is in Lemony Snicket playing the title character… Neil Patrick Harris is Count Olaf… so I was half right then?

  14. Neuromancing the Boil says:

    I can commiserate as a film critic. Often I would be ‘gently harassed’ by film grads and indie studios to review their upstart films. I would argue with their PR person, insisting that I didn’t grade on any type of scale, that what is ostensibly a grad-school thesis film might be a good calling card for the industry, but it’s probably not going to rank highly with the likes of Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr. I would really try to get them to see the light, that I’m a pretentious bastard who likes angry ontological black-and-white movies, and I am not the right person to review this. Still, they would insist.

    Then I’d acquiesce and receive these adorable, plucky, can-do genre films, full of eagerness and an honest desire to entertain. Or sometimes they’d be sad, plaintive things, similar I suppose to Evangeline, expressing an actual and deeply felt pain. All were merely seeking critical validation — and pretty much all of them were execrable, inept, navel-gazing trash fires unfit for human consumption. You might think I’m being an asshole, but you didn’t actually have to *see* these movies. Insufferable does not even begin to cover it.

    And so, with a sense of depressed duty, I would publish my review. Often I would try to express that the movie was ‘well-meaning,’ which is an empty descriptor at best, but something that would at least signal my guilt without giving into it. I would knock off my typical Kael-on-steroids fuck-you snark (which is otherwise so, so much fun), and instead review these movies with kid gloves — but I’d still give them F’s or D’s, because I don’t grade on a damn scale. Then, inevitably, I would get an email, not from the PR but from the writer and/or director, telling me to go fuck myself and die in a fire.

    I’m not a film critic anymore.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      I wonder, is it the right answer to mentally categorise messages from PR guys as spam, minor annoyances not worthy of a response? Like email notifications from LinkedIn about a complete stranger trying to add me as a contact?

      • Coming Second says:

        You shouldn’t mentally categorise them like that, you should *literally* categorise them like that. Just responding to eager beavers desparate to get a toehold in an industry, even with a polite refusal, is an invitation for them to keep pestering you.

        Ultimately in these types of circumstances a cold ignoring is kinder and saves a lot of time, both for them and you.

  15. Sin Vega says:

    Sounds like it’s confusing and frustrating and nothing works like it’s supposed to. Most accurate life sim ever?

  16. poliovaccine says:

    Reading this, I’m certainly glad for your sake you chose to write about it. Less sure of the developer’s sake, haha, but for my own sake, too. I wish you many more empathetic explorations in your future.

    The things which stymied you about empathy are pretty ordinary for us humanpeople. But the fact of that ordinariness makes it clear to me just how deficit in such education western society really is. We are lucky we live in a world where members of our species can make it to 38 years of age without personally comprehending grief. We would probably be in a better world, though, if we could at least behave as if we understood it in others until the day we do.

    Personally, I cant imagine reading someone’s heartfelt description of grief – especially the rather plain-stated one you chose from Lemony Snicket – and immediately presuming it to be a bit of an exaggeration. But I dont mean to critize that instinct, because like I say, it’s ordinary, it’s the childish sociopath wriggling between social graces and eking its way out, and I can think of many ways I’ve always had trouble comprehending other things of equal importance. Without telling my whole tale, reading this piece makes me see some of that same deficit in myself.

    I appreciate the frank and honest writing, all the moreso because I expect it will do something to shed your undue reputation as being contrary instead of critical. I tend to trust your more critical reviews over than the effusive ones written just off a high, and I only see why in your critical evaluation of yourself.

    I hate to vocalize something so cynical too, but on some level I suspect this/these dev/s had no inkling, in their repeated outreach to you about the game, that you might ever rate badly a game about their grief, their personal loss… but I feel like what went up here is about the best possible favor you could have done them without once calling the game good. Which sounds like your intent from the outset. You just hit a few other nice marks along the way.

    Anyway, more like this, please – and btw, has anyone apologized for their backlash on Mafia III? Hahaha.

  17. nitric22 says:

    This has been the finest thing I’ve read all week. Thank You.

  18. caff says:

    Great article.

  19. JNB says:

    How on earth do spelling errors manage to slip through in today’s world? :D

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    CdrJameson says:

    Sounds like this is the kind of game that was more important for the developer to make than for others to play.

    And I’m sure RPS doesn’t review ‘good’ or ‘bad’ games, it reviews ‘interesting’ ones of which this is an example.

  21. geldonyetich says:

    Grief is just the setting, and in the grand scheme of a game’s design, a setting is little more than the window drapes. Please, feel no hesitation to tear the game a new one.

    Only, you are going to feel hesitation to do so because of the people on the net who act to political incorrectness like sharks react to chum. And that’s the real problem here, because this isn’t even true political incorrectness, it’s just a bad game that has a theme of grief. Such people are just a breed of troll who have found means to do so that also gives them an illusion of moral superiority. Lemony Snicket would have them bumped off.

    Grief is painful, but it’s something so commonplace that Pixar felt no shame in hitting children under the belt with UP. It’s not a free pass for anyone, in life or in art.

    • Snowskeeper says:

      It’s confusing to me that you took this opportunity to whine about political correctness, but accused others of searching out opportunities to do so.

      • geldonyetich says:

        It’s confusing to me that you took this opportunity to whine that I must be whining about political correctness, as how did you see this as an opportunity to do so?

        Snarkiness aside, my logic isn’t rocket science here:

        * John Walker decided to write about a bad game.
        * John Walker explains he found himself in a difficult place to do so because the game is about grief, and doesn’t want to be seen as a remorseless monster by criticizing the game.
        * I’m telling him that anyone who calls him a remorseless monster for identifying a bad game as a bad game must be some kind of faux political correctness troll.

        Where is there grounds for you to be confused? Where is there grounds for you to call that whining? There is none, it’s an obvious kneejerk, and I’d wager the only reason you couldn’t keep it to yourself is you fear you might be one of those faux political correct people I was talking about.

        Cue denial and accusation. But bear in mind you made this ad hominem first.

        • Snowskeeper says:

          … He said that he felt awkward about it not just because people would be miffed, but because the developer himself was in a very bad place, which is why he would not have bothered if their PR hadn’t been spamming him about it, and why half the article was about how games about intense personal experiences are difficult to review objectively without hurting people. At no point did he imply that people would be wrong to feel hurt; that is why he went out of his way to explain the situation.

          Really not sure how you went from “this is a sensitive topic because people have strong feelings about their strong feelings” to “people are wrong to have strong feelings about their strong feelings political correctness is ruining the industry sensitivity is bad.”

          • geldonyetich says:

            I don’t think your interpretation of his article is any better than mine is.

            For example, this passage:

            I think you’re supposed to forgive that when it’s about someone grieving a loved relative.

            I’m not sure I can.

            Would seem to be clearly communicating that he feels under obligation to forgive bad design specifically because “it’s about someone grieving a loved relative.”

            Maybe you were looking at this passage:

            See, this is the problem. Evangeline is a bad game. Its rules are arbitrary and irrational, unexplained but unintuitive. And they get progressively worse than described above over each of the six days. These poor design decisions are not part of its attempts to express its meaning or emotions, but simply poor design decisions. And you may yet be thinking, “So what, John? This is a game by some dude who was feeling really shit. Give the guy and his team a break, you arsehole.” Except for the hiring the PR who sends email after tweet to ask us to cover it. At the very least, I hope you can see the dilemma.

            In which case it may indeed appear, under a selective interpretation, that the only reason he’s being so cautious is because the developer themselves may have been undergoing hard times when they made it.

            So where does the accusation I am “whining about political correctness” come from, then?

            Maybe the trouble is that you do not identify this as under the umbrella of “political correctness.” And that’s fair on the grounds that such an umbrella is ambiguous indeed, and possibly means different things in your neck of the woods.

            Alright, so the ball is in the court of quibbling over semantics.

            In that case, lets say I use an official definition of “politically correct” as defined by “politically correct for english language learners” (according to Webster.com). It says, “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.”

            Which is exactly what he’s doing here.

            This being the Internet, I can state with certainty that there is always one more nitpick to be found. But does this at least satisfy your exacting standards of utilization of the term, “political incorrect”?

          • Cvnk says:

            @geldonyetich: I don’t think he’s trying to avoid offending a particular group of people here. Just one person specifically. There’s political correctness and there’s just trying to be decent. Too many people just lump the latter into the former and as a result reject any sort of empathy.

          • geldonyetich says:

            @Cvnk

            I think that, when I read between the lines, it’s pretty clear he feels he has to step lightly for fear of seeming insensitive by berating a game that is about grief. It’s pretty much the same conundrum of putting down a game that is developed to help kids fight cancer. People are hurting, how could you? Because he’s a reviewer of games, that’s how.

            Unfortunately, it seems his elegant prose has created adequate wiggle room to refute that was his point. But what am I supposed to do about that? If he’s like most modern creative content people these days, he’s more than happy to let his audience have multiple interpretations of his work. Postmodernism and all that.

            Furthermore, it’s not really important enough to me to argue until the cows come home. You’ll either agree or you won’t. I doubt anything I could say would have changed that anyway.

  22. RaconteurNick says:

    Hi John and RPS, I’m the lead dev on this game. Thank you for taking the time to write about it. I have no issue with someone not enjoying our game — it’s not something that everyone will enjoy, and by no means is it a perfect game.

    However, I did want to add one quick thing — we did not spam anyone for over a month. In fact, the first time we reached out to anyone publicly was January 15th. In that time, we sent a press release, a follow-up email nearly a week later to a few folks, and a DM on Twitter to John because we really thought he would like it. 3 messages over the course of a week — not “spamming for a month.” Wanted to clear that up. What constitutes “too much” is subjective, and I wouldn’t change anything that our PR did — indies have to be persistent.

    I appreciate RPS’s time and coverage, and I hope you all try the Steam release next month where we’ll be making lots of improvements (including to our hint system thanks to John’s feedback in this article). I encourage you to try the game and see for yourself what you think of it in the meantime. :)

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    kfix says:

    Lovely piece of writing, John. Thank you.

    Thanks also to the dev for a mature response above.