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.