RPS friend and ally Leigh Alexander writes a short series about Interactive Fiction. This is part one.
Interactive fiction was my first love, before the arms race. I’m the war bride waiting at the docks for the great return. In the meanwhile, there’s the Interactive Fiction Comp, my annual love letter, the missive that lets me know that the singular creature I adore above all others is still alive and well.
I played many of the contestants in the run-up to last week’s big announcement, and I have four games I want to talk about. Three of them -- the one I like best, the one I found the most touching, the one that won overall – placed in the judges’ top three. Then there’s the one that went overlooked.
For today, let’s go with the one I like best; it lets me keep talking about lost love and how bad we want it back.
Eurydice was my favorite overall among the contest entries, and it placed second. Its creator remains anonymous, but it’s so well-written I suspect there’s some storied IF lord or lady behind it (despite the fact the author apologizes for limited programming skills). I hope I find out who made it, so I can thank them for this beautiful little game.
It rewards Greek mythology nerds in particular. Okay, so if you’re a Greek mythology nerd, skip this bit: Eurydice was one of the daughters of the sun god Apollo, a nymph who trod on a venomous snake and died on the day of her wedding to Orpheus, legendary lyrist and son of the muse Calliope. He loved her wildly. Most tragic celebrity wedding in Olympian history, probably.
Famously, the pique of Orpheus’ mourning earned him his way into the underworld, where the god of the dead and his captive wife Persephone themselves wept (for the first time!) and took pity, allowing him to escort Eurydice back to life on one crucial condition – Orpheus could lead her out and back to the upper world of the living, but should he look back over his shoulder only once, even to ensure that she followed, all bets were off. You might guess how that parable ends up (the Bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot’s wife ends up a pillar of salt, holds parallels).
Eurydice-the-game also casts you as a grief-stricken lover in search of the late Celine: You know this from the heartache that bleeds from the spaces in the spare, restrained prose that is the game’s great strength. In its opening room, some of the hooks are without pictures and the empty shelves are a “skeleton”; preying on the text player’s instinct to OPEN everything, investigating the wardrobe leads to the protagonist actually climbing inside, seeking the ghost of Celine’s scent on the clothes that still remain.
Every word of the game is carefully chosen, immersing the player precisely in the cocktail of emotion that is loss – the stiff-jawed endurance, the numbness, the twinges of latent agony that are everywhere like a black river flowing on beneath ice.
It’s poignant, beautiful misery, and yet there are dry aches of wit everywhere: We are, we divine, in the home we shared with Celine and our housemates, where a collection of well-meaning mourners has gathered in the living room (“you could always just retreat,” the game promises). We do not want to have to talk to them, but should the player engage their conversation, the result is a brilliant illustration: Social obligation wars with private grief, discomfort and awkwardness hangs like a pall. We can’t intrude on what they’re feeling, but privately we feel they have no right to invade on our mourning.
Parser-based interactive fiction has faced a major challenge in making mainstream inroads: Even people who ‘get’ the appeal of the form recognize the inherent dissonance between the immersive nature of crafted prose and the frustration of trying to communicate complex objectives to a parser.
Eurydice handles this with masterful delicacy – the basic directives of the game are easily understood, so that the player can navigate them with the organic intuition of a mourner stumbling through a lonesome fog, called inexorably by clear direction like a timeless widower plodding hungrily for the underworld. Every excruciating detail, from an “anaemic”, lonesome early winter light to the infuriating haze of living room chatter enforces the player’s objective clearly.
You want Celine back. You need her back. “Other places lie elsewhere,” the game handwaves bleakly as it urges you to a river, a “snake of moving darkness.” At its bank, a boatman.
In your room you’d picked up a lyre you can’t recall ever having owned. Getting it now?
The game takes players on an exquisitely-paced journey to a surreal and haunted infirmary that acts like the land of the dead. Where Eurydice truly excels is what it does with this relatively-simple framework – there are a few different endings, and it takes a crafty and persistent player to discover them all. Play it a lot – and most of all, like a quest to defy death, when it tells you no, don’t let it.
I’ve played it many times now, and its sensitivity to detail is such that I discover some new and haunting affordance every time. There are shades of Silent Hill 2 overhanging it in that the fate of our heroine lies in exploring the game world for what isn’t said – what kind of hospital ward is this, who were these inscrutable wandering ghosts to her?
I love Eurydice not only because it’s an impeccable little piece of IF, but because it illustrates the frightening and brilliant potential of the medium to actually illuminate and enrich our experience of lore and literature, to my mind a better objective for the form as a whole than to aim for some artificially-intelligent, infallible parser system. For this one, very simple commands let the player access surprising breadth and depth.
The game should be commended for its understated narrative consistency throughout, its willingness to play subtly with the player’s hope in the face of a mad and impossible quest as with the strings of a lyre.
The myth of Orpheus was intended to be a cautionary tale against defying the Gods and the natural order – the subtext suggests that one who truly deserved his bride would have been eager to die with her. The classic tale mocks the sin of seeking a go-around in the course of life and death; the game brings into breathless relief what a common and natural urge that is.
I’ll be looking at a few more of the IF Comp entries in the days ahead – meanwhile, please read my Gamasutra feature from earlier this year on why I think the present climate’s more favorable than ever for an IF revival.