IF Comp 2014: Eidolon

Eidolon  (A.D. Jansen) is a choice-based Twine game with a strong feel of YA literature. What it’s about becomes revealed over the course of the early game; spoilers will begin below the cut.

This can be readily placed in a subgenre of YA fantasy, the night-world story. In the night-world story, night and darkness are shown as liminal and uncanny, particularly through the eyes of a child. The boundaries between the worlds thin, or the mundane world is transformed into something rich and strange; adults are sleeping or absent, and perception is unreliable. Specifically, Eidolon‘s a journey-into-Faerie plot: here’s a good summary of the pattern as expressed in the RPG Dreaming Crucible.

…a troubled adolescent and their adventures in a dreamlike but deadly world of Faerie. This boy or girl will travel to that world carrying the wounds of this world, and there face the worst of their pain and fear… on her journey her very soul will be tried in the fires of transformation, but her actions will transform Faerie in turn.

Unable to sleep, Eidolon‘s protagonist wanders about their house at night. (We’re in familiar parser-IF territory here – the gradual revelation of a family through the exploration of their home.) The early game is mostly about occupying yourself to while away a sleepless night: get a glass of water, finish up some homework, don’t make too much noise.

Slowly, the uncanniness builds until it can no longer be attributed to the perceptual distortion of the small hours, and a girl from another world – bearing the marks of arrogance, caprice and unfamiliarity with the mundane that signal Faerie – appears in the protagonist’s bedroom. After showing her around the house, the hero is pulled into another world, Eidolon; in what may or may not be a game, the fairy girl is revealed as its king, and commands the hero do perform unclearly-specified tasks.

At this point we’re in a slightly different kind of well-trodden IF territory: a dream-house of puzzles, built of stuff assembled from the protagonist’s unconscious. The specific mood it’s going for is eerie and Gaimanesque, but there are a good number of parser-IF-y elements: buttons to press, a dumbwaiter to manipulate, a wastepaper basket full of papers that can be sorted through, drawers to rifle, locked doors. Here the design’s lack of direction begins to cause problems: I had no idea what I needed to be working towards, other than ‘find a key to get these doors open’, and I fairly quickly felt as though I had exhausted my options. I wasn’t too confident about the consistent behaviour of the few things that I could manipulate, like the dumbwaiter, because it seemed to reset itself in between me messing with it; and because I was very clearly in some version of Faerie, I wasn’t very confident about rooms being related in any logically-consistent way – indeed, by this point I’ve been thoroughly taught not to assume that any logic will work. So if there’s a puzzle here, it’s of a kind that I don’t really know how to approach.

So there are a lot of parsery, adventure-game approaches in play. That comes with a bunch of challenges which I felt weren’t entirely overcome, particularly to do with pacing. The the early game, for instance, felt too obviously a matter of hitting all the plot triggers to ensure that you’d seen all the things. I ended up puttering around the house after I’d seen the reality-breaking hole in the sky for rather too long. I made toast in the hope that it would make something happen, which spoiled the mood rather. Pushing the plot onward – forcing the player back to the right room, or making the crucial scene flexible enough that it could happen wherever the player goes next – would have helped a lot here. In the Eidolon section, I think it needed either to offer more structured direction to the player, or make obstacles easier in order to focus more on the dreamlike-flow feeling.

There is a lot to like about the writing: Eidolon does a good job of representing the strangeness of being awake in the small hours, and of suggesting the looming sense of a family damaged in particular ways. Its protagonist is carefully observed: a smart, curious girl, inclined towards maths, science and overthinking. Its worlds contain a good amount of strong imagery and detail. The writing verges on the purple at times, but holds it together at the sentence level; at times the cumulative effect got a tiny bit much for me, though.

Also, hm. The elf-girl, who is presumably going to turn out to be the protagonist’s double, didn’t quite work for me. I think the deal is that the fae are meant to be capricious, arrogant, but seductive – the reader knows that trusting them is a bad idea, but at the same time they completely understand why the hero follows along. Here, the reasons I saw were a) that the protagonist is a doormat, and b) escapism, kinda. But escapism’s a lot more compelling (h/t Pratchett) if it involves an escaping to. The elf-girl would be more compelling if she wasn’t so clearly an asshole.

I got the sense that this was made by someone conversant in both game and static fiction, but more comfortable with working in the latter; the gameplay elements are there, but it felt as though they relied a little too much on the player following, unbidden, the script in the author’s mind.

Ultimately, what stuck with me about this one was all setting. Atmospherics, detail. (In many respects it felt like something conflicted about being made in Twine: the mood of unsettling dreamlike flow fits that medium, but so many of its setting approaches are more natural fits for parser.)

Score: 7

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One Response to IF Comp 2014: Eidolon

  1. Tell me about it! I got sick of repeatedly clicking non-advancing words and having to click back, and bailed before stuff even started happening. Just as a basic QoL thing, not having that would have been.. nice.

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