If you’ve been paying attention to video games at all over the last decade, you know that writing has become an integral part of the medium. Nearly every game from independent to big budget “triple A” studios, features some type of narrative, if only to justify its own mechanics. Although subject to skepticism by gamer culture, games within the so-called walking simulators genre like Gone Home and Firewatch, as well as Telltale Games’s point-and-click adaptations of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, are distinctly literary projects. Whether one conceives of the player as an actor within the drama articulating their desires through movement and dialogue, as a director deciding the outcomes of the plot, as an audience member experiencing the narrative, or all of the above, the literary influences on game development are obvious.
But what have video games done for literary production? This question seems to have been the guiding design principle for Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal’s “game about writing fiction,” Elegy for a Dead World. Normally, this is the part where I tell you what genre this game falls under. But truthfully, I’m not entirely sure how to place Elegy generically, or even whether to call it a game at all. At its core, Elegy is a 2-D side-scrolling exploration simulator. Initially, the player controls an astronaut avatar to navigate through a nebulous space that serves as the main menu. Scattered about the field are three “portals” into destroyed and uncharted alien worlds, each named after British Romantic poets John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. Selecting a portal yields the options to “start writing,” which allows entry into that world or to read what other players have written and “commend” their writing, if you like. If you choose to write, a submenu asks players to select from nine world-specific writing prompts, ranging from free-form writing to thematic prompts, or even fill-in-the-blank poems. One such prompt asks readers to imagine themselves as Byron writing “Darkness” in 1816: “I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The sun was ____, and the stars ____.” Another similarly asks players to rewrite parts of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Planetary ruin not withstanding, Elegy is not without levity. One prompt cues players to write a Lord Byron musical, while another from Shelley’s world is entitled, “Bad Poetry You Wrote on the Bus.”
Once players have selected a prompt, they enter a 2-D environment and are able to walk or jetpack around, enter specially marked buildings, or simply sit down and admire the beautifully watercolored scenery. Each world is distinct in its landscape, architecture, artifacts, and color schemes. While exploring, players can only hear the steady breathing of their avatar and their tentative footsteps echoing through empty rooms. Occasionally, players will find quill feather icons in the field, indicating that this is a place to write. As the player types on their keyboard, the astronaut scrawls across a digital screen in time to their keystrokes. There is no time limit, and players are free to revisit areas at will. The side-scrolling animation is smooth but discontinuous; at defined points the environment breaks on the right side of the screen, either into new landscapes or inside buildings, as though the avatar were turning the pages of an art book rather than traversing a virtual space.
Such open-ended exploration design mirrors Elegy’s spontaneous philosophy for writing. While some prompts ask players to fill in a blank or suggest a particular form, there is a surprisingly high character limit per entry. One can write a line or a paragraph, poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction. Adi Robertson even wrote his review of Elegy for The Verge in game and posted screen captures as his text. Users cannot see what they have previously written; they only see the entry they are currently writing. This discourages constant editing. Elegy is perhaps the first game to use writer’s block as a game mechanic. I’m neither a poet nor a fiction writer, and yet I found myself writing in ways I hadn’t attempted before. Of Shelley’s world, I wrote,
Where do civilizations go
When the civil have gone?
What remains, besides the twisted spires
Of industry and the legs
Of those who can no longer work
Yet twitch with transient desires?
Amateurish to be sure, but that isn’t the point. The point is that I was writing. As the developers put it, “We created Elegy so that everyone can write. As you explore, the game helps you create the narrative.” At the end of each journey, players can choose to upload their writing to a Steam community server or to remediate it as a digital or even print art book. The ostensible goal of uploading one’s writing is to earn one thousand commendations from other users, though Elegy’s small online community makes that task difficult. Indeed, Elegy has not been popular among gamer culture, and it’s easy to see why. It defies common elements of game design and lacks a narrative or any obstacles or goals.
So just who is Elegy for? Amateurs will find it a brief but rewarding experience, while professional writers will likely find it too restrictive. That the writing prompts are all centered on lost civilizations means the content users produce often lacks diversity. Of course, some users creatively “un-play” the game, for example Griffin McElroy of Polygon who used Elegy to write erotic ALF fan fiction. But Elegy also has the potential to be a powerful educational tool to engage students with creative writing, and Dejobaanseems to have realized it. During their Kickstarter campaign, they instituted stretch goals for additional funding and donated one thousand copies of Elegy to teachers, and they currently offer academic licensing. But to evaluate Elegy as a standalone project ignores how important it is in the evolution of game design. Elegy is not the first game to produce writing, but it is the first to explicitly ask players to think and write creatively. Despite its brevity and unlikely prospect of nurturing a literary community for long, Elegy’s engagement with literary productionchallenges the limits of the kinds of cultural work that games can achieve and will likely inspire future projects.
Elegy for a Dead World
by Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal