Memento Terra Mori: Elegy for a Dead World

So I purchased Elegy for a Dead World as a stepping-stone game for my “Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies” class, to give them a sense of how one might create a narrative without words, but also to help them figure out how to build a narrative for a game of their own.

Elegy, for those unfamiliar with it, was created by Dejobaan Games in 2014, and the “gameplay” is about narrative creation. The player moves a largely generic avatar (gender and exact species unknown, although it is humanoid) left, right, up, down, and through doors, although there is no “interact” mechanic or combat. The point of the game is to tell the story the player envisions in the backgrounds behind their avatar.

There are three worlds in Elegy, each based loosely on Romantic poetry: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (which I immediately caught even though I rather obtusely missed the title of the world as “Shelley’s World”), Lord Byron’s “Darkness” (“Byron’s World”), and John Keats’s “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” (“Keats’ World”). The whole premise of basing three game worlds on poems strongly appeals to my inner (okay, not-so-inner) English professor self. And the fact that I immediately saw Shelley in “Shelley’s World” despite missing the world’s title ought to tell you that it was a fairly successful venture (although I’m much less familiar with the Keats poem, though familiar with Keats himself).

Beyond that, the player has a selection of options in each world: to follow a “standard” fill-in-the-blank theme; to freewrite the narrative without prompts; to follow the text of the original poem with blanks inserted; to follow several other fill-in-the-blank texts; and (my English professor self is THRILLED by this one) a version in which the player corrects the grammatical errors in the provided text (swoon). I just wish it actually graded you on them.

I flipped through the options in all of them to see what they looked like, and, while pleased at the poetry and grammar options, chose to freewrite all three of my worlds. I also did them out of order (which I only figured out because the grammar challenges were numbered), starting with “Byron’s World” and moving backwards (the given order is Shelly, then Keats, then Byron). I actually like my order better.

If you happen to own Elegy, you can find my story under my steam name: Aktieriel (“The Fate of the First World,” “The Fate of the Second World,” and “The Fate of the Last World”). You can browse stories of all varieties – sorrowful, funny, amateur, poetic, dystopian, and more – and see what inspired others in the images. This means that players can be part of a community without necessarily having to directly address one another.

I enjoyed Elegy very much, and I thought it was just the right length (I didn’t get bored or mentally exhausted), although the $15 price did seem a little steep for the amount of gameplay. But, ultimately, I love that Elegy is a completely different kind of game, with a completely different kind of gameplay and a self-conscious (and overt) debt owed to literary as well as popular culture.

Bonus Section

Since the whole point of buying Elegy was to play it with my students, I also wanted to share with you their responses.

For one thing, they were not entirely convinced that it was actually a game at all (and they all complained without prompting that it was overpriced). We’ve spent a lot of time in class talking about what makes a game, and they’re very cognizant of the core components of choice, challenge, and feedback. Their primary complaints about Elegy were that it had neither challenge nor feedback.

Certainly, the game could be a challenge if one were interested in writing, and my students accepted this. Only one of them was interested enough in the game to play through a version written by another player, but he remained unimpressed.

Their primary objection was the lack of feedback—the essence of their feeling about the game was that it was simply screaming into a void. They mentioned MadLibs as an alternative that had similar mechanics but was fun because it enforced player interaction and thus had player-to-player feedback that was simply lacking in Elegy (unless you happen to have a game which someone else played and to which they responded).

Ultimately, though, my students were looking for something more that they felt was lacking. They wanted the game to scare them, or challenge them to accomplish a clear goal, or be difficult, or force them to think outside the box.

They did have some interesting interpretations when pressed—Brian suggested that Elegy was a critique of the games industry, and offered something new besides the stereotypical man-shooter; Kathleen argued that the game was forcing players to engage in creation rather than passivity; Paul argued that the game was about the failure of technology (which Emma pointed out was rather ironic, given the game’s platform).

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