Well behind schedule, this is the first of the 42 IFComp 2014 entries I intend to review. A lot of reviews are written as a sort of consumer advice or summary of the work. I’m not really interested in that. I’m going to assume that you’ve played Eidolon by A.D. Jansen or are at least interested in reading a review as if you had read it. Here I’m looking mostly at how well its interactive elements function, though there is certainly more I’d like to say about its literary qualities.
Eidolon is a sort of interactive extended metaphor for insomnia, or rather, it’s a fantasy story in which a girl is taken to a dream-like mirror world, the ‘Eidolon’ being her shadow-self who has stolen her there. As she has a shadow self, everything in the dream place is made from symbols from her own life (her clock, books, the illustrations on her Aunt’s plates). The game winds together a few different symbolic strands: the shadow in the sky, the seeds didn’t grow, imaginary numbers running alongside the real numbers. The game takes place in the dark in quite a literal sense: the screen is black with white and grey text, illustrating and enforcing the setting of a house at night. Given that this is a game intended to be played in a browser, this minimalist low-light design was perfect for immersing oneself into the game (and away from the ubiquitous distractions of lit up world). Darkness is the forge of the imagination. The same mechanisms that underlie waking experience are responsible for dreaming and invention. We invent what we experience as the best fit for what we perceive and in the absence of sensation, when it is dark, we mostly perceive what is already in our minds. Things dimly seen in the dark take on special significance, connections are made between disparate ideas. Eidolon is an exploration of one person’s invisible history, wrapped up in a trapped-in-dream-world story in a similar vein to Mirror Mask or the film Labyrinth, or even Lewis Caroll’s two Alice books which the work itself references.
The structure of the story is a hybrid between having pages as chunks of story (action, dialogue, descriptive passages) and pages as locations. The game was mostly structured as interconnecting locations in which objects can be examined by clicking on their name in the description, interspersed with linear sections of narrative prose navigable in steady chunks. Maybe five or ten years ago this game would have been made with a parser. A typical technique in the linear sections is that there’ll be three things you can look at or interact with in a text chunk but the third one will take you to the next section and so the game assumes that if you want to see all the content you’ll be exploring the options in a linear fashion. The location based parts of the game are much more expansive, especially once you enter the dream world, though this isn’t without issues.
There are a limited number of ways you can implement a puzzle in a hypertext game with only mild state tracking and Eidolon has a number of them, but they vary in how successful they are as puzzles. The dumb waiter puzzle was most like a traditional adventure game scenario: you explore how the mechanism works and then manipulate that mechanism. But in Eidolon this involves the protagonist taking a pen and writing a message after figuring out how the mechanism works. So rather than being a tool that the player figures out how to manipulate, it becomes a part of the raft of dreamlike ad hoc explanations for why what you’re doing might make some sense. The core experience is just clicking on links experimentally until progress is made, with the reasons for progress only making sense in a post hoc way. The dumb waiter puzzle is still the best, the others fall into one of two forms: either you must find, through trial and error, a link out of a screen of links; or there is a series of such pages formed into into a maze of text.
The library section was of the latter kind, and was the only part of the game in which I resorted to the walkthrough. The worst kind of maze is one in which you’re not sure whether it is a maze or not. You suspect that you’re required to interact with a repeating sequence, but after scanning the same dozen pages again and again for some connection you might not have taken, you begin to wonder whether you’ve missed the point of the area. These kind of mazes are sequences of joined nodes, the successful traversal of which forms an arbitrary pattern. There was no discernible reason why a lowercase ‘drip’ should take you to where you want to go when the same word in uppercase doesn’t. The best we can say of the library puzzle is that the experience of being disoriented in a world of unfinished stories was successfully evoked by actually disorienting the player.
There are three tasks that must be completed in a linear order, there are three navigable areas of the dream world. Each task is completed wholly within its corresponding area. However, all three area are open to the player from the beginning. What this means in practice is that if the player becomes stuck on the first puzzle, they’ll explore the other two areas and wonder why they can’t make any progress anywhere. A more satisfying puzzle structure would be to either disperse the solutions for each task between all three areas, or lock off each area until each task is completed, or give more content to unneeded areas when you revisit them after completing earlier tasks. The flower vase in the hallway during the third task was an object that the player is bound to have interacted with prior to the third task, and it only gains its flower-picking up trigger at the third task. Exploration is tacitly encouraged by the open structure of the locations, but is in fact a bad idea for the player who doesn’t want to re-read lots of the same text snippets.
The real strength of Eidolon isn’t the puzzles, but the prose. The descriptions are vivid and believable, pitched at about the right length for each chunk. The phenomenological experience of insomnia is explored through the simulation of night time wandering, false awakenings and imagined shadow-selves. The conversation with the girl-king didn’t work for my ear. I couldn’t figure out at the start what the protagonist really thought of the strange visitor. The game warrants and rewards rereading, the linking images of the work (the hole in the sky, the seeds, and invisible numbers, moths etc.) make more sense on revisiting.