[I originally reviewed this game for the XYZZY Awards, as part of a project to review all the 2012 nominees for Best Writing.]
IFDB page: Eurydice
I identify very strongly with the Orpheus myth. There have been various times in my life — and right now is one of them — when I find myself questing about desperately to find the magic that will retrieve a loved one from the underworld into which they have descended. And even when it seems like I’ve succeeded, it is very difficult to maintain a belief in that success. So given this game’s concept, it was pretty much automatic that it was going to speak to me on an emotional level, and it did. Sometimes that happened directly because of the writing. Sometimes it happened despite the writing.
Before I dive in, though, I want to acknowledge a couple of things. Anonymous obliquely suggests that elements of this game may be autobiographical, and the choice to remain anonymous strengthens this impression. The details of the story are very painful, and must have been difficult to write — even if it’s not autobiographical at all, it’s clearly a cri de coeur, and an effective one. I recognize that sometimes strong emotion can get in the way of high gloss, so it always feels awkward to start making persnickety comments about a work that’s so personal. Nevertheless, my charge here is to review the writing of these four games, so that’s what I’ll do. Happily, the author seems both self-aware and open to criticism, at least based on the comments that appear in the game’s menu system.
On to the analysis. The game feels to me like the work of a talented writer who has not yet found his voice. (I say “his” — I don’t know whether the author is male or female, but I’ll stick with male since the PC seems to be male, though I’m not even certain about that.) The tone shifts from one response to the next, sometimes rather dramatically:
You've been better.
There is nothing to hear except, if there is such a thing, the sound of absence.
The carpet is the colour of sand, as though the room has become a tide line, washed clean of its cockleshell memories and mermaid-hair dreams.
I have a preference here. The first response is excellent — punchy but understated, getting across the character’s grief well enough (given the context) but with a wry grit, and not a trace of self-indulgence. The second one reaches a little farther, and works a little less. Saying “if there is such a thing” undermines what impact the “sound of absence” metaphor might have had. The third response, however, goes the other way — instead of hedging or pulling back, it doubles down on melodrama, which if anything is even worse. If the sentence had ended after “tide line”, I’d have liked it well enough, though I might have balked a bit at even that level of intensity being injected into — let’s face it — beige carpeting. However, when I was presented with “cockleshell memories and mermaid-hair dreams”… whew. In those moments, I recoiled from the narrative voice, because it was hitting me with the emotional equivalent of a sudden earsplitting sound.
These tonal shifts are jarring, but I was a bit grateful for them, because I knew that even if I was wincing at an error or an ill-chosen word, something powerful and true was probably around the corner. My transcript is peppered with comments like “that hits home”, “quite good”, “this is getting to me”, and so forth. Anonymous displays a keen observational eye about the emotional resonances of objects and places, like the boxed-up books that are “like meeting old friends you forgot you cared for” when you reopen them.
There is some deeply affecting writing in this game, and some problematic writing too, sometimes even in the same description:
From last Christmas, you seem to remember, another lifetime. Like all Celine's gifts, it came exquisitely wrapped -- black and gold, perhaps, to match the mask itself. You wonder if Celine's box of wrapping paper, ribbons and decorations is still beneath the eaves, or if her parents took that too. "Why go to all that trouble for something that's just going to be ripped off?" you'd ask. But Celine loved the ephemeral. And, so, apparently did you.
“Another lifetime” is a bit cliched but still speaks to a potent truth — from within grief, remembering something like a joyful Christmas gift exchange, it feels almost ridiculous, like an implausible story about another person. The observation about the wrapping is superb, building a lovable and somewhat quirky character trait into Celine while enhancing the radiance of the memory. Then we swing back down rapidly into bereavement, which again is quite realistic — the mind keeps returning to the sources of its pain.
Best of all is the topper — saying Celine was not only just as beautiful as the wrapping, but just as temporary too… what a gut punch. That “apparently” does a great job of conveying the PC’s bitter surprise, or rather it would do, if not for the fact that the line is badly punctuated, which drains it of much of the impact it might have had. Think about an actor reading that sentence aloud, using the commas as guides for where to pause. If you’re anything like me, you’re hearing one bizarre line reading, because for some reason the commas emphasize the word “so”, which is “so” clearly not the key word in that sentence. I regret coming over all dogmatic about this, but to my mind there is only one correct way to punctuate that sentence: “And so, apparently, did you.” That would have had a brutal impact, rather than the muffled (albeit still painful) landing of the sentence as written.
Something I particularly enjoyed about Eurydice‘s writing was its use of multiple responses for the same action:
You remember the first time you invited John and Celine to come to dinner. You can see them now on the doorstep, John slightly behind, handsome and distinguished in a military-style coat with gold buttons and braiding, Celine, in black just like always, holding out to you a hand-tied bouquet of flowers the colour of her lipstick, and smiling.
Like everyone else in the room, he looks washed out and tired, a lesser version of himself.
This sort of thing happens many places in the game, and it conveys a wonderful effect of progressing thoughts. It’s not just with object descriptions, either — a variety of actions in the game garner different responses when they are repeated. This sounds like it should be frustrating, and in some games it is. (I’m looking in your direction, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.) Here, though, it ends up feeling quite natural, like pushing past an emotional barrier to get something done. It’s admirable, too — I find it challenging enough to write engaging responses for all major objects and actions in an IF game, but to write more than one of each is impressive indeed, especially when they work this well.
Finally, I suppose this is more about the design than the writing, but I want to take a moment to appreciate the way the lyre is handled. I was surprised to find when I reached an ending that the lyre was a Wishbringer object — a magic shortcut through puzzles that is convenient but not necessary. However, where Wishbringer‘s magic was included to make the game more child-friendly with adjustable difficulty, the lyre here is doing more interesting work. Essentially, Eurydice is a magical realist story that allows you to adjust the ratio of magic to realism. My knowledge of modern IF is nowhere near as current or comprehensive as it once was, so perhaps this has been done before, but I’ve never seen it. I’m intrigued by the possibilities it offers, because it leverages a strength unique to interactive storytelling. I hope the game inspires other authors (or this same author — how would I know?) to continue exploring this promising vein.