‘Elegy for a Dead World’ prompts gamers to write life into the story

Jan. 17, 2015 | 5:30 a.m.

THE PLAYER

The narrative is crafted by the player in "Elegy for a Dead World."  (ejobaan Games)

The narrative is crafted by the player in “Elegy for a Dead World.” (Dejobaan Games)

You can battle an Orc king. You can steal a car or maybe a boat. You can even rescue the princess in your plumber overalls.

Actions and story arcs are plentiful in most games, but the underlying narrative, malleable it may be, is almost always pre-written.

“Elegy for a Dead World” puts forth a different theory. Maybe you, the player, can write the story. Maybe a blank page can be turned into a game.

Part writing exercise, part teaching tool and part sci-fi story generator, “Elegy for a Dead World” aims to turn players into budding Arthur C. Clarkes — or at least amateur poets. It’s a high-minded goal, one reflective of the game’s haughty title, and meeting it can be more daunting than facing off against a barrel-throwing ape. Here, the only enemy is a blinking cursor, or a case of writer’s block.

“Elegy for a Dead World’s” achievement is in making a task — some may say a chore — feel warm and inviting. Ambient sounds help, as do its reddish-pink space worlds. The game could be described as a “Mad Libs in Space,” but that does it a disservice.

“Most people who play some type of game have this feeling of, ‘This is a game. I can do it!’ When someone advertises a game where you shoot zombie Nazis, players will think, ‘I can shoot zombie Nazis!’ We’re advertising a game in which you can write,” says co-designer Ziba Scott. “You can write!”

There’s more to do here than simply typing in random words. Controlling an astronaut who is gender and age neutral, players will explore lost civilizations.

There’s an alien library, cracked monuments and glowing tablets. Satellite towers flicker in the distance and the pace is set by the slow breathing of the astronaut. Barely audible audio transmissions drift in and a nifty jet pack makes movement around the 2-D side-scrolling world a breeze.

Occasionally, one will encounter prompts — short phrases that tempt the player to fill in the blanks. Some are nostalgic (“I was once here, before”), some are silly (“You’re late for school and forgot to write that poetry assignment”) and others are foreboding (“You write the diary of a young girl who fled the capital”).

"Elegy for a Dead World" is like an interactive creative writing course. (Dejobaan Games)

“Elegy for a Dead World” is like an interactive creative writing course. (Dejobaan Games)

Many are leading, asking the player to write a note to a loved one or a world left behind. My stories often ended up being about an ex, even when the game wanted them to be about a thief.

It results in a surprisingly personal experience, and oddly challenging. The game’s short stories average about 10 prompts, but once completed it became clear where I broke the narrative being fed to me. It creates a feedback-loop, one in which I felt inspired to go back and write a better story. I also learned I’m not a good songwriter, as some tests are simply rhyming schemes.

Co-creator Ichiro Lambe likens the experience to writing on social networks such as Twitter (the game allows you to share your stories with others, but I opted to keep mine private).

“I don’t know of any games where the creation is narrative,” he says. “You [typically] create engineering feats or buildings or communities. I would argue ‘Elegy’ has more in common with Tumblr than other games, in that you’re trying to weave a tale, to say something in little snippets that’s compelling enough for other people to say, ‘oh wow.’”

The deep space worlds of "Elegy for a Dead World" can be used as a cure for writer's bloc.(Dejobaan Games)

The deep space worlds of “Elegy for a Dead World” can be used as a cure for writer’s block. (Dejobaan Games)

There’s a more utilitarian angle, as “Elegy” comes with grammar exercises, such as sentences rife with errors that need correcting. With these inject more recognizable word puzzles, Lambe hopes the game eventually finds a home in schools and universities. Thus far, he says he’s been in touch with about 200 educators.

Perhaps more compelling is how the game concocts narrative puzzles. In one story, players are encouraged to describe the beauty of ancient culture, only the game flips the script halfway through. It’s ultimately revealed that the player was responsible for the destruction of the world, so one then has to justify their actions as a destroyer.

Of course, the game community isn’t renowned for its deep thinking and one should proceed with caution when browsing the stories of others. Most pieces are respectful, but there’s the expected toilet humor, among even more foul stories.

Lambe and Scott say they haven’t encountered anything too offensive, which they attribute to the patient tone of the game. As inspiration, Scott cites Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama,” a “great book,” he says, “that’s basically just wandering through an empty ship.”

“I don’t want to say we’ve made a graffiti-proof surface,” said Scott, “but for something with such atmosphere your poop jokes have to be really good to stick.”

– Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

‘Elegy for a Dead World’

Developer: Dejobaan Games

Platforms: PC, Mac

Price: $14.99

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