No matter how prolific, even the most talented writers occasionally face writer’s block, when coming up with the next word is the hardest thing in the world. The usual solution is to walk away from the page or screen for a while, hoping that inspiration will strike in the shower, at the grocery store, or while otherwise distracted from the responsibility to create. However, one Boston-based indie game developer has another solution in mind: a video game called Elegy for a Dead World, a space exploration adventure in which the player writes their own fate.
The mechanics of Dejobaan Games’ Elegy for a Dead World are similar to those of a classic role-playing game crossed with Mad Libs. The player moves through the game as the only survivor of a wrecked space vessel who must carry on without their companions on a mission to document the existence of three “lost” planets. As the helmeted figure moves through richly illustrated scenes of these futuristic worlds, the player receives writing prompts that, along with their input, comprise the traveler’s analysis of the dead worlds: commentary on the landscape, mysterious artifacts, the likely habits and livelihoods of the world’s extinct inhabitants. These archaeological, anthropological, and entirely self-generated observations are compiled into a master narrative, a detailed, multi-dimensional sci-fi story pieced together by someone who may not have thought they had it in them.
There’s a consciously literary flavor to the whole experience, as Dejobaan President Ichiro Lambe explained in an interview at the 2014 E3 gaming convention. The three worlds are based on the works of British Romantic poets John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Alfred Lord Byron—favorites of co-developer Scott Ziba. Before embarking upon their odyssey, the player also gets a choice of framing device for their story: “A Scientific Journal,” “Their Story,” or “My Story," none of which impact the game itself, but instead help the writer-to-be establish a sense of the story they’re telling. It’s all part of the game’s underlying philosophy, in which the dead worlds are merely a catalyst for whatever narrative a player wants to shape them into. According to Scott, “What we're trying to do is motivate people so they get into a mindset where they have something they want to put out and write. We found just dropping them into a blank slate is too much. It's intimidating. The roles are about giving them something to play as; to set the stage for their writing.” In some ways, the “game” is secondary.
Dejobaan’s website addresses a likely concern for many would-be space adventurers: “But I’m not a writer…” They’re quick to debunk this assumption that the game is only for “writers,” insisting, “We created Elegy so that everyone can write.” There are no standards for success or failure within the game, simply the requirement that the player record something—anything—before moving on from one scene to the next. In this way, the desire to know what comes next in the game drives the impulse to fill in the blanks, creating a narrative where once there was none.
Though the traveler in the story has to go it alone, the writer behind the keyboard doesn’t necessarily have to. De Jobaan’s interface allows for completed Elegy narratives to be saved and shared, both in digital and physical forms. Players are given the option to share their stories and read others’, with the option to browse most recent, best loved, and recently trending variations on the adventure. Players are also encouraged to consider taking screenshots of their otherworldly journey and have them printed on demand into a full-color hard copy book (in a sense, self-publishing). The worlds may be dead, but the elegies can live on.
All images via YouTube.