Eurydice is an Inform 7 game concerning the immediate aftermath of a friend’s death. Per tradition, I will put my spoiler-free comments after the jump, then spoiler space if there is anything spoilery to follow. As usual, the fact that I am reviewing Eurydice at all indicates that it does have listed beta testers.
Eurydice proclaims itself to be “about grief.” I confess this lead-in put me off; a lot of past IF games have dealt with the loss of a loved one in uncomfortable or disappointing ways, by being too vague, too distancing, too melodramatic. Moreover, anonymous entries about serious topics are sometimes rather difficult to review, as one has the sense of dealing with a heartfelt confession from someone who feels vulnerable and may not easily separate feedback on the game from feedback on the validity of their emotions.
Happily, Eurydice manages better than many other pieces in the same general genre of “slice of life when life totally sucks”, and this is largely down to the writing. Polish could be better. There are a bunch of typos — “aristic”, “intenstines”. Not all mentioned objects are implemented, so you’re likely to not see any such thing quite a few times, especially when interacting with objects that didn’t belong to your deceased friend. (A comment on the tunnel vision of grief, perhaps?) Especially during the first few rooms, the similes were a little too self-conscious and flowery for my taste. Paragraphs run long, and if I were editing this I would have marked it up all over with a big mess of pilcrows.
Despite these complaints, the writing mostly bears up under the considerable weight put on it. It’s not easy to capture the cold formal feeling of having just lost someone, or to expose the yowling misery underneath without becoming unendurably cheesy. Details follow the jump.
Eurydice‘s rooms are crammed with people and things, or else depressingly empty. In another kind of game I would nail this as being a poor and unbalanced distribution of game content: you don’t usually want one room with nothing interactive in it and another with half a dozen brand new NPCs who take many turns to look at and talk to. But it works here, because the point is precisely to evoke the sensation of emptiness, or of being socially overwhelmed.
Elsewhere it is the precision, and the willingness to observe and articulate things usually unspoken, that makes Eurydice tolerable. For instance:
Anyway, you think, hard, ungracious, cold and churlish as you are, Jess is here specifically and explicitly for John. When somebody dies, there is a grief hierarchy, topped by those denoted closest to the deceased, usually based upon length of acquaintence. [sic]
Eurydice‘s setting is likewise acutely observed: Hinksey Park is real, and has a swimming pool; the Oxford sky often has that particular color in the evening. Though I haven’t, happily, had occasion to visit Oxford’s hospitals, it’s entirely in keeping with the rest of the architecture that they should be a curious combination of gracious sandstone estate and bland institutional nothingness.
After a bit of opening maneuvering, we manage to find Charon and begin a journey to the afterlife — of a fashion. But it’s an afterlife still enmeshed in a real-world context. Of the ferryman, the author writes
At any rate, you are glad that the man has sufficient taste to punt from the Oxford end.
…which made me smile.
The decision to mesh the story of grieving with an Orpheus and Eurydice story felt, I think, more natural to me than to some other reviewers. What Victor Gijsbers saw as a cowardly withdrawing from the real-world encounter with grief, I saw more as a framework in which the real-world back story could be presented to the player. Hell looks like, is, the hospital where Celine was treated, and the experiences we have there are more about that pre-death reality than they are about anything mythological. Indeed, over-indulging in the mythological is explicitly framed as a way to avoid coming to terms with reality.
So. Flaws and problems. As I mentioned earlier, the game needs a good hard proof-read; it needs some synonyms added and some scenery implemented; and there are spots where I might have backed off from the more florid similes in the first few rooms. Those are all things that the author could easily fix. But there’s also a more significant design issue: this is a piece that really benefits a lot from experiencing all of the endings, and Eurydice puts up unnecessary barriers to this.
There are four significant endings, of which three aren’t too hard to find, but it is the fourth “Flowers” ending that ties them all together, and the fourth is gated by puzzles different in nature from the rest of the game, business about finding a coin in your pocket and pills in a room you’re discouraged from even visiting, etc., and collecting these items before you take Charon’s ride. The “Flowers” ending would register as Cruel on a zarfian scale even if the others are Polite, and the puzzles involved weirdly old-school in comparison to the rest of the piece. Where in the opening moves of the game would you get the idea that you ought to be ransacking rooms and searching for objects for later use? Eurydice presents itself fairly explicitly as not That Kind Of Game. The sketchiness of the implementation with absent or synonym-lacking scenery also tends to discourage the kind of rigorous exploration needed.
Now I grant that it makes sense for the “Flowers” ending to be harder to reach than the others, and perhaps the author’s intention with these puzzles was precisely to make it unlikely for the player to reach that ending without first having played through the game at least once to one of the other endings. But if that was the idea, I think it needed to do a better job of cluing the player about where to look for the second and subsequent playthroughs, by laying bare something about the game’s internal logic at the end that implies how a replay could go differently. Slouching Towards Bedlam does this brilliantly; there are precedents. The presence of the hints makes it possible to find the “Flowers” ending anyway, so this is better than nothing, but I really wish I could have encountered that content without having to be explicitly hand-held through all of it.
I also think the coin and pill puzzles don’t really make sense within the game’s own metaphorical vocabulary. The game’s help text suggests focusing on practical problems if you want to avoid delusions, which implies that the author did have a clear intention behind the design. But (a) collecting random crap around your house isn’t really practical behavior per se — it’s just indulging in a different style of trope-driven impracticality than e.g. beheading snakes in the garden; and (b) the thematic contrasts in the rest of the game are not about practical behavior vs. grief, but about the protagonist’s willingness (and ability) to accept the friendship of the live humans vs. rejecting their consolation for the loss of the deceased one. In my opinion, the story would have been stronger on its own terms had the “Flowers” ending turned on clearly-hinted acts of contact with the live friend NPCs — who are all well if briefly drawn — rather than relying on these find-the-hidden-object puzzles.
Still, these are problems that I would consider advanced-level: a great many games don’t have sufficient content, design, or thematic coherency even to qualify for this kind of complaint. If this is the author’s first work, kudos, and I hope we see more from him or her.