Few topics in all of gaming inspire such passion as the question of what exactly constitutes a game. Titles like The Walking Dead and Gone Home challenged conventional wisdom and violently split opinion. Now, with the release of Elegy for a Dead World, we can expect the battle lines to be drawn once again.
As an explorer, you’re sent to visit planets and record your findings. The only interaction the player has is to move around the screen, enter and exit buildings, and type when prompted at certain locations. So if you find a big room with a statue at its centre surrounded by candles, you might be asked what this society was dedicated to. Your answer is then made publicly viewable, and each planet has multiple context scenarios to fuel your typing.
The mechanics are straightforward to the point of being charmingly minimalistic; nothing feels superfluous. Elegy bears more resemblance to a writing exercise than what might be traditionally called a “game”, but anyone who even occasionally dabbles in writing should appreciate what’s being attempted here. You have no knowledge of the places you’re exploring save for what you can see and hear around you, and the only other guidance you get is the incomplete sentences you can either fill in or replace entirely. The progression through the levels might be linear, but how you respond to them is quite the opposite. Is your journey through these dead civilisations full of wonder and excitement, or dread and despair?
The developers made wise use of their limited resources, sticking to an abstract art style that fits the mysterious tone, and making good use of audio to create a mood. The environments are beautifully alien if a bit brief, and going through them again with a different narrative structure only provides so much. The mysteries presented are quite compelling, though, and it’s hard not to wonder what the creators imagined these places to be. In the absence of a picture on the box, though, all you can do is stick the puzzle pieces together until they resemble something.
How exactly does one evaluate something like Elegy for a Dead World? Even if we accept it as being a game, which many people won’t, how should it be judged? There’s no way to do it without wading into full-blown subjectivity. With that in mind, it’s my personal opinion that we shouldn’t obsess over definitions and conventions if we truly want this medium to flourish; one need only look at the state of the AAA industry to see that gaming doesn’t need any more people restricting its growth as an art form. Elegy for a Dead World certainly has a niche appeal and it’s easy to say it could be made better with a bigger budget or whatever, but at the very least it’s a commendable experiment that ought to make a few people think. Failing that, they could always try The Typing of the Dead.
Elegy for a Dead World is out now for PC and Mac.