And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
—John Keats, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be”
“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death”
—John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
Elegy for a Dead World is unlike anything I’ve played before. It resembles the indie genre called, affectionately and otherwise, the “walking simulator,” games like Dear Esther and Gone Home which offer a focus on experiencing a place, with all the mechanical focus centered on simply abiding in and exploring a game world. In Dejobaan Games’ Elegy for a Dead World, you wander barren, vivid landscapes, worlds post some terrible catastrophe or ending, but with a twist. It’s this twist that makes Elegy so intriguing, and is what sets this game apart as something I’ve never seen before. Instead of being told what happened to these worlds, given a story, you are given the tools to supply your own story. Elegy for a Dead World casts you as not only an explorer, but a writer.
“Ichiro [Lambe, developer at Dejobaan Games] invited a number of people hanging around the office to collaborate on a 5 day project,” Ziba Scott, co-designer and lead developer of Elegy, told me. “He had an idea about a game where the core is just wandering through an interesting space. I had just come from an informal conference session on the relationships between games and poems. One year later and here we are.”
In the final game, players will be given three “dead worlds” to explore, each one based on the work of a Romantic poet—one for John Keats, one for Percy Shelley, one for Lord Byron. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, as I noted when speaking to Scott: poems are largely constructed with a focus to the way language affects the reader, the way each line forms an image or an idea, accumulating to produce a distinctive image or experience. A few hundred years after the time of the Romantics, William Carlos Williams called poems “machines made of words.” It’s an idea not that dissimilar to games, machines made of graphics and gameplay mechanics. “As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character,” a descriptor that seems to apply to video games as well as it does to poems.
This relationship is primarily expressed, in Elegy for a Dead World’s gameplay, through the introduction of writing as a central gameplay mechanic. As players walk through the sidescrolling worlds made available to them, gazing at strange monuments, peering into buildings, etc, they are encouraged to pause periodically and write, describing the world as they see it and telling its story. These moments can be guided or unguided as the player decides, letting them select from pre-made writing prompts or a free writing mode before the level starts. In either mode, though, you can write whatever and wherever you choose, filling in your experience with words, shaping it as you see fit. Once you’ve completed a world, you can share the story on Steam and read the stories written by others. Or you can go write another one. The game, which is to be released at the beginning of next year, is an interesting experiment, a creative writing tool and a video game all in one, an attempt to make players be creative in a way they aren’t usually asked to be, and maybe a way to ask creatives who don’t normally get into games to be players, too.
The beta build I played only had one world ready for me to explore, the one based on the writing of John Keats, and only a few basic prompts to choose from (Scott promised that the final release would include many more prompts, and emphasized that developing prompts was a primary focus at this stage of production). The world is an alien wasteland, dirty and abandoned. I wander around what feels like a desert, with bright red and orange clouds slanting toward a vanishing point on the horizon, a distant sun or some other inferno. It’s littered with monuments of strange shapes, inscribed with alien markings for me to decipher.
Scott told me that Keats was the game’s starting point in a way. “Keats’ ‘When I Have Fears I May Cease to Be’ has long been one of my favorites since I read it in high school. The older I get and the more into being creative for a living, the more Keats’ panic about capturing and reflecting everything you want to in the time available resonates with me.”
My first time through, I choose the free writing mode, and the game lets me loose. I slowly, meditatively walk through the beautifully painted world, studying it. I pause every so often to write a few words, a line or two. The game doesn’t tell me where I should be writing and where I
shouldn’t be, which inspires in me a strange anxiety, a fear that I’m not expressing the right things at the right moments. Keats was dreadfully ill for most of his life, and that looming shadow of mortality is everpresent in his work. Maybe the freedom given to your expression in the game is designed to give a similar effect, allowing you to wonder if and when you’ve said what you need to say.
Relating the process of creating the game’s worlds, Scott made it clear that the translation from poem to game was very deliberate. “Ichiro and I took a poem from each, and wrote a story about a world that related very directly to the events and feelings. Then we drew them in a stunningly crude fashion…Luigi Guatieri then translated our stickfigures into gorgeous, layered, painterly landscapes.”
I didn’t ask what poems, and Scott didn’t tell me, but I imagine that the Keats world was based on the poem he mentioned, “When I Have Fears I May Cease to Be,” with its “Huge cloudy symbols of high romance” like the cascading clouds cut through the world’s sky. The Romantics were obsessed with the awe of creation and the struggle to capture it, and roaming through the Keatsian landscape Dejobaan games created for me, I felt that tension in the tips of my fingers.
The story I write is one of a fallen creator, walking through a world he let fall apart. Or maybe he initiated the end himself? It’s not clear to me. His memories are clouded. I imagine the world as it must have been when it had life and inhabitants, utopian and bright. I picture my tiny player character shaping it all like clay, his words and thoughts filling space.
I think I choose to tell this story because one of the characterizing features of the Romantic movement in poetry is a fascination with the power of creation, the power of words and art to not only relate this world but create new ones. Like William Blake, in “The Tyger”:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Through the act of writing, Blake suggests an answer: I dare. Blake’s words frame the tyger, a power that Blake conceives as godlike. The Romantics share a belief in the power of creation coupled with an anxiety about death, with the power of poetry as a possible solution to death—the way to outlive your mortal life span through language.
By placing you at the precipice of alien worlds and asking you to memorialize them in whatever way you see fit, Elegy for a Dead World asks you, whether you’re a writer by trade or not, to do as Blake does: to dare. It’s a challenge that I think will be worth answering.
Elegy for a Dead World is currently in development, with the full game planned for release “by March 31, 2015.” You can preorder the game here.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.