Elegy For A Dead World puts you in the position of controlling a strange little astronaut who just can’t help writing about the weird worlds that they visit. The game opens in a floaty expanse that acts as a hub world for the actual goings-on in the game proper. These goings on involve traveling to three different worlds inspired by Romantic poets Byron, Keats and Shelley, with the work of Mary Shelley somehow being excluded from this constellation of Romantic thought in a huge oversight on the part of the game’s developers.
On entering each of the worlds, the player is asked what kind of prompt she would like. These prompts are suggestions of what to write about and in conjunction with. For example: you can choose to write a history of the world you are about to witness; or you can choose to write the diary of a young girl fleeing the capital city of one of the world; or you can alter a poem by the inspirational writers; or you can just free write whatever you want.
After you choose your prompt, your tiny spaceperson is plopped down on a beautifully animated world. You can walk left and right, or you can jump and float, or you can go in the occasional building. Sometimes you will come upon a little feather beneath the ground, and if you hit tab you can start writing something. Your little spaceperson starts wailing their arms around like it’s going out of style, and you fill in the blanks that are presented to you.
In some ways, Elegy For A Dead World is MadLibs with beautiful backgrounds and a soundtrack. Short of being a freewheeling badass with a penchant for total desecration of the sacred (aka a freewriter), you mostly spend your time elaborating on themes already presented to you. There are spaces, you fill them in, you move on to the next one (they’re conveniently counted for you so you can be sure you didn’t miss a prompt).
If you’ve got a lot of stock in the purely contingent nature of the universe, you can ignore the spaces provided for you. While the gaps in the MadLibs are plainly where you are supposed to type, there’s nothing to stop you from going above and beyond the call of duty. Using your bioorganic senses of rhythm and language, you can fill up each prompt with hundreds of characters of useless information. I read one piece of fiction from this game that filled up every possible prompt with Tolkien-esque backmatter historical information about characters, their families, and how populations survived on the dead world that the spaceman was writing about. I myself mostly stuck to writing about crouching stone gods and capturing the funk of a hidden planet.
You might be wondering how I accessed the writing of another player in Elegy. There is actually an entirely separate secondary level to the game where, at the end of each world, you can view the work you just made and the work of other players. I mostly skipped through my own, but I poured over the user-created content that I could access. It was much as I expected: angsty poetry, good-faith attempts to work toward the prompt, and even a comedy set that made fun of the very idea of playing the game. I cheered some on and ignored others and there was a good time had by all (by me).
I’ve been mostly descriptive through this review because I honestly have no opinion about the game’s mechanics and what it is attempting to achieve. I’m not sure about the net benefits of a “responding to prompts” game beyond a few minutes of fun. I mostly understand the mechanic itself as a novelty, or at my most cynical, a gimmick.
To say that the writing mechanic feels like a gimmick isn’t to trash Elegy, but rather to say that I did not find the act of writing about these beautifully drawn worlds to make an impact in the game nor in me emotionally. I would have been just as happy walking through those worlds and listening to some audio dialogue or reading prefabricated narration that attempted to tie these three different worlds together.
Ultimately, if Elegy For A Dead World has a core flaw, it is a lack of continuity in many ways. There seems to be no way to create a story across the three worlds. I could not figure out how to read more writing by specific players. More than that, when you read the writing of other players, you are not seeing that writing in its original, environmentally prompted form. Instead, it is presented as a kind of storybook, abstracted from its setting and robbing the audio-visual-written format of its very context and impetus to exist. Finally, I didn’t understand what the spaceperson even was other than a contrivance to get us to write about these particular experiences, and that was always something itchy behind my eyes.
Elegy For A Dead World is a great provocation with some wonderful ideas behind it, but I’m not sure where the draw is after the first fifteen minutes. It is a game that could be wonderful with the inclusion of local or networked multiplayer (co-writing about these worlds would be magical) or a little more direction from the designers. That said, as it stands it is merely a set of good-to-great ideas that cohere in a form that failed to capture my imagination.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.