I first hear the low whoosh of a jetpack, the echo of steps on long-abandoned floors, and then an ominous hum to round out the atmosphere. I scoot along dust-covered floors, but still there are no words. I switch the ambient music off, and put on my own music in a desperate plea for inspiration. The canvas is blank, and I shut down Elegy For A Dead World. I never face defeat to war machines or grotesque aliens in Elegy. Instead, it’s the very real terror of writer’s block that impedes my progress. Elegy requires a greater kind of skill not typically required by games: the imagination for writing engaging fiction.
Elegy For A Dead World is an interactive writing tool developed by independent studios Dejobaan and Popcannibal, developers of AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! For the Awesome and Girls Like Robots, respectively. The game transforms famous lyric poems “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” by John Keats; “Darkness” by Lord Byron; and “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley into three distinct science fiction paradises designed to invigorate writers. Each world has its individual aesthetic and color palette, but all three share a fascination with desolate landscapes that are interrupted by strange, monolithic structures.
Armed with a small jetpack a thesaurus, players simply walk across each environment and hit the “tab” button whenever they want to jot down a line. They can publish their work, where it’ll either be commended or left alone (there’s no way to provide negative feedback through the game, though players can comment on stories in the Steam Workshop).
Players can flesh out one of the provided writing prompts, which range from fill-in-the-blank inspirations to grammar exercises designed for classrooms, or do free form writing across the worlds. The former seems exclusively designed for classrooms or creative jumpstarts, and so it’s in the latter’s flexibility where Elegy’s design truly shines. Once published, the stories are not read in the world, but are presented in dynamic pages that feature moving images of the environments where sentence was written. This has led to a rash of stories that comment on or explain the wondrous visuals of the world, which can initially seem a bit limiting, given that there are only three worlds. Steam’s users, however, are nothing if not versatile.
There are currently three stories—one for each world—that provide an excellent and highly comedic analysis of the strange and alien artifacts present on each world. “Andy Moore’s epic diary” with its reflections on the “floating tbone steaks” in “Ozymandias” is my personal favorite, but there’s a wealth more to choose from. Don’t worry, as there are more than a handful of people who have clearly taken Elegy’s writing tools seriously, but the levity presented by a few alternate users eased some of my concerns about the game’s rigid vision.
What still troubles me is the game’s commitment to science fiction imagery, which embeds a natural wall between it and people who don't care for sci-fi as a genre. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity in each of the three abandoned worlds that provides the aforementioned flexibility to make comedy, romance, or even abstract poetry, but it’s all cemented in the game’s undeniable love for space fantasy imagery. Elegy’s tools are so freeing, but it’s a shame they alienate writers of a different cloth.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Popcannibal developer Ziba Scott explained that including word processing tools would be “not sexy and not inspiring,” and their key goal was to provide the right atmosphere for writing fiction in short, passionate spurts. While I disagree that including editing programs decreases the “sexiness” of a interactive fiction-writing tool, Elegy does inspire many visions of wonder and intrigue. It’s not without it’s own limits—the science fiction aesthetic divided across three worlds—but Elegy’s simplistic, effective tools outweigh the restraints. How many games have promised unique, personalized stories with gorgeous vistas? ElegyFor A Dead World delivers, but only if you meet it halfway with a hunger for derelict worlds and an extensive collection of original tales.