Elegy for a Dead World: Favoring Fiction or Inspiring Essays?

Dejobaan Games’ Kickstarted title Elegy for a Dead World finally released late December, much to the delight of literary gamers and possibly English teachers in search of a new creative writing exercise activity in their class. Pitched as “a game for writing fiction,” Elegy transports the player to a strange, far off star system, giving them the choice of three planets inspired by classical literary writers. Players then write fiction based on either sample prompts or free form writing, all tied to interactive nodes based on a haunting science fiction landscape in the background.

This then begins to flow into the game’s few mechanics, which involve gently walking across sci-fi landscapes and interacting with specific node points. With little guidance, Elegy exercises player-led creativity. Its goal to spark creation through a set of loose parameters for wide varieties of writers to take up keyboard (a pen hardly is helpful here) and write fiction. A central question then emerges -- is Elegy effective at generating raw fiction?

It’s possible that Elegy’s strengths may not rely on encouraging fiction, but instead, on encouraging essaying and more personal forms of expression.

This form of encouraged construction begins with the source writers that Dejobaan Games extracted. Byron, Keats, and Shelley, all members of the English Romantic movement of the 19th century, were mostly renowned for their lyrics and poetry. Shelley’s work in particular may particularly echo the aesthetics of Elegy, as her poem Ozymandias seems almost hard-wired into “The Artist’s world.” Encouraging writers to inhabit their styles is a call to inhabit a nonfictional genre, which suggests Elegy’s strengths may span further than traditional fiction.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
— Percy Bysshe Shelley

The similarities of stories, especially ones that directly reference the “source material,” indicate Elegy’s ability to gently guide the player’s hand in what fiction they may create. However, continuing to look through the Workshop entries, many pieces begin to shift from straight narrative fiction and into realms of journaling or reflection, both for actual writers or characters in fictional realms.

Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
— John Keats

This reflects the trends within English Romanticism itself, which as a movement, rejected logical or literal arrangements of words in favor of the intuitive and emotive, with an emphasis on more colloquial language. It’s curious then, to see Elegy’s designers sell themselves as a game for “writing fiction,” when in fact it may be a game for writing reflection.

It’s an idea reflected in the aesthetics. A lone astronaut of some unknown species wanders through ruins too fantastic to be from our day and age, but still long abandoned. Prompts that give structure to player’s work ask the player to write about events in the past. And the nodes, positioned in key points to line up with the visual design, suggest no other understanding of time other than backwards, granting forward access only through the player’s words. Some of the prompts even are structured around song lyrics.

Titan! to thee the strife was given
Between the suffering and the will,
Which torture where they cannot kill
— Lord Byron

This of course, could parallel traditions of 20th century writers like James Baldwin, Maya Angelou or even Amy Tan, whose work bears more resemblance to some of the final products on the Workshop as opposed to science fiction writers like Octavia Butler or Arthur C. Clarke. To that end then, does Elegy for a Dead World support its players best by encouraging them to write fiction, or by recognizing its own tendencies and establish guidelines and opportunities for growth in nonfiction categories?

The answer becomes crucial as Dejobaan hopes to grow on its minimalist game design and ignite the fire of writing in its players. With only three worlds right now, Elegy’s creative potential sometimes feels limited by the available art, and it relies on a steady supply of Steam Workshop creations to keep players seeking out new ideas and experimentation.

Caught between the encouragement of two technical forms, the bulk of the stories dealing with apocalypses, fallen empires and archaeologists exploring lost ruins starts to feel all too similar rather quickly. It’s possible that to grow the boundaries of fiction, Elegy will need to either give players a wider variety of planets to draw inspiration from, (the prompts being still so anchored to the surrounding environment), or it could stand to change gears and encourage players to explicitly explore essay or poetic formats at the surface level.

Though the game’s current form of transferrent learning urges players to go teach themselves who Byron, Shelley and Keats are, direct calls and inspiration from more essay writers could both lend aid to flagging English teachers everywhere, and unlock a broader player base of young creative writers seeking an encouraging environment.

By taking a bold step and growing Elegy’s formats of expression, Dejobaan games stands to not only to keep their game alive in the long run, but also help spread popularity and enthusiasm for forms of writing not typically rewarded in interactive spaces.