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Eleanor Riddle-by, April 24, 2021
NOTE: The first part of this review was written about an earlier version of the game, where I got stuck on a puzzle; read on for an addendum written after I finished the updated version.
This is a new game by the author of Radicofani from last year’s Comp (link is to my review). Much like the earlier piece, Eleanor has old-school trappings – the game delights in popping up new windows with low-res graphics and hard-to-read fonts – an obtuse parser, and near-unsolvable puzzles in the way of rescuing a female love interest. Despite these off-putting features, I wound up enjoying Radicofani on the strength of its setting – an old Italian hill town under the sway of supernatural evil, complete with charming café, musty library, desecrated church, and spooky castle. This time out, though, the setting is a metaphysical underworld loosely inspired by the music of the Beatles, and it’s sadly not a change for the better.
Preliminarily, let me say that I don’t quite get the Beatles thing. As far as I understand it, the premise here is that Eleanor – who’s I think the romantic partner of the player character – has died, seemingly by suicide, and you’ve decided to make your own suicide attempt to try to retrieve her soul from the afterlife. So far so Orpheus and Eurydice, I suppose, so having a musical link has some kind of logic. But I tend to think of the Beatles’ oeuvre as love songs and psychedelia – this kind of tormented, emo-y setup seems like it would work better with someone like Tom Waits or Nine Inch Nails rather than the Fab Four. Plus, given her name I think we’re meant to understand Eleanor as lonely-spinster Eleanor Rigby, but the idea of her being coupled up seems antithetical to the character of the woman from the song! The game does include other occasional nods to the Beatles – there’s an errant quote from Strawberry Fields Forever, and the ABOUT text notes in passing that “nothing is real” but the series of references never felt to me like they meshed with the subject matter.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with an idiosyncratic choice of inspiration, and it’s not like we’re talking about a gritty S&M-themed Care Bears reboot or anything too outré like that. The real difficulty is that gameplay consists of navigating a surreal, near-featureless void, with your only companions a clumsy parser, obfuscated prose, obscure puzzles, and a vicious time limit. Taking these in order: the parser is a custom one, and has a lot of idiosyncrasies, the main one being that it’s rarely clear whether or not it’s understood what you’re trying to do. There’s lots of response text that plays on a timer, and you’ll get different responses to what would be synonyms in Inform, like say if you type KNOCK ON BLACK DOOR versus KNOCK ON BLACK (in the former case, I got “I’m sorry, I’d like to understand more”; I the latter, I got “” – which might have been non sequitur text just playing in the background?)
Relatedly, even when the parser isn’t been a slippery little eel, the writing is awkward, with lots of typos and infelicities starting on the very first page. I don’t think the author’s a native English speaker, and fair enough, this is far better game than any I could write in another language, but getting proofreaders and testers who are fluent is really necessary in these cases!
These issues feed into a bigger one, which is the difficulty level of the puzzles. I found them pretty unintuitive, apparently operating on dream-logic (I solved two and a half, with the help of what’s actually a rather-nifty help feature that pops up images that prompt you towards the solution). But the thing about dream-logic is that you need to establish the rules of the dream, and create symbolic associations between the objects in the dream and the emotions or relationships that they represent, in order for the player to understand what role they’re supposed to play. Here, the necessary actions didn’t seem cued in any way by the situation, and instead are just random verbs you can apply to the contextless nouns on offer. For example (Spoiler - click to show)there’s a mirror in the first room, and you need to break it to make progress – but there’s no indication that the mirror is showing anything about the protagonist that he rejects, for example, or that there’s anything on the other side, which would motivate the breaking. Worse, after that you need to blow on the fragments of the mirror, which I guessed because it’s in the hint image but can’t even construct a post-hoc metaphorical rationale for.
What this means is that most of my experience playing Eleanor was trial-and-error, with the parser and language issues making me unsure whether my trials were actually producing errors. And then making things worse, after 20 or so turns failing to make progress, a timer ends the game. There are copious autosaves so it’s hard to lose too much progress, but running into the fail-state so frequently sucked much of my motivation – as did feeling like I knew how to solve the last puzzle blocking my progress, but couldn’t find the syntax to make it work ((Spoiler - click to show)I think you need to adjust the clock so it’s showing the time as midnight, but no version of SET CLOCK TO MIDNIGHT was accepted or even threw off a useful error).
Eleanor definitely boasts a compelling atmosphere, and I admit I’m curious to know how the Beatles stuff all comes together in the end (I’m waiting for Father Mackenzie to show up as a defrocked exorcist tormented by literal demons and living on the edge). With a lot more polish, and some additional resonance to the puzzles, I could see this being a lot of fun – alas, as it is I found it an exercise in frustration, without even Radicofani’s pretty cityscapes as a consolation.
ADDENDUM: the author made some updates, including making the guess-the-verb puzzle discussed above a little easier, so I was able to go back and finish it. The second half of the game isn't radically different from the first, but either the puzzles get a little easier or thematic or I just got more in tune with them, since I didn't find the remainder too hard to get through so long as I kept consulting the HELP function. I might have missed the "real" ending since I finished with 17 out of 18 points and were indications that another outcome might have been possible, but I'm satisfied with where the story ended (Spoiler - click to show)(the main character deciding to let go of Eleanor now that she's gone, and try to continue with his life).
The prose continued to have a fair number of errors and awkward phrases, but there were some nice pieces of writing too, including a short exegesis on Eleanor Rigby that helped knit the game's themes together rather nicely. It's still a little too abstract for my tastes -- there are a few memories or images of Eleanor that start to give her a bit of specificity as a person, but she remains largely a cipher throughout, which allows the themes to come through but drains away some of the emotional immediacy. Glad I was able to see the rest of this one!