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About the Story
For untold years you have been trapped, a spirit without a body, incarcerated by an evil mage. Finally your chance has come to free yourself and escape. Run wild in a body-swapping, race against time to escape the tower before sun-up. Can you free the Eidolon in time?
30th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 6
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This is a moderately short hypertext game (it says one hour on the ballot, and it took me about one hour to play through several times and find all the endings) in which the player character is a spirit captured by a mage who wants to study you. For years, you have been imprisoned in a crystal in the mage’s laboratory, biding your time, growing stronger. Your greatest asset is your power to possess people, binding their minds and bodies to your will, but this only works on malleable, immature minds. Fortunately, the mage’s young apprentice Sam and a girl named Ygrette who works in the mage’s tower have taken to sneaking into the laboratory (which has been little used of late) to conduct a disgusting human romantic affair. This is your opportunity.
As that summary should make clear, this is a game where the PC is characterized very distinctly, and their feelings about things are not likely to match the human player’s. Humans in general are of no interest to the PC except insofar as they’re useful. You know something about how their feelings work and how to manipulate them, but you constantly have to fight the urge to express your contempt openly, even though you know this is not an effective way to achieve your goal. All you want to do is escape the tower, but this requires talking to various people inside, convincing them to help you. Human communication is your toolset, which you wield in a detached and objective way, often to comic effect (“You pull your host’s lips back to display her teeth in the hopes of calming the boy”).
Sam and Ygrette can fairly easily be used to manipulate each other. The quirks of romantic attachment and sexuality that young embodied beings display are gross (to say nothing of this “kissing” business, for which they don’t even have the excuse of reproduction), but you can use them. Other characters require subtler treatment. The PC doesn’t fully appreciate this, but some of the minor characters have vivid personalities which keep this part of the game interesting. Many players will find a new and fascinating complexity in an outside view of these seemingly basic human interactions. (Others might laugh ruefully in recognition.)
The story unfolds in a fairly straightforward way, with the PC most likely having more trouble deciding what to do than the player. There are only a few major branches and many of the choices are cosmetic. However, the cosmetic ones often felt significant: there are emotions and relationships at stake, and the PC’s lack of interest in these only highlights my interest as a player.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Moreover, it becomes clear that the PC’s goal is only part of the story. You can get out of the mage’s tower, but something is missing:
You may never know exactly why the mage chose to imprison you there for all those years and, frankly, you don’t care.
It’s hard to believe it, after all this time but, you’ve done it: you’re finally free.
But our feelings are not the spirit’s. We’re not done with the story yet. We’re also looking for answers about how this situation was brought about and why. This is where it really gets interesting.
The PC seems to think of itself as an unspecified “spirit,” but an eidolon is more than that. Sam confirms this during the story, in a passage that it’s possible to skip, and the PC would probably want to skip:
The Mage’s notes say that the Eidolon is the spirit of someone special, someone they once knew.
An eidolon is a specter, phantom, or insubstantial image, but often the image of a particular person. An eidolon can be thought of as a shadow or reflection of someone who has or used to have a more substantial existence. This possibility makes the PC’s current state even more tragic, and makes you wonder if their ruthlessness and single-minded focus on their goal of escaping is making them miss deeper truths than the feelings of the humans running around the tower.
I only found out on my second playthrough (if you’re too goal-oriented, you won’t see this information) that you haven’t even seen the mage for years when the game begins. Back when you did see her, the “experiments” she did on you were unusual:
Nothing the Mage said had made any sense; relating old memories, listing names. You would try to reason, to wheedle, to manipulate and to cajole, but never to any avail. Each session you would inevitably lose your temper and end up screaming to be released.
The Mage would simply sit, and stare, and occasionally cry.
This suggests that the eidolon does not fully grasp the situation or understand the mage’s motives. You can pass over this without thinking too much about it, but you’ll remember it later, if you get as far as confronting the mage herself (you can play through the game, and win, as it seems, without doing so; you don’t have to care about this), and it becomes clear that her motivation is not at all the malice you attributed to her at the beginning of the game. There is weakness there, perhaps, and the peculiar selfishness of being unable to leave the past buried in the past, unable to let go of those you love, unable to leave the departed at peace.
This reframes the scenario: your true prison is not the crystal cage in the mage’s laboratory, but your whole current form of existence. You are now only a spiteful remnant of spirit, but you were once a whole person, with a love and a name of your own. A successful escape is not the true ending. The real resolution to the story does not occur until you have learned the truth about yourself and the mage has learned that clean sorrow is better than clinging to a mockery of something you once had that is now unattainable:
She gestures sharply and your world blazes white.
“I love you, Corinne.” You hear her say as the world fades away.
You feel yourself coming apart, your essence drifting away into the ether and it feels good and right and peaceful.
This is a very beautiful story and a good demonstration, within a fairly small compass, of the way that the branches of a story can enrich each other.
A workman-like piece of choice-based IF, Eidolon’s Escape hits its marks while dangling hints of a deeper mystery, and if it lacks any particular standout feature, I nonetheless enjoyed my time with it. You don’t know your character’s full backstory in EE, but there’s a reason for that: you’re playing a disembodied spirit whose memories have eroded over years of imprisonment in a magical crystal. One of the tricks up your sleeve is possession, though, and since two hapless youths have picked your gaol as the site for their romantic rendezvous, you finally have a chance to escape the tower of the mage who’s caged you by riding one of them to freedom.
This goal is clearly communicated, and it doesn’t take long before you’re able to learn the steps needed to carry it out – there are a couple, but they don’t feel needlessly convoluted. The main gameplay is more puzzle-focused than exploration-focused – you usually only have two choices at a time, and a large number of these are false choices that shunt you back to the main thread. There are challenges and wrong answers, though, most of which revolve around social interaction: you might need to fool the cook into telling you something she’s meant to keep secret, or bluff your way past a skeptical guard. While it’s not too hard to figure out the right approaches in these situations, the eponymous eidolon doesn’t really understand humans so you’re not given too much prompting, meaning it feels satisfying to succeed. Adding to the gravity of the challenge, there’s no save game option and incorrect choices can quickly lead to game over – replays go reasonably fast as there’s no timed text, so this isn’t too annoying, but it does provide an incentive to get things right the first time.
These puzzles and situations, while well-constructed, aren’t that interesting by themselves – it’s all stuff you’ll have seen before. The eidolon’s character and way of understanding the world are what give the game its flavor. I was struck by the way that the choices on offer really only allowed for two ways of playing the eidolon: either as an imperious figure commanding others to do its bidding, or a master manipulator disgusted at how easy it is to twist people around their finger. It’s not very good at social cues much of the time, though, and is usually stuck doing blunt imitations of behavior it’s seen people perform, with the aping only occasionally convincing. Guiding such a character, and engaging with whether its behavior and attitudes are just a reflection of how alien it is from humanity, or if there is something truly sinister about it, adds a welcome note of mystery the otherwise rather quotidian proceedings.
The writing is – I’m going to back to the well of “workmanlike.” I think I only caught one stray typo, and it usually focuses on the right things. But it describes more than it evokes. Take this passage when you possess one of the youths and are embodied for the first time in ages:
"You clutch at the rough cloth of his shirt as your mind wheels. He continues to talk to you but you cannot take any of it in; lights and images blind you, burn into your mind’s eye and blur with new images. Sounds boom, rip and echo through your head, incessant waves of unbearable odours assault your nose, every touch sends lightning through your nerves and your mouth feels as though it has been packed with all the vilest effluvia that the world has to offer."
This is all solid enough, and touches on the right elements to highlight – you’d imagine this is what the experience would be like. But it’s a little vague, and it never sings. There are also some odd anachronisms (the eidolon can attempt to dress someone down by asking “did I stutter?”, and try to seduce another by praising their “symmetrically aligned features”) that undermine the immersion somewhat.
Eidolon’s Escape is smoothly put together – I enjoyed scheming my way to freedom and found the various obstacles on offer fair to work through. The first ending I got, while a victory, was a bit anticlimactic, so I went back and played to a second one that, while technically a failure, was more satisfying and hinted at a resolution to the questions about what exactly the deal is with the eidolon (Spoiler - click to show)(as best I can tell, it’s actually a fragment – and probably not a very nice fragment – of the soul of the mage’s long-dead lover). I wish there was a little more of a spark here, but I can’t be sure that’s because something’s missing in the game, or just personal preference for writing with a bit more flair, and for weird-protagonist games that do more to lean into their odd conceit, rather than EE’s way of playing things fairly down-the-middle.
The Eidolon’s Escape is a nice, solid choice-based game that puts the player in the role of an incorporeal entity seeking to escape confinement.
The protagonist itself is one of the main draws of the game. Everything is seen and interpreted through the (figurative) eyes of the somewhat misanthropic Eidolon, and it’s written convincingly. The protagonist has an idiosyncratic way of viewing the world, taking a non-human’s view toward human behavior that varies between analytical/opportunistic and judgmental/repulsed. Its unique perspective is palpable at every turn, lending a strong and distinctive narrative flavor throughout.
The design of the choices and branching is, for me, a mixed bag. There are many choices that look like they’re calling for the player to make an inductive leap, levering the Eidolon’s limited insights on human psychology to choose the most effective way to manipulate other characters. And that works very well and feels quite satisfying - as long as the illusion is preserved. But on repeated playthroughs, I found that most of these choices don’t have any importance to the direction of the story, actually serving only to punctuate events and change some flavor text. In many cases, if you select the “wrong” choice, the game will just correct it for you (i.e. that didn’t work, so now you’re doing the other thing instead), the exception being a few landmines where the wrong choice leads to an immediate game-over.
By creating the illusion of important choices to engage the player through at least the first playthrough, the author probably made a judicious use of time and effort, and that’s cool. But I feel that the whole thing would have been more powerful, especially on repeated playthroughs, if there were more choices with actual gameplay consequences other than the occasional possibility of insta-loss.
There are a handful of more-important choices stacked at the end of the game, leaving us with a branching structure that’s less of a tree and more of a spork.
One of the endings makes clear the conceptual underpinnings of the action: (Spoiler - click to show)that the Mage is holding the Eidolon against its will because it is a metaphysical remnant of the Mage’s dead loved one, and the Mage desperately wants the Eidolon to identify with this person even though the Eidolon does not. This is an outstanding concept which intrigues me immensely. It has huge emotional gravity and lots of potential to be interpreted in a metaphorical light.
But I wish that the game had done more to explore and develop this awesome concept. As is, it’s all explicated in a few short paragraphs right at an ending, where the player no longer has any ability to respond in-character. There’s a bit of foreshadowing near the start (which can be easily missed), but that’s about it. I feel that, had this weighty relationship been developed in richer detail and been more present throughout the experience, it would have taken the story from good to excellent.
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