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Two Cultures, August 17, 2013
Eric Eve's games tend to be solidly built and to follow well-established, orthodox design patterns; The Elysium Enigma, a sci-fi mystery, is no exception.
Enigma is structured around simple, traditional puzzles in a fairly non-linear arrangement. There are three major NPCs, all responsive conversationalists. In terms of design, tech and careful diligence, it's an impressive piece of work: its threads never seem to trip over one another, the plot inobtrusively avoids ballooning without making play feel confined, and conversation updates smoothly with knowledge and plot advancement. Interaction is very much of the traditional variety: discover hidden items, find keys and passwords, fiddle with electronic devices, find a vehicle to overcome a barrier, and so forth. (While there are more involved puzzles for a higher score, getting a winning ending is quite easy). Although you're exploring a village and environs, it's a largely deserted environment, major characters aside, and the player's adventurer-style trespass, vandalism and theft goes largely unremarked.
The weak points of The Elysium Enigma lie in the writing. I don't want to paint too strong a picture here, since for the most part the prose does the job that's required of it. The standard IF fare - descriptions of rooms, objects and actions that straightforwardly negotiate these - is mostly good solid work. (There are occasional quirks of overspecification where more natural speech would have worked better, but nothing egregious.) Where it falls short is character writing.
Characters are used effectively to deliver key information and direct action, but this often comes across as highly artificial. (This is partly because of the brave decision to keep the three central NPCs on-stage and highly responsive for the entire course of the game.) Even allowing for this difficulty, they're all rather two-dimensional.
Take the protagonist, Andrew: tall, athletic and good-looking, a bit contemptuous of Elysium's locals. His reactions to events generally go undescribed, which is a standard approach: show what the player character sees, imply their inner state, avoid directly reporting it. But when we do get hints of the protagonist's state of mind - his final words at the game's conclusion, for instance - they can seem massively off-key.
And this is a problem, because the NPCs aren't incidental to the story. Indeed, it deals with perhaps the most difficult of NPC dynamics, romance. The game's problems in this department are, I think, perfectly summed up in a single moment. It takes a little buildup and is spoilery as hell, though, so bear with me.
(Spoiler - click to show)Early in the game you encounter Leela - young, attractive, apparently an outcast from the village. She's a wide-eyed, curious ingenue; she asks you for food and clothes, bathes naked and then continues to follow you around in that state. Once you've provided her with food and clothing, she expresses romantic interest in you. If you ask about a relationship, she strongly suggests that she'll have sex with you a little later. A little later, you're exploring an underground bunker; she throws herself down on a mattress. You're discussing the implications of the exciting mystery you've uncovered. At this point, she's dressed in a sheet held together with a couple of safety-pins. And...
...and nothing. Not so much as a fade to black. There's no way to initiate sex directly, and more circumspect methods (more kissing, lying on the mattress) seem, in context, awkwardly chaste.
I'm definitely not arguing that there has to be a sex scene here - you could fade to black, have her reject the PC, articulate some motivations for the PC to keep it in his pants, or rewrite the scene so that it didn't lean so obviously in that direction. But as it stands, this makes the whole scene seem like an awkward lapse in characterisation.
More generally: Leela's character is a recognisable Type from SF of a certain awful era: a wide-eyed ingenue, in need of rescue, childish, curious, sexually liberated yet virginal, spirited yet biddable, given to following the hero around. Now, arguably the story's point is that this character is a fiction; perhaps the intention was that Leela's character was meant to look like an implausible male fantasy. But this is rather undermined because Leela's true identity, Anita, is the other side of the same coin, the Cold, Calculating Bitch. Now, this is a boring stereotype, to be sure, but it also kind of torpedoes the emotional impact of the game's final Big Choice. Andrew has to choose whether to bring Anita in or let her go; for this choice to have weight, it requires the player to be invested in Leela/Anita. The problem is that Anita, the real one, is less complicated than Leela: all we see of her is the heartless schemer of the official report, and the spitting ball of hate when she's captured. For me, the choice of whether to let her go read less like a moment of anguished indecision and more like relishing a moment of power over a bad woman.
The game initially suggests that it's going to be social science fiction. You have to deal with a strongly technophobic culture, and the implication is that you're balancing the need to respect that culture with other concerns: the need to protect individual rights, political and military objectives, and so on. In the event, though, this isn't explored as much as the initial setup might suggest; you only really deal with one Elysian, there's no story incentive not to violate their cultural norms, and the real plot is about espionage. The Elysian culture is rendered at a Star Trek planet-of-the-week level of detail: one big cultural hook drives all the conflicts, and everything else is a bit generic. (Of course, a detailed Le Guin-ish culture-building piece really isn't what the author is interested in, even if I'd like him to be: the real focus is geopolitics and espionage. (Spoiler - click to show)But Leela's deception relies on you misreading the genre, thinking that you're in a Culture vs. Individual story rather than a Great Game one; so perhaps the mystery could have been preserved for longer by continuing to develop a culture-oriented plot.)
Finally, the central premise of the plot feels a bit off.(Spoiler - click to show) We're meant to understand that Anita plans to seduce Andrew in order to extract tactical information from him. Her mission is covert observation; the risks of exposing herself are very high, so the information should be a) very valuable, and b) unobtainable by safer means. In the event, she doesn't get all that much information from Andrew, and most of it seems like things that could have been learned covertly (if perhaps not so quickly). So the upshot is that Anita seems like an incompetent spy.
So while I could respect Enigma as a piece of design and implementation, I found it very hard to enjoy as a story.