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About the Story
"To think of 'living' there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not 'live' at Xanadu."
— Joan Didion, "Goodbye to All That"
The great elvish city of Wild Idyll disappeared when our grandparents were still young, and all of the elves along with it. We each know dozens of stories about this near-mythical place, and hundreds more about the near-immortals who built it; but who can say what is true about a place that barely exists in memory?
Then I met the last person to have lived in Wild Idyll.
A choice-based story about telling stories, leaving cities, and cities leaving us.
32nd Place - tie - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 7
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I'm pretty shocked EfG didn't get a top-twenty finish in IFComp 2022, and when I say top-twenty, I mean top-ten. I voted it top-two. It seemed very close to Prism in many ways in terms of building a distant magic city, though they were built in different ways. Prism was also in my top ten and likely well worth your time, but you get to see and imagine Prism, while you get to imagine and dream EfG. Perhaps it hit at the right time: I had gotten behind with my reviews, and here was a work about an interlocutor (there are three at the start--I'm not clear if they have anything different to say, but since there is enough to say in any one read-through, this doesn't matter,) with not much time to speak to me, and I had little time to consider what to ask him. After a few questions, my immediate reaction was: you know, as much as I'd love to hear about this city, others would deserve to, too! So I'd better ask good questions, even if the conversations took place across a few days in-work. My unexpected friend had a lot to offer, even if they were not part of the leadership, or movers and shakers in Wild Idyll, the city in question.
Perhaps playing EfG when I did was a happy accident, and I liked it more than I should have. And I've had my share of "how the heck did this place so low" or "I understand this placed low because it was unusual and the innovation isn't for everyone and it be remembered well post-comp" entries. But I've never felt, wow, this is really big, and I encourage a lot of judges who rated it low to go back and try to find the stuff I see. Maybe I'm off-base. I was almost scared to revisit it, because what if it didn't measure up? What if I was just making stuff up? I suppose part of EfG's thrust is to give you permission to make stuff up, or think of what your conversant would have said with more time.
That said, I don't know if I've ever enjoyed the difficulty of making choices as with EfG. I was devoid of the usual cynicism of how writers have to keep their work on rails to keep within the two-hour IFComp limit. And the thing was -- the question choices felt like quite possibly the best of that sort of thing I've read. Many very good and well-respected works give you a nice variety of choices to fit your personality, and you can clearly see the game design. You know which one you want to ask, or, if you're playing to win, you're pretty sure which one will give you an edge. Perhaps you will even remember something from your journey that helps you make the right choice, or you suspect you missed something that'd help give you information. But with EfG? Well, your friend seems to anticipate what you want, for instance when you slightly yawn and they change the subject to something else interesting. I often had a choice between three very, very good and quantitatively questions I wanted to ask all at once, and I couldn't. Many of them, I wish I'd thought of. They encouraged me, in fact, to ask more and better questions, or try to. I did so, for at least the next week.
I sort of cringed when my questions were technical, because they stopped well short of the author's goal, or one of them, which was giving free rein to imagine what could be, in as much or as little detail as you'd wish. And perhaps I saw where the ending was heading. (Don't worry, "the city was within you all along, if you just knew where to look" ain't it!) But I enjoyed the journey so much. And that, I think, was part of what the author wanted to get across. And thinking of EfG, I remembered all the Ink games (Ink works well with the narrative--it feels like a story flowing and not just text) where I figured, okay, this choice didn't matter, and neither did that one, and I usually tried some reverse-engineering. But I was too caught up in forgotten needs and desires and things I didn't know I wanted yet to do this sort of analysis. I've never had an IFComp entry do that. I've had ones give me something unexpected in a genre I hated, but this opened the floodgates and made me why I didn't want or question certain things before. I've never used psychedelics, but EfG feels like what some people hope the psychedelic experience is, and it does so without any of the old tired tropes or trying to shove anything in your face. It even managed to make a discussion of language interesting to me, skipping well beyond "where are the bathrooms?"
It's quite a wild ride, extremely ambitious, but it never throws its randomness or mythicness in your face or tells you how you are supposed to interpret it. It allows you to be skeptical and snarky with your questions. Even as it describes 497 ways the Elves said goodbye, you want to believe that happened, or could have. It regenerated me in a way that self-help books could only dream of, and not just for the final stretch of IFComp reviewing and judging. I was worried, coming back to it, I might not enjoy it the second time as much, as I had time to sit and be critical. Perhaps I would see proof that this work is really all just a pile of pretentious twaddle and I am a fool and sucker for enjoying it. I did not, but even if I did, I think I would still have enjoyed it immensely. It is the sort of work that should be intimidating, you feel, but it isn't, and it's about so many things that were lost, but you can't describe how or why or when, and you know even getting a bit of them back would be immensely valuable. And while a review can never nail down what a work is about, in this case I feel particularly disappointed and helpless.
Because a work like EfG certainly reminds me of all I want to do, as opposed to the stuff I take because it's there. I thought back a lot to CS Lewis's definition of Joy: a desire for something longer ago or further away or still "about to be." And this popped up throughout EfG. And I realized that even with a "well, the stranger was BS'ing you all the time" cop-out ending, that wouldn't change the things I'd forgotten about that I wanted to do or look at or that I believed were possible until I knew better. I remembered a few, because there is so much weird stuff we forgot we wanted, or weird stuff we might want once we understand. During EfG I thought about how hollow pop songs about saying good-bye or whatever were, or of summer days and nights that can't last, and of cliches like "the only constant is change." Those all felt dull compared to a surface EfG had helped me scratch, one I probably hadn't for a while, one I want to scratch at instead of clinging to old habits that aren't nearly as rewarding as they used to be.
This explains Wild Idyll. But the title? The title is given by your new friend's explanation that the Elvish language has 497 words for good-bye. At the end, of course, there's the big one: "This last 'goodbye' was a great equalizer-- ... this farewell was not one of decisive departure, but rather surrender to the inevitable: an abandonment of oneself to the force of fate." It feels a lot like that one work by Borges where a minor poet's one word destroyed a castle, though it felt less harsh than when people talk about the unspeakable name of God. I mean, after my brief time reading, I didn't want to let go, even though I needed to. I certainly wanted to remember crazy things I believed as a kid or wanted to talk about, or at least, I wish I had remembered them long enough to polish them. But then I got back down to earth: I was behind reviewing for IFComp, and I needed to pick things up, chop-chop, to find new stories and try to interpret them and maybe even fall asleep after a particularly odd one, to have weird dreams and wake up with new ideas, trusting the best would stick and saying good-bye to the ideas I loved that would not deserve to last, at least not with me, whether it was the ideas' shortcomings or mine for not being able to express them properly.
Physics searches for a GUT, a Grand Unification Theory. Literature searches for something that ties together our shared existence. I can't say EfG hits that, or that it does so better than anything else I ever read, but it gets up there and makes you aware of what could be. Perhaps it even makes you a bit more wary of literature that tries for the lowest common denominator. But it encourages you to find big stuff even in that. The climax of the story may be somewhat predictable from the title, but I don't think that's a spoiler (also, don't worry, Wild Idyll is neither the friends you made along the way nor something that had been in your heart all this time.)
Along the way you learn a lot, and I think each time I had a very different good-bye on finishing. While I won't have the 497 the Elves had, there will probably be more than 3 for EfG. I've certainly had gradated good-bye responses to all the IFComp entries I've seen. The total is probably around 497. But none made me realize as much as EfG that I needed to say good-bye if I didn't want to--to EfG, to this year's IFComp, or even to other things, and, of course, there were different ways I could, and should. Here, perhaps, it's an acknowledgement that whatever I go to next won't be as neat as EfG on its own, but perhaps with luck and persistence I will find another work very different from EfG that is still as satisfying and inspiring.
This is an IFComp entry that is entirely focused on story, understanding and self-thought rather than gameplay or mechanics.
The idea is that there were once elves who one day left. You meet (or met) a woman who was one of the last to live among the elves. She teaches you about their language, and about their 497 words for goodbye.
That description doesn't really do justice, though, because the real content of this game is its style rather than its story. More than anything else this story reminded me Borges and Calvino, both of whom I've read less than perhaps I ought to have. I looked up those authors after reading this game and enjoyed learning about them and their literary techniques.
One thing this game does that those writers do is to purposely jar the reader from their pleasant immersion in the story. Frequently the game will lead you to what seems like understanding only for the author to say 'but it wasn't like that at all'. Kind of like, for imaginary example, if you were telling a story about people lining up for miles in NYC to get cheesecake, and then the PoV character asking 'It must have been good then,' and then getting the response, 'Of course not, it was terrible. It was all tourists lining up.' I'd like to say this technique is an example of Verfremdung, but I just learned that word 10 minutes ago and am almost certainly misapplying it.
The language is lovely and complex, requiring a slower reading for understanding, similar to Chandler Groover's work. One runs a risk telling stories about storytellers like this; if you're writing about a group who is known for great poetry and expressiveness, you yourself must be expressive and poetic. But this game sidesteps this a bit neatly by having the main character him or herself be impressed by the secondary narrator.
There were a few minor typos (I found four, two of which were in this phrase: (Spoiler - click to show)the the City when I first arrived here; I lost myself within its imensity . Overall, it's fairly polished.
I first heard part of this game read by the author after the comp started in the Seattle IF group, and I could still hear his voice while playing it. I enjoyed it. I suppose the only negative to me was that I felt a bit at a distance from the narrative, both mechanically and narratively; it felt like someone else's story. But it was a beautiful one.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
In this year's Comp, there’s no author braver than David Gürçay-Morris. “I would like you to directly compare my writing to Joan Didion’s scalpel-sharp prose, please” is a sentence uttered by no sane writer ever, and yet his entry invites the player to do just that. Elvish for Goodbye isn’t just a riff on Didion’s seminal kiss-off to New York City, Goodbye to All That – the author’s note at the end acknowledges a debt to Calvino too, and appropriately enough for elf stuff, there’s some light linguistics as well – but it does take some of its subject matter from the essay, and even redeploys a few specific lines and incidents to its own purposes. Hell, the blurb even uses a quote as its epigram, going out of its way to draw the player’s attention to the Didion connection at the outset rather than take the comparatively-safer option of pointing it out in the afterword! This is foolhardiness taken to the extreme, so while I can’t condone the author’s choices, I can certainly admire the courage on display.
The above could read as though I’m setting up the author for a savaging, trying to buck him up before the evisceration. Nothing could be further from the truth! Elvish for Goodbye is lovely and loving, a literary tribute to a writer who clearly had an impact on the author, and if holding Didion’s model close to mind meant that I was hyperaware of every slightly-inapt metaphor or just-too-long sentence, that’s just the price for taking such a big swing.
(This is maybe an opportune time to say this is another review where I get spoilery. For best results, you should probably play the game – and read or reread the Didion essay – before continuing).
The story of the game is simple. The protagonist, a writer himself, encounters a woman who was among the last to live among the lost city of the elves; she tells him of that city, of the time she spent there, and how that time came to an end (she’s the Didion character, in other words). The protagonist is callow, the writer experienced; he asks questions, she responds. There’s some interactivity – you can pick the place where the two first meet and decide exactly how in-depth you want the protagonist’s questions to be, as well as putting a little bit of English on his reaction to the final revelation of the Elven city’s fate – but this is largely expressive interactivity; it doesn’t seem like the plot or its overall vibe changes much regardless.
I think this was probably the right call – the effectiveness of the game relies very heavily on the mood it conveys as well as the diptych it forms with Didion’s essay, and being able to rewrite the substance or even the sequence of events too broadly would threaten that. Besides, having made my initial choices, I can’t conceive of wanting to go back and make different ones. Indeed, there’s even a passage that underlines this:
"She remarked that one hard lesson of her early years in Wild Idyll had been learning that a tale’s accuracy was far less important than the specificity with which it was told. That those details and particularities, the minutiae of actions and adjectives, were what lodged in our memory, more than a sense of the tale’s 'truth.'"
(Yes, the Elven city is called “Wild Idyll”, an inversion of the Idlewild airport – rechristened JFK after the assassination – where Didion first alights).
The game does a good job with this specificity. Here’s the protagonist reflecting, as a spoken-word performance comes to a close, on the fact that the image he’d formed of the Didion-analogue from her writing and recordings was some ways distant from her reality as a person:
"Of course I didn’t know that at the time, couldn’t have known it, not until after the desultory applause that greeted the show’s end as idol-smashing houselights flickered to full."
This extends to the descriptions of the city, too:
"Oh, those trees! Never before had I seen trees like those of the Idyll: soaring to heaven, their leafy crowns a crystal mosaic sky of greens aglow in golden light, backed in sapphire. These towers of living wood sheltered the great city of Elvenkind. Their immense verticality and spreading canopy formed living caverns in which districts and neighborhoods, each centered about a verdant plaza, were strung together by the grassy esplanades and riverbed boulevards that meandered through the city’s glens and dells."
The writing isn’t quite as clean when it shifts into narrative mode, though. As it turns out, the city was lost because one day, the Elves up and left. Here’s the moment where that’s revealed:
“When Wild Idyll disappeared, those of us left behind–the non-elvenkind of the city–well, I think we half-thought the whole blessed city had blown away! There had been a storm the night before, and while the rain was gone by dawn, a wind had persisted in blowing across the city all morning. For an insane instant the idea that the wind had just picked up the city and carried it away truly seemed like the most reasonable explanation for the Idyll’s sudden absence. We were, after all, always comparing it to a fleet of sails, a field of flags, or a flock of kites.”
There are good images here, but the hesitation of “half-thought”, the adjectivitis and adverbitis of the third sentence, undercut their power. Again, this isn’t anything that I’d normally harp on, but I can’t picture the real Joan Didion saying, much less writing, sentences like these.
Another departure from Didion, this one I think intentional, is that where her essay dwells on the social world she encountered in New York, and the shifting impact that society has on her psychological well-being, the game largely ignores such considerations in favor of an extended riff on Elvish linguistics. We’re told that there are hundreds, if not a thousand, different words the Elves use for goodbye, depending on who’s doing the leaving, their relative social rank, the emotional tenor of the present encounter, and on and on and on. This maybe gets a little tedious – you’re given an option to have the protagonist cut some of the exposition short, blessedly – but it’s all in service of the reveal that there’s one last, most important and permanent word for goodbye (were I tempted to cross-pollinate LA literary icons, I suppose I could label it the Big Goodbye):
"This last ‘goodbye’ was a great equalizer–if such can be said of a word–because it existed in only one form, with total disregard for rank or relation, for being the one leaving or the one left behind. It could be literally translated as ‘goodbye to everything, forever’; or more poetically as ‘goodbye to…all that.’” She made a gesture with her hands which simultaneously took in the world around us, and shooed it all away."
That’s a good punch-line, and reconnection with Didion, but a groaner nonetheless, and exemplifies as well as anything else the tightrope the game has to walk: hew too closely to the original essay, and you risk just saying stuff she said earlier and better, or take it as a point of departure and risk the cognitive dissonance of doing non-Didion stuff in your Didion homage. And I admit that while by this point I felt like the game was doing about as well striking that balance as could be expected, I wasn’t sure the game was worth the candle. My mind was changed by the final few sequences, though. After the elves leave, the woman and her compatriots ruminate on their sudden departure means – apologies for one last lengthy quote:
“I find it much harder to see when things end. Even though I know the truth of this with respect to the small, everyday endings, some very human part of me remains convinced that when it comes to the grand things, those events which define a generation or an entire people for generations to come: those moments, surely, must tower before us, clear to see! … I understood, in that moment when I knew what the missing word for ‘goodbye’ must be, that this was exactly the opposite of the truth: the ending of a whole world is, in fact, the hardest thing to see… The specificity of beginnings always eclipse the tattered endings carpeting the ground of its arrival.”
This is compelling in its own right – to take one potential application among many, I feel like anyone who’s had a serious breakup or gotten divorced would recognize something true in that passage – and it also completes a thought Didion left hanging in her essay; “it is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends” is the opening of Goodbye to All That, and she circles back around to having missed the ending of her love affair with New York by the close of the essay, but simply leaps to her newfound sense of disgust at the things that used to delight her without reflecting on what could have changed and why she missed noticing the shift.
Elvish for Goodbye also has a more regenerative approach to what to make of such endings. The very close of Didion’s essay reads to me like sour grapes; she talks about how the last time she was in New York, everyone was “ill and tired” or had moved away, unconvincingly counterposing this with her idealized moonlit, jasmine-scented Los Angeles life – or maybe I’m projecting, as someone who grew up in the New York burbs and passed a good portion of my twenties in the city, but is still reconciling himself to living in LA despite the fact that I’ve been doing it for fifteen years! But in the game, the city of the elves that passed away is the same as the human city that the protagonist now inhabits, completely different yet completely the same – which feels to me like a more plausible account of the way change and continuity intertwine in the wake of great upheavals, which can make you feel like an exile when you’ve only walked a few steps, or feel like you’ve returned home when you travel thousands of miles to a place you’ve never been.
It takes a little while to get there, but ultimately Elvish for Goodbye transcends being a mere Didion pastiche, and winds up in dialogue with her essay without suffering unduly from the juxtaposition – a neat trick to manage! Indeed, there’s a way in which its vision has the last laugh, for despite the emphatic never-going-back-there tone of Goodbye to All That, some twenty years after writing it Didion did return to New York, and stayed there for the closing decades of her life. The game prompts us to ask, did she come back to the city, or did she find one anew? And what language could she use to describe this combined valediction and salutation? Elvish for Goodbye suggests an answer, though it doesn’t tell us how to pronounce it.
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