Ah, narrative-driven games with impenetrably vague narratives. My old arch nemesis. Well, some exceptions can be made. Dear Esther, Limbo and Lone Survivor are some of my favorite games. They’re not all bad. But these masked stories can be quite jarring for a player so used to the developer holding your hand through the experience. Like going from reading J.K Rowling to, say, Thomas Pynchon. Both are good for different reasons. But Rowling is actually fun and enjoyable to read while Pynchon is a rewarding chore.
Such might be the case with Cameron Kunzelman’s Epanalepsis. Or maybe not. I’m just not sure, and that in itself is a problem.
Alright. Epanalepsis is a short, meditative adventure game set in the 1990s, the 2010s and 2030s, following three different characters across their respective generations. In each the player explores what amounts to the youth zeitgeist (or in the case of the last, our perception of it) of each decade. The 90s find you unemployed, stapling zines, having a fridge full of nothing but beer, dealing with a mom who just doesn’t UNDERSTAND. Straight out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The 2010s find you obsessing over an MMO, memes, collectible items, hanging out in a chic hipster organic coffee shop. A bit too close to the commercially obsessed geek culture of today. Lastly the 2030s find you in control of a “cute little robot” that checks on cryo-frozen people and appears to be overzealous about finding terrorist activity. Okay, that one takes you for a loop. Each time, in any case, takes place in the same physical location, so one can see how drastically everything has shifted over the years.
First of all, the graphics. They are bad. A comparison to other vague-narratives is needed. Dear Esther is of course gorgeous. Limbo had that amazing German expressionist influence. Lone Survivor had a low res Silent Hill charm. Epanalepsis on the other hand just isn’t a good looking game. It is an uncomfortable mishmash of pixels, looking more like a Newgrounds flash game than pixel art. Everything looks like MS Paint work.
Now a game can be forgiven for having bad graphics, but this game demands too much of its player in other ways for this to not get in the way of the experience. We have to forgive it for a lack of interactivity. Dear Esther also had this problem, but we forgave it because of its moody, isolated island adding to the themes and atmosphere of the story. We have to forgive it for an enigmatic story. We could do that for Limbo and Lone Survivor because they were both stylish and fun. The graphics and gameplay can even make up for the story, conveying the general feeling without actually filling in for the events themselves. But Epanalepsis‘s awkward pixels just dilute the complexities of the narrative, confusing the themes and atmosphere with goofy visuals.
This considered, the sound is at least quite good.
There is nothing really to note as regards gameplay. You move left and right and click on things. There are no puzzles. Which makes me question whether or not Epanalepsis is best served as a game. For surely the same sort of narrative could be told in film or in prose. With bad graphics and little interactivity, there’s really nothing that makes it special as a game.
But of course the narrative is what keeps the player around. It’s worth experiencing, but I am still unclear as to what that experience was exactly. It concerns cyclical time, reincarnation, fate, predestination and a more cosmic perspective on life. Something like that. Epanalepsis does present these ideas, and they’re good ideas. But it doesn’t feel like an exploration of them. They just float there within the game, invisibly threaded into the story for reasons that the player will have to figure out for themselves. It is a conversation piece, whatever that is worth.
Epanalepsis is at least memorable. It is dense and unfun, but it does have lofty intentions in mind. With better graphics, a more engaging narrative structure (one may still allow for some ambiguity, but give us something concrete to work with at least) and an amount of interactivity may make a future release by the developer something to really look out for. As it stands, it’s just a mild curiosity that will prove too impenetrable for many to notice.
Check out Epanalepsis on Steam here.
A copy of the game was provided for review on PC.
It doesn't look great and isn't much of a game, but Epanalepsis at least tries to convey loftier themes than most game stories. If only it was accessible enough for anyone to actually comprehend those themes.