Saturday, 6 October 2018

Eidolon: The Flies You See

We seek him here, we seek him there; those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven, or is he in hell? Let's have a look at Eidolon, an indie survival-exploration-art game from 2014.

Do you remember indie games? They were awesome. I'm old enough to remember when all games were indie games. The solar system was very young back then, filled with clouds of gas and fragments of rock. Eventually most of this matter coalesced into planets, leaving only a small scattering of asteroids and comets to fill the gaps between Call of Duty and Gears of War and FIFA. They are the gas giants of computer gaming's solar system.

Occasionally one of the little chunks of rock enters the Earth's atmosphere and becomes a shooting star, viz Minecraft and and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. At least one indie meteorite, Doom, struck the gaming landscape with such force that it wiped out all life, paving the way for an entirely new ecosystem to emerge.

A story node - when you pick them up, you learn a bit more about the world of Eidolon.

Eidolon was not a shooting star. My recollection from 2014 is that it attracted a bit of press but otherwise skipped off the atmosphere back into space. Reviewers tended to compare it with the visually similar, but cheaper and shorter Proteus. As a survival game it was released slightly too late to capitalise on the hype surrounding Don't Starve, with which it has very little in common; it was also overshadowed by the vaguely similar but considerably more grounded The Long Dark and also DayZ, which shared the game's expansive scope but was tonally very different.

According to an informative post-mortem by lead developer Kevin Maxon, it cost $650 to develop and netted the team $125,000, a living wage for four years' work, less so given that nine other people also worked on the game.

Now, there's indie and there's indie. In Britain in the 1980s indie music was in theory published by record labels that weren't part of a conglomerate, but in practice indie was shorthand for jangly guitar pop made by young white men with floppy hair. By the end of the decade the most popular acts on independent labels were rave and techno artists, but no-one ever described them as indie even though they were. Conversely James (jangly) and The Jesus and Mary Chain (floppy hair) were archetypal 1980s indie bands even though they were on Fontana-Phonogram and WEA respectively.

Not so fantastic now, are you, Mr Fox?

A similar dichotomy exists in the computer games world. Indie is both a publishing model and a particular style. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was at least in the early stages an independent development, but no-one calls it an indie game nowadays, partially because it's a commercial juggernaut but mostly because it's a lowbrow action game for kids.

Conversely top indie titles Journey and The Last Guardian were bankrolled by industry giant Sony and released with a major promotional push, but they will forevermore be described as indie titles because they have an artistic bent. Modern indie games are possessed of a childlike wonder. They have orchestral folk music on the soundtrack, a vague but uplifting plot, simple graphics. They exist to flatter white people; to make white people feel good about their life in a perfect world.

What is Eidolon? It's a 3D exploration game. The gameplay consists of wandering around the abandoned shell of Seattle and its environs four hundred years from now, long after a disaster has killed off the local population. Humanity still survives elsewhere, although you never meet any other people. You might not be a person yourself. You walk like a human being and have to eat to survive, but the developers deliberately chose not to show your hands or feet, leaving open the possibility that you're a ghost, or a robot drone, or some kind of alien wanderer. Or perhaps, get this, an eidolon, a distant echo of a human soul. It's Greek.

It's interesting to compare Eidolon with DayZ. The concept is similar, a little bit, but the execution is utterly different. Eidolon is obviously much less realistic, but it has style. The realism of DayZ doesn't leave room for style although the visuals do effectively convey a drab mood.

In other respects the games are visually identical. Eidolon is at the top.

Eidolon has a day-night cycle. Sometimes it rains, although this is just a graphical effect; your character isn't affected by it. After walking for a while you become hungry and have to eat. After walking even more you have to sleep. You can stave off hunger by eating mushrooms and berries that are scattered around; you can hunt animals with a bow and arrow; you can fish, and eat the fish. You have to cook the meat first otherwise you'll get sick. Some of the animals attack you - this is very rare - and if you sustain a wound or develop an infection you can either wait for it to heal or treat it by applying honey, which you get by shooting down bees' nests with your arrows.

It's not a vegan-friendly game, but in the real world nature has killed millions, perhaps billions of human beings, so nature is not entirely innocent. Furthermore in the absence of society or God the only moral code is one you devise yourself, and I choose not to devise a moral code because life is hard enough without limiting your options.

Compared to The Long Dark the survival elements are perfunctory. You don't need to drink. You don't need shelter or bedding. Clothing isn't modelled. You have an infinite supply of arrows and fishing lures. Your character automatically guts and debones fish and animals. You only get cold when in water or while climbing the mountains that border the terrain. You warm up naturally. You can sleep in the open perfectly fine. The game encourages you to light a fire before going to bed but I haven't bothered and haven't noticed any problems from it. Lighting a fire never fails. It requires tinder but nothing else. As far as I can tell natural resources respawn so you can in theory live forever.


You begin the game with a backpack, a scrapbook for notes, and a tablet that displays simple graphics. The first few square miles of terrain contain the only four tools your character uses - binoculars, a compass, a bow, and fishing tackle. In theory you don't need them, but there are large areas without mushrooms and berries, where the only source of food is fish, and without the tackle you'll probably starve. That's how I died the first time. You can die from falling or starving; death sends you back to one of a number of magical swamps although thankfully you keep your tools. If you know all of this in advance you might not die ever, the game is quite generous.

But what's the exploration in aid of? Eidolon is essentially a piece of digital archaeology. As you journey you stumble upon floating green things. Bump into them, and you get a bit of backstory:

Each bit of backstory has a tag that you can click on ("Wild Girl" in this case). When you do, a green thing appears and whizzes off into the distance; follow it, and you find another story node. Alternatively a bird periodically appears and leads you to the next point of interest. That's essentially your only goal. You wander the landscape piecing together a fragmentary narrative. It appears that people in the future developed a cure for death, but this created as many problems as it solved, and long before you came along it all fell apart and now nature has erased most of our presence.

Some reviewers found the lack of a tangible goal unsatisfying. Once you pick up all the story nodes (there are apparently 168) there's no ending cutscene. You just carry on exploring and taking screenshots until you get bored. I don't mind. I've enjoyed plenty of games that didn't have an end, and conversely suffered lots of poorly-thought-out, unsatisfying conclusions. In the hands of another team Eidolon would probably have finished with the player repairing and activating a giant machine, or something, and there would be a light show and some uplifting music. There would be a sense of closure. Instead Eidolon left me with a sense of loss, which is perhaps what the team intended.

Boxout: Precedents
Beyond the name, Eidolon has nothing to do with Lucasfilm Games' The Eidolon (1985), which was a primitive first-person dungeon crawler that used Lucasfilm's fractal engine to make tunnels:

The gameplay consisted of driving around a series of mazes in a steampunk carriage shooting monsters. It wasn't much fun. With a lot more work it might have become a revolutionary dungeon role-playing game along the lines of Dungeon Master, which was released two years later. The Eidolon's 3D engine is actually more advanced than Dungeon Master. Sadly it's just a shell of a game, basically 3D Monster Maze (1982) wrapped up in a more advanced graphics engine, but less compelling because the monsters just sit there waiting for you to attack them.

Explorer / a licky boom-boom down

Gameplay-wise Eidolon is much closer to Explorer, a long-forgotten title published back in 1986 by Electric Dreams. It was written by a chap called Graham Relph, who was a fan of orienteering. In Explorer your spaceship has crash-landed on an uninhabited jungle planet. Nine essential components have been scattered far and wide. You have to find them.

To complicate matters the planet is huge. It's procedurally-generated; the adverts boasted over forty billion locations. As with No Man's Sky most of those locations look the same. Contemporary reviews didn't overlook this. It attracted a certain amount of grudging respect for the boldness of its concept, I can't imagine it sold very well.

I found part of my ship. Eight more to go.

How does Explorer work? You have a simple radar that gives you a bearing to the nearest spaceship part. You can walk to it, or fly with your jetpack. Your goal is to find all nine parts of your spaceship and teleport them to the same location. After you find the first part it gets a bit harder; your echo-locator keeps locating that part, so you have to travel far enough away that it picks up the next part instead. To help with this the game has teleporters scattered around. Each location in the game has a name, and with forty billion locations you can just type any random nonsense and you'll end up somewhere.

You can drop radio beacons to mark a spot, and ultimately you have to make a little mental map of where the beacons are in relation to your current position and that of your stash of ship parts. In practice I suspect most people loaded the game, walked around a bit, then gave up. Periodically you have to shoot a little bug that dances around the screen - this is irritating - and your energy goes down, so you have to stock up on power. I can't remember how.

The 3D effect is a simple flick-screen affair reminiscent of Lords of Midnight although it's less effective. The viewdistance is so short that it doesn't feel as if you're walking into the terrain; it just feels as if the game is showing a random selection of screens one after the other. You don't interact with anything. Your character can walk straight through thick jungle and swamps without pausing, and the abandoned huts that dot the landscape are just there for show. There's nothing to discover and there are no survival elements.

As with The Eidolon the game has an interesting engine but feels like a basic prototype. With a bit more work Explorer could have been be a cult classic but playing it today it's just too slow to be enjoyable even as a walking game. It was released for the ZX Spectrum and ported to the Amstrad CPC and Commodore C64; the three versions are very similar. The C64 version preserves the Spectrum's blocky two-colours-per-character-square graphics. Explorer was produced by The Ram Jam Corporation, one of those short-lived-but-high-profile software companies that - along with Nexus Productions and The Big Apple Entertainment Company - came and went in the blink of an eye in the 8-bit years, leaving very little behind.

This has nothing to do with the article. It's a tombstone in Venice's cemetary. It haunts me to this day. The past gets wiped out and only fragments remain.

On a superficial level Eidolon reminded me a couple of other games. The simplistic graphics put me in mind of early illustrated text adventures, notably Twin Kingdom Valley (1983), which had a larger scope than most and was illustrated with a set of attractive albeit low-res still pictures. Eidolon could have been written as a text adventure without losing much, although I would have missed the sunsets.

Twin Kingdom Valley, which I remember for its use of the colour magenta.

The other game that springs to mind is Survival (1984), an early educational title for the ZX Spectrum. In the game you are either a lion, mouse, butterfly, hawk, fly, or robin, and your goal is to stave off inevitable death by eating food while avoiding predators. It's a lot like life, and that's what's appealing.

You treat me like a dog / get me down on my knees

Mice have more predators than lions; hawks can see more of the surrounding terrain than flies. Your water level goes down faster in the desert. Beyond that the're almost nothing to the game, which to be fair was sold as educational software rather than entertainment. There's nothing else to do other than navigate the terrain in search of food.

It's surprisingly bleak. No matter how much you eat your energy eventually runs out. You either succumb to predation or starve. You don't get a chance to mate, so ultimately you spend your short life alone and die a virgin. I can empathise with that. My life has followed a similar course. If there are any women out there who would like to help me avoid such a fate, please get in touch via the comments. I am financially solvent and my basement flat - it's more a room than a flat - my basement area is quite presentable if you don't mind the smell of fly spray. The flies, you see.

Obviously we could never be married. I already have a waifu. But consider it.
End Boxout

The cities are littered with the husks of buildings and wrecked cars, and also little white objects. It took me a while to realise that they were bones.

Eidolon was released back in 2014 but it passed me by at the time. As I write these words Steam is selling it at a budget price so I snapped it up. It still runs on modern hardware although at least on my machine it's a bit flaky, with occasional lock-ups. It feels as if it's leaking memory. It's available for the PC and Macintosh, but it requires a fairly powerful PC and doesn't get on well with Macintosh graphics hardware because the developers were, as they admit, very inexperienced.

Did I enjoy it? Is it any good? As with The Long Dark it's essentially a mood piece; if Long Dark is 50/50 mood/gameplay, Eidolon is 90/10. The simple graphics coupled with the huge viewdistance are gorgeous. Michael Bell's music is almost stereotypical for this style of game - acoustic guitar folk with electronics, this time without violins or wordless vocals - but it's quirky enough that it doesn't become irritating. It also sounds as if it was recorded in mono, but I could be wrong.

The edge of the vast playarea is bounded with snowcapped mountains.

The play area is very large and you explore it slowly. It works as a kind of pastime, like knitting or jigsaw-puzzling. As with MirrorMoon EP I think of it as an illustrated music video with a game attached to it, and I suspect that, in the future, it'll be one of those things I remember fondly without feeling the need to play it again. Like Scott Walker's The Drift or STALKER: Lost Alpha. It would be a terrific screensaver if it wasn't such a resource hog.

Post-release the game had some patches but development has long ceased; the Eidolon available today is its finished form. There is no modding community. Ice Water Games still exists and is still an indie developer. Their subsequent titles have been mostly ambient games that explore the meditative elements of Eidolon; their most recent titles are Viridi (2016), a real-time plant-watering simulator, and Fireplace (2018), an interactive fireplace. Putting on my businessperson's hat I suspect that Ice Water Games are trapped in an indie loop whereby they don't gross enough to expand their team to have enough developers to create a game that will gross enough to expand their team etc, but as long as they can afford food and shelter they're in a better position than millions of other people, the end.