Epanalepsis, frames of reference, and the riddle of narrative

I wrote about Cameron Kunzelman’s game Catachresis on this blog before.  Last week his new game, a sort of thematic sequel, Epanalepsis, was released.

Needless to say, what follows constitutes spoilers, insofar as spoilers is a concept that applies to this game.

I made the caveat above because there is, frankly, a good chance I can tell you everything that happens in the game and it would not terribly impact your experience while playing it.  The criticism the game has received has been for its obtuseness, the way its narrative simultaneously points somewhere while insistently seeming to go nowhere.

Let’s talk about that.

Epanalepsis takes place across three time periods: 1993, 2013, and 2033.  In each you play, for approximately 15-20 minutes, a character from that time: a pioneering gentrifier and slacker named Rachel, a listless hacker named Anthony who lives in Rachel’s old apartment in a now-trendy neighborhood, and in the corporate dystopian future, a robotic drone that tends to humans in some sort of cryosleep in a converted apartment building.  Gameplay is simple: you walk among the rooms in the apartment, look at objects or people, and receive a bit of information or dialogue.

The game is short, giving you snapshots of these characters’ lives, and it fills in background details through the oddly performative player-character frame of a point-and-click adventure game: you click on a piece of furniture and the character launches into a brief soliloquy regarding what they think of it, where it came from, and where they hope it will be in the future.  In stripping out the normal complex puzzles, Kunzelman has created a minimalist adventure game that at times almost reads like a parody of the form.

In fact, the third chapter threatens to devolve into self-parody: you are a robot, a literal drone, that apparently putters back and forth in a single room all day, tending to human beings submerged in cryosleep and, it is suggested, virtual realities not at all dissimilar to more traditionally exciting videogames.  You, the drone, are compromised by a group of rebel hackers who are going to use you to blow up the city-block by sending you on a suicide mission.  They may or may not also be aiming to steal or destroy something called “the Von Lessinger equipment” which may or may not be some sort of time travel technology.  This is never explained to you, as the humans don’t bother to explain their goals to the drone, of course, and so you putter between them and try to report their contraband (they have cut off your connections to the network for just this reason).  You are supposedly diegetically controlled by a character known only as “the Inventor.”

This is a critique of the gaming format up to this point — you are reduced to a literal cog in the game’s extended machinery, tending to it, tirelessly clicking the appropriate things to help it run its course on your computer, beholden to the whims of the designer behind it — but it is also a commentary on the narrative of the game itself.  Just as the drone is used by humans, the humans are being used by others for their own purposes, and these entities don’t see any imperative to explain themselves.

For, in place of the mechanical puzzles, Kunzelman serves up a narrative puzzle, one that may be intentionally broken.  At the end of the first chapter, Rachel meets a stranger, a woman calling herself Tony, who makes odd intimations about time, the future, and the nature of the cosmos.  These intimations are similar to ones Rachel received earlier, from a red-cloaked man in a dream, who left her with an object he calls “the Burden,” which appears to be some sort of book or paper — unreadable to Rachel — that morphs into a blinking eye just before she wakes up.  When Tony has said her piece, she disappears and Rachel is left with a choice. After making the choice, the chapter immediately ends.  In the next chapter, you play as a man named Anthony (an odd coincidence!) who also meets the cloaked man (Pasus) and a cloaked woman (Cascabel),  the latter of whom may or may not be Tony from the previous chapter.

At about this moment in my first playthrough I began to detect the influence of Gene Wolfe, who writes in a similarly elliptical way, suggesting that characters you meet are and are not who they say they are, or who they appear to be.  But a difference arises: Wolfe writes narratives that are seemingly inscrutable riddles but which always have solutions.  There may be several and divergent interpretations, but Wolfe, late modernist that he is, gives you always enough tools to build an interpretation.

In Epanalepsis, solving the riddle in a Wolfean fashion is frankly impossible.  I received Kunzelman’s notes on the game as a reward for the tier at which I backed the Kickstarter.  Reading through them after my playthroughs, I confirmed my suspicion of Wolfe’s small influence, and in reading through Cameron’s notes, I discovered some information that would have “solved” the game’s riddle, had it been included.  But to what degree do these notes, always referring to an in-process creation, sometimes obviously diverging wildly from the product itself, really explain what happens?  Does such information, since it is not contained in the normal course of gameplay, even count toward an interpretation? I here belie my own formative immersion in New Criticism, and my own feelings as a creator: everything I put in a game is there for a reason, everything I leave out I leave out for a reason.  Who’s to say the same about Kunzelman?  Or am I just, again, in a different way, scooped up by the Inventor’s guiding hand, tossed back and forth from one frame of reference to another, looking for the continuity that will bring them together, reveal them as commensurate, and make my puttering back and forth cogent and meaningful?

I cannot tell you what I thought the game was about before I read the notes, now, because my knowledge is hopelessly inflected.  I did not write down what I thought in a coherent fashion before I read them, and so I can’t honestly provide my account of what the game looked like from the inside, because now I know what it could look like from the outside.

Before reading the notes, I did do my best to squeeze what I could out of the game itself.  I played through several times and plotted characters on a sheet of scrap paper, searching for anything that might crack the narrative code, but found none.  The closest I got was the beginning of Anthony’s chapter, which is presented as an MMO, a game-within-a-game.

Anthony hopes to make a boss-run, but his friends are not logged in, so he courts randos outside the boss’s lair.  A player agrees to help if Anthony will help him collect mushrooms, and so of course he does.  During this segment you pass in  front of the door to the boss’s lair, what the contextual label of the game calls a BAWSS GATE.  Behind the gate and its wall, you can see a high tower with a single light on.

Unless it’s a bug, there’s no information about this gate or this castle.  It is simply a BAWSS GATE, and there is something sitting beyond it, something in that tower, waiting for you.  But no matter how much you click, no matter how many mushrooms you collect, you never receive any sort of flavor text.  Anthony has no reflections, fears, hopes about this thing — as far as I know, it’s the only object like this in the game.

This is Epanalepsis writ small, by way of Kafka’s parable about the gate and the Law: the Boss resides here,  beyond this gate, high in its tower.  It is the endpoint, the goal, the summation, the thing that traditionally marks progress or an endpoint to a game.  It is what we like to think would make the game cohere, and in Epanalepsis it is something about which we will forever remain ignorant.  So the Boss toils on in its work, just as Cascabel and the cloaked man, Pasus, toil on, as well as the cursed old man Abhar Lama in the forgotten-or-yet-to-come reign of Emperor Eskar Lekkak, writing in a book that waits to be read, all of them meeting (as they say) our player characters again and again, watching them make choices that sometimes change, sometimes do not, and which nevertheless do not seem to free any of them from the mobius strip of the game’s narrative: a mobius strip we are told exists, but whose curves we never actually see…

…unless, of course, like Pasus and Cascabel, we slip through the walls of that narrative, step outside of it, and read a book, a certain book, and glimpse more broadly the bends and folds of time, development, and choice.  And yet, even then, again like Pasus and Cascabel — who are lost, apparently, who say they are searching for someone they cannot reach, a figure they call their teacher — we are unable to pin ourselves and others down in a narrative that resolves in a way we’d like, knowing but not omniscient.

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