Normally, I tend to read up on the games I want to write about, do a little research. For Cameron Kunzelman’s latest work Epanalepsis, however, I have the peculiar urge to put my own thoughts to paper before engaging with other people’s interpretations. It’s a rare case where I somehow want my response to be unspoilt and pure, even though I usually attach little value to those qualifiers.
It might be that it’s the enigmatic, foreboding tone of the game that causes this feeling — as if the game approaches me, and you, and all of us, but always individually — with its questions, just as its protagonists, interrelated by some arcane schema, are approached individually from beyond their temporal home.
These protagonists — queer rocker Rachel and gamer Anthony — are confronted with a person they don’t know, don’t remember, but who claims to have met them in that very situation, countless times before. Each time, their reaction could be different. Rachel and Anthony don’t really know what to say to their stranger, whose words refer to nothing they know. “Meet me under the sign that is not there”, says ‘Tony’ to Rachel. Like the protagonists, we the players are forced to stumble blindly. Even our player’s perspective, overseeing different characters and times and places, offers little firm ground to stand on.
Each time, the protagonists are offered a choice, one they’ve been offered many times before, though of course they cannot remember doing so, since for them each time is the first time. We can remember them doing it, yet even the consequences of these choices, presumably spanning lifetimes and worlds, remain opaque. There is a machine at the root of these endlessly looping lives and choices, and there is a burden to carry. The significance of either of them still eludes me, yet their presence rings true in some inner region of my soul.
Epanalepsis, whose name signifies repeated taking, seizing of something, is therefore something of a metagame about choices, consequences, multiplicities. These are hot topics in game development and criticism these past few years, and it is typical of Kunzelman to engage with these in a way that feels detached and abstractly philosophical, but is actually quite sincere. In the second chapter, the stranger Anthony meets says to him (while within the subworld of a massively multiplayer online game he is playing): “I thought I would make an attempt here… three, two layers.” Is he talking to us (too)? Is the game addressing us, as players in the act of playing?
In this sense, Epanalepsis reminded me of The Stanley Parable, though surer of its own tone, opting for an obscure moodiness rather than knowing sarcasm. Yes, The Stanley Parable, games are weird, and have awkward conventions, yes, we get that. Thank you. Instead, Epanalepsis, however tentatively, takes a stab at the more interesting theme of created worlds and subworlds, different levels of perspective, different layers of being. Creators and players of games have a higher-level viewpoint than the game’s inhabitants, and in the case of this game, there is an intermediate tier still, where the mysterious strangers stand between us, Rachel, Anthony, and the rest of the characters.
Epanalepsis adorns its potentially endless loop of meetings and meaning-searching with an excellent soundtrack. It’s mysterious, moody, with great ambient pieces and effective backdrops to the game’s areas. My favourite bit is the score to Rachel’s apartment: a strange doomy acoustic track that sounds as beyond time as the game feels. It’s a game thoroughly about itself, a closed time-space in search of meaning and closure, where there is no truly privileged perspective. Except for that of Kunzelman himself, perhaps. If anyone knows what the machine and the burden are, it would be him. Perhaps if I, like the protagonists, go through enough iterations, I’ll figure it out. Perhaps not, and the game is merely self-reflecting, a surface with no explicit beyond. Even then, it stands in an interesting relation to e.g. Groundhog Day, The Matrix, The Talos Principle, as a work that asks us questions about choices, planes of reality, and the nature of time.