Epanalepsis: The Sign That Is Not There

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.


Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.