About An Elf
Joe Rogan is a fulltime opioid enthusiast and part-time host of an amateur podcast on Spotify. Recently, he has been defamed by news organisations in the United States for his stance on Covid treatments, as well as for opinions expressed by guests of his obscure little show. Now, I'm no scientist, and I certainly wouldn't want to get One Up Gaming cancelled or anything, but when it comes to Joe Rogan I can confidently say this: he must be right about DMT. Having never taken the drug myself, I have experienced first-hand its mind-bending effects thanks to a little title called About An Elf, the debut voyage of Austin-based developer Meringue Interactive. Having gone down Meringue's elf-infused eccentric rabbit role and come out the other side, the virgin studio's style without substance approach has left me with all the side effects of drug abuse, and none of the benefits.
The 'story' of About An Elf centres on the self-professed princess of elves, Dam, as she recalls the tale of her adventures to bring about the 'elftopia' to her friend and fellow elf, Dido. The gameplay is situated amidst these stories, with Dam and her charmingly disaffected cat adversary-turned-coy-love-interest Roland slaying all manner of monsters in various parts of the elf kingdom. From the design of the two main principle characters alone, it becomes evident that Meringue Interactive may have a penchant for flashy graphic design - and little else as further gameplay demonstrates. Dam and Dido are visually arresting, having seemingly left a Ziggy Stardust convention to appear in the game. Their latex, form-fitting retro-futuristic outfits and zany makeup clearly and quickly set the apart from conventional depictions of elves, and credit ought to be afforded to the developers for trying to distinguish themselves visually, even if the enemy designs are somewhat gross and lacking any meaningful characterisation. Dam, Dido and Roland carry the entire game in terms of dialogue. Dam is the hopeless romantic, gifted with a silver tongue fit for grandiosity, and a simple mind ill-suited to the struggles of the real world. Dido, on the other hand, is a cynical, sceptical observer, whose callous and shrewd demeanour is often betrayed by brief glimpses of vulnerability. Roland is bizarrely absent in terms of vested interest in the plot, with glib, neutral one-liners that identify more than they convey. The interactions between the characters aren't the stuff of Tarantino screenplays, either. Aside from being virtually static, these exchanges are written as if to appeal to the Marvel comic book crowd of 2018, with ironic sentiment, passive-aggressive exchanges and random absurdity stunting every communication in the game's 'script'. There is not - at any point in About An Elf's hour long runtime - a single memorable exchange that has any significance or particular relevance to whatever plot is attempting to coagulate amidst the gelatinous floatsam and jetsam of this game's hollow shell.
I wouldn't usually have a problem with a game that prioritises style over substance - I am a life-long die-hard No More Heroes fan after all - were it not for the fact that About An Elf routinely contradicts its deliberately shallow experience with amateur poetry and grandiloquent soliloquy. I don't mind the odd purple passage now and then, but this literary raiment adds nothing to the game. In fact, the pretentiousness seems utterly at odds with the Ryan Reynolds School of Acting graduates that make up the game's cast. They are all nonchalant for the most part, dismissive of consequence or danger, and constantly saying words incorrectly or coining absurd portmanteaus to accentuate their lol-random-yoloness... and did I mention that all of these lines are delivered in BEEPESE! As in, the native language of the citizens of Animal Crossing. The script seems torn on whether it wants to be on a shelf next to an episode of Smiling Friends or a comprehensive volume of the works of Shakespeare.
Dam's narrative unfolds as a series of stilted 'combat' sections that see players casting magic against enemies - well, when Roland isn't shaking off his apathy to deliver insta-kills in cutscenes, befeft of any gameplay whatsoever. 'magiballs' are introduced as the primary means of fighting the monster hordes of the King of Terrors. Basically a fire, water and thunder spell, each magiball can be selected in response to a visual cue that suggests which magiball will defeat your opponent. In the introductory section, an image of candles can be seen on the screen, suggesting that the playing ought to use the fire magiball against their enemy. The difficulty of the combat encounters is based on the obscurity of the visual clue, but since there seems to be little to no consequence to failing, the game may very well devolve into trial-and-error guesswork. In between the combat segments - which feels like I'm overstating this aspect of the game due to its slide-show presentation of lack of animation - are point-and-click instances of gameplay. Akin to most games in the visual novel genre, these sections see you pointing AND clicking every inch of the screen in an attempt to realize the characters' stated goals. Unfortunately, the gameplay does little to spice anything up, and so, slowly at first and then all at once, you realize this is all the game consists of: a repetitive soundtrack underscoring boring and uninspired gameplay, with a Young Adult/modern Marvel comic book script trying to keep you interested. There are four levels that can be selected from the 'hub' screen. These levels - or rather, 'plexuses', because in between this and the incessant references to literary figures the developers must display their erudition for every plebeian to be transfixed thereupon - are static, boring images with ugly little sprites writhing atop them, waiting to be fought and become an afterthought.
The stop-motionesque visuals are clearly what Meringue were focused on, but don't excuse the frightfully bored experience. Certainly novel and a band apart from other indie titles, I found myself enjoying the Monty Python style at certain points, and the dialogue does sometimes massage the general area around the proximity of the funny bone, and Meringue Interactive can't be faulted for making the most of modest resources. The soundtrack, for all its faults, tries to embody the eclectic, disordered randomness unfolding on the screen. While I appreciate the dedication to utilise the soundtrack as a para-ludological means of communicating the themes and style of the game, the leitmotifs underscoring the motifs all become rather tiresome rather quickly, and this is where About An Elf stops still. A deliberately confused, quixotic project that tries to be as contemporary and approachable as possible ultimately fails to distinguish itself at all. About An Elf wants to please without pushing, and ends up tiring without testing. Meringue Interactive may very well be capable of more visually multifarious projects, but as a video game, About An Elf fails on virtually every level. Nothing about this game is engaging, inspiring or motivating. Irony and detachment comprise the being of this title, and as a result nothing meaningful happens. While I accept that this theme may be deliberate and therefore a 'success' of on the part of the developers, About An Elf simply doesn't take itself seriously enough to justify its existence as an interactive piece of software. Its trippy, its ironic, and its nothing else.
Bold and bizarre, yet pointless and painful, About An Elf's fundamental irony harms more than it helps, with stakes and mechanics that are laughably low and poor - despite its deliberate posturing.