The Depths of the Unknown is an attempt to reveal and talk about games that are not talked about: games that are only a few bucks, last only a few minutes, and exist to stand by themselves and the purpose of this segment is to shine light on those experiences and pull something out of them.
The name The Eldritch Teller stuck out to me. It’s a good name. It’s invocative of something grander than oneself, but it inspired quite a bit of apprehension in me because I’ve just grown tired of the “unknowable cosmic horror” tropes. I’ve grown tired of the unknowable because it feels like a waste of time to really concern oneself with what one can not know. Maybe that’s the point. Thankfully, The Eldritch Teller never seems to concern itself with that either.
The Eldritch Teller, by Arielle Grimes (@slimekat on Twitter), is a game with really one option and that’s what the player does when they hear their phone ring. The Eldritch Teller, of title fame, is a robed, antlered, faceless entity, that simply acts as narrator. The game looks as if it’s running on a faulty CRT run through a fish-eye lens. Pixelated geometry spirals and a space-scape acts as the letter box. The distortion makes some of the text hard to read, but the actual art in the game is well made. Silhouettes are vague enough that it doesn’t bring any strict definition to the “You” of the story, leaving the story open to anyone participating. There’s no attachment – The Eldritch Teller knows what it’s audience is. The game plays like a ghost story being told to you, about you. The Eldritch Teller has no time to really consider what you do. It knows what you’d do. The story being told is a vague enough story that it feels like “your” story and doesn’t suffer from being so vague.
The screen flashes to convey small story beats and focus from high detailed figures to explosive bits of pixelated lines portraying, well, the unknowable. The art is pixel art, but it’s not overly stylized pixel art – it’s a means to create indistinction. Nothing is very clear, as something set in a cosmic horror setting should be.
I had mentioned earlier that I had a slight bit of fear – not a psychological or primal fear, but a fear of disdain. Between friends, I’ve referred to the cosmic horror tropes as “Cthulhu shit.” There’s two camps: those that have been trying to separate the roots from the mythos and concentrate on the kind of horror that is found in those stories, a pure fascination and healthy fear of the unknowable that has no time nor regard for you, and those that find delight in the lore of the Cthulhu mythos – a paradox in itself. The idea of a mythos behind something defined as unknowable is silly, or maybe it’s expected. It’s putting structure around something one can not know and adding your flairs to it. The second worst thing HP Lovecraft did, after being a terrible racist, was describe Cthulhu and inspire an unknowable amount of merchandise to spawn after his death.
The Eldritch Teller falls squarely in the first, personally, more interesting camp. It’s the camp that is more interested in what it means to interact with the unknowable. It’s friendly, it can come in contact with you, but it feels less like looking over the edge of a cliff and more like being talked down to by a teacher.
The narrator’s tone is frank and casual, toying with the player’s expectation of, well, an Eldritch Teller. It’s a character that toys with the player’s expectations of itself. My favorite line in the piece is “You’re a cool adult who definitely deserves respect.” It’s that tone that I enjoyed. It’s not a narrator that’s going to blow anyone away, but I appreciated that. It brought levity to the parts that would be dull and got out of the way when action began.
The balance of the tones creates an interesting effect. The humor leaves the player just open enough to let the turn take you. When it switches to a bit of cosmic horror it’s a slow shift, easing you into it. The harder turn is a return to normalcy and that’s where the narrative is at it’s most interesting to me – The Eldritch Teller is a tragedy. It’s a comedy that trades not in the unknown, but uses the unknown to set up it’s ultimate joke and the punchline is depression. The story being told is about waiting for a phone call. The Eldritch Teller tells you that you await this call, but you’ve always wanted to adventure, just as most kids have. Regardless of which of the three storylines you choose (to casually get the phone, spring forward for the phone, or to sit paralyzed in anxiety), you’re ultimately ending the call to adventure. The adventure is the moment of “abduction,” of being taken away, but in the end, the phone call needs to be answered and the job needs to be taken. That’s the state of the world once you leave it. The extravagance of adventure is brief, fleeting, and wouldn’t accept you, no matter how much you crave it. There is really only one path where there is a true interaction between “you” and the cosmic horrors. The great irony is they’re quite polite. They’re not lording over you the fact that they’re of some higher headspace.
It’s a short little experience, it’s about 5 to 10 minutes. It’s not going to revitalize a joy for cosmic horror, but it feels like a good response to the exhaustion in those ideas. It treats it as window dressing, as opposed to the window itself. It’s the kind of way I want this setting and set of tropes to be explored. The initial idea behind the settings is a shallow well that can only sustain a few stories, or at least that’s my opinion. That’s because stories seem to want to constantly question the unknown, as opposed to interacting with the unknown. It’s limiting, narratively, when your only interactions you can have with the void are to go mad. What I liked about The Eldritch Teller is it felt like I had fallen into the void’s living room and it picked me up and asked how I was doing, sent me on my way, without any significant conversation. The Eldritch Teller is not going to change your life. It’s not going to unlock some big dark secret of the universe or lead you to an epiphany, but it’s entertaining – even if it’s whole purpose is to just let you know just how insignificant you are.
If you’d like to play this for yourself, you can go here. Pay a few bucks and you can experience all of the choices in the story. If you play for free, you’re restricted to whatever choice you pick – there’s no reloading the game and starting over to see the rest.