The Depths of the Unknown: The Eldritch Teller

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.

Yes, I am a cool adult. It's very nice of you to notice.
This is the sort of humor The Eldritch Teller deals in and I love it.

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.

I am so ready.
The combination of casual tones and a simple color pallet is really striking.

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.

Accepting When to Quit a Game

So today I quit playing a game. A single player game no less. I just gave up. Not because the game was too difficult to be conquered (though for honesty’s sake I had just died for the fourth time) and not because the potential for the game wasn’t good. I quit because I wasn’t getting what I wanted from the game in pursuit of something the game wasn’t delivering enough of.

Let me back up and explain.

The game in question was No More Heroes, an old (2007) game for the Wii that I borrowed from a friend because I had heard amazing things about it. To be specific, the amazing things were in this article here about the ending of the game (needless to say, spoiler alert.) And I wanted to see that ending in context. I wanted to play the game that could not only insert such a dark, truthful moment into a video game where such things aren’t generally done, but also in such a clever and powerful way (for clarity without spoilers, the information is revealed in a fast forward which breaks the 4th wall and references previous moments within the game).

I wanted to experience that moment as it was meant to be.

And when I started the game, I loved it. After a quick tutorial I was hacking and slashing with ease, enjoying the relatively simple combat. Sure it was a bit repetitive, and yeah the level design was very closed, but this was a game that had story. This was a game that had clever cut scenes. And the game play was fun enough that a little repetition wasn’t going to distract me from that.

Then I fought the first boss. And it was hard. But not in the way it was supposed to be. It wasn’t hard because I had to figure out a long string of moves with timings and combos. It wasn’t hard because it required me to think strategically or do complicated maneuvers. It was hard because the boss could only be hurt at certain arbitrary times. Not because he was blocking. Not because he was using a special move that only activates once every thirty seconds. Not because he was just too damn fast He just…couldn’t be hurt because he couldn’t be.

But I beat him. It took a hot minute and it was frustrating, but I beat him. This opened up the open world aspect of the game which, when you really look at things isn’t all that open world. Yes, the world is open, and you can drive around it, but you can’t interact with much. You can’t do much at all in it except go from set place to set place. But that wasn’t why I was playing this game. I was playing it for that ending. That awesome, unexpected, extremely well done ending. And I was going to get to it.

Which took me to the second boss. And his guns. And while the guns were frustrating, they weren’t the most frustrating part of the boss fight. No, that honor goes to the same frustrating part of the first boss. He couldn’t be hit except during certain times and all other times he was invincible because…reasons.

Again I beat him. It was close, but I did it. Back to the limited open world. Back to the grind for cash before entering the next narrow hallway stage into the next boss fight which…you guessed it. Boss couldn’t be hit except during certain times. Oh, but I left some parts out. See, video games get harder as they progress. What did this new boss have?

A ranged attack which was unblockable (which, 2007 wii controls meant I was getting stuck behind pillars and not dodging too many of those. Then there was a variation of that move at about 50% health where she would launch a barrage of them. Enough of them to kill you. Which I found out the hard way a couple times. And once you got her down to 25% she had another attack which if she hit you would instantly kill you.

I died. A lot. Strong words were spoken. At one point I had to turn the system off and walk away.

But! But. I was determined. I was going to get to that ending. I was going to see it in context. I was going to experience the anticipation and earn my way to victory. Research on the internet told me that she was the most difficult boss in the game (for some reason) and that there were no exploits, you just had to be calm, patient, and hack away at her until she died while not dying yourself. It was going to be hard but I could beat her.

And I did. After about ten more tries I did it. I beat her. I shouted victory. I did a little dance. Then returned back to the limited open world, back to grinding for money, so that I could go back to another limited level, cut through a new slew of similar but slightly different enemies, to get to another boss who once again couldn’t be hit except when the game decided and who had another pair of unblockable attacks which took away half your health and got him down to 1% health on my fourth try only to die when I got stuck on a piece of terrain I couldn’t see because of the camera..

That was it. That was the straw. Because I realized something fighting that boss.

I didn’t care about the game play. It was repetitive, uninspired, and other games did it better. I love a good hack and slash but this neither had enough enemies to make it interesting, nor was it refined enough to handle more than four enemies even if they had included more. I didn’t care about the boss fights, because I want a boss who can’t be hit because they won’t let me, not because the game won’t. The only thing I cared about was getting to the end to see the video I’d already seen in full context as opposed to just a clip on a website.

This 42 minute clip saved me another six-ten hours.

And I got what I wanted. I didn’t have to fight through uninspired gameplay to do it. I just had to go watch a youtube video and see the other cut scenes that led to the story I had wanted to see all along.

At the end of all of this, it may sound like I’m going to say No More Heroes is a bad game. But it’s not. I’ve played far worse. I’ve powered through a lot worse. People love this game and I’m not here to tell them not to enjoy it. But getting to be an older gamer, I realize now, if I want to play a game for a specific reason and the game is not enjoyable to me in other ways…it’s probably time to stop. Save myself the frustration, the anger, and the time. I got what I wanted, and I didn’t have to hack and slash to do it. I just needed YouTube.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened to me in a game.

Catherine is a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find he has cheated on his girlfriend, though he doesn’t remember picking up the girl. The descriptions I had heard of the game seemed to point to it being a game where you had to navigate the careful thread of unraveling A. Where this girl came from and who she was while you B. Tried to save a relationship that you had accidentally compromised. The game has six possible endings based on the choices you make throughout the game and if that was all this would be an amazing game. But instead you get gameplay like this.

If you don’t feel like watching the video, I’ll fill you in. That is a puzzle game right there. But what the hell, you might be thinking. Didn’t I just describe the game above as a relationship navigator? Yes! It was! With a puzzle game in between because…it needed to be a game apparently. I really don’t know the reason because every trailer I saw for that game didn’t include that aspect of gameplay.

But that’s not even the best example I have of the plot trumps game play experience. The final example, and I think the best is a little game called Battleblock Theater.

Battleblock theater isn’t a bad game. In fact, if you like platformer collection games much like Super Meat Boy, or just platformers in general then it’s good. Repetitive, challenging, but good. But compared to the cutscenes…it’s just ok. The cutscenes, however, are amazing! In fact, I’m watching them right now just because they’re so funny.

But I never beat that game. Never will. With limited time and so many other games to play and other things to do, the game play just isn’t enough to keep me interested when I can just get the cutscenes by themselves.

So what am I trying to say here? At the end of the day I’m the type of gamer who wants a good story. And a good story used to be enough to keep me powering through game play I wasn’t enjoying just so I could get that story. But as I’ve grown and matured, I’ve come to accept that…sometimes I just don’t care. I don’t need to finish it. Same as how I don’t need to finish a book if I’m not enjoying it after fifteen pages, or don’t need to finish a movie if I’m bored after the same amount of time. There are other ways to get the information I need and the enjoyment I seek. And if it means being a quitter…well, as a former smoker sometimes you know quitting isn’t the worst thing in the world.

But if you’ve found yourself in the same situation, I’m here to tell you that you’re allowed to quit the games we borrow, sample, or *gasp* purchase. That it’s YOURS to do with as you please, and if you’re playing through something complaining the whole time “gods I hate this game,” it might be time that you just accepted…if I hate this so much why am I playing it? If the answer is anything except “because I want to play it,” then it’s time to quit. And if you’re hating the game and still playing it, then you’re probably playing something in the Souls franchise.