I remember when any system of progression (leveling up, gaining new abilities, stat points, etc) was referred to as an “RPG element” because those systems primarily existed in RPGs. Now, every game has a progression system. Such systems have become so common that we’ve stopped calling them “RPG elements,” which is for the best. It’s not hard to see why these systems have become so prevalent in video games. They play into our desire for growth. We learn more, and we get stronger. These metrics of self-improvement are considered inherently good, things worth striving for.
But the downside to this obsessive self-improvement is that it makes us arrogant and selfish. After all, if some NPC isn’t going to give me a quest, why should I bother talking to him?
The Eigengrau Menagerie is a weird and fascinating game (I mean, just look at that title!) that wants us to strive for the exact opposite goal. We play as a pilgrim in search of three Thoughtforms, beings that exist as the physical manifestation of certain thoughts, who will help us become masters of empathy.
We’re meant to grow in this empathetic ability, but the ability has nothing to do with strength or power, quite the opposite. To be a master of empathy we must be willing to see the world from other points of view. We must understand that our perception of the world and our attitude is but one frame of reference for understanding life. We must open ourselves up to foreign experiences, and in doing so, we willingly make ourselves vulnerable to others.
Instead of growing in strength and impressing our own morality on the virtual world, we’re meant to grow in empathy and accept other moral codes into our own worldview. The game presents emotional vulnerability as a core strength, as the super power at the end of our hero’s journey, and explicitly argues against violence as a means of resolution.
We’re assisted by a pair of magical goggles (and a piece of highly intelligent wood, a companion that I didn’t notice until it specifically referred to itself as a piece of highly intelligent wood). The goggles can stop time, allowing us to analyze a scene and all our possible options before we take any kind of action.
It’s an interesting way of addressing empathy through gameplay. We’re discouraged from acting hastily or impulsively. We’re encouraged to think before we act. Which isn’t to say that the game lacks conflict. Every puzzle is a conflict with someone who would stand in our way, but the solution often involves escape or incapacitation. The one time that we do hurt someone by throwing them into a pit we’re immediately called out on it. Yes, our violence allowed us to surpass that obstacle, but at the risk of our entire journey. It’s not that violence isn’t effective, rather that it is inherently cruel and selfish, driven by the arrogance that I am right and you are wrong and that empowers me to punish you.
The climax of the game involves us struggling against this selfish power. The final Thoughtform puts us through a test, and once completed. the being says there is one last thing for us to do before we can complete our pilgrimage. We must give up our goggles.
We’re given a choice of Yes or No, but it’s clear the game wants us to choose Yes. For one, it’s the natural conclusion of this character arc, giving up what makes us powerful is thus giving up our ego, our sense of entitlement and empowerment. Also, the game flashes a dark outline at you whenever the cursor hovers over No, clearly signaling it’s a bad choice.
I wish it didn’t do that. I wish that it made No seem like an acceptable choice because it’s such a tempting choice. I know what the game wants me to do, yet I still struggle with the decision because the goggles are so helpful and pretty damn cool. I don’t want to give them up. I’m surprised the game has garnered in me such a love for the goggles in such a short amount of time. This struggle with ego is genuine.
I give up the goggles, and then the game gives me a second choice that makes it doubly fascinating and doubly disappointing. It asks me if I’d be willing to play the game over again without the goggles.
This is the real test. After all, we’re at our most honest when faced with surprises, with consequences that we don’t expect. How we face those unexpected consequences says more about us than the choice that we made that led to those consequences. It’s easy to give up the goggles at the end of the game, when we think we’ll have no more use for them. It’s far harder to face the reality of that choice, to take on the game without our magical power and prescient wooden comrade. The game knows this and calls us out on our arrogance. To truly become a master of empathy, we must face the world without an inherent advantage.
My disappointment, though, comes from the fact that the game does the same thing that it did before to push us towards the proper choice. Yes. It sets up a wonderful dilemma, asking us to consider life without our magical privilege and then giving us the chance to back out, but then it undercuts the poignancy of that dilemma by essentially giving us the correct answer. Its desire to help the player undercuts its entire theme.
I want to be able to make the wrong choice and to make it honestly. I could go back and choose “No” but it wouldn’t be my honest choice, I’d be making it just to see what happens. It’s okay to let us choose incorrectly and fail, to give us a bad ending, to punish us for not learning the game’s lesson.
Unless that’s part of the point. The developer may be empathizing with my inner struggle and is helping me choose. In which case, damn that’s meta, but it still undercuts the themes of the game. Punishment doesn’t have to be negative. It can simply be the denial of something of positive. We don’t become a master of empathy. We just leave and go on our merry way. Given our goal, that would be a crappy ending, but it would be a crappy ending we deserved. The Eigengrau Menagerie argues for selflessness as the true source of strength. We fight our way to the top only to realize that we shouldn’t be at the top. It’s ultimately about the virtue of giving up power.
There’s a lot about The Eigengrau Menagerie that feels amateurish, but it’s driven by such an unconventional hero’s journey, one that exists in such stark opposition to nearly every other hero’s journey in every other medium, that it’s impossible not to want more of it.
Plus, that title!