We’ve all experienced the urge to snoop from time. In Elena, we have that chance. In fact, you have to pour through the minute details of the main character’s life to find the answers behind what is transforming her once-beautiful home and marriage into a tattered nightmare.
Elena begins with dreamy, meditation-worthy music that continues through the game. A brief tutorial on how to interact with the environment plays before the player steps into the world. Controls are intuitive and easy to manage.
The first thing I noticed is the art. Every room has a bold, colorful painting authored by the main character, yet unlike most objects around you, it cannot be moved or clicked on. It being the visual focus of each space you discover, you might be enticed to believe you're in an interactive art gallery rather than a game. You'd be wrong.
I’ve always been the player that likes to look in the nooks and crannies and I'm always frustrated when a game environment has an intriguing set of drawers or an interesting desk that can't be checked.
In Elena, almost everything can be explored.
As you peek through closets and cabinets, you get an idea of who the characters are. The protagonist rattles off commentary about objects you pick up, providing you with a little something called history, and while there's something to be appreciated in establishing a deeper link between humans and objects, some of the voyeuristic thrills are lost in how sterile the environment can feel. It’s too perfect.
You find the things you would expect to find in a home: clothes, dishes, books., but what’s missing is the mess, the drawer of useless stuff in almost every home, the evidence of humanity.
What we find isn’t a home, so much as the inside of a magazine.
The emptiness is the first, subtle hint of the darkness that lies underneath. Anna explores a home that looks like hers, but it’s as if she’s a trespasser. The world shifts around her, and the twisted environment that replaces the picture-perfect home feels more real than the pretty version.
It’s your job as the player to help Anna put the pieces together to understand what happened to her husband, and what is happening to her home. As you collect clues, you pin them to a board and tie them together to create a story.
Anna isn’t entirely alone.
The voice of a man she doesn’t recognize calls and gives her hints to goad her towards discovery. He serves as more of an antagonist than a guide, and little comfort or guidance can be found in his cryptic messages.
The story is short. It only took an hour for me to play through the entire game, including the time I spent deconstructing each room by picking up and throwing every interactable object. As I worked through the main puzzle, little clues along the way gave away the final reveal. This wasn't disappointing, though; I enjoy having my suspicions confirmed.
The ending, sadly, is disappointing.
The layers of mystery unfold to expose the dark secret that trapped Anna in her home. Then the game ends, so abruptly I almost thought it had glitched. I had to reload to be sure.
That, frankly, nearly ruins the game. It doesn’t fit with the narrative, and it feels forced and unnatural. It’s almost as if the developer had a bigger vision but ended the game early instead. If Elena were an episodic game, it would make sense to end on a cliffhanger; but it’s not. The conclusion leaves several threads hanging loose and the ultimate result is unsatisfactory.
Beyond the expected glitches here and there, the variety of objects to explore is diminished by the fact that their response to your actions is the same. If you pick up a piece of paper and toss it against the wall, it remains perfectly stiff and thuds against the surface as if you’d thrown a chunk of wood instead. Tossing a vase full of flowers sounds like throwing a shoe. Nothing has weight.
I also popped out of the gameworld several times, ending up in a white void outside the house. While viewing it from the outside was rather interesting, it wasn’t possible to get back in, and I was forced to reload the game in order to continue.
Elena is a promising idea cut off too soon. The music is soothing, the gameplay is entertaining, and the mystery is compelling. If the story had a second chapter to look forward to, I would be excited to play it, but as it is, Elena feels too incomplete to live up to its promise.