They broke the world. Somehow, through a series of time travel experiments, they caused a chain reaction that altered a series of past events, and in doing so they turned the Earth into a nuclear wasteland. From these unlucky beginnings, there is one stroke of luck in Eternal Threads, and it’s up to you to set it all right.
The decisions or events that were changed were numerous, and in many cases seemingly meaningless or innocuous. Eternal Thread, despite its timey-wimey set-up, is surprisingly focussed and small-scale. You’re presented with the aftermath of a house fire, seeing the firefighters attempting to stop the deaths of six people. In the original timeline they didn’t die, and you have to ensure that they all survive once more by making alterations to the timeline. It makes for a gameplay experience that’s part Doctor Who episode and part fly-on-the-wall documentary, these people’s lives playing out in front of you.
You’ve got a choice to make right at the outset. You can play the game in Normal mode with a full set of 197 events, 54 key decisions, and a host of different endings, or the time-poor player can opt for the Abridged mode. This offers an easier, quick-to-play version of the story, reducing things down to 121 events and 37 decisions. In a game about time travel, and the importance of these events, it’s a little amusing that you can opt to miss some of them out, and the Abridged mode won’t let you achieve the best result. This, to my mind, makes it basically redundant, but the option is there.
You’re sent back in time with the equipment needed to view the past, setting up a series of holographic repeaters around the fire damaged house. This also includes the Visualiser, a device that allows you to see those past events, and you can choose where on the timeline you want to drop in. You can approach this in whichever order you wish, with the timeline displaying which characters no longer die in this version of events.
Your six charges are Tom, Raquel, Linda, Neil, Jenny and Ben. They’re all living in rented rooms in Tom’s spacious house, bringing together an occasionally awkward range of personalities. The voice acting is excellent, and through their conversations you start to build a picture of what brought them to this place and what makes them tick. There are other found items – letters, phones, postcards, paraphernalia – that further broaden your understanding. Rummaging through these items is both mundane and intriguing; through them Eternal Threads does a fantastic job of investing you in the characters’ lives.
Things seem pretty straightforward at first. Move along the timeline, alter decisions, wonder if they’re going to work out. However, if you change something truly meaningful it opens up new possibilities, influencing other events on the timeline. You can check these potential influences out to see if they connect up in the way you’re hoping, opening up all sorts of butterfly effect and multiverse-related questions. You can quickly alter these decisions once they’ve played out the first time, letting you put the finishing touches to the puzzle a little more easily.
That is, to some extent, Eternal Threads main failing. While there’s elements of deduction, this is much more of a narrative piece than it is a puzzler, with the beating heart of the game focussed more on putting together a complete picture of these people’s lives than it is so much about saving them. The fact that it’s presented in such an intriguing manner, and with such excellent production values, is what makes it enjoyable.
There’s a haunting, voyeuristic undertone to Eternal Threads. Wandering the burnt, abandoned halls of the shared house with the soundtrack of rain outside and the steady beat of your own breath escaping from a gas mask, makes for an often-claustrophobic experience.
The brief appearances of each of the characters in the Visualiser’s ghostly holographic display can be both reassuring and discouraging, especially when you haven’t yet found a solution to their survival. It galvanises your resolve though, moving you along the timeline in search of the next key moment. Eternal Threads feels like a standalone piece, but I’d love to see Cosmonaut Studios nab the Quantum Leap license and do something similarly centred on the most interesting part of time-travel: the people you encounter.