‘Eternal Threads’ preview: a captivating time-travelling tragedy

'Eternal Threads' is a narrative game where you're tasked with saving the lives of six housemates who have already died

Within minutes of launching Eternal Threads, you’re dropped into the far-flung future where manipulating time is nothing more than a day job. Despite that, it’s not long until you’re back in an all-too familiar setting for British players: a miserable, rainy night in the North.

A narrative-driven game, Eternal Threads sends players back in time with the goal of saving six people from a house fire. In the present reality, all six of the occupants have died in the blaze – and you’re forbidden from simply going back and preventing the fire from starting outright.

Instead, you’re handed a small handheld device that can revisit “events” from the week leading up to the tragic fire, and tasked with manipulating the choices of each victim to ensure they survive.

Eternal Threads. Credit: Cosmonaut Studios.
Eternal Threads. Credit: Cosmonaut Studios.

This is done by visiting the location that each event happened – it could be the torched kitchen, or a bedroom dingy with smoke damage – and replaying the event, with each scene’s unknowing participants replaying the moment. Not all of these events offer the chance to change anything, and more often than not you’re merely an observant spectator in Eternal Threads‘ first hours.

As a house full of students is apt to be, the week leading up to the fire is a microcosm of life’s drama and mundanity – and that reflects in your decision-making. In a scene where one character, uni student Niall, flicks through the morning’s post without paying much attention, you can have them flick through the letters again to spot an envelope addressed to their housemate. In another, you can have Niall’s sister ask him how university is going, or query him on how their parents are doing.

They’re not decisions that scream “life-saving”, and there’s rarely any immediate drama to accompany the monumental act of changing time itself. In the last example, nothing big will come of the siblings’ conversation at that very moment – but the next day, it will cause a confrontation where Niall is called out over lying about when he last spoke to his mum and dad. The “time map” detailing every event between day one and the fire is crammed, which means developer Cosmonaut Studios gives the player’s decisions plenty of room to breathe and branch out.

Eternal Threads. Credit: Cosmonaut Studios.
Eternal Threads. Credit: Cosmonaut Studios.

As you explore the consequences of deliberately playing with the butterfly effect, the studio’s attention to detail shines – which neatly sidesteps the hazard of using time travel as a narrative device. While time travel can be confusing, full of paradoxes and contradictions, Eternal Threads is surprisingly ambitious, and the week leading to the house fire is filled with events that both can and can’t happen depending on the choices you make.

Despite being crammed with small and seemingly-inconsequential events, Cosmonaut Studios spends the game’s week-long timeline whisking tiny butterfly moments into life-shattering tornadoes, but still manages to keep the deliberately fragmented plot feeling coherent. While opting for alternate decisions can create new events or remove existing ones, the time map is fairly clear – meaning that as tangled as the story gets, picking it back apart and changing the timeline never gets too overwhelming.

Eternal Threads. Credit: Cosmonaut Studios.
Eternal Threads. Credit: Cosmonaut Studios.

However, none of this would matter if Eternal Threads‘ characters weren’t compelling enough to want to sit with, to watch them juggle their relationships with housemates, to see them in their revealing moments of solitude. From the game’s very first event – helping beleaguered landlord Tom decide whether to take his pet bird to the vet or not – Eternal Threads pours big doses of humanity into each of the tragic play’s cast members. While the dialogue between housemates can feel a little clumsy, as not every conversation feels like one that real people would believably have, for the large part it’s solid – funny in parts, gut-wrenching in others.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Eternal Threads, but the game’s most promising element is its atmosphere, and unspoken sense of duality. You’ll feel like a cosmic voyeur watching Niall’s masculine facade slip when away from his friend, catching Jenny alone in her room and haunted by unsettling paranoia, spying on Tom as he sneaks down to a hidden room in the basement. However, the biggest example is watching the week’s events – house parties, TV nights, loud conversations – quietly taper off, leaving you alone in the quiet sorrow of a torched home. That’s an atmosphere that wouldn’t be possible if Eternal Threads didn’t make its characters and their lives so believable – instead of the game’s heavy sadness sitting on players like a shroud, it feels like a powerful motivator: rather than mourning the loss of these lifelike characters, you’re driven to keep them alive at all costs.

However, the preview does leave some questions that the finished game will need to answer. While the game’s clunkier dialogue can be a little wearying during some of the more inconsequential chats between housemates, it’s not bad (or frequent) enough to have a more serious effect on the game. That said, will it have a more damning effect later in the game, when some of the narrative’s more dramatic threads come to a head?

By the end of the preview, the only character that’s been saved from a fiery death is Tom’s pet bird. Eternal Threads‘ narrative is deliberately slow-paced, which perfectly suits the branching story. From the preview, the time travel mechanic feels as powerful and influential as you’d hope – and promises an incredible story that’s likely to hook any Telltale fans looking for their next adventure.

Eternal Threads launches on May 19 for PC, Xbox One, and PS4. We previewed it on PC. 

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