What has impressed me most about this year’s comp is the variety of forms the games have taken. Even from a cursory glance I can see that authors have come from diverse places in thinking about interactive fiction, and what they want to do with their work, and how they present it.
What’s exciting about this is that people have a greater variety of tools to customize their interactive fiction in a way that makes sense for them and the story.
Icepunk is a superb example of this.
It really pushes boundaries in an attractive package and a strong story. The blurb explains the premise probably better than I can:
“You are the sole remaining inhabitant of an artificial world above a bizarre, inhospitable earth. A feral child raised by robots, you have just discovered the central computer of your Habitat, and unravelled the tale of a terrible catastrophe. But there is hope. Your task, as the heir to the human race, is to gather the data left in cold storage in the computers of the Caelan Cylinder, and from the icy landscape therein. You will face the wild processes of dead elemental minds, and see many maddening things in your journey through a landscape crawling with material informatics… all on a quest to create a future.”
Right. So the game involves traversing a bleak inhospitable landscape and hoovering up bits of information. Culture as information. And this is, to say the least, mournful. In a way it’s the inverse of Fahrenheit 451 in which (uh, spoiler alert I guess), people try to preserve little scraps of world literature in order to, one day, stitch together a whole. Here, you are alone, and you are like the last survivor in a sub-Arctic library, burning books to stay alive.
There is no way that, as a player, is not going to be complicated and rather strange.
There was one particular place where the game seemed to take in social media feeds (live? Not sure), and seeing the voices of the distant past (in the game at least) made the entire play experience feel like it was haunted by ghosts. Our ghosts, in which we have at least partially accepted the premise of culture-as-information.
The language is sparse and melancholic and has lines like this:
habitat runs like music that has gone on long after the singers have fallen silent
It sounds like the easiest thing in the world to have a game that has clear direction for the player along with evocation of mystery and a sense of a world “out there”. (Ok, maybe it doesn’t sound that easy.) But it’s really really hard. The push-pull between the procedural generation and the rock-solid premise of the story creates a full sense of immersion. I have to admit I love procedurally generated games, and it’s used to great effect here. If I had one quibble it’s that it gets near the end a bit “grindy”, and repeated content does pop up once in awhile, but I would expect a bit of grind in a game like this.
(Alas I hit a ‘black screen of death’ at one point and was forced to restart when I had collected half of the data. Extremely disappointing! But if anything it gave me a chance to try out a new world with the procedural generation and see what changed.)
I have no idea what many of the other games of the comp will look like. But even with that bug I can safely say Icepunk will be one of my favorites–not only of the Comp itself, but of the year.
p.s.: in the character generation section, the ability to define one’s own gender and set one’s own pronouns was a welcome addition.