Postmortem: Ansible

So now that ShuffleComp is over I figured this would be the perfect excuse to reveal all of the hidden secrets of my game, Ansible, which you should definitely play before I spoil it, and also because none of this will make sense otherwise probably.

As you know, Bob, the way ShuffleComp works is that all the entrants submit a bunch of songs that get shuffled up and distributed and then you write a game inspired by one or more of the songs you received.  One of my songs was Suddenly I See, which I very nearly went for, but the Pentatonix one was too good to pass up.  I actually hadn’t even heard of them before!  Because I live under a rock, probably.  I’m a fan of that sort of a capella stuff to begin with, so it was right up my alley, and the lyrics seemed perfect.  Who’s going to save the world tonight?  Heaven’s got a plan for you, child.  Oh man, so creepy.

So I knew pretty quick that… I mean I’ll be honest, a lot of the ideas for this game are things I’ve been kicking around for years.  The fairy tale is something I read when I was little, right?  (In the particular translation I linked to from the credits, I’m pretty sure.)  At first I was like, no, I want to save these ideas for something bigger, when I’ll have more time to do something good.  But then I was like, no, that’s silly, I should just go all out on this.  It’s not like ideas get used up!  If they did, it would be a problem, because there sure are a lot of things that have been done before.  One of my testers described this game as a being a bit like a cross between Groundhog Day and… Frequency, I think it was?  I haven’t actually seen that one.  Groundhog Day was brilliant, of course.  I read a story about that somewhere, probably in one of those books or blogs with advice for aspiring screenwriters (which I’m not but it’s super interesting to read about), about how, originally, that story was going to have a frame that explained the premise, in terms of a gypsy curse.  Can you imagine?  The moral being that sometimes it’s better not to explain too much, I guess.

Well, that may be true, but I think I could still have done a better job making things clear that I would have preferred to be clearer.

I mean, it’s been fun to try to get a sense from different people of what exactly they think happened, in that game.  Seems like most folks I’ve asked are pretty reluctant to say.  Maybe because they didn’t really get a strong sense, or because there isn’t quite enough there in the actual text to, like, confirm a suspicion, in that satisfying way that can sometimes happen with stories that are initially confusing but ultimately rewarding.

So at this point I guess I’m not so worried about, like, trampling on somebody’s imaginative and equally well-supported theories by revealing what I imagined was going on.  Also it seems a bit hypocritical of me to try to pump everyone for interpretations without offering any of my own.

I almost didn’t call it Ansible.  The title was one of the last details to come together.  The almost telnetlike out-of-band messages (as I thought of them) were there from the beginning, though, so it seemed reasonable to do something with that.

The protagonist’s name is Valeria.  This comes up in the game, but it isn’t very clear — I get the impression a lot of people thought she might have been lying about her name.  And that she might have been a he!  I think because that’s what many people automatically assume — I mean I don’t remember putting anything else anywhere in the game to suggest that she might, you know, have a non-default gender.  And I’m, like, totally this straight cis white guy, of the kind one occasionally encounters, writing a bunch of characters that all kinda sound like me in various ways, and not really making an effort to give the reader, well, anything else to latch on to, really.  And I’m writing under my own name — I think that makes a difference.  Did I mention that ShuffleComp involves suggesting pseudonyms, not just songs?  I… didn’t really like any of my pseudonyms, and had doubts about the whole pseudonym thing from the beginning.  If there had been a single unambiguously female-sounding pseudonym in there I would have at least been tempted to go with it, but they all sounded either distinctly male or conspicuously gender-neutral to me.  Like the characters in my games, I guess.  Except for the names and the pronouns, all of which arrive somewhat after the reader has had a chance to form initial impressions.

So in that one scene I imagined Valeria feeling nervous and sort of toying with the idea of giving a fake name but drawing a blank and realizing that it didn’t actually matter.

But I guess I should back up.

What’s going on at the beginning of the game?  I have to admit that I’m not super clear about this.  Which is probably a bad sign.  But as best I can piece it together… so Valeria’s some sort of treasure hunter, right?  That seems to be what she does.  And she recently came by this ring, the “ring of wisdom,” the “ansible” of the title.  And she knows something about how it works, or how to use it — maybe she’s been playing with it and has figured out a few things for herself, maybe formed some theories that might or might not be entirely correct… but also I get the sense that maybe she’s heard things, maybe read something somewhere.  Possibly including some description of the ritual.

Okay but so she’s got this ring… and it has a knob on it, right?  A tiny knurled thing, like you’d use to wind a wristwatch.  What do you call those?  A stem, maybe?  And it’s a bit finicky — whoever designed this thing should probably have made it a little bit harder to turn by accident.  It’s like the dial on a radio: If you turn it, suddenly you’re listening to someone else.  Or no one, maybe.  Whatever the equivalent of static is, in this analogy.

The way the ring works is, you wear it, and you immediately get this strong sense that somebody’s in your head.  You can just tell.  They’re there, and they’re listening.  This is a thing that can happen in real life, I think!  If you read about the lives of certain saints, or certain people with epilepsy, or other conditions that affect thought — even commonplace stuff, like the condition of being a kid on a long road trip, trying to rest my head on the car window, feeling drowsy and half-asleep, hypnotized by the sound of the tires on the road and the air whooshing past the car and maybe there’s the sound of the radio turned down so low that you almost can’t decide if it’s really there or not and then, no, actually, it isn’t, that’s just the sounds of the environment, of the blood rushing through your ears, of fragments of dream-like thought.  So I feel like one can begin to imagine such things, even without experiencing them full-on.

So the ring — the player — hears the words in the wearer’s head, including words that others might be speaking nearby that the wearer is focusing on enough to incorporate into that inner transcript.  And the ring can echo back certain words — but not just any words, only phrases that have been emphasized in a certain way, and only after a certain mental signal.  We discover that it’s not too difficult to do both of these things accidentally, in fact.  I imagine that emphasizing a phrase in that way, whether intentionally or accidentally, creates some sort of tension, a sensation that the presence in your head is about to speak, and it’s difficult to allow it to persist without releasing it.  In fact sometimes it’s hard to leave the ring on at all.  Taking it off creates a discontinuity of some sort, which triggers another one of those out-of-band messages, but doesn’t interrupt the connection.

I mean obviously it works this way because I’m making up in-story excuses for what is a fairly standard hypertext structure.  Computers are finite, and can only ever contain a countable number of stories.  I need to prevent the dialog tree from growing out of control if I’m going to finish writing all the nodes in a month, and if I expect the player to be able to read them all in a single play session.  Which is more or less what I’ve decided that I’m going for.  And I want to be able to control the pacing by breaking up long passages with choices that aren’t, and by skipping ahead without telling every moment of the story in real time, as it were, because that seemed too limiting and I was getting bored but was still perhaps a bit too attached to this idea of “realism” than I ideally should have been.

So what’s going on here?  What’s happening at all of these dead ends?  One explanation is that Valeria is going off on dangerous adventures and getting herself killed.  Seems to happen a lot!  Perhaps we’re meant to think of her as hapless, perhaps a bit stupid?  Well, no, I didn’t mean to give that impression.  My bad!  I imagined only two excuses for the dead ends: One, that the stem has been jostled in some way, and that it’s far too fiddly to ever return to exactly the same position again.  Maybe some other hypothetical player of some other game gets to see what happens in the following seconds, but not us.  Two, that the wearer either removes the ring or dies wearing it; and, in either case, the stem turns or the ring itself is destroyed or lost forever before anyone can wear it again.

Even more specifically, I imagined, in every single case, that the sword had killed everybody in that universe, with the possible exception of whoever unleashed it.  But they’d die too, of course, sooner or later.  Sometimes they’d find the ring first, but more often not.

In one branch, we see what happens if you use the boots after using the sword: The sword considers Valeria’s new self to be distinct from the old one, the Valeria that invoked it, and promptly decapitates her.

So what is the ring, really?  What power does it have?

I’m of several minds about this.

But one explanation I quite like, not least because it seems entirely in keeping with the overall theme about the nature of the various magical artifacts, is this: The ring is a lie.  There is no player, no angel.  How could there be?  All of these things happen.  The only choice we’re ever given is which timeline we want to see first.

How many times did Valeria try the ritual, before the game begins, only to be led to the wrong card?  I imagine her being well-rehearsed by the time she gets to us, and a little tired.  Barely even disappointed when we guess wrong, but surprised and elated when we guess right.  Was it foolish of her not to have done a few more iterations, to multiply out the improbability factor beyond a mere 78 to one against?  I don’t think so.  I think she was ready to get out of the house and do something, and I don’t think she ever asked us to tell her anything that she wasn’t ready to hear.

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