IF Comp 2014: Icepunk (page13oy)

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Icepunk combines a choice-based interface with some roguelike travel, in a story of post-apocalyptic scavenging for data. I did not get all the way to the end.

The premise here is that humanity has gone out in a blaze of mutual destruction, rendering Earth uninhabitable, and only just managed to send out the contents of the internet to the stars. Somehow or other, the internet’s data is designed to encode itself materially, turning poems into ice sculptures, and philosophical debates into forests. Your job is to traverse this space, using the roguelike navigation structure, and return those material things to data again, which you will then return to your computer. Sometimes you encounter scraps of literature or quotes from famous novels; sometimes there are descriptions of desolate wasteland. Simple ASCII graphics support the effect in many locations.

The map that you navigate is procedurally generated. This works fine, though I am not in practice sure that it creates a significantly different experience than a hand-generated map: this is not a game I think people are likely to replay, the randomization is not being used to produce significantly different experiences (all that changes is the order in which you’re likely to see various bits), and the procedural data is also not being leveraged to make a map that is massively larger than a human being would have been able to compose.

So for me the primary effect of the procedural generation was aesthetic: knowing that the map was procedural, and experiencing it as the kind of map that tends to be procedural, drove home the sense of arbitrariness and isolation in the world.

What begins as evocative becomes increasingly a slog, though. There were several issues here that I ran into. First, the game seems to get slower and slower about allowing you to make a single move from one rogue square to the next; second, by the midgame I’d exhausted the resources nearest my home base, so each trip to gather new data requires a longer and longer journey. Meanwhile, the actual experience of data-gathering doesn’t change very much, and I started seeing repetitions of the kinds of places I’d already been to. So the content is growing less interesting at the same time that the process of getting at it is becoming more of a drag. Eventually I gave up on the process.

The literature I encountered, meanwhile, was almost all from a fairly specific band of culture: 19th and early 20th century, often British, often but not exclusively male authors. I saw some Chesterton, some Kipling, some Coleridge, a passage from Frankenstein. With the possible exception of the last, it’s literature of a certain complacency about man’s role in the universe — and even the Frankenstein section is from the famous passage where the monster attributes to Victor Frankenstein an explicitly godlike power.

From the source, there is also some other content, which looks like it was pulled from Twitter and is made of all sorts of small fragments, platitudes about living daily life, jokes, and passing news. But as I never reached that portion in-game, I’m not quite sure how it would work in context.

Lacking the Twitter-stuff, I can only really interpret based on what I did see. And the scattering of these scraps in a desolate wasteland gave me a sense of a particular nostalgia for Empire that I associate with the UK: a looking-backward that acknowledges the problems of colonization, that regrets wrongs done, but is also wistful for a now-lost sense of certainty and rightness and glory. The privilege of believing that you are at the center of universal order that is both natural and necessary. The confidence. The lack of doubt. It’s khaki trousers, pith helmet, a G&T with lime; it’s stately dinner at Downton Abbey with a thousand pieces of silverware polished by someone you never see.

Partway through my collection of these data-bits, I ran across another habitat from other erstwhile survivors. They had left a message saying that they had chosen to erase themselves, not to be, because they didn’t believe it was possible for humans to exist without duplicating past acts of vicious destruction. Meanwhile, my task was to get “the golden age” back up and running. So I had to wonder, what exactly is it that my protagonist was working to restore? Is this a case of “I want it all back the way that it was“, a reinstatement of something that should never have been in the first place?

I don’t know what view the game takes on this because I didn’t manage to make it to the end. (I did try for a while, but it just became too slow; I had to do other things.)

This piece was also reviewed by Liz England, Alan DeNiro, Another Mr Lizard, Elizabeth, Sam Kabo Ashwell, and Jason Dyer.

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