IF Comp 2014: Icepunk

Icepunk, by page13oy, is a hybrid-ish game about exploring a desolate, frozen habitat cylinder, somewhat akin to the Rendezvous with Rama ship. A failing human civilisation tried to dump the sum of human knowledge (i.e. the Internet) into the cylinder in order to preserve it; it was a very partial success. The last human being, raised by machines, must scour the habitat for data necessary to begin Rebirth. Although the wrapper is Twine, the core interaction is not very much like a choice-based piece. Instead, you travel around a roguelike map: a randomly-generated snow plain dotted with forests, mountains and the occasional deserted human settlement.

In what must rank among the most horrible user interfaces ever, you have to click across the landscape square by square. Given that each action is followed by a lag of a little over 5 seconds, this means that most of the texture of gameplay was like pulling teeth. The progress bar takes way too long to fill up, and by the time you complete it you’re recycling content that doesn’t reward recycling. There are suggestions that the lag might be intentional; some text mentions trudging through the snow, and a trudge is certainly what this feels like.

The actual data you’re gathering is an odd mixture. Most prominent are fragments from a readily-identified category of Gutenberg literature: old enough to be in the public domain, not so old as to require footnotes, well-known enough to be searchable. They’re physically manifest in ice artifacts, which are destroyed when you gather the data. The protagonist appears uninterested in the literature: it’s reduced to terabytes of various categories of data, all of which are essentially interchangeable. The destruction motif doesn’t work for pathos as well as it could, however, because the same fragments keep appearing again and again; the sense you get is that nothing has really been lost.

For me, any thematic unity among the fragments paled into insignificance beside their irrelevance, their lack of connection to the protagonist’s world. In the abstract, I know that being raised by machines without ever knowing another human being would be a vast and damaging privation; but it’s too big, too strange for me to really wrap my brain around. There is no possible reason for this person to care about Coleridge, now that I can get a handle on.

Alongside this there are a handful of links to Twitter content – picked, as far as I can make out, largely for maximum inanity, though they’re considerably rarer so it’s harder to be sure. And there are some small, free-standing vignettes about forms in the ice. The disconnect between the two might be some kind of commentary about the effect of copyright on heritage preservation – the only things saved after 1923 are things considered too ephemeral and low-value to bother protecting – but if so, it could stand to be better drawn-out.

After the amount of time you have to spend trudging across the landscape, the ending comes as an anticlimax: M8 attains godlike power and promises to recreate humanity and reward you. It doesn’t feel all that great.

The author describes it as experimental; it feels very much like a prototype. Most of the texture of play is very much the same; there’s a beginning and an end, barely, but it doesn’t really have much arc either in a gameplay sense or a narrative one. For instance, gameplay-wise you’d expect that once the basic form of play was established, it would begin to introduce elaborations; story-wise you’d expect more details of the plot to be uncovered as play progressed. This doesn’t really have any of that; it’s more of a texture piece.

Similarly, you can choose a name and gender (with custom pronouns if you want ’em). These have no apparent effect whatsoever, which isn’t all that unusual; but most games which offer this kind of choice offer other modes of characterisation as the game continues – even if it’s only a choice of hats. Here, your choice of gender is very nearly the last thing that we ever see of the protagonist.

The writing’s good: to-the-point, cut-down, evocative without being flowery and attention-grabbing. I couldn’t help but compare Icepunk to A Dark Room, which (at certain points of the narrative) uses sparse text to powerful effect in evoking a wounded, closed-off sense of scarcity both material and emotional. You’re in a small building and it’s cold outside. A stranger comes in and huddles by the fire, not too close. You don’t talk. From time to time you must venture outside to collect more firewood.

The big difference is that the scope of A Dark Room expands dramatically over the course of play. Icepunk expands hardly at all.

One of the things about exploration games is that – in order to foster a greater sense of possibility – they tend to avoid being overtly explicit about where the map’s edges lie. Creating a natural-looking map edge that doesn’t draw attention to itself or spoil the view is taken to a fine art in many graphical games: rhetorically, the authors want to enforce a boundary without emphasizing it. If the map is all filled in at the outset, the player gets a sense of exhaustion, of ‘is that all there is?’ In Icepunk, you’re in a literally closed world. Living on the inside of a cylinder, there are no open horizons, no frontiers. You’re cannibalising the cultural remains of a dead people, not participating in a living, evolving tradition.

So my general sense about Icepunk was that it was taking the negative-agency approach that’s commonplace in Twine and applying it to CRPG expectations. So many of the things that I really want in an RPG or roguelike are suggested and then denied, with the sole exception of the atmospheric setting. One the one hand, I can see how this contributed to what the piece was aiming at. On the other, it meant that the great majority of my play experience was really fucking boring, rote stuff. I ended up multitasking heavily while playing it, going off to do something else, clicking a few steps along on the map, then ignoring it again, because full engagement with the game was maddeningly dull. When I finally filled up the progress bar to get the anticlimax ending, I got the sense that I would have felt cheated if I had been fully engaged; instead, I just felt tired.

More going on in this one than is usual for a 6 score, but I would certainly have abandoned it if I played it outside the comp; and that has to count for something.

(Edit: I also got the blank-screen bug that some other people have reported, but was able to get around it by going to the stats screen and then returning. I would not have finished otherwise.)

Score: 6

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One Response to IF Comp 2014: Icepunk

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2014: Icepunk (page13oy) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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