ShuffleComp Impressions: Ansible
For the duration of ShuffleComp, I won’t be commenting on games because I don’t want to blow my own pseudonymity just yet. However, Jacques Frechet appears to be a real person, meaning he’s definitely not me; whereas all other ShuffleComp authors are either Doug Orleans or currently in a quantum state of simultaneously being and not being me. So I get to talk about Jacques’ submission, Ansible.
Ansible (Jacques Frechet) is a hypertext piece built using a custom system. Structurally, it’s a pure, stateless time cave. What sets it apart from traditional CYOA-style time caves is the presentation. Ansible uses an infinite scroll, similar to Undum, where content is added to the bottom of the page as the story “grows” with player choices. Unlike Undum, however, past choices are not cut off; every link remains active, allowing the player to go as far back as they want to change something. Effectively, Ansible is a deconstructed CYOA book, with all of its branches laid side by side as tabs that you can page through at will.
Much like in a traditional CYOA, too, Ansible has numerous branches that result in death. The ease of clicking back to explore other branches makes the experience more like a tightly refined try-die-repeat loop out of something like Super Meat Boy, though, and less like a punishingly cruel Twine. In effect, it’s turning lawnmowering into a game mechanic.
Overall, I thought the conceit was interesting enough that I’d like to see other games built using the same structure, though I didn’t think Ansible itself served that structure as well as it could.
This is about as much as I can talk about Ansible without spoiling story or plot details; so I do recommend you give the game a play (It’s quite short) before reading on, if you care about spoilers.
Ansible uses the same basic premise as Fail-Safe (Mild spoiler for a 15-year-old game): The player is communicating over an imperfect connection (the titular ansible) with a character in the game world who is taking instructions from them. In this case, they are receiving messages from a generic-fantasy adventurer equipped with a magical ring that seems to transmit thought and sound. All of the prose consists of dialogue and occasional asides from the protagonist, asking the reader to fill in the blanks of what’s going on. Often, the adventurer’s presumably grisly CYOA-style deaths are merely implied by a “connection terminated” message.
For the purposes of this review, I’ll be referring to the character receiving advice (on the “far side” of the ansible) as the “adventurer” and the character giving advice (on “this side” of the ansible) as the “angel”, to avoid confusion about what I mean when I say “player” or “player character”.
It is strongly implied, in a metatextual twist, that the angel has some kind of clarvoyance or time travel ability corresponding to the player’s ability to explore branches of the story and then go back. Acknowledging this ability to “calibrate” the ansible is the first thing that happens in the story, and the adventurer clearly understands that the angel “will have to try again” to properly get to the next branch of the story.
The rules of how their connection works were never quite clear to me, and after a while they take on a (perhaps unintended) existential horror quality. The adventurer expects guidance from the angel on almost everything, and understands that the angel knows better. So the adventurer is clearly willing to entertain every command from the angel, even when they don’t make sense, even though on the vast majority of cases those commands lead to death. Presumably our mediaeval adventurer doesn’t understand the concept of quantum branches, but I got the picture of the angel as some vast impersonal alien intelligence flipping through different versions of the universe, to find the one where Shrödinger’s adventurer is alive. More than that: Actively driving the adventurer towards death, in a way, to find out what to avoid.
At the same time, the angel is extremely limited. The information you get is incomplete at best, misleading at worst; and you can only communicate by echoing the adventurer — ie, by clicking on links, which are themselves words supplied by the adventurer. So there’s a dimension of helplessness to the angel’s position; you can’t really warn the adventurer of what’s going to happen, or indeed paint outside the lines of the options that the adventurer is enumerating for themself.
From the beginning of the story, I expected gameplay to hinge on gaining information from one “death” branch that would be applied to succeeding in another branch, but this almost never came into play. Eventually, there are few enough branches that lanwmowering becomes the answer, once the shape of the story is taken into account. The time cave structure also suggests, toward the beginning, that the game contains several wildly different stories; in practice, this isn’t true either: there is really only one well-developed plotline, with all other possibilities leading to swift death.
For me, Ansible works best as a piece of metafictional existential horror about Choose Your Own Adventure books. The distancing effect of the ansible, and the frequent death puts an undertone of menace on everything, aided by the writing. The panoply of magical items that is central to the game’s primary plot comes off as sinister, rather than wondrous.
Overall, like a lot of structural experiments, Ansible doesn’t succeed on all counts, but it’s interesting enough that I would care to see more on this mould or from the same author.