IFComp 2014: Icepunk

I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot



By pageboy

Choice-based / Twine

Play online: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot#entry-1210

“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.”

Icepunk is an experimental work combining a procedurally generated world, prefabricated content, non-linear exploration, public domain literature and social media excerpts – to probe the possibilities of Interactive Fiction.



There’s a lot of interesting things going on in Icepunk, as you can tell from the blurb. It manages to deliver on its promising, though implementation had some problems.

You are the last human in a frozen, artificial world of golems and data imitations of a culture long since vanished. It tells you all matter contains “code” and “data”, and if you want to create a golden age – to reinvigorate life, to transcend from this desolate experience – you only have to collect data and bring it back to serve a “rebirth” program.

This leads you to exploring an ASCII landscape, procedurally generated with open world exploration that allows you to enter ice, mountains, habitats, and others rather nondescript regions in search of data.


Technically this game introduces some new mechanics unfamiliar in choice-based games. I’ve never seen an overworld map done in Twine before, though it’s obviously possible since anything done in HTML or Javascript can be done to the Twine .html output. Each square icon – above – allows me to enter it and investigate it for data. This “data” takes many physical forms and is erased – empties from the world – when I convert it into terabytes.

Essentially, the player is entering a frozen museum, and instead of artifacts of the past it’s populated with animatronics mimicking forgotten species and excerpts of great literature, seemingly abandoned arbitrarily within its wastes. These excerpts are pieces such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” and Samuel Taylor Cooleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, all works referencing the environment, animals, and mankind’s relationship with them.

An example of the information generated and quoted for you:

Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at the tree. “About this and this,” he cried; “about order and anarchy. There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself—there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”

“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

After you take the data, it says:

The park smooths out, its mockeries of lamps giving no more light in death than they did in life.

There’s such a sense of loss here. You destroy the rich literature, the flora and fauna, the remains of culture and civilization and existence in the quest for data. You transform this meaningful “matter” into 1’s and 0’s, filling up an arbitrary meter that will trigger enlightenment. It’s a formulaic way of looking at mankind’s lasting effect on the universe, as those 1 + 1 = 2 is the only information you need in order to churn out a golden age. I steal these dreams, compress them, and convert them for the machines.

However, you could say these objects provide no enrichment to others in this frozen, uninhabited shrine. If there is no one to experience and interpret the art, is it still art? Is there loss if no one in living memory had ever read these excerpts, or observed penguins, or understood human creations? What purpose do they serve in their often buggy imitation lives out on the artificial ice world?

The ideas present in the game bring up more questions than answers, which is a compliment to the medium. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a lot of problems.

The more environments you enter, the slower the game gets, choked by whatever code is creating these procedurally generated regions. By the time I reached 80% of my data collection goal, I felt the game was practically unplayable due to its slowness. I question if it was properly playtested, since this should have been caught early and either optimized or the exploration and data collection shortened to about half it’s current requirement. I imagine most people who play it will not finish it (assuming I am not the only one with the slow-down problem) – but on the flip side, the ending was ultimately unsatisfying. Thematically, of course, the idea of being weighed down by data suits the game very well. You march slowly through frozen lands with this increasing burden of 1’s and 0’s. An unintentional but an interesting side effect.

The other problem lies with the prose. When kept short the language is adequate, but many times the author tries to create lasting, poetic images or give you heavy-handed backstory. In both situations the prose falls flat and in dire need of an editor. The game contains a lot of passive tense and purple prose, and more adverbs than should be legal. Phrases like “screeching soundlessly” are trying for something evocative, but falling into absolute meaninglessness. The writer hasn’t internalized the rule of “Show, Don’t Tell”. For a short example:

It is a cold and dark place deep beneath your Habitat. And there is a great weight here, like you are in a place of infinite delicacy… somewhere you are not supposed to be.

Interesting ideas, but poorly worded prose. Note all the passive tense – everything is described using the verb “to be”. One way to rewrite this to move it from show to tell is:

You shiver in this dark, cold place beneath your Habitat. A great weight presses down on the room, held up only by a delicate balance. You are a trespasser here.

Before anyone rolls their eyes – no, it’s not the best, just an example. It’s punchier. It describes what you are DOING, not simply OBSERVING in the world. I can make the same line edits across the board and the game will flow smoother (or someone else could, with their own style). The best time to use “to be” in fiction is as a definer or direct metaphor, thus “you” = “trespasser”. Obviously, great writers break these rules all the time, but they do so intentionally (and nonfiction prose follows different rules).

Prose problems are pretty common in interactive fiction where people not only have to master the skill of writing but also that of game development, so I don’t mean to pick on Icepunk specifically. I think the concepts in the game and the technical work done to realize them is great work, and definitely serve as a jumping-off point for others to draw inspiration from.