A Paradoxical Postmortem Between Worlds

Before anything else, I want to apologize to someone who left a comment in the author’s feedback, saying that the game’s content was horribly triggering and inadequately warned. I am deeply sorry that my game hurt people. This doesn’t make up for it, but I will try to put more detailed content warnings for the game wherever I can.


I’ve made the source code for APBW public at GitHub - aucchen/a-paradox-between-worlds.

The code for my version of choicescript is at GitHub - aucchen/choicescript: ChoiceScript is a language for developing multiple-choice games..

Here’s a playlist with every song referenced in the game: A Paradox Between Worlds - playlist by lipids | Spotify

Content warning: All of the content warnings in APBW. Spoilers everywhere. Also I just talk about myself way too much. Also, this post is over 10,000 words long and very poorly edited (kind of like APBW itself).

This post is divided into 3 parts because of Discourse’s character limits.

Music: Lorde - Buzzcut Season - YouTube

[Edit: added some more details on mechanics]

Part 1: Heads inside a dream - Origins, inspirations, development notes

“Fandom is gender, and gender is fandom.” - Judith Butler, probably.

Universe: Origins

A Paradox Between Worlds is a game that tells the story of its own creation. The story of the protagonist of APBW, henceforth called y/n, writing their fanfic is often directly analogous to my story of writing APBW. Like y/n, I had some very lofty ambitions for my story; also like y/n, many of these ambitions were not realized with the story that I had constructed, which I tried to apologize for within the story itself in the final chapter.

I’ve been interested in “fandom drama” as a topic for a long time. The msscribe saga was absolutely fascinating to me, and I read way too much of My Immortal. I was not an early adopter of tumblr (I joined in 2015), but I was a homestuck, and that was a big part of what went into APBW. In 2019, the Homestuck Epilogues were released, followed by Homestuck^2: Beyond Canon, which were very divisive for the fandom. I’ve never read these, but the negativity towards post-canon HS was part of what inspired me to make APBW. Homestuck is a webcomic about a bunch of kids stuck at home (get it?) who connect via the internet, and enter a video game world which becomes the real world. Internet friendships and the relationship between reality and fiction are two of the major ingredients that went into APBW.

Here is the first blog post I wrote about this story, in August 2020:

The ultimate step in my hyperfixation cycle is creating the skeleton of an interactive fiction centered around the object of interest.

In other words I have written an outline of a choice of game based on fandom drama, with its own “canon” universe where there are “shipping hues” that lie in RGB space. And all the surrounding discourse. And there are cults.

Okay. More details about this choice of game or whatever:

The year is 201X, and the Nebulaverse fandom is on fire.

There are three layers to this story: Universe, Online, and IRL.

“Universe” refers to the fictional story, the Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula franchise created by Scottish woman named G. T. Macmillan. It is a space opera/coming-of-life story/cosmic horror about an ordinary orphan from Terra, named Galileo “Gali” Nova, who is recruited to join the Pulsar Academy, a university that trains the new elites (“magi”) of the Nebula Empire. He meets a bunch of new friends and enemies, including his gay subtextual enemy-turned-rival-turned-ally Bruno Helios, his gay subtextual best friend Tycho Planetes, his female best friend Astra Van Allen, and a morally ambiguous female character who teaches the protagonist valuable lessons, Capella Taikong (also the one of the few explicit PoC in the whole franchise). There are five “houses” at the academy, corresponding to the five elements of the nebula and also special power sets and personalities (light, stone, metal, wind, ice), as well as a hidden house, the House of Shadow. The elements are also associated with the 5 (actually 6) Archons, who are the foremost servants of the emperor.

Eventually, they find out that the emperor (named Ariel btw) is actually evil (surprise!), and is actually the former Archon of Shadow; whenever the Archon of Shadow kills the Emperor, he becomes the new Emperor, and has to appoint a new Archon of Shadow who will try to kill him. Whoever kills the Archon of Shadow becomes the new Archon of Shadow. This is the only formal method of succession in the empire. BUT even more eventually, after Astra joins the House of Shadow and is sent to infiltrate the emperor, they find out that the Emperor is a servant of the Demiurge, supposedly an evil God. Now the Archon of Shadow is a servant of the Monad, the supposedly “good” God. Basically this is a cosmic game between two deities that has been going on since the beginning of time, and all of the characters are just bit players within it. At some point, a servant of the emperor kills the Archon of Shadow (who is the principal of the academy), and in return Gali kills the killer, so he becomes the new Archon of Shadow. Also Ariel captures Astra during the infiltration, and tortures her to make her his follower. This obviously provokes shipping, to the consternation of the lesbian side of the fandom.

Somewhere along the line there is a gadget called the Shipficator, a device that takes two people’s relationship and assigns them a point in the RGB space. Red is sexual, Green is opposition, and Blue is platonic companionship. So a RGB(255, 0, 0) relationship is purely sexual, a RGB (255, 255, 0) or yellow relationship is a sexual rivalry or “hatemance”, and a RGB(255, 0, 255) or magenta relationship is a traditional romance. A RGB(0, 255, 255) or cyan relationship is like a friendly rivalry.

Also G. T. Macmillan is a terf but you knew that already.

“Online” consists of the online interactions in the world, taking place in a vaguely tumblr-esque blogging and discussion platform. The fandom for the Nebulaverse is partitioned in the way fandoms usually are. One major circle centers around a user named Claire “shadow-protectrix”, who is a big-name fanfic writer for the gay pairings and a self-proclaimed fandom mom. They are joined by Sofia “nebula-scribbler”, another “problematic fandom mom” who is a writer of Ariel/Astra, and a cult-like following of devotees. The other main faction in the fandom is more diffuse; they include “astrapella” shippers (the only F/F ship), trans girl Gali headcanoners (a lot of those for some reason), and people who think Claire and Sofia and friends are problematic or whatever. The battle lines get drawn when there appears a callout by Luna “terran0va” (a 16-year-old closeted trans girl) against Claire’s fics, which she accuses of racism and homophobia and abusive elements. This starts a shitstorm, and the backlash against Luna is huge, in part due to abuse and death threats sent against Claire and their crew. Claire writes a massive apologia for “problematic” fandom as a whole, which adds fuel to the fire. Meanwhile “you”, the main character of the story, have to decide how you relate to all this. Do you side with Claire or Luna? Are you a double agent playing both sides or infiltrating one for the other? What is Sofia’s role in all this? There are sockpuppets, anon hate, people sending anon hate to themselves, accusations of plagiarism, a failed convention, and all the drama you’ll ever need.

There are five posting alignments: discourse, drama, shitposting, manipulation, and sympathy.

The IRL is the least important layer of this story. IRL, “you”, the main character of this story, are a 16-17-year-old living in the sburban jungle of America. You might be trans or gay or use different pronouns, but no one IRL knows about any of that. Your parents are pushing you to beef up your application for college. You don’t have any extracurriculars or friends in the flesh, and your life revolves around the online fandom. So you wonder how to leverage fandom to improve your college application. Claire gives you that opportunity when they begin to organize an IRL convention (guess how that’s gonna go???). Or you can try to parlay your fanfiction by changing the names and publishing it as your own. Sofia has done that. Luna does not give you that kind of opportunity.

Online: Montage

As you can see, the main online drama changed during my process of writing, while the fictional universe stayed largely the same (barring some theological elements). Originally, my idea for the story was more about the conflict between Claire and Luna, as representing “old-school” and “new-school” approaches to fandom. Luna’s personal drama was not going to be the center of the story (she was also a little more strident, and more of an “anti”). The transphobia subplot and Luna’s arc eventually took over the whole story because it was the most high-stakes and emotionally involved plotline, and because real life wrote the plot on that one. The IRL layer of the story was totally abandoned because I had already written a game about Asian-American teens doing weird stuff for college admissions (Pageant), and I didn’t know how to properly characterize y/n.

The tumblr-style gameplay was the core mechanic for the story. Everything else came afterwards. I put a lot of stock in trying to accurately represent and replicate the fandom tumblr experience. The Online-Montage was a cacophonous place, a symphony of noise, a chaotic tangle of personalities and threads. There would be nightposting, vagueposting, shitposting, memeposting, harassment. The experience of reading would almost be like a mystery trying to piece back together a particular discourse. Maybe it’s hard to follow, maybe it’s user-hostile, but that’s just what tumblr (and social media more broadly) is like. It would be unfaithful to actual internet discourse otherwise.

Setting: the time period for the game is ~2014-2015, the peri-dashcon era of tumblr, near the peak of superwholock and homestuck, when the site would finally lose its innocence. All of the memes and references are to pre-2015 media, with one or two anachronisms. There are a lot of tumblr posts that were essentially quoted verbatim. Since I never experienced these events firsthand, my writing this feels like stolen valor. I did do some research (read heritageposts.tumblr.com and fanlore.org and watched sarahz videos). I have written a lot of fanfiction and still do sometimes, but my interactions with fandoms have been low-key and nothing like the experiences in the latter part of the game.

Characters: the online characters basically popped out wholly formed in my head. They started out as common archetypes seen in online fandoms: the fandom mom/Big Name Fan (BNF), the discoursers, the msscribe wannabe, the wannabe pure cinnamon rolls, the irony-poisoned sinnamon rolls who think they’re above it all, and the randos who are just doing their own thing (which is most people in fandom). All of them were loosely inspired by multiple people I’ve seen on tumblr, especially in terms of their blogging styles. But as I developed the story more, they eventually all became their own personalities, I hope. Luna is one character that a lot of people pointed out as sympathetic, but my favorite characters are Karla and Sofia.

Mechanics: The core mechanic of the game is the read/like/reblog cycle. Liking and reblogging posts would change relationship stats, and access to deeper content like groupchats and DMs would be gated behind these relationship stats. You need to reach certain relationship levels by MV2 in order to access Claire’s groupchat or Sofia’s or Karla’s DMs. Reblogging is a lot more impactful than liking; reblogging also changes your “blog alignment”, which is broadly how your blog is perceived by randos, as well as your perceived favorite characters and ships. They can also hurt your relationships. Basically, the idea is that your pattern of reblogs would position you within a social network, linking you to a sub-community or faction in the fandom. It is also how you make friends, or at least get people to notice you enough that they want to make friends with you. There’s some inherent tension between the mechanical nature of likes/reblogs and the complex nature of IRL relationships, that’s not really explored in the game. How do you show human relationships with a few numbers, anyway? Also, in the groupchats, there are also some binary choices that affect which path you go down; basically it comes down to who you support in a few arguments or discourses.

The system of follower counts was one I added about halfway through the game, just because I wanted some more meaty mechanics, and I liked the idea of “blog alignments”. I really wanted to write a game where “shitposting” and “discourse” were stats. It was never supposed to be the core of the game; it’s just another part of the heartbeat of social media. Gaining followers is supposed to feel hollow, and the response should be a little sarcastic or ironic on the part of the game. The achievement name for doubling your follower count reflects this, if you’ve ever heard “White Teeth Teens” by Lorde: “I won’t be smiling but the notes from my admirers fill my dashboard just the same.” To form meaningful relationships in social media, sometimes you even have to deliberately work against the reward systems built into the platforms. Social media is the real demiurge!!! In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have added it in, seeing as how some players took it for the central mechanic.

Universe: Canon

The story-within-a-story is deliberately tropey, and the worldbuilding piled on the fantasy/sci-fi/YA tropes. They might seem like HP tropes, but actually the Nebulaverse and its fandom were more influenced by Homestuck. The element/role system was heavily inspired by the idea of classpects, not just Hogwarts houses. Stone is Hufflepuff, Light is Gryffindor, and Metal is Ravenclaw, but also Stone is Blood/Heart, Metal is Mind/Light, Ice is Time/Doom/Life, Light is Hope/Rage (not Light), and Wind is Breath/Space/Void (the five elements were also inspired by the Chinese Wu Xing, as shown by Metal being an element). The Roles are even more homestuck; Augurs are Seers/Mages, Reapers are Princes/Bards, Keepers are Knights, Weavers are Sylphs/Maids, and Speakers are, uh, idk. The resemblances are very abstract. If none of that made sense, good for you. Even the use of Gnostic imagery and the use of alternate worlds in the fanfic came from Homestuck.

The characters were a mix of fandom archetypes. Gali was mostly inspired by John/June Egbert from Homestuck (especially the trans headcanon/ambiguous-canon), with some nods to Harry Potter; the hero archetype basically. Bruno was obviously fanon!Draco, or Draco in Leather Pants (with shades of Vriska), so Brunova is a nod to Drarry. Astra was obviously inspired by Hermione (with shades of Jade Harley) and Tycho by Ron. Capella was loosely based on Rose Lalonde from Homestuck (or Emily Chen from Pageant, but she’s also low-key Cho Chang in that she’s an ethnic token; I don’t remember if Cho ever had a personality). Astrapella was inspired by the Rosemary and RoseJade ships from Homestuck, and also by Karen/Emily from Pageant (my own story). The relationship between the Brunova and Astrapella fandoms was kind of inspired by the relationship between the Davekat and Rosemary fandoms in Homestuck. Since I remember nothing about Harry Potter, the character impressions are mostly based on fanon (My Immortal was probably a bigger source of characterization inspiration than HP canon).

The shipficator, the canonical relationship system with RGB colors, was based on the quadrants from Homestuck. Red = matespritship, blue = moiraillegiance, and green = kismesissitude, obviously. The themes in the Chronicles are about the blurring of distinctions between “good” and “evil” and the shifting nature of fundamental beliefs.

By the way, I wrote Gali as a closeted trans girl in all of the “canon” segments. I hope someone besides Luna noticed that. Trans-ness is integrated deeply into every facet of APBW.

I have had zero interaction with any HP-related media or fandom in the last 10 years. I last read the books over 15 years ago and have very little memory of them (I think I got bored and never finished the series). Yes, GTM’s bigotries and the reactions to them were somewhat influenced by my third-hand observations of the HP fandom, but said author is unfortunately far from the only example of creators with bad behaviors. I wanted to make a more universal story about how fans cope with a creator’s hostility.

Universe: Noncanon

The fanfiction sections were based on common tropes: ch1 was supposed to be a coffee shop AU, ch2 was a post-canon/enemies-to-lovers AU, ch3 was a post-apocalyptic AU, ch4 was a school AU, and ch5 was a surreal AU. It was supposed to be an exploration of popular fanfic types. I don’t think it landed, because the fanfiction wasn’t all that well developed, and didn’t have the most interesting characterization or freedom for the player.

I had a lot of ideas for the fanfic sections that I never figured out how to implement. I was originally going to have plot coherence as the key mechanic here, basically a synchronization between what you write now and what you write later. Like the choice between the Chekhov’s gun and deus ex machina in the first chapter (I was going to have something like that in every chapter). Canonicity was also going to be a mechanic - both adhering to canon and not adhering to canon would have advantages and disadvantages. But this part of the game was a failure. I didn’t know how to integrate it after the first chapter. Thus, I made all the fanfic sections after the second chapter optional, because I knew that they weren’t the most interesting part of the game.

IRL: Influences

The music of Lorde, especially the song that you should be listening to right now, was a huge inspiration. In fact this whole game might as well be an extended albumfic for Pure Heroine. References to the album are scattered throughout the story, most notably in the achievements, which are all song titles or lyrics. There are also a ton of thematic inspirations - Buzzcut Season pretty much sums up a lot of the ideas in APBW. Seriously, just listen to it.

Overall, this game was extremely referential. There are a bunch of posts that are copies of tumblr memes, or slightly edited versions of them. There are also tons of references to real-world media, music, and so on. More indirectly, APBW could not have been possible without the loads of IF I’ve played, books I’ve read, tumblr blogs I’ve followed, and so on. This game could even be called a “Secret Little Haven-like”, in the same way that Pageant could be called a “Bee-like”. Interestingly there was one other game in this comp that cited Secret Little Haven and Digital: A Love Story as inspirations (You Are SpamZapper 3.1). I really want to see a comparison between the various fandom/online-adjacent games this year, because I see a lot of interesting parallels (SpamZapper had a lot of both plot and structural similarities with APBW, and some similar problems), but I’m probably not the person to write it.

During the writing process, I discovered the novel Ship It by Britta Lundin (this was after tumblr’s destielputinelection event on November 5th, 2020, which has a strange connection to Britta Lundin and also Riverdale but that’s a whole other story). I read it, and I was surprised at how much I liked it. And that led me to discover a whole micro-genre of YA novels about fandoms and even tumblr specifically (I had already read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell which was a major influence). So I read a lot of those books, for “research”. They didn’t end up changing much about APBW, but maybe they had some subconscious influence on me as I was writing.

For a full reckoning of the game’s inspirations, see the credits/walkthrough document.

IRL: Why?

The concept of APBW started as a fun fandom romp with over-the-top melodrama, but what made me complete it was despair. Just as y/n wrote the fanfic to escape from the drudgery of their daily life, so too did I write APBW. It became a way for me to channel the incessant exposure to transphobia online and off, a way to defang that sort of hostility, and a way for me to temporarily alleviate my loneliness. Yes, I am writing for therapeutic purposes. But also, just as y/n wrote the fanfic to make friends and gain the approval of random internet people, so too did I write APBW. It was never just a piece for myself. Just like y/n (and Luna, Claire, Sofia, just about everyone in the story), I wanted a place in the sun, to see my “likeness set in stone.” I’m not a bad person, am I? (that was another Lorde reference.) To quote Claire @ shadow-protectrix, “Don’t you want that? Doesn’t everyone?”

I was also going to submit another game, tentatively titled “New Year’s Eve, 2019”, to ifcomp, but I could not finish it in time, and I became more interested in the concept for APBW. NYE2019 would’ve taken place at a New Year’s Eve party in 2019 (surprise), where the main character (Karen Zhao, a 22-year-old Chinese-American college student) gets increasingly emotionally despondent and eventually has a breakdown. That doesn’t sound very interesting, does it? APBW just seemed more resonant to me at a time when 99% of my social interactions were online and I hadn’t been to any social gathering in years. Another reason I chose to work on APBW over NYE2019 is that the latter is a sequel to Pageant, a game that I thought no one in the ifcomp voting bloc had played (I was slightly wrong; apparently a nonzero number of ifcomp-affiliated people have played Pageant). But I made the two games to have certain connections: NYE2019 would reference Melodrama where APBW referenced Pure Heroine, and both games repeated certain phrases.


Music: RIBS - LORDE 1 HOUR (re-upload) - YouTube

Part 2: This dream isn't feeling sweet - Criticism, responses to criticism

Before the game was published, I wrote a long list of potential flaws that reviewers would discover. Here is that list:

  • not enough freedom in the fanfiction, feels too on-rails, unlike the freedom that is typical of fanfic as a medium.
  • “I have no idea what [fandom term] means. I don’t understand any of this.”
  • people don’t know how to interact with the systems. they don’t reblog or like posts so they don’t end up getting into the deeper character routes and thus won’t really understand what’s going on.
  • the plot is a meandering mess. There is no coherent plot thread, just a bunch of stuff that happens. It is very easy to miss important plot events. It is very easy to ignore everything interesting that’s going on. The least interesting parts of the game are the only parts that are mandatory.
  • The characters feel indistinct and too similar. Can’t remember who is who. Can’t match names to URLs. All the names and URLs feel too similar.
  • character building at the beginning is too long, too much of a slog. Don’t know what to pick.
  • couldn’t care about the Universe/Nebulaverse at all.
  • bad ending; the story just stops without any kind of afterword or epilogue.
  • character development feels interrupted and abbreviated.
  • fandom discourse and drama feels unrealistic. Dialogue does not feel real.
  • fandom drama and discourse feels too real, as if it were ripped from the headlines. Too ripped off harry potter drama.
  • main character feels invisible, doesn’t really have a distinct voice or personality.
  • elements and roles didn’t mean anything in the end.
  • couldn’t be brought to care about any of the characters.
  • blog posts are boring and uninteresting.
  • too easy to gain relationship points.
  • too simple mechanics for gaining relationships, not enough interactions between users.
  • too short, not enough time to really know or understand the characters.
  • fanfic sections are too long.
  • emotionally manipulative in trying to get us to care about Luna.
  • overly focused on trans issues, soapboxing, anvilicious in tvtropes terms
  • “meta” elements don’t really make sense

This list was pretty pessimistic, but I think it covered most of the existing criticisms.

One major problem a bunch of people pointed out was the lack of interactivity in the Online sections, and overall. You can like and reblog, but you can only rarely talk to people or reply to posts. Part of this was intentional, part of this wasn’t. I started this game building off the Choice of Games house style, with a protagonist intended to be a self-insert character. Thus, I was worried that any lines said by the protagonist would be seen as “out of character” for some set of players, as something the player would never say. In addition, I saw the protagonist as someone shy and awkward, for whom liking, reblogging, and writing fanfiction are ways of getting attention from people because they’re too scared of talking to people. But that didn’t come through; the protagonist was far too generic and poorly characterized to really show any of this.

At least one reviewer saw the bulk of the content as generic, full of unnecessary details but without a sense that it’s a lived-in world. This was especially true in the long, user-hostile, boring stretches in the early parts of the game. And I agree, in part. The fandom isn’t as vibrant as I would have liked. There isn’t enough diversity in the posts; too much of the content is either fanart or fanfic, and they don’t talk to each other as much as they should. Part of the reason for this is realism (most tumblr blogs are just full of reblogs). And I don’t know if this is an excuse, but I tried to make the characterization as subtle as possible. The metadata say at least as much as the posts themselves. What times are people reblogging at. Who are they reblogging from. How many notes they receive on their posts, and what kinds of posts they receive notes on. But is this all “lived-in”? I don’t know.

Another flaw in APBW is that it fails to guide the player to the most interesting parts of the story. Karla’s investigation arc and the imposter, Claire and Sofia’s falling out, even Luna’s rescue all require a certain level of stats, levels that most players might not reach. Only 30% of randomtests end with the Luna ending; 70% end with the Neutral ending, which is basically a bad ending, and almost none encounter the Claire or Sofia routes. Players play much more like randomtesters than I expected. A reviewer said that the starting objective is getting followers; it’s not. The game is about building relationships with people online, and I probably failed to show that. Almost no one who wasn’t following the walkthrough is going to reach Sofia or Claire’s endings; those endings shed new light on the story that you wouldn’t see on the main path. The silver lining to this is that Luna’s route is probably the most engaging and well-developed route. I’m glad it was the route that most people saw.

Emily Short once wrote an article called Plot-shaped level design. I never thought about how to incorporate the lessons from that article into APBW, but I think those lessons are what I needed in order to make the game better.

I think the nonlinearity of the game failed it. Presented with a list of blog urls, the game becomes a database dump; there’s nothing guiding you to look at the most interesting posts. It’s too vague, too unguided. The player is always going to experience the story linearly, and I don’t give the player a good way of getting through the story. Another thing that I don’t think I did well enough in APBW is giving the player a motivation. Why do you want to read these blog posts? What are you supposed to get out of it? Why should the player care? Then again, maybe the very long character building process is enough to give you some attachment to the world, to allow a player to immerse themself in the nebulaverse fandom?

Maybe in general, APBW was too hostile to the player. It was a failure of empathy on my part; I was too absorbed in my view of the story, the eagle’s eye view that saw everything at once, and never gave enough consideration to the fact that the player has to slog through everything linearly. I wrote too much filler to pad the content out according to my imagined rules of symmetry, not thinking about the player’s slog level. More content is often worse, especially if it is thoughtless, poorly made content.

On the other hand, the confusing, user-hostile parts of the game serve a purpose, or at least they served a purpose in my head. They were supposed to be a narrative puzzle: you were to untangle the plot by reading through vagueposts, and untangle the complex relationships between the various characters. The story is about the visceral experience of being Extremely Online; the internet, social media, and tumblr in particular is often an incomprehensibly hostile place. The design of social media itself, in Real Life, is often hostile to real human relationships, while at the same time it is often the only place some marginalized people have to connect with each other, and often “real life” is just as bad. Like Luna says when someone suggests that she take a break from social media, “Take a break and go where?” That contradiction is one of the central pieces of APBW.

Almost every reviewer seemed to like the Online sections better than the Universe sections (Canon and Noncanon). The Nebulaverse failed to capture people’s attention. People commented that the universe was very tropey (true, deliberate). But I think people read too much into the surface level similarities to HP when that wasn’t even the primary inspiration behind the nebulaverse (again, it’s much more homestuck-like). But that’s my fault; I failed to highlight the most interesting parts of the nebulaverse in the chosen excerpts. The first couple were almost deliberately generic, to lull the reader into a sense of complacency, but that just meant that readers will skip over the more interesting excerpts later on. It gave a misleading impression of what the Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula were like.

The nebulaverse characters didn’t really work. Many reviewers described them as archetypes, and they were. They were poorly characterized and generic, I admit. The relationships between the characters felt boring. This lead to people not really caring about the fanfiction portions of the game. The fanfiction was too generic, and poorly motivated, and didn’t give the player freedom to do interesting things. They didn’t even let the player pursue their ships most of the time! In my experience the best fanfics are about either exploring characters’ emotional landscapes by placing them in different situations, or about worldbuilding in the gaps left within canon. The fanfic in APBW does neither. It’s just… kind of there, for the sake of being there.

I think the humor of this game didn’t land for anyone who wasn’t already extremely online. It relied too much on references and memes and juxtapositions, which only works when the player has some outside context into obscure parts of tumblr history. How many people picked up on the Obama Administration post? APBW’s style of humor might as well be Ready Player One for millennials (see: Rejected Theme Song from READY PLAYER ONE - YouTube - imagine which APBW references could be substituted in here - “Remember queue tags? Remember frick-frack? Remember MsScribe? Remember the colours of the sky?” okay that sounds terrible but you get the gist).

A number of people commented that the ending of the game just stops, without wrapping up many of the plot threads. Honestly, I had no idea how to end the game. The central issue of GTM is ongoing. Y/n’s life is ongoing. This is a slice of life story. Life goes on. That’s why I did that meta thing at the end. On the other hand, most of the major characters’ plot issues do get resolved, I feel like?

Finally, one of the sticking points of the game was the length. APBW was on the long end for an IFComp game, at almost 2 hours, and most reviewers called it a large or hefty game. But by Choice of Games standards, it wasn’t long at all. On the CoG forums, where I discussed the game and asked for early testers, any game shorter than 100k words is considered very short (the comp release for APBW was at 76k). In fact some users consider hosted games shorter than 100k words to be a red flag. There are games where 100k words is barely a single chapter.

Part 3: How all the thoughts (moved 'round our heads) - allusions, intentions, "what you might have missed", random stuff


There was a lot of on-the-nose theme naming going on. In the Nebulaverse, all of the characters have astronomy-themed names. The planets were all named after ancient eastern Mediterranean sites or places important to ancient Christianity. A lot of the minor character names were literally generated using my random character generator, linked in the game.

All the IRL/Online names are also meaningful. The astronomical theme naming still applies: Luna, Lux, Claire, Stella. From an in-universe standpoint, it’s interesting to note which names are chosen names (Luna, Lux, Karla) and how they might have been chosen. Luna was probably based on a nebulaverse OC she had (it’s also a pretty common trans girl name, I feel like). Lux just sounds cool, plus “light” for the nebulaverse astronomical connection (it may also be a nebulaverse OC). Karla semi-ironically named herself after Karl Marx on some internet forum (no, her deadname is not Karl), and it somehow stuck.

From an out-of-universe/narrative standpoint, I picked all the names for a reason. For example, Sofia (do you get it??? did you do the sofia route??? yes, it’s a gnostic connection). Luna and Claire were partly inspired by Clair de Lune, which is just a nice piece and was used as one of the chapter titles. Lux also comes from “light” (“Moonlight Sonata” could be the name of the Luna/Lux ship). Claire’s name was also partly inspired by [REDACTED] (REMINDER THAT THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION AND ANY SIMILARITY TO ACTUAL PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL).

Chapter titles, music

It was kind of pretentious of me to title the chapters like classical musical movements. I don’t remember at all what made me do that (well, I was in orchestra once and I play violin). I guess I thought of the whole game as a coherent musical sonata or something like that, with different patterns and motifs and stuff. I have no idea if it worked.

Also, the chapter opening quotes were pretty pretentious, too.


There are some parallels between the Nebulaverse characters and the Online characters, how some people take on some aspects of the characters (Karla’s appearance is described in the exact same terms as Capella’s appearance).

APBW might be one of the first games ever to have diegetic content warnings, as part of the tumblr-esque interface. But, I should have had more content warnings outside of the game.

A lot of the reviews talked about how the cast was mostly queer teens. Actually, there were only a few teens in the main cast; 3 of the 6 bloggers you interact with at the start are adults! Claire isn’t even a young adult! And a lot of this game is about how adults interact with teens in fandom spaces. All of the adults in this story are fallible and have their own personal problems to deal with; none of them can be totally responsible towards the teens who look up to them (some are more irresponsible than others). Many of the adults were parents; I wanted to explore the nexus between “fandom moms” and actual parenting, and I really want more media about LGBT parenthood. How do Claire and Sofia’s fandom experiences relate to their actual experiences with their families? I don’t know; I want to explore those ideas more in the future.

I haven’t seen anyone talk about Claire’s route or Sofia’s route or the investigation arc, or just talk about the other characters besides Luna. Karla is the closest thing this story has to a self-insert, by the way. Did anyone find the imposter? If you add content that no one sees, does it still make a sound? (sorry for the mixed metaphor)

The good thing is, Luna’s route is by far the strongest route; the other routes are not exclusive, and act best as complements to Luna’s route.

Speaking of the other routes… (massive spoilers) I don’t think the reveal of Stella as the imposter and Sofia as the puppetmaster really works. We don’t get to know the characters much beforehand; we don’t care enough to be surprised. Stella just gets a few lines in the chats; same for Sofia. And when the reveal comes, it seems to come out of nowhere. Sofia just kind of blurts it out for no reason.

Fanfic meanings

The process of y/n writing the story is a direct analogy to my process of writing APBW. My favorite scene in the fanfic, besides the brunova moment, was in the fourth chapter, when you’re tired of it all and don’t want to write any more, and that’s reflected in either Gali going to bed or you just stopping. That was reflective of my own thoughts about the fanfiction segment and APBW as a whole even; I wanted it to be done already. The self-criticism about the fanfic is all stuff that I thought about APBW as a whole.

The fanfiction that y/n writes is basically a metaphor for alienation and loneliness. I want to say that some of the failings in the fanfic were intentional to prove a point, but that’s not entirely true; I ran out of ideas and inspiration, and honestly I just wanted to get it over with (see again: ch4). But I did want it to come across as, what kind of person would start out writing this epic multi-world fanfic and then have it collapse to a sad story of one person sitting alone in a white void trading depressing stories with their creator? What is the kind of person who would write “this isn’t your story” in every chapter of their own story?

“This isn’t your story.”

Much of the user disempowerment was deliberate. “This isn’t your story” is constantly repeated in the fanfiction for a reason. The player isn’t the main player; they’re at best a side character in the greater online drama. But even the “main characters”, Luna and co, aren’t really “main characters” in the grander scheme of things. One of the thematic load-bearing blog posts is Karla’s post in mv4, which is one of the few Online posts that explicitly recalls the motif from the fanfiction: “Sometimes we have to remember that we aren’t the protagonists of life’s story. People like GTM are the protagonists. We’re just a rotating ensemble cast of side characters. Maybe not even that. Just the unnamed extras.”

One of APBW’s major themes is about the tension between two meanings of “This isn’t your story”. On one hand, it is against the concept of protagonism, of understanding your life through the narrative lens of being the heroic protagonist of your own story. For the player, this story in particular might not be yours to own, just as Gali travels to worlds that are not theirs. But it’s also about the idea that certain types of people are systematically deprived of the ability to control their own stories, and have the narrative about their own lives stolen from them. Luna’s arc is about the balance between the two ideas (partially expressed through the tension between fame and anonymity; you can be the hero, but you can’t control your own story), and maybe she reaches a synthesis in the end. Claire titles their vent fanfic, written when they’re under attack by all sides, “are you the hero of this story?” I thought I was way too on-the-nose with this theme, hammering it in without any subtlety (see also, the opening and closing epigraphs). This theme was also a part of NYE2019, the other game I would’ve submitted to the comp. It would’ve been interesting to see how the two stories interacted, as very different games with similar themes. Alas.

The opening epigraph might be the most important part of the story, because the entirety of APBW can be viewed as an explication of the linked essay: https://medium.com/@MammonMachine/the-story-is-a-spell-the-story-is-a-curse-8c5a12dfa8bb. If you’ve read that essay as well as listened to Pure Heroine, you might as well not read APBW because you’ve gotten all the themes already. APBW won’t have anything new to teach you.


Music: Lorde - Still Sane (Audio) - YouTube

Part 4: Not in the swing of things (yet) - the post-comp release, future plans, and what I've learned

The post-comp release

I would like to make a post-comp release that tries to fix some of the design/plot issues present, hopefully completed before the end of 2021. There will a lot more private messages that guide the user, and I greatly lowered the stat checks for entering the more obscure routes, hopefully making them more accessible to players who don’t use the walkthrough. I’ve also guided the player more towards the groupchats, starting with an invitation in the first chapter, and introducing the conflicts between different factions of fans earlier on to give the player a hook into the story.

Basically, I’m adding a lot more group chats, including some of the less-included characters (Lux, Stella, Sofia), and filling in the non-Luna parts of the story. I’m also changing a lot of the blog posts to diversify the content, including more shitposts, more meta, more discourse, and so on. At the end, I’m adding an epilogue.

I might also reorganize and rewrite some of the Universe-Canon excerpts to make them more interesting, and hopefully highlight the more unique aspects of the nebulaverse (as opposed to the tropey parts). Most of those sections hadn’t changed since I wrote them in 2020.

Finally, I would like to make some changes to the fanfiction to hopefully make it more interesting and engaging. Maybe allow for more freedom in the order of the events or the specific AUs. Or changes in the characterization or mood. There are a few plot devices and elements in the nebulaverse that I hadn’t introduced yet, and I’m going to try to surface them in the fanfiction more, from the start. I don’t think the fanfiction section will ever be as highly reactive as I wanted in the original design, however.

What is this for?

One of the questions I’m having about a post comp release is, am I making this to convince the people who didn’t like it to give it another try, or am I making it as a bonus for the people who did enjoy it? Are they actually different things? At first, in thought that the balance would be tilted towards the first group, but as time went on, I saw more reviewers who liked the exact things that other reviewers saw as janky or bad mechanics. Maybe there’s nothing I can do to convince the former group while retaining the game that I want to make.

I need to get over my residual attachment to “stats” and “gameplay” and “challenge”, because successful game-like mechanics will always turn the game into an optimization problem or a puzzle, and in a choice-based narrative IF, there are few contexts where such challenges can be integrated into a story. Successful integration of gameplay and story only works in some genres, for some concepts; Choice of Rebels is one such game. In Birdland, the stats were successful precisely because they had minimal impact on the overall story. Turning games about interpersonal relationships into optimization puzzles is pretty problematic, unless you’re specifically making a point about how relationships are commodified in social media or something like that (APBW tries to make this point, but I don’t know if it landed). In a story-centric IF, no matter what the player’s choices are, they should be able to see the most interesting story. I think APBW fails that test. No one who’s not specifically looking for it is going to see the investigation arc. No one is going to get Sofia’s ending. That’s why I’m substantially reworking the stats system so that it’s easier for the player to access some of the Claire/Sofia subplots. Engaging with them will still be optional (no one really cared about Sofia or Stella among testers or reviewers), but they should at least be visible.

On the other hand, maybe those routes would just clutter things up. Maybe those routes shouldn’t be surfaced more. Maybe I should cut out the extraneous content that’s not the Luna route. Kill my darlings and all. But then, would it still be the same story? Would it still be an internet simulator? I guess part of the problem is that the game is trying to do too many things at once.

Ironically given that many people said APBW was too long, the post-comp version will be even longer, with even more content.

IF Learnings

As I work on my next IF projects, I have to think about how to apply the lessons I learned here. “Plot-shaped level design” is probably the key lesson. I keep wanting to make highly interactive games that balance story and mechanics, but I think I fail to actually integrate the two in a meaningful way.

Now I’m realizing that many of my other in-progress games suffer from the same problems present in APBW. It’s the problem of choice, leading to listlessness. There are too many paths, and too little in the way of guidance or goals, so why should I care which path we pick? Pageant suffers from this problem, but at least it had a clear and explicit goal (winning the pageant). NYE2019 suffers from this problem in the extreme, but it has time-based mechanics and bottlenecks to set the path straight.

I’m really bad at killing my darlings. In this case, my darlings would be “everything besides the Luna arc”. The Luna @ lunan0va arc was the one part of the game that I think everyone liked; everything else was kind of divisive. Would APBW have been a better story if I had trimmed every other character and their routes, when no one played those anyway? What if I removed the fanfiction entirely, and the canon excerpts too? What if I told the entire game as chats between Luna and y/n, interspersed with maybe a few blog posts that are presented linearly? It wouldn’t be the same story, and it’s basically the opposite of what I’m planning to do for the post-comp release, but, would the game have worked that way?

Speaking of which, I’m thinking of removing or greatly trimming down two of the four “main routes” in NYE2019. As in APBW, there’s one character/route that I’m obviously showing favoritism towards. Maybe there doesn’t need to be the other routes/arcs; they’re going to be harder to access anyway and the players might not care for them much, so what’s even the point? Maybe a better tack would be to greatly expand their routes so that they’re as interesting as the “main” route. But that’s difficult and requires a lot of work for not much payoff.

I have a lot of questions about interactive design and very few answers.

Most of my games are storylet-oriented. I design my games by creating the mechanics and structure first, and then slotting in content to fit the gaps left. I like structures where it’s easy to add new content in small chunks, like blog posts here, or new storylet events in Pageant/NYE2019. I like trying to experiment with different systematic choice mechanics; NYE2019 has several different mechanics in different areas. I have several other story/mechanical experiments in progress, which will hopefully be released… someday.

One thing I like about APBW is the rhythm. Most of my favorite IF games have some kind of rhythm to them: the months in Bee, the days in howling dogs, the dreams and days in Birdland, the elements in Solarium, the numbered chapters in Venus Meets Venus, maybe even the flashback-story loop in Photopia. What can I say, I love it when numbers change. In APBW there is a day-to-day pulse of new blog posts, the online weather report, new followers, messages, and so on. In Sam Kabo Ashwell’s terms, I think this is a loop-and-grow structure (there’s very little looping, but the range of actions are repeated). Storylets are used to make content creation easier. This rhythm is also used in Pageant, and will be used in several of my future projects, including ones with very different concepts from APBW or Pageant.

APBW was my first completed Choicescript project, and I was learning the language as I went along. I like learning new IF tools; so far all of my published projects have used different systems (dendry for Pageant, twine for Great-Grandmother and the War, and ink and Raconteur for minor side projects). Also, I wanted to use the Choice of Games forum community as a resource; they’re really great, and a couple of people were amazingly helpful.

Choicescript has some great features and some not-so-great features. On the plus side, it’s very easy to create new branches in Choicescript, and it has built-in achievements and saves (with a plugin), as well as accessibility features and dark mode. It’s a quite intuitive language to write in overall, with clear commands and without the concise-but-cryptic syntax of ink. On the other hand, it requires a ton of boilerplate code to keep track of the different blog progress. A node-based tool like twine or dendry might be a more natural fit for the blog-based structure. Also, CS doesn’t have any support for complex data structures, and is surprisingly inefficient - *gosub_scene in particular is just terrible. I had to hack choicescript substantially in order to get the visual effect changes and colored text working. And since choicescript is proprietary software, I cannot do anything commercially except go through Hosted Games. And there is no chance that APBW will ever be published through Hosted Games.

One thing that people seemed to consistently like about APBW was the thorough list of references. I think I’m going to have a list of inspirations and references for every game I write from now on. More writers should cite their inspirations, imo.

Future projects

This is unlikely to be my last Choicescript project; there is at least one WIP that I’m making for a future comp, that I’ve been wanting to make since 2017. It is an economic/political management sim about a Chinese village during WW2, where you have to balance relationships between different internal and external factions while protecting the village against war, disease, and famine. Maybe you could call it a Hidden Agenda-like.

I am planning on finishing up NYE2019 either for Spring Thing or IFComp 2022. Hopefully the former.

This will probably not be the last thing I write in/about the Nebulaverse. I would like to write a follow-up story about some of the characters. I have a “fanfiction” idea where Luna and Lux meet up in person five or six years later, fall in love, and start dating (naturally, it’s called “Luz de la Luna”). I have no idea the medium or venue yet (I kind of want to start a Valentine’s day jam/comp just to have a place to publish that story). Also, some of the in-universe ideas are too interesting to abandon. I have one idea that uses the Nebulaverse’s magic system (the five elements) in a totally different context. And nothing precludes writing something set in the Nebulaverse itself.

Extra content warning for depression, discussions of transphobia and trans issues, even more personal ramblings than the previous sections.

Part 5: Their likeness set in stone / Still sane? - personal experiences with ifcomp, APBW in the world

IFComp 2021 was the first creative competition I took part in. Overall, participating in IFComp greatly increased my levels of stress and anxiety, and led to several bouts of existential despair and anxiety attacks leading to days or weeks of lost productivity and a severely worsened sleep schedule. Was it worth it, in the end? Yeah, I think so.

See, I was going to write something a lot more negative here, but given how well APBW has done, that seems like bad form. My opinion about APBW was roller-coaster-ing throughout the comp, but I think I’m at a decent place now. Getting 10th place was really good for me, and higher than what I expected, even given the reviews and ratings and predictions. Before the comp, I expected to be in the 30th to 50th percent. And I’m thrilled to have won the Golden Banana of Discord. Some of my favorite games and authors have won that award.

Participating in IFComp made me wonder if this game was worth creating. Why do I create anything? Is it for the fame? To find like-minded people? To seek an escape from the world? As a maladaptive coping strategy? Or maybe it’s to win, to raise my follower count, to increase the stats high enough. (On a related note, why do any of the characters in APBW write fanfiction or blog?) And, what is the purpose of my writing in the world? Do my stories add anything new to the literary or cultural conversations? Do they tell a story that only I can tell? Are they even entertaining? Well, I hope so, I guess.

Since APBW was published, it has been an… interesting time for the trans discourse. I hope it’s not too egotistical to say that the game feels somehow relevant. My story tries to show how popular narratives about trans people get distorted, and the fact that many people are all too eager to believe lies about trans people as long as they come from supposedly authoritative sources. In APBW, a blog post by a 16-year-old girl writing “transphobes should die” in her personal blog becomes twisted into an adult man threatening to commit an act of violence against women. There are much crueler distortions flying around every day, from the top echelons of “mainstream media” on down, online and offline. You might have seen them. Maybe you believe them. I can’t tell you what to think.

Lies about trans people run rampant, but perhaps one of the cruelest lies is that trans people comprise some sort of ultra-powerful institutional lobby that has the power to shape the narrative. Trans people do not even control their own narratives. Most of their stories, the most popular ones, supportive and hostile, have been created by and for cis people. It feels like the political atmosphere for trans people is getting worse all across the world (at least in the US, there are polls to back that up). Are we really in the phase of things getting worse before they get better, like everyone’s saying? What if they just keep on getting worse? What if this is the best it’s ever gonna get? I’ve seen LGBT acceptance increase through most of my life, but social trends are not monotonic.

I don’t go outside much, if it isn’t obvious enough already. I probably don’t spend enough time talking to actual humans. Maybe if I touched grass more, I would feel better. Maybe if I felt better, I wouldn’t have written all this. Maybe I wouldn’t even have written APBW.

Now, let’s talk about how this relates to the Nebulaverse. The main theme of the Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula (the story-within-a-story) is how truth and narratives become distorted and history and facts are rewritten. GTM is not real (and she is not JKR or any other transphobic writer - there are loads of them), but she would see the events of the previous paragraph entirely differently from me; she would see “trans activists” as the cruel villains who are trying to ruin the lives of women like herself. She would see the very basic idea that “trans women are women” as an anti-female distortion of truth imposed by a powerful minority that overrides the majority’s rights. She would see any positive media representation of trans people as a sign that the industry has been captured by trans special interests. In terms of the Nebulaverse, she would see Emperor Ariel as representative of the trans lobby, a servant of the demiurge trying to pull the Veil of Illusion (i.e., trans acceptance) down over the rest of society. Maybe she didn’t have that interpretation when she wrote the Chronicles, but she sure does now. What do the remnants of the Nebulaverse fandom think about this? I don’t care to write that story.

Stepping back: is APBW supposed to improve this “conversation”? Well, to have any impact at all, people would have to read it. APBW will never be popular. Moreover, I don’t think it’s going to change the mind of anyone who’s not already on “my side”. I don’t know if anything I’m capable of writing could make someone more sympathetic; maybe it would even reinforce their negative stereotypes about trans people (and trans women in particular). So why did I write it, then? Why do I write anything when I know that it’s not going to change anything? Well, self-therapy, I guess. APBW is a cry in the dark.

Part of what I’m trying to do with APBW is to address the question, how do we cope with a world that seems to hate us, and doesn’t seem to be getting any better? What are we supposed to do when we don’t control the stories of our own lives? There are no answers, either in the game or outside. The closest the game gets is a generic paean about the power of friendship. I wish I could believe it. I was never part of internet communities the way that Luna was, and I did not have any online relationships as close as the ones that existed in the story. I wish I could have written a more optimistic ending to APBW, but I’m not really feeling much in the way of optimism right now. I don’t want to write a story that makes trans people feel worse than they already do, but I certainly have. Insofar that the ending of APBW is positive, it’s hard for me to believe in its message.

Okay, that was super depressing, so let’s end on a lighter note. Participating in IFComp was an amazing experience. I’m extremely grateful and a little shocked to have received both 10th place and the Golden Banana of Discord. I think it was worthwhile putting APBW out into the world. That being said, I deeply regret any harm it might have caused, and I shouldn’t have tried to be coy with content warnings. I’m super glad to have received all of the feedback I have, including the critical feedback. It’s more feedback than I’ve received on anything else I’ve created. I hope it will help me improve as a writer.

:heart::orange_heart:︄:yellow_heart:︄:green_heart:︄:blue_heart:︄:purple_heart:︄ to you all. If you’ve read this far, um, thanks and/or sorry?

Music: buzzcut season - lorde (slowed down) 1 HOUR VERSION - YouTube

Part 6: All the things that we do for fun - quiz stats, comments, and fun stuff

Here are the stats from the elements and roles quizzes. The roles quiz has been publicly available on the choice of games forums for a while now, but the elements quiz results are almost all from ifcomp or my beta testers. They also provide an interesting census of how many people have played the game.

Light: 7
Wind: 23
Ice: 10
Stone: 14
Metal: 35

Augur: 77
Keeper: 31
Reaper: 21
Speaker: 47
Weaver: 26

As expected, the nerd classes have won out. We are all Augurs of Metal. I did kind of hope more people would get Ice, as I’m an Augur of Ice, like Luna (I promise she wasn’t a self-insert character (Karla was the self-insert)).

And here are all the comments from the freeform submissions fields in the quizzes (post-release):

From the elements quiz:

  • this story is genuinely so interesting! i love all the thought put into it and it excites me.
  • Frankly I think this quiz doesnt TRULY represent a lot of the aspects that you can see in the nebulaverse, like, it mostly jsut seems like a bunch of random feelings and words tied willy nilly in a super lazy and vague way that you can just read into it like whatever, have you even known astrology? This is more like one of those shitty magazine one that old ladies use to find what kind of pie they are. A BETTER nebulaverse element would be one like the one i designed myself, which takes your meiyers-briggs and your enneagram as well as your birthstone and your full astrological chart to FULLY understand what kind of element you wield. this needs improvement. hope this helps
  • GOD this all sounds so good i would totally read this
  • i’m a gemini so give me the most gemini element pls (A/N: from a cursory google, that might be Wind.)
  • as someone who read homestuck i’m generally liking this game so far (A/N: this was from a user named Dirk Strider)
  • Ellanova 4ever <3 (A/N: sorry)
  • This is hardcore. However, I’m already a child of the internet, so it’s fine.
  • thank u very much for everything :wink:
  • herp a derp
  • Go pound sand
  • i hope i get ice or metal (A/N: this user got Light)

From the roles quiz:

  • Again this is a super innacurate quiz on how you can actually figure out your role. It is overly simplistic, if you were gonna be this lazy you shouldve added song lyrics or something. again my apologies if it sounds mean but this needs work if you want to be able to capture the TRUE canon. if you wanna know how to ACTUALLY figure out your role im at unofficialgaylileo@protonmail.com. hope this helps (A/N: part of me wants to actually email them)
  • wait this has homestuck vibes
  • do i get a cool cape too (A/N: this was from Dirk Strider 2)
  • taking this quiz as part of A Paradox Between Worlds and i’m so excited to see where it goes, i’m really liking it so far!
  • I am submitting to this absolutely drowning in bells and whistles and nerdery because I WAS a Homestuck and as such I’m fine with taking like an hour out of my sleep time to pretend to be in a fake fandom that’s almost as intense as a real one, but a lot of people probably aren’t. Then again, that might not mean anything to you. Overall, this is the first IFcomp I’m playing this year, and I’m into it.
  • thanks
  • suck an egg
  • man, what a solid if game so far. so vivid, even comes with fandom-flavored personality quizzes

Did anyone see the nebulaverse character generator? If not, here: Nebulaverse Character Generator ― Perchance. I spent way too much time on it.

Fun things you can do, playing APBW:

  • whenever a reference to a song comes up, play that song.
  • try to 100% the game in as few playthroughs as possible. (by the way, has anybody 100%'ed the game yet? If you do, let me know and, um, I’ll write a short fanfiction for you. Or get you a very small gift. Maybe.)
  • try to get the most achievements possible in one playthrough.
  • speedrun: go through the game with the fewest clicks.

Thanks everyone for making the experience of IFComp wonderful :blue_heart:


:waves. Umm, pretty sure that’s me! I’m not sure I’d say I felt that way about the “bulk” of the content, though – by the time there was more engagement possible with the other characters via chat-rooms and responding to the Incident, I definitely started getting a sense of who the various folks were. And even from the jump I found a couple of them more well-rounded (maybe this is my age talking or just my unfamiliarity with certain fandom archetypes, but I found Claire interesting pretty much from the get-go), plus some stuff like the specifics about struggles with MediCal coverage definitely felt lived-in to me (this is an area where I have some personal experience/knowledge, go figure). Plus as I mentioned in the review, I was playing largely this on my phone while trying to keep a 3-week-old napping, so I definitely missed a lot of the subtler details – I completely missed the metadata stuff but, man, how clever to do that!

The Nebulaverse stuff did feel generic to me, but even as a player I could tell that was to some degree intentional, and from looking at other folks’ responses it seems like this was an effective strategy to get people who did have resonance with things like fanfic and shipping to bring their own associations to bear. And I think I ran afoul of a vicious cycle here, where because I found this piece of the game initially less grabby, I engaged less with it and saw less of the later, probably more interesting stuff – the flip side of that is that you created a narrative sandbox where I could spend more time on the pieces that I was into, though. Similarly, I personally prefer a strongly-characterized protagonist but I know other folks find the blank-slate PC makes it easier to get immersed in a game, and especially seems like a good fit for the expectations of the ChoiceScript community. So I think many of these choices were positive ones on net, even if they inevitably mean the game resonates more with some people and less with others.

Anyway hope I wasn’t too much of a downer – even if APBW wasn’t exactly in my wheelhouse, it was still obviously a really smart, heartfelt piece. And from the fact that you had a top 10 finish as well as getting the Golden Banana means you did a great job both appealing to a broad audience while getting a set of people to really really love it. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you do next – the other works-in-progress you mention seem really compelling to me, especially the WW2 village one!


Thank you so much for all of your comments! And sorry if I interpreted your comments more negatively than was intended…

I really like the term “narrative sandbox”! That’s definitely something I aspire to in making IF. And I usually prefer well-characterized protagonists over blank slate protagonists too. It’s just that the blank slate/self-insert approach felt like it fit better with this story concept.


I have to admit I didn’t poke into the details of the actual worldbuilding, at least on the first pass through–fanfiction and such and following any sort of fantasy novel sequence occurred a little too late for me to be able to dive into the details of such a community.

So I went straight to the source code!

I do enjoy seeing GitHub links in because sometimes just seeing changelogs or raw code can show me odd stuff that’s interesting to me. I enjoyed seeing stuff I missed the first time through, or the possible ways to get all the accomplishments, I mean, really muck things up. Just seeing a file named check_blocked.txt gave me a bunch of ideas of what to try when/if I replay.

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Cool! Unfortunately my code has a ton of unused variables and false starts, plus I’m periodically updating it for the post comp release (slowly…). The details about the nebulaverse are in choicescript_stats.txt.

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Thanks for writing this post-mortem! It was interesting to see how the game developed, and it also brings up a lot of points I feel I failed to quite capture in my own review.

The battle lines get drawn when there appears a callout by Luna “terran0va” (a 16-year-old closeted trans girl) against Claire’s fics, which she accuses of racism and homophobia and abusive elements. This starts a shitstorm, and the backlash against Luna is huge, in part due to abuse and death threats sent against Claire and their crew. Claire writes a massive apologia for “problematic” fandom as a whole, which adds fuel to the fire… Originally, my idea for the story was more about the conflict between Claire and Luna, as representing “old-school” and “new-school” approaches to fandom. Luna’s personal drama was not going to be the center of the story (she was also a little more strident, and more of an “anti”).

When I started the game I was curious to see to what extent it dealt with the phenomenon by which all ship wars have metastasized into a single polarized discourse rolling through all fandoms about what content should be tolerated. It turned out to be present, but not hugely so: Claire and Sofia make and share ship-and-let-ship posts, and on the other hand Luna still retains the faintest traces of anti mindset. It’s interesting to hear that it was originally going to be a much bigger theme.

Another flaw in APBW is that it fails to guide the player to the most interesting parts of the story… Only 30% of randomtests end with the Luna ending; 70% end with the Neutral ending, which is basically a bad ending, and almost none encounter the Claire or Sofia routes. Players play much more like randomtesters than I expected. A reviewer said that the starting objective is getting followers; it’s not. The game is about building relationships with people online, and I probably failed to show that… Presented with a list of blog urls, the game becomes a database dump; there’s nothing guiding you to look at the most interesting posts. It’s too vague, too unguided…

As you now know, I was one of those who felt motivated to engage with the ‘database dump’ off the bat because tropey fandom fun and exciting. It didn’t occur to me until my replay that “Oh, this could be a real barrier for some people.” Helped me understand the Golden Banana win.

As for the objective, I never assumed the followers minigame was the primary goal of the game. But, as Luna was the only character I had a previous relationship with and my friendship with her was the only thing I really knew about my character, I naturally concluded my relationship with her was the most important one.

As for Claire, a barrier to getting into their side of the plot was that it apparently required a lot of positive engagement with them. But I neither liked them nor felt like the game was inviting me to like them, so I was disincentivised from doing that. (I may have felt more sympathetic towards them under the original premise. I liked Sofia, until I read the source code.)

I’ll take “trust randomtest” under advisement for the game I’m tossing around.

They might seem like HP tropes, but actually the Nebulaverse and its fandom were more influenced by Homestuck… Yes, GTM’s bigotries and the reactions to them were somewhat influenced by my third-hand observations of the HP fandom, but said author is unfortunately far from the only example of creators with bad behaviors. I wanted to make a more universal story about how fans cope with a creator’s hostility.

I have never read Homestuck, although I’ve heard of its volume inflation and tendency towards esoteric storytelling styles, so it possibly should have been in the back of my mind.

There are no answers, either in the game or outside. The closest the game gets is a generic paean about the power of friendship. I wish I could believe it. I was never part of internet communities the way that Luna was, and I did not have any online relationships as close as the ones that existed in the story. I wish I could have written a more optimistic ending to APBW, but I’m not really feeling much in the way of optimism right now… Insofar that the ending of APBW is positive, it’s hard for me to believe in its message.

I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, the optimistic parts of APBW’s ending don’t feel false on the page (although I’m not trans).

I like the guy who was already in-character when he took the quizzes and wrote paragraphs viciously critiquing them from an in-universe perspective.

Anyway, thanks again for all your work, and congratulations again on your high placement and Banana win.