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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.