“There are fluctuations in the base state of universal indifference - moments of joy and of pain, of triumph and terror - but in accordance with the most fundamental laws of physics, there is always a return to equilibrium.”
Protocol is my first finished game, ever. Point blank, full honesty. I started writing interactive fiction in 2020 with absolutely zero experience in writing, planning, game development, UI design, anything and everything you would need to actually create interactive fiction, and started massive projects that are still in the works/reworks. So when a sci-fi game jam was suggested to me by some friends in the community last winter, I entered it with the intent of finally finishing a game. I went through and scrapped about a dozen ideas, finally settling on a plot: a woman and/or her clone must escape a derelict space station. And then, ironically while researching brain/skull injuries, I received a concussion while playing sports and cracked my own skull. I had the honor of twice-weekly checkups due to a CSF leak and extensive doctor’s orders to take a break, attending bare minimum classes and just barely making the 1800 mile journey home and back to college again. I picked up Protocol again after what essentially felt like regaining full consciousness in February with only the UI built, and just Prerequisites and a thoroughly incomprehensible outline written. I had about 2 months to finish the game, a reasonable span if I used my time wisely - and that did not happen. Most of Protocol was written, edited, and coded in just under three weeks, which works with my addled attention span and the way I write, which is honestly just stream-of-consciousness, using an outline to guide the general idea of what thoughts should go where and spreadsheets to tell me how much needs to get done. The procrastination did make the final days more than a little nerve-wracking, the final 13% of the game was started at 7am on April 1st, and submitted that night after a final play-test at about 11:45 that night.
What did I learn from this experience? Not much. I learned that a fourth concussions is about four too many, cracking your skull really hurts, and that the “Cheapest Hallucinogen” audience award perhaps reflects the state that much of this game was written in. Given the panic that was April 1st, I swore I wouldn’t ever procrastinate like that again. And knowing myself, it will happen again.
As mentioned earlier, the game came about from a tangent, a concept that had no backing and little development other than vibes. I’ve always had a vested interest in physics and astronomy (which is why I study botany and geographic information systems, obviously), and thus, the prerequisites were written. You cannot violate the laws of thermodynamics - and thus everything that happens in the game must abide by those rules - you take and give and the net sum, with the exception of two endings, is always zero. In game mechanic terms, it sets up a loop - I knew from the very beginning that if I was going to build something conceptually around physics, I wanted a game that looped in on itself, hence the double, the broken memory, and things that seemed to be set up for you: the gauntlet and control panel are two examples that come to mind right away. It’s all a loop, it’s all a cycle. it was here before you and it will be here after you. It changes - there are fluctuations, the aforementioned moments of joy and of pain but it all returns to this equilibrium, and you find yourself back at the start. And then I doubled down on the idea of a closed system, a closed loop in a broken system, etcetera. The protagonist is in some sinister way the station and the station is the protagonist and antagonist alike in both the literal and literary senses, and so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and an unhealed wound. From that, the idea of home being a wound, and the major distinction between the Administrator, the Keeper, and you is found in what exactly home is. To the Administrator, it’s the planet she left behind, regret, nostalgia, an eternal spring, something tender and kept close, even when everything else is lost. To the Keeper, it’s the scarcely mentioned industrial planet from which she escaped, where the suns are bled and the soil salted, her memories are of running and hoping, not peace, not fondness. And for the protagonist - a hybrid of Administrator and Keeper - it’s both, neither, and the station. The station itself was really interesting to write, something that is both terrifyingly organic and recognizable - and also a completely soulless imitation of life, devoid of truly knowing. I’m curious as to what people perceived it as - living, machine, a hybrid of both? I leaned heavily on this idea; the protagonist’s state is meant to reflect that of the station - she is wounded and so is the station, she has lost her memory and doesn’t want to know what happens if she remembers - the idea that every part of trying to repair the station is met with near death and stark opposition - and in that same vein the station has suffered damage to its memory banks and is so desperate to remember that it has made a monster of these collected and shared memories. The protagonist was created in the image of the Administrator who the station promises it loved, but does it know what love is, or is it remembering what the Administrator told it about home, her partner, and love? Are those memories corrupted? Are they corruptible? Does this make the double - who is stated in text as being like the protagonist in appearance only - innocent, because she doesn’t yet know what the station did, because she has not made any of the decisions you - the player through the protagonist- had to, to repair things or escape, to defy protocol or enforce it? Is is just, is it right that the protagonist gets to decide her fate?
The endings are two variations on the same theme, and then an explicit act of violence that had been hinted at the entire game up to this point. While it may seem jarring, the murder endings (Desolation and Recursion) are what I think are the most fitting endings, because they are both the originally planned endings and they continue the cycle of obsessive violence started by station and Administrator. Is it a mercy to kill the double? Can it be justified - the protagonist has suffered and endured and come so far for nothing, in the same fit of rage and desperation upon realizing that the station was not what it promised
“It made her so, and the thanks it received was confused, clumsy. Tears. Fingers trailed along the walls, withered touch that once was curious, once was eager, once was hungry. Words spoken out of obligation, half remembered manners. Less than cordial greetings. Longing gazes out the window, to the planet that had forsaken her - the planet that would never love her, never, not like it could. She said as much, asked - Why would you do this? Why me?”)
that saw the Administrator end her life and the station’s - “Again. Intentionally. When the Administrator took aim and -”? Was it selfish to start the cycle of Keepers created in her image to repair the damage she had caused ?
"This is the cycle; waking alone from frozen depths, saved for an occasion like this as the station cries out for rescue. And there was nobody left to call upon but you. None else remained. This is the cycle; the station is wounded, you are wounded. The station is dying - and you will die with it.
Can one empathize with the station - possessive and jealous and already proven in its violence, but promising that it comes from a place of good intention or, as it identifies it, love - enough to where killing the double becomes viable? Going against that - is self-sacrifice fitting? Allowing the double to leave and continuing to bear the station’s burden is as much suicide as returning to the airlock or letting go of the tether or jumping into the pit. Is there enough of a self to be sacrificed, or are you simply following conservation of matter and energy, allowing the system to return to equilibrium? In other words - “do you find yourself an acceptable loss?” - or are you selfish enough to try and deny protocol entirely? Killing both the protagonist and the double violates every law laid out in prerequisites - there is no balance of mass and energy, the system is at a net loss, the loop cannot continue - you as player and protagonist were so eager to defy the protagonist’s purpose and the wants of the station, that in doing so, you have doomed the station. Was that your intention, did you see it as an act of mercy, to ensure there would be no more Keepers, no more doubles, no more protocol? Complete and utter annihilation. Even when the protagonist chooses to give up - either letting go of the tether or jumping into the pit - there is still the double left behind and so the cycle continues, despite protocol not being fulfilled and thus falling on the shoulders of the double. Does that make those actions any more acceptable, any less taboo, knowing someone will continue on in your stead? These are the only endings you can take more than once in a row - it is always an out, though perhaps not the easiest choice to make, either morbid curiosity or a derision to the idea or something else keeping player and protagonist firmly stuck within the protocol. As far as mechanics go - I’m not sure how many people encountered the alternate text upon playing through the same loop twice, but the player is barred from choosing the same ending a second time in a row and is derided by the station for having made their decision. Unfortunately, due to a line of code that I forgot to change, the distinction between the categories isn’t actually made in game; two endings should result in no New Game + being available. These endings are Annihilation a Nullification, which I think most people did not see (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Nullification is an alternate version of the earliest memories of the Administrator, a conversation between her and her love. And, instead of succumbing to ambition, she refuses the call of the stars, she stays. Thus, there is no protocol, no loop, no Keeper, none of it. A kinder ending, one that violates every single law of the prerequisites, makes every part of the suffering the protagonist has endured in the first or second or however many loops it takes to finally see the Nullification ending in vain; it was always as easy as denial is. Which is to say - difficult.
In total, Protocol is an exploration of choice. There are few choices - and very few without consequence, technically. Mechanically, a lot of these don’t carry a lot of weight, they simply reveal new information - most of the memory choices have no effect other than to attempt to color the player’s perception of events, to affirm or deny that you are making the right decision, to raise doubts as to who you are, what the station is, the purpose of your existence. Two choices have no weight at all: the yes/no choice when asked if you will always run or always fight exists entirely as a rhetorical question, and what you would ask of your double, should you be able to ask her. And everything else has mechanics attached to it - different tools or none at all can open new paths for traversing the station or overcoming obstacles, the cost for each of these also reflected on your state, the station’s state, and the double’s state. Nothing exists in a vacuum, that honor is reserved for space, and space alone. And even then, there is perhaps a choice to be made.
Pros and Cons
What went well: This is where I have to edit my original writing. Originally I had - “From reviews and ribbons, folks seemed to enjoy the game - or it at least caused them to think - and that’s all I could hope for.” and while that most definitely holds true, I have the honor of sitting in front of my computer completely in awe of a Best in Show ribbon. I am genuinely surprised by the response to the game, both from reviewers to that honor. It’s probably imposter syndrome. Regardless, the game got done, and I’m incredibly proud of it. It feels kind of silly to reduce the experience of writing the game to “it was a learning experience”, but honestly, it was. I learned a whole hell of a lot about UI design, CSS and code, and the audience award for best visual design is an honor I’ll wear happily. To go along with it, I’m always at least trying to learn more about writing, and Protocol was a great opportunity to get a little more comfortable with what I would like my writing style to be. I aspire to honing my writing, planning, and game design more, and for maybe someday having work published - a pipe dream, sure, but why not? I’ve got a long way to go, and a lot more to learn, but I feel like Protocol was a good first step.
What did not: I’m long-winded, as evidenced by Protocol being almost 50 thousand words and this postmortem clocking in around three thousand more. Lots of words to say very little; I love my rhetorical questions and anecdotes, my allusions and imagery. As a result, some sections are clunky - namely Repository and Armory. They’re both necessary, but they were written, scrapped, and rewritten from bare bones, out of order, and are actually entirely unedited due to becoming frustrated with them - all of which are not great for my writing process. Despite fitting chronologically, they feel like they’re out of order to me - this is not helped by a chunk of the Repository scene getting inadvertently cut. As mentioned by some reviewers, the structure does grow tiresome, with diminishing returns on the fragmented text. In all honesty, this is derived from not knowing the best way to transition between two very different events and not wanting any part of the game to feel jarring unless as the result of a choice - think something like the Let Go, Leap of Faith, and Kill her/it options. If I had to assign blame - it’d be on the accidental time constraint I made for myself, and for a lack of careful editing. I do all my own editing, though I was fortunate enough to have some fantastic playtesters (I think Jinx (@LapinLunaireGames) is the only one on the forums?) but I was way more concerned about the code than grammar and spelling. They did their jobs very, very well, there were no game-breaking bugs on release and no egregious issues with spelling or grammar, which are all firsts for me. Again, a learning experience, through and through.
I’m going to be releasing a final patch that cleans up as many of the errors as I can find and restores cut content in the next week-ish, depending on work. And then it’s back to writing - I’m entering a small Twine jam with a bastardized version of an installation merging poetry and art that I first created as a junior in college, back when I was still studying illustration. Concurrently, I’ll also be reworking one or two of my larger projects. Maybe I’ll start planning something for next year’s Spring Thing, who knows. I’m restless and like to have something to do at all times.
- The station’s name has a few different meanings. The Calypso part is a very obvious reference to mythology, but the numbers also mean something. When converted from hexadecimal, it spells out my partner’s nickname. A way of saying thanks, as she proofread the very first drafts and put up with all my mostly-concussed ramblings about the game.
- This game contains references to my other projects, easter eggs for me and the approximately 3 other people who read my work.
- “The event horizon is a point of no return, you remind yourself. A point of no return, throwing yourself over the edge, eyes closed.” is in reference to the title of as well as the opening line/definition given in Event Horizon, which is an absolute mess of a space opera currently in rewrites. Likewise, the character descriptions for the protagonist/double and her lost love are an incredibly vague reference to the captain’s and first officer’s appearances, mostly because I’m uncreative.
- The use of hexadecimal is a holdover from lost birds, my most beloved project.
- If you see the words “closed” and “loop” next to one another, it’s a pointed and quite on-the-nose reference to the title of CLOSEDLOOP, which is a cyberpunk thriller also about a timeloop.
- The lines in reference to the station’s isolation and questioning who would rob an observatory are a joke in reference to an unreleased project of mine, By Starlight, in which a similar orbital observatory station is indeed broken into and robbed by the main cast.
- The story about falling from a tree is in fact not a memory of the Keeper - it’s my own memory. Wasn’t quite as exciting or enlightening however, and there was no spaceport to see, sadly. Just more trees, the ground, and then the hospital.
- The poem “The Old Astronomer” was chosen out of sentimentality, I read it in a literature class in high school, and it’s remained in an open tab on my phone since.
- My profile picture is an illustration I made of the protagonist and her double.