My last and longest IF Comp 2021 review is, after much delay, here.
If the 2021 IF Comp is any guide, “teens on computers” is a winning formula. In A Paradox Between Worlds, you are a teenager involved in the online fandom for a YA book series entitled Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula, written by one G.T MacMillan. Shadow Nebula is a space opera series which isn’t a direct translation of any one thing, but players will notice some similarities to the works of one Jowling Kowling.
(Note: Autumn Chen has since posted the source code to the game and also released a post-mortem. I haven’t read the post-mortem yet because I don’t want it to influence my thought. I did refer to the source code, and learned some interesting things from it, but my own experience of playing the game provided more than enough material to talk about in this review.)
Rather than make up a platform with its own rules, A Paradox Between Worlds simulates a very recognizable platform: Tumblr, in its heyday (although I don’t remember the site ever being named in-game). I never actively Tumbled, but I lurked in those spaces for a while, and I recognise all the little true things about it. The big-name fan who’s a little too invested in maintaining the appearance of harmony in the fandom which defines them. The funny tags for queued content. Those moodboard things I never understood. An extremely basic ‘story idea’ that gets weirdly far. The whole first chapter-and-a-half of the game is just scene-setting, finding your way around the fandom and the people within it.
This is a risk, though. At this point there’s been no inciting incident, no stakes, no emergency to respond to. There is only the Tumblr simulation, and the game must rely on the player being interested in pretending to be a fan of The Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula on the way to the drama (although the player can in principle go to bed early). So Chen sets a difficult task for herself: not only to create a compelling game, but to create a credible book series that only exists in snippets and summaries and yet is compelling enough to itself hook the player.
She succeeds brilliantly. Partly this is by use of an old trick, used from Harry Potter to Avatar: The Last Airbender to Divergent to Vampire: the Masquerade: Create a strict and straightforward classification system for the people in the fictional world and then encourage readers to engage with it. The quizzes the game suggests you use to sort yourself are the secret weapon. Humans love quizzes. We love finding ways to categorize ourselves from the Meyers-Briggs Type Inventory to astrology. By the time you’ve finished the quiz, you’re invested in whatever your role is.
But it’s not just the classification system. The characters within Shadow Nebula are smartly archetypal: well-defined in just the right ways that the player can immediately tell which they would prefer, and which they would be interested in seeing date. (It’s the Harry Potter core cast, plus Draco Malfoy as a hero, plus a more 2010s sort of YA protagonist to round it off. These are good choices, though!) I myself found Astrapella a compelling pairing, with Tychonova as an interesting but sadly undersupported secondary ship, but I was leery of the obnoxious Bruno and everything related to him. (But of course I reblogged all the donation posts from that one Brunova, that’s just decency.)
It also seems like Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula has some plot ideas which it would be interesting to see the execution of. As the above paragraph might suggest, the strength of the fandom simulation was such that I felt compelled to play myself in this game, which is something I don’t normally do. (Interestingly, Brian Rushton had the opposite reaction.)
Did I mention the fanfic writing simulator?
Yes, there is a subystem in which you write your own fanfiction for the in-universe series. I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I look for in choice-based IF is a sense of co-authorship. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘control’; Turandot is great.) So the sequences of getting to actually co-author a fanwork in this setting within a setting are pretty much exactly my jam. The mechanics incorporate, and parody, the ‘write with all senses’ advice:
“You touch the ground. It is cold and rough and dirty. Why did you touch the ground?”
and also include an especially fun meta bit at the end where my character writes themselves into a conversation with their character, and I get to guide them through that.
The game is pretty open about the ways in which social media is a performance. One builds an audience by reblogging content, and in doing so you define the sort of blog you are and situate yourself within the fandom ecosystem. (This is also a part of the relationship system; agreement becomes proximity.) If you don’t keep up within the niche you’re setting for yourself, your existing audience will lose interest in you. As will become clear, an event which occurs partway through the game led to a marked change in the sort of content I was interested in engaging with. So, I don’t think I did that well with this part of the game!
One of the things I really appreciated about APBW was its willingness to let fandom be cringe. People are trying hard to make things that they can be proud of, but there’s little pretension; the general sense is that everybody is simply doing their best. Sheer enthusiasm and earnestness substitute for depth or acumen, or even the attempt to perform depth or acumen. To be clear, though, these people seem to be genuinely intelligent and what I’m talking about mostly relates to either self-expression or the level on which they choose to engage. That’s a sort of earnestness that both feels very true and also makes the game endearing. (There are a couple of big 'but’s here, though, which I’ll get to later in this review.)
As an example of the ways in which Nebulaverse fans engage with the text earnestly (this is an obvious segue into discussing the actual plot of the game), Luna, my in-game best friend whom I tried hard to do right by, has a headcanon that the protagonist of The Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula is a trans girl. Luna is herself a trans girl, so this is meaningful to her. Luna is young and sometimes lacks the critical language she wants, but is smart. Which is to say that while framing it as Gali being “coded” as trans is cringe, as in general is treating it as a “theory” rather than an meaningful reading (‘headcanon’ is the term of art), it appears from the information given to be an interesting and productive reading! I embraced it in my fanfic! It seemed to strike a chord in-universe as well.
One person who doesn’t think of it as an interesting or productive reading is G.T. MacMillan, who upon hearing about the headcanon makes an angry post revealing herself to be a TERF. This leads to a right-wing harassment brigade against Luna, which gets much worse when she makes an inadvisable post which Claire, the big-name fan I mentioned, reblogs to chastise. My playthroughs were predominated by helping her navigate this and her broader life, where she has to deal with staying closeted from her bigoted parents.
An ally in this situation is Karla, a twenty-one year old trans woman who’s the big exception to what I said above about the earnestness of the fan characters. She’s already seen through MacMillan to some extent and mostly just projects weariness. She attempts to help Luna navigating her situation, which ultimately leads to it bleeding over and affecting her personal life. She herself is only twenty-one, and doesn’t quite have the perspective she’d need to take on the role of ‘elder’.
I feel like the above description has not quite conveyed how fraught Luna’s situation feels in practice. Social media is convincingly portrayed as a panopticon full of people ready to judge or attack or wish death on a very vulnerable subject who really does not need the attention, and the attacks feel like… attacks! If social media is a performance, it’s a peerformance before a vast and hostile audience. When the harassment affects Luna’s real-life behavior and she nearly gets disowned by her conservative parents, it feels like an escalation and a shift in emphasis, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like the shape of her problems has changed. People say “Online is not real life”, but that’s not true. Online is a part of real life. What happens there makes a great deal of difference to the people on it.
In that light, Claire is an interesting character. Their brand of unexamined fan-boosterism and overbearing maternalism had me on edge from the beginning, but given the realities of social media, there’s something sympathetic about their attempts to enforce niceness on everyone. But, as we see, that itself makes them a part of the problem. Acting as a bullhorn for a teenager’s emotional outbursts is helpful to approximately no-one. (Claire actually has an ambivalent sort of redemption arc in the end. Hey, what’s more appropriate for a story about fandom than a redemption arc?)
To move from a more important issue to a less important one (don’t worry, I will come out the other side), there’s also a critique of a certain sort of blinkered fan engagement going on. The thing abou texts is that they do, in the end, come as a whole. It’s casually revealed midway through the game that Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula had a blantantly transphobic plotline that everybody was simply ignoring! I don’t think this negates what everybody seemed to get out of Chronicles of the Shadow Nebula, nor do I think it would be good if it were the start and end of discussion of such a series. But this shows the harsh limitations of the ‘let people enjoy things’ model of discourse - embracing a plurality of readings has to mean embracing readings that bring out unflattering, unpleasant sides of a text.
And when I look at what sort of engagement leads to shuttering out unpleasant elements of a text, I find myself coming back to the idea of cringe. A lack of artifice (I use the term in the most neutral way) in one’s engagement with works feels also like a lack of pride, which feels also like a lack of aspiration, which feels also like a form of closed-mindedness – which is how you get to a place of denial of what’s in the text. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but isn’t a good thing, if it leads one to declare things like “All of the nebulaverse characters love and support trans people!” in the middle of a real-life transphobic brigade, as a response to an analysis of the way MacMillan tried to propogate her real-life views through her fiction. None of this is to contradict any of the positive things I said about earnestness above. It’s just… everybody should try to step outside themselves now and again.
But what about the other readings? On one level, Luna’s initial reading of the series is as valid as MacMillan’s, even if there are strains within the text that create tension for Luna’s reading (such as an apparently really gross subplot.) That’s true of the text itself, but the actions of the person behind the text make it much harder to carry on with that reading, both emotionally and ethically. What MacMillan does, and Rowling does, represents a limit on the idea of the Death of the Author. An author’s reading of a text is not dispositive, but it is there, and sometimes the author is very much alive and will not stop at trying to package their ideologies in fiction. (We casually learn in chapter 3 that she’s using her resources to support anti-trans lawsuits and the like.) As far as I’m aware Rowling didn’t pick a fight with any individual fan; A Paradox Between Worlds is combining two different things, in being about harassment in online communities and also being about fandom. This does a very good job of making her sins feel personal, explicating why so many people, rightly, want to cut support from the MacMillans of the world.
That said, in the end Luna’s relationship to the Chronicles is more complicated than sheer rejection. The Chronicles - the old reading of the Chronicles, where it was a story about a trans girl coming to know herself – is still a part of her psyche. The game honors that, while also acknowledging that the present-day relationship with the series has to change.
A Paradox Between Worlds has chosen to deal with both the complexity of online life and the specific actions of a famous author, and it doesn’t provide easy answers. But I think what I appreciate about it the most is its honest view of online fandom, done with neither undue idealization nor contempt. I’m very glad that such a thoughtful, truthful, candid but nonjudgemental work exists which deals with this style of fandom. In the end, it’s a very human game. It’s human to read, and to seek others to read with, and A Paradox Between Worlds honors that humanity at every step.