What mysterious sound are my characters hearing right now? Broken sobs? A stuck door being forced open? A crash?
Who is Anders? My team’s missing archeologist? Or the porter? Or perhaps a geologist?
What are his dying words? “Time is not an arrow,” perhaps. That’s appropriately mysterious…
Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe’s The Ice-Bound Concordance (available for PC and iOS) is a masterfully layered game about the significance of both writing and editing, twin authorships of equal consequence.
It’s the middle of the 21st Century and you’ve been hired by the Tethys publishing house to help an AI simulation of a dead author complete his unfinished novel, a dark tale about a mysterious polar research station, Carina, that has consumed generations of intrepid men and women.
This would be interesting all on its own, but the AI simulacrum, KRIS--named for the deceased author Kristopher Holmquist--lives in a society where AI of any sort is considered mere property, an appliance and nothing more.
The murky circumstances of Kris’ death and tragic, lonely life haunt the story as well. A seemingly failed author whose unfinished novel Ice-Bound posthumously inspired legions of devoted fans and whole academic conferences dedicated to parsing out the minutiae of his work, what was left of him is now an AI wholly owned by the Tethys corporation struggling to recover bits of memory and meaning through the process of finishing Ice-Bound.
It is the player, however, who makes the final decisions about the direction of the story--which characters enter into the story, their flaws and maladies, what they experience, how and if they die, how each chapter concludes--and in various opaque ways, these decisions affect KRIS’ emerging personality and his ultimate ending. But there is one more, very significant way you shape both the direction of the story and KRIS’ nascent self.
One of my first columns here was about the importance of instruction manuals and other printed matter as game mechanics; they add another dimension of depth to any story when done well and actually assist with immersion, rather than distracting from it. Giving the player a physical artefact of the game world to hold in her hands is a remarkable way to draw them into the universe.
The Ice-Bound Concordance comes with a book called The Ice-Bound Compendium, a slender, full-color text that seems like a cybernetic scrapbook of Holmquist’s life, death, and digital purgatory. Not only replete with notes, photos, interviews, early drafts, and even screenshots of fan forums discussing his work, it is also an augmented reality palimpsest.
The Compendium exists in the game’s universe. It’s an illegal collection of various odds, ends, and errata that is never, under any circumstances, to be shown to KRIS. It voids warranties, breaks UN law, the whole lot.
And KRIS knows of its existence. At the end of each chapter you complete with KRIS you have to justify the narrative choices you made to him using material from the Compendium, to convince him that the themes of the chapter are in line with Kris Holmquist’s vision, helping KRIS recover those memories in the process.
You hold your iPad over the book’s pages--or hold the book up to your webcam--and allow it to “scan” each page for relevant themes. When you find a match (and there are several for every possible path), an augmented reality layer appears over the page, revealing hidden meanings, texts, notes, images, and even brief movies.
The book itself costs 25 dollars, and in the interest of full disclosure I should note that the developers provided me with a review copy thereof. It is also required to play the game; this puts Ice-Bound in an expensive tier of App Store games but I’d argue it’s more than worth it. Reed and Garbe’s book updates a beloved game mechanic for the 21st century; its combination of immersive writing and AR show a way forward for what many of us feared was a dying artform within video gaming.
Carina Station is a vertical timeline of forgotten stories. Each layer and each successive chapter you co-edit with KRIS goes further back in time, telling new stories that curiously always seem to converge back onto Kristopher Holmquist’s life. Even the contemporary scientist from the prologue, Professor Rana Anala, was originally a more obvious author-insert character named Dr. Kristopher Quist.
Those of us who write, fiction or non, are always lurking between our words. We spell out our DNA on the page, and traces linger after even the most antiseptic of editing.
Ice-Bound is about discovering what remains of the author between his words and pulling him free from them. In the process, whether you and KRIS finish Ice-Bound or not, the sweep of the book comes to tell an unexpected story that evokes postmodern and magical realist fiction, with resonances of Borges, Joanna Russ or David Mitchell. Russ’ The Female Man, for instance, is a story where different instances of Russ tell competing stories in alternate timelines, making for a sci-fi allegory about gender and society second to none. Reed and Garbe manage a similar feat here, but to explain how would risk spoiling the effect of the back half of the game. Suffice it to say, what lies at the bottom of Carina Station has huge implications for Kris’ world.
I almost wish I could read the novel as a whole.
I think that would diminish the experience, however. The Ice-Bound Concordance is about a universe of instances; many KRIS copies collating wildly different Ice-Bounds, the coagulation of selves and stories making for the whole, “true” work. It is a thing forever in flux, just like a videogame or certain modern art installations. Freezing it all into a single, set and bound version would scatter the cyberpunk fairy dust to the four winds.
The experience of actually playing the game demonstrates the beauty of having a diegetic volume of gameworld lore as an extension of it, the seedbed of all those Quistian universes.
While you’re never under any time pressure, it’s never an ideal time to read the Compendium in detail when the game prompts you to scan it looking it for x or y theme. I’d shut off the iPad for a while and just read the Compendium, slowly absorbing its more self-evident meanings. The anguish of Holmquist’s daughter, Sofia, expressed in abstract art form; an editorial in an academic journal about the merits of AI prose; the contract Holmquist signed with Tethys; his death certificate; poems, scripts, shopping lists, futuristic Amazon pages. Even the blurb and author bios on the back of the book are in-character--Reed and Garbe have amusing bios for themselves as mid-21st century AI rights activists.
Getting to know this world from the inside makes the scanning sessions easier. You realize you can flip around and choose, thinking carefully about how you want to sell your edits to KRIS, and which themes will be introduced. “Themes” are mechanically important for progressing--things like “romance,” “going over the brink,” “things left unfinished,” “spirals,” “cruelty,” all shape what choices are available to you in the story and how the game will ultimately end. Each image you scan has more than one theme associated with it, one of which you choose simply by selecting the image, and another by picking one from a list of other themes KRIS identifies in it. In so doing, you shape the direction of the following chapter, a literary “yes, and…” with profound consequences.
The spidering complexity of all these possible stories is staggering. If you rotate the screen you can actually read excerpts of the chapter you’re assembling, and even change certain words and key phrases using a rather Twine-like mechanic of clicking a word or sentence and cycling through various possibilities. Everything feels significant, but just barely stays on the right side of overwhelming the player.
Still, there are also moments where it feels like the joins between the game and the book were not fused well enough; KRIS uses nearly the same dialogue around each session (with unique dialogue that responds to the image you use, however) and it begins to feel a bit rote. I wanted more of a reaction to the image I’d carefully selected. KRIS himself, despite being a realistic simulation of an actual person, leans heavily on my projection onto him based on what I read in the Compendium; he is, for the first two thirds of the game, a cipher without much in the way of a distinctive personality. This feels like it’s by design, meant to express the shackles Tethys laid on KRIS, but something still felt like it was missing from much of his dialogue.
Even so, these are minor flaws in a magisterial game, inevitable fissures hairlining through so vast a project. KRIS does come to life later on in various ways as he becomes a person distinct from Kristopher, and part of the fun of the Compendium is making your own meaning through it; the book leaves a glitchy, pixelated impression on one’s mind long after one is done playing/reading, and that’s no small triumph.
There’s much that can be said about Kris Holmquist the man (he’d have made a fantastic subject for my recent masculinity article, to say the least) but that will have to wait for another time. It is enough, now, to say that in this game you play as his editor, essentially, and have power over not only his work, but his very being.
There is a lot to recommend this perspective and its abyssal depth; it shows why words matter. I’ve long related to that old Christopher Hitchens quote: “writing isn’t what I do; it’s who I am.” Ice-Bound is ultimately a game about exploring what it means to be that kind of person.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.