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About the Story
Born to a city of wonders beyond your reach, scarcity has always been a close friend. As a courier, the city’s human infrastructure, you scale its roofworks, evade its constables, risk death every day for others’ convenience — until opportunity crosses your path, and you’re allowed to discover what you believe beyond survival.
Given a scrap of power, how do you reinvent yourself, your relationship to the city, its people? Will it allow you to maintain a companionship based on mutual struggle?
And, beneath it all, from where do the canals in this desert flow?
You'll likely want to play online rather than download. If you’d like to explore alternate endings, it is recommended that you save when you reach the Waterworks Hub.
You’ll have to forgive me the grungy-90s-album-cover art. The intended artist was experiencing some life circumstances!
And for your listening pleasure, here is a selection of sounds which kept me typing:
The Signs of the Sojourner Soundtrack
GoGo Penguin's A Humdrum Star
Portico Quartet's Monument
Ben Lukas Boysen's Mirage
Deep gratitude to my playtesters! Credits included at Prism's end.
Content warning: Not suitable for all ages. Recommended 14 and up.
10th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 4
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“What am I for? How do I do what I am for?” asks the city to itself, and you the courier reply, judging the answer from the linkages you make, break, escape. A city of inventive momentum wresting industry from the sands, automaton hive built of billions of little like yous amalgamated into “Infrastructure, precious and invisible”, prisms you only through what you carry, whether you choose to carry it with you, down through “the myriad paths beneath.”
In a relatively compact pinball sequence, we are given five or six or seven threads, however many may the completionist collect, which our courier can unravel to see behind the weft the touches fragilely interdigitating motionblur vistas. Conduin, a city in steampunk arabesque, hums neon with Proper Noun fantasies that keep the world always one secret ahead, as you chase vignettes that can’t be explained without footnotes, though these details do not detain the reader but supercharge them through thematic skeins, stylism Ursula K. Le Guin.
Or at least, at its best, it does. The prose zeniths in a vibrant fluency that keeps its aorta pumping: “You watch the shock of jolt streak from the collector behind you out across twisting brutalist sandstone roofworks, powering domiciles rumbling to life with the morning, musical inventions, tools of industry carving out the Tourmaline District at the far edge of Conduin's circular city walls.” Little phrases like watching “the shock of jolt streak” work on their own as unexpected turns, but which shed shadows as you realize that “jolt” is the in universe name for the magical electricity harvested from the eternal storm above. Similarly, the story uses the ways this fantasy directly entwines with our current malaises to build a ready rapport that has us eager to explore some more: “As the city grows, its residents become accustomed to wonders beyond understanding. Endless water pouring from its heart, geologicians pulling clastic stone structure from the sand in mere days, the sky itself tamed in the name of invented light and sound. Citizens carry lightning in their pockets, humming battery-wands sheathed in stone to transfer payment. You can hear the zap-buzz of commerce now, whirring contraptions winding up to fill sitting halls with constant novelty, if not harmony.” This is the kind of pseudounfamiliarization that is easy to bobble to eyerolls, indeed the last sentence starts wobbling, but here it injects a selfreflective vision of place to make it feel lived in, worried in. When the story keeps running down the powerlines, it really works.
That wobbling of the spinning top hits most when the desire for exposition floods free of the canals, forcing us into screeching halt wiki entries: “You get the sense she's drifted deeply into thought. The crease in her brow deepens, and she flexes her scarred fingers. / "You know the Unseen Strings?" She finally says. / "Is that a book?" / You offer your best guess. / "Good one." She says. "But no. It's that beyond sight which puppets us. Hunger, emotion, duty. What we sense people want from us. Streetborn call them Strings. Do you think we are slaves to them? Do we have a scrap of a choice?"” Nod to the fourth wall exposition, just so anyone from another world listening in doesn’t have to be kept curious. This anxiety about ambiguity dulls some of the otherwise excellent razorsharp descriptions: “Upward, tiered hard angles create a tempting staircase, though you know as soon as you place a foot off the ground the Constables could be on you.” The first phrase of the sentence is wonderfully resonant imagery, but then the insistence on worldbuilding rushes into the room to ruin the mood, breathlessly explaining the civic ordinance with your lawyer’s concern. Sometimes, with an editor’s touch, you want to prune sentences to focus on the flowers: “A painting of deep, reverent colour occupies a place of honour in the center of the room” says it all, but then it says more.
With every whirl it does not wobble we twist through dizzy streams of delights to alight on a detail enlivened with fear of steel outclanging beauty’s silence: “Conduin's walls are high enough now to make sunrise a little later, sunset early.” Enmeshed in a matrix of designs increasingly more intricate than we: “What next? Another intrusive thought. How long before the city finally proves me obsolete? / A question too big for your body. The idle melodic hum at your side pulls you back.” And yet it’s hard not to get carried along by the music unique to this world, as in lovely vernacular chirps like “You find Sixwise Chimmering a fewfolk up from street level, in a walkup with a fading façade.” The linguistic music timbres each faction unique, especially the Sympaths, whose formalist dataset neologizes in tongues: “Weldingsand, unfolding mindflower how. Internal lightning.” and "Lexical semiotic selection lightningrod.” and, best of all, “Wireframe web in the wind of others' speech. Interlocuter output taxonomization, categorization.” With clockmaker’s tightness, “wind” can be breeze to play with “web” or it can be turning to play with “wireframe”, and how both of these play together inlays the diamond gleam.
Thus, all the Proper Nouns, rather than dwell aloof in Lore, prove fecund with painterly possibilities: “Gold fluid - sparkling in a ray through the hexagonal drystorm clouds above, thick, attempting to congeal - is gushing from the wound in their midsection.” Presented with all these presiding curiosities, your choices reflect a personality through fragrant spices that mull your streetwine worldview, whichever you wish to adopt: “If there's one thing guaranteed in life, it's adaptation. / Perhaps the street might overtake the desert itself. / Or perhaps they will always be flowing into one another.” A great choice tree that reflects many different philosophies on the same observation without feeling pitched. The kind of off-hand thought that reflects onto what the dominant hand holds.
Whichever outcome we grasp hard won, or swiftly stolen, we find a tenuous peace with the city, our place within it or without it. Swerving severances like “Even as a beggar, you've never asked like this” simply strengthen your resolutions more empowered than the jolt all aclattering in the machinery and the mastery: “Freedom was made to be bought, but you dare seize it from thin air.” Because, somewhere, wherever amidst the sprawling you stop falling, is not simply the city, is where you live.
In this choice-based game you play as a former street kid turned courier, scraping out an existence delivering packages to those much more well-off than you. The world you live in is a strange walled city in the middle of a desert, with a rainless storm permanently hovering above a garden at the city's center. Outside of that protected greenspace though, life is bleak and always a struggle.
My favorite thing about this piece was the world building that took place quickly and effortlessly as the beginning of the story unfolded. Think steampunk, but without the steam. Yes, there are robots and elaborate machinery, but their workings are more mystery and magic than steam and pressure. The main currency is electricity stored in a personal battery/wallet. The weaponry is blades and spears, rather than guns.
The author did an amazing job setting the scene, throwing you into a strange new world without much explanation, but almost always with enough context that you could figure out what was going on. I didn't feel like (at least in the first half, more on that later) that any aspect of the world or culture was brought up just for the author to show-off. Even if it was only tangentially important to the scene at the time, it always seemed to keep with the flow of the story while also hinting at undiscovered depths to the world. This piece could have easily been a much longer game or even a novel. And the writing was really good (at least in the first half), slow enough to let you take in all the strangeness, but fast enough to keep the action moving; flowery enough that it felt like poetry at times, without being ostentatious.
The first half of the story was near perfect. Everything was working for me. The second half didn't quite keep me locked in as much as I would have hoped though. All the things that the author got an A+ on in the first half slid down to a B in the second half. The world got deeper and stranger to the point where I couldn't keep up any more. I think the game should have either been longer, to help flesh out and explain the new concepts and characters, or shorter, with some of the story trimmed to lower confusion and keep the plot moving. The writing got a little too flowery and philosophical, and there were a few digressions to make certain points that I thought could have been just as powerful if addressed in subtler ways (as they were in the first half of the story). Finally, the ending was a bit disappointing. Perhaps I will find a better one after more replays, but for all the build-up of the first half, I just felt like it ended weirdly.
I came very, very close to giving this one four stars, and I still might as I think about it some more and play it another time or two, but I'm very stingy with my ratings and I just couldn't get there on this one.
Bottom line though, this is a very enjoyable work and I would encourage everyone to play it. I hope to see more from this author. Would even love to see another story set in this world!
“We’re too young for nostalgia, sparrow.
Go live a life worth reminiscing about.”
These are the final lines of the introductory paragraphs. An incitement to explore the nooks and crannies of this narrative urban maze.
During the first dialogue, I was immediately drawn to the protagonist and their companion. The little inklings of their hidden personalities dropped by the author made me thirsty to learn more of their personal histories and their place in this world.
The setting their meeting takes place in is equally intruiging. There are precious hints of a sprawling city with simultaneously mystifying yet familiar inner workings. Technomagical engineering seems to take the place of our cogs and gears, but the story remains vague about the ratio of familiar cause-and-effect and magical interference. There is mention of storm-powered “jolt” resembling static electricity but also of a crystal with strange workings.
During the story, the player is presented with several situations which increase the narrative tension. There is ample opportunity to shape the personality of the protagonist through the choices of which action to take, and in doing so, to determine the future, the outcome of the story.
I took a conservative path on my first (only, so far) playthrough, choosing to lay low and let the big problems and mysteries be handled by those perhaps better suited to heroic interference with the powers that be.
I learned a lot about the people of Conduin, the great city, and about the power dynamics that drive their society. I survived to live perhaps not heroic, but content with my role.
No point reminiscing about the time you got killed for poking your nose too far where it doesn’t belong…
Very good speculative fiction. I’m gonna go exploring more now, perhaps indeed poking in some darker corners…
|A Crimson Spring, by Robb Sherwin|
Average member rating: (8 ratings)
"Red Cloud meant more to me than anyone else on the planet. Sometime between one and three in the morning, on March 26th, 2015, she was brutally slain. Nobody knows why. I am going to find out if it means ripping this filthy city apart,...
|Vampire Ltd, by Alex Harby|
Average member rating: (23 ratings)
Nero Brashov, vampire and failed businessman, has revenge on his mind. He'll pose as a human, infiltrate his arch-enemy's corporation, and sabotage it from the inside. Just as soon as he's invited in, that is. Contains swearing from the...
|Invasion, by Cat Manning|
Average member rating: (24 ratings)
The end of the world, and there's something after you. A short horror Twine about sacrifice, survival, and relative humanity. Le Grand Guignol entry in ECTOCOMP 2015.