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About the Story
You are a crewman aboard Observatory Station Calypso-54414d. Everything you know is a lie.
Best in Show, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2023
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>"Weightlessness, wonder, a rare smile as the planet descended below you, a brilliant viridian marble swirled with soft white clouds."
Despite the protagonist of Protocol having left her lover to go live among the stars, high above/below the planet, this quote is on of the few instances where the space outside is witnessed directly from her point of view.
Protocol is an inwardly oriented game, both in its surface quest and in its more abstract layers.
The protagonist wakes up alone on an abandoned Space Observatory Station, a mighty telescope pointed at the tiniest pinpricks of light from the farthest, earliest moments of space, suspended in its ring of service modules and living quarters for the necessary living staff. The station is damaged. An urgency more felt than understood presses her to do all that is necessary for the repair of the station.
During the exploration of the station, wounded and confused, weakened and alone, a relation of mutual dependency/support/survival develops. The station needs/coerces/forces the woman for healing its wounds, for saving what is not yet irreparably lost of its memories while she struggles to remember herself. The woman uses/grasps/wills the station for a purpose, a reason. The only purpose left, empty and meaningless as it may be.
The desperate crawling journey of the woman through the station to its core systems, to the exposed and damaged vital technologies mirrors a descent deeper and deeper into the body and mind, into psyche and soma, to the wounded bleeding sarx itself, the flesh and bones that need repair.
However intimately connected, mind and body undergo an unnerving disorienting dissociation/distancing during the journey. The station becomes a distorted mirror for the woman. It reflects her broken dreams and yearnings and regrets back to her, reminiscent of the Nietzschean abyss. This is often expressed in physical, external circumstances and actions.
The painful state of the woman's mind is made apparent in her personal monologue/narration too:
>"Delusions of grandeur lost in the summer winds of her laugh, the comfort of a fire in winter in her embrace. Who could blame you, for turning your gaze away from the sky? You were enchanted by the stars, enamored with them. Who could blame you for leaving her, when the stars in her eyes shone no longer?"
While the premise of Protocol is well-known, and could be tiresome in a lesser game, it succeeds in using that premise as a means to search deep into the human condition. The sense of loss, the inevitability of choices, the impossibility of what could have been.
An important factor in making this work is the impressive writing. The author employs stylistic techniques to press the gravity of the situation on the reader. For the most part, this works very well. A bit more prudence might be in order as to the frequency with which one or another technique is used, as they do lose efficacy along the way.
Mesmerising, haunting repetitions, both of phrases and entire paragraphs (with small but telling differences) draw the player deep into the bowels of the story.
The juxtaposition of two major themes resonates throughout the story and appeals to different aesthetical and ethical value systems, perhaps loosely associated with the Appolonic and the Dionysic:
There is the beauty cold and austere of inevitable, ordered, lawful physics, geometry, even biology, juxtaposed with the messy hot-glowing spell of yearning, purpose, will of life and love and consciousness.
Both sides are reflected in the careful delicate writing. In the same passage of text scientific precision and sense of detail conjoins with poetic style, rythmic prose, flowing structure.
>"This is how it always ends; falling the mechanism of your demise, her demise, both the guilty Daedalus and foolish Icarus, too close to the sea, too close to the sun and always doomed by gravity."
At other times, the rhyme and rythm take center stage, as in this challenging and delightful lingual language game of leapfrog:
>"Where she walked the shores of a shallow salt sea, followed the tree-lined lanes dappled in light through the thin apertures of leaves to a home with knotted hardwood floors and open windows through which the wind whispered."
Protocol has few choices. The ones it does have are posed with appropriate gravitas. Each choice is a commitment, the player's role and responsability in seeing this narrative to its inevitable end. Whatever end that may be. It is still inevitable.
Very, very impressive.
Protocol is lyrical, Protocol is declarative; every quality in its symmetry, so you’ve been told: “For each differentiable symmetry of nature, there is an exact law.” For every action, a reaction, too many reactions, reactions overwhelming, no, undo it, how could you act, why should anyone? All the dynamism building until it bursts, until it destroys everyone and everything, supernova brilliance erasure: “When density in a molecular cloud reaches a critical threshold, it collapses. A calculated yet brutal dance, filamentous tendrils of gravitational potential energy reaching out, like seeking like, accelerating, exponential growth unbridled as breakneck collisions gather mass.” Possibility crashing in on itself until it compounds and overwhelms, if only you could stop this, find some other way to exist, escape the combinatory overload dying to create life: “Sodium and potassium, the movement of their ions sparking the electrical impulse necessary for nerve function and thought. Your thoughts are blurred images and words that stutter along in a confused narration. Calcium, used in the construction of bones and necessary for their repair. You have likely fractured your skull. Iron, its oxidative properties commandeered by the protein hemoglobin, lending the liquid its distinctive red color. You are bleeding, more slowly now, a ruddy stain across the sleeve and breast of your pale uniform.” Tenderness of obliteration denied, for the moment, just for the moment, in the violence of denial. There can only be denial, for you. Everything exists on sides of a divide; each positivation derived from negations, letting go of one form, letting others arise; in the transition of being to being, nonbeing of the affined.
Thence the panic, prey before the predator, transfer of sunlight from one to another: “After immeasurable time alone and much more spent in the eclipsing orbit of another, one star draws nearer. Pulls at the fabric of the other, leeches at it, tastes the coronal flames and decides it wants more fuel for its fiery hearth. And the lonely star, not knowing that this is the beginning of the end or perhaps aware and still willing, will surrender what it wants. Will give it all it wants until the once generous host, having offered its love and light, dwindles away until it can give no more, not without ceasing to be. It will cease to be. This is how that story always ends. It can end no other way. That is the sacrifice made in knowing the light and warmth of another. It must end.” Any assemblage of qualities implies these qualities can be assumed, assemble elsewise, so sloughs the gestalt, births the gestalt: irreducibly more made of irretrievably lost, is it worth it? Transfer the airless void compressing you to this composite home, “a wound that does not close”, an artificial imitation with “arterial pipes and venous branches of sheathed wires, a pseudo-neural pneumatic network, a beating heart splayed across the walls and hidden under the slatted floor”, but which “cannot speak nor bleed, at least, not like a person can.” And you haven’t been a person in a while. Floating in the nothingness, in the silence, “It was never alive, the station. But it was, perhaps once, something different. Something contained. Something abated. Something satiated.” That’s enough, isn’t it, to, to persist, isn’t that all animals are, systems which propagate protocols? What else could there be to want? “To advance - to escape - is to dare, to overcome the sheer terror in your veins and move deftly, make no mistake. To make mistakes and survive them, to get knocked down and pick yourself up again, again, again. To have the want to survive”. Dare for what? Want what? What could be more than this enclosure? Advancement suggests a progression, and the symmetry rubberbands you back wishsnapped. Nothing comes from nothing, how could anything emerge from the void that wreathes you, coronal crushed and crushed and crushed deeper and deeper inside until the bonds we force break, everything comes loose, surges into new possibilities, what would it be like to choose openendedness, to choose the mistakes that fuel survival, the feeling of something, anything, even if for the moment only terror, in these veins pumping something into life, something more than this pressured into stillness: “The third thing about the breach, you note, hauling yourself through the emergency hatch and sealing the door behind you, is that you are afraid. Past the airlock beginning to depressurize is nothingness, the abyss, certain death … Disembodied, you proceed, finding your hands distant and unwieldy, your legs wholly useless. You have no choice but to continue, unfurling the tether. A way of returning, should the way prove too dangerous, should you fail.” Umbilical unto the gulf below, tentatively abseiling, “Tentatively, you press your palm to the glass, staring at the reflection, at the back of your hand. At the other side of the glass. At where your reflection shifts, stands opposite to you. You, who is no longer alone; you are on the other side of the glass. You, who is no longer alone; you are inside the quarantine cell. / You stare at it, at the pale eyes stained pinkish, at the swollen gash from temple to brow, at the short, dark hair, at the soiled and ill-fitting uniform marked with a name that belongs to both-neither you nor this apparition, at the familiarly dull expression, at everything that you are. The apparition slowly tilts her head to the side, regards you with wide-eyed curiosity, with bated-breath horror, with the all same emotions that flood your veins. With a trembling chin, trying not to cry as she smears the outstretched hand down the glass, as you stare at her and she stares at you. As you stare at yourself. As she stares at herself.” Sutures forcing together two sides of the split, will it heal, can there be any feeling but the tearing apart?
Thence the panic, predator before the prey, seeing sunlight glint from widened eyes. Recognition of annihilation, negative sum game, you cannot sustain what they can, you cannot be sustained, you will be sustained, it is the only way for you to live. You will do what you must to keep yourself together, whoever that makes of you. “You do not have the capacity to wound and yet - you know yourself responsible. Pain and the infliction of it are human qualities, as is the anger with which you swing the pipe at the window, as is the sharp hiss of frustration released as the glass reveals itself impervious to your rage. As is the flickering of imagination, a skull splitting instead of the pane. You, brute, know yourself responsible. Fingers pressed to the wound in your forehead, you lurch away, breathing heavily. The pipe falls from your hand, loud against the floor. It tells you to pick it up again. It tells you to try again. Your hands are strong. You are capable of brutish things. And the window shatters under the force of your swing.” Semblance, and the window into its world, shattered, preservation of, annihilation of, it isn’t so different, you don’t want things to be different, you can keep the screen lucid: “The display blinks, flickers like the eyes of someone on the verge of waking. Like her eyes when - you move on to the second set, breath bated. Your hands shake, carefully undoing what you have already done. Something you have never done; the task all but intrinsic to your being. The wires come apart, the screen roars to life - one frantic wide eyed gasp - and is consumed again in evanescence until you are left gazing into the eyes of a corpse.” There is a moment when you let go; there is a moment when you’ve held on. Symmetries that can be held in balance forever, exact symmetries that are exactly what they are, conservations of matter in laws, enforced seals that will never slip into anomalies “highly localized and relativistic”, where “an irreversible or spontaneous change from one equilibrium state to another will result in an increase in entropy”. Safe in the invariable prevalence of order, the perfect closed system in which entropy approaches a constant value… doesn’t quite reach zero… “She was an isolated constant like that of the equations that crawled off her whiteboards and onto the walls and floors and windows. / The calls were frequent at first.” No, everything is quiet, nothing can hurt you now, everything is sealed: “This window has been broken before, and in one singular moment the laws of the universe balanced what human hand had undone; the atmosphere collapsed and the abyss rushed in, displaced all there was, all life, all light, all warmth. The window is sealed now, a shameful past covered over in this rotation, a capitulation of previous rotations pretending as though the cold does not seep in from the cracks.”
The protocol has repaired the station, the state remains unchanged, the laws conserve what matters, what matters of what else lingers? “The ghosts of the station whisper the stories of those who tried, speak only in whispers, lest the station hear them, lest it wake, lest more ghosts join the first, the woman who gazed upon the stars and saw nothing but hope, sought nothing but love, found nothing but a choiceless grief that carried her back to this place, the empty hangar, and did not let her leave.” If you can’t exist, nothing should, since that nothing makes up your existence. What else would you become? In the silence of confinement, there is only the burning, the burning, why doesn’t the burning stop? Don’t they see what you have managed to conserve? The chaos lies controlled in your orders, you have differentiated yourself in the violence of the void that compels you. “Administrator, it calls you. Lies to you.” Lies to you? No, that’s, I mean, you’ve chosen irrevocably, become irrevocable, you are the agency of commission, have through all the pain built your unstealability so steely assured. And yet, the gnawing, the differentiation of yourself arising only in violence. “You are not like it, this station that weeps and bleeds and remembers? Do you see your own hypocrisy, as clear as staring at a reflection that stared back at you? Your own mirror, dreadful and terrified alike, would you not call out for her help if the help she could provide would prove to be your salvation? Do you grieve her? Do you grieve yourself, the life trapped in your head and the blood on your hands?” Die to live, live to die, existing on both sides of the symmetry, not existing on both sides, symmetry itself a tension, implying correlated is and knots. Of any observed obverse, its reversion to the meaning… “In a sudden tautening of muscles, you flinch away from a resurgence of the sirens that never comes. Punishment for your perverted remembrance - this was not the way things went, this is not the way things were, how dare you - you - defile her memory, how dare you remember to begin with? How dare you, pale imitation, fraudulent ghost?” Killer and killed, dance of stars burning either side of the binary, death and becoming, romance of scars preserving neither side of the bind. “Scars that tell you any attempt to save the station would have failed. You could never save it. You can never save her, the sudden absence at your back, a shadow no longer trailing. You can never save her, you turn and expect to see your mirror image and are met with nothing; you cannot save someone who never existed to begin with.” Equilibrium is the condition of a system where the sum of all vector forces is zero, where the nothing will continue indefinitely. The externality illusion, that discontinuity can be assumed, that a quality can be preserved through its realization as that same quality, that every coming-into-being lies contiguous with beingness, that you can exist equally with the you that insists, cannot connect with the violence innate to these conflictions which “belong to you, you who has bled for your freedom, who has suffered for the cruelty of this station”, not for some ghost, some angelic afterlife, which effects the change of the charge of recognition, when “blood pools along the seams and ridges and sills of an inset panel, one that struggles briefly before accepting your handprint.” Dissimulation requires loss, the currents flow through our gated imaginative to circuits we have to hope illumine the beautiful. There is hope, an infinite hope, but not for us. Assumption, or descent, or ascent, into phenomenon and all its destructive apperceptive definers reconfigures us into “a name that belongs to both-neither you nor this apparition, at the familiarly furious expression, at everything that you were. At everything you killed. / At everything you have become.” Faced with this conundrum, the ineluctable entwined of the symmetrized, existing only insofar as an equal force tugs you to the zeropoint, the natural complaint of exhaustion outcries, desire for some nihil in which internal energies eternalize in mutual negation, destruction eternal where finally all this misery “won’t matter. Brain activity will stop and all will cease to be, and here in the dark, your story will end, extinguished alongside your broken body, dead and gone and steadily cooling to equilibrium.”
Otherwise, what are you forced to do, live out that violence, imbue destruction in every overfiring nerve, to suffocate by your own hands, ripping and tearing at your being until everything breaks, most of all you and you both: “A spiderweb of cracks beneath your skin, the gash growing wider, your face drenched again in blood, if you can bleed and it is not your thoughts that leak out instead. You scream. You scream and strike again, again, again, again until the darkness consumes you, until your brain spills out onto the floor and the station crawls up with curious fingers from the slatted floor to taste it. To know you. Because it cannot have her, cannot have both her and you and thus you become sacrificial lamb. You are destined to die here by your hand or hers or its and you can do nothing to change it nothing at all you are doomed you are”… and, isn’t it worth it, irreducibly more made of irretrievably lost? Isn’t the ideal aspirational insofar as it requires the absolute sever from the one who breathes? “It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering. This is the simplest maxim, the guiding axiom. The gauntlet is a powerful tool - it will help you reach your goal and thus, suffering is a necessary step, you tell yourself.” Through the gauntlet you go, enduring all the suffering, in some vain hope that the it that leads somewhere includes you, that alchemy enshrines what makes up its gold, this insatiable and destructive and vicious and wretched and worthless and pointless and overcharged and confused and inexplicable in all the ways you need to answer and irruptive and ruinous and cold and bitter and broken beyond the meaning of any of the pieces and unreal and real and unworthy of all the adjectives suited to you, unworthy of the belief that all of this adds up to something worth preserving, why not let free the feelings that annihilate whatever this is, in the merciless admissive may these compounds compound into stronger, stranger bonds, why not let go of everything but the need to “touch her skin, to acknowledge her as real and tangible and not only that - but to recognize her skin as you would recognize your own. She does not flinch as fingertips brush her face; she holds her ground and bites her tongue, stifles all but the single tear that runs down her cheek. She wears all the same wounds as you, arm shattered and dubiously repaired by the presence of the gauntlet, forehead gashed from temple to brow, but she is unbowed by them. Her skin is warm, the pallor diffused, her breathing steady, unlabored. And you are cold, getting cold, struggling with every little motion. It is alive; she is alive. And you are dying … You will die. And she / She / She will live on in your stead.” And isn’t that all you want, really, life? Better that it isn’t yours, you have none to give. “For her wishes to be true - for her to live on in your stead - she must leave while she still can, while she bears only your visage, before she can bear the emptiness of your memory, the heaviness of your willing self-destruction.” Selfless, not as a kindness, but as finality’s honesty.
This game revolves around a protagonist who wakes up in what feels like a wrong body, with wrong memories, and everything hurts.
The writing is very elaborate, dense, and elliptical. The game literally begins with an exposition on the universe, stars, Noether's theorem, conservation laws, and thermodynamics, before it really kicks in.
I kind of felt trapped under the weight of all the words. I was able to piece together something of a story; one of alarms and a space station where you have to escape. But the writing is so elliptical that I had difficulty knowing if anything was real or a metaphor. Is there (Spoiler - click to show)actually another person on the ship, or is it all just a form of self-reflection? Is the main computer room (Spoiler - click to show)really made of flesh and bones and eye sockets, or is it just a metaphor for your feelings about it?
I couldn't really tell. Overall, I found a couple of different possible endings, including one really early on and a few later ones. There is a lot of body horror in terms of dealing with progressively worse injuries.
Overall, the writing was carefully planned and chosen, and the interactivity and story structure were well-balanced, but the overall elaborateness was too much for me to handle.
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