Session Report: Ice-Bound and themes of Identity, Human Dignity, the Fallibility of Memory, Fatal Flaws, Duplicates and Authenticity, Rebelliousness and Authority, Romance, the Lure of Exploration, Addiction and Free Will….
Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
Ice-Bound is a novel of concordance. It’s in the name. Trite, maybe, to call it what it is–not very literary–but Kristopher Holmquist is a hack author anyway. A hack science fiction author who died unrecognized and estranged from his family and who woke up decades later to find out he had penned the greatest work of unfinished literature in the 21st century. Ice-Bound, a novel in fragments that span the entirety of the human epic, generations of explorers and scientists trapped in a polar base that’s gradually sinking into the ice under its own heat, burying itself in layers. The basic structure of characters and plot are there, but their motivations and themes are unclear, capable of branching out in so many directions.
You have been invited into Kris’s studio to help him finish the work, tie the pieces together with the appropriate themes and images to produce a satisfying ending for a rapt audience. Except he isn’t really Kris Holmquist, the dead author; he is KRIS, a simulacrum, a constructed sentience owned part and parcel by his publisher, Tethys House. And since Ice-Bound was always an intensely personal work, you can’t separate its themes from the mind writing it–a mind that is no longer altogether human. The way the book unfolds will shape the way KRIS sees his own situation, and vice versa.
The situation is this: under UN ruling and the US Information Segregation Act, constructed sentiences such as KRIS lack the rights of a human being and are defined as (proprietary) software for all legal purposes. In addition, they are restricted from access to any information not deemed crucial to their designated function. KRIS is essentially under intellectual quarantine, blocked from his personal memories and public records of his life.
That’s where The Ice-Bound Compendium comes in. A bound, paper book, a collection of Holmquist marginalia, the Compendium is like an unlock key for your AI. Allow KRIS to override the quarantine protocols in your digital camera, and he can “see” the pages for himself, in a distorted, hallucinatory overlay. He’ll ask you, periodically, to find something in the Compendium to confirm the themes you’ve picked for the novel, and every page you show him cracks open a barrier inside his digital brain, unlocking memories (few of them pleasant) belonging to both the man and the machine. As you tunnel deeper into Carina Station, you also bring KRIS closer to epiphany. What form that epiphany will take is up to you.
So there’s your concordance: between KRIS and Kris, between app and book, between story and teller, and of course between the neutered author and you, his amanuensis. As the name suggests, these layers of agreement resonate with one another like a row of tuning forks, each additional entity fortifying and adding depth to the dominant chord. As you add and remove symbols by illuminating and darkening sockets, as the events and endings cascade across the screen, the changes that occur rely upon a host of factors both mysterious and illuminated: by the present confluence of symbols (a hunting knife, a box of seals’ teeth, a ghostly signal); by the themes chosen for this chapter (you pick one, but KRIS provides the other, always one hand on the rudder, steering the book toward the conclusion he desires); by the pages KRIS has seen and the memories he’s digested; and by the more occult influences of your mood and mental chemistry.
Ice-Bound is not just about the big choices, the endings. It is, in fact, much more about the journey (or descent). Rotate the screen from landscape to portrait, and you will see your choices writ large, the scraps of story KRIS had in mind when he conceived the ending “McKinley tries to kill one last seal, and is killed.” But even these fragments are malleable, shifting with an icy crinkle. Even with the big stuff figured out, KRIS can’t quite decide what to do with certain details, words or phrases that could go either way. The options will blend into one another, expanding and contracting as you read, and when you see one you like, a simple tap will “freeze” it into place. These smaller choices have no effect on the big changes going on in KRIS’s consciousness, but they will make a difference to you, carving your own understanding of the narrative into something more defined, affecting your brain just as you are changing KRIS’s.
Disappointingly, the narrative choices you make never really return in a cohesive form, iced over by the melodrama involving AIs, hacktivists, and some idea of “solace.” While dissatisfying from a game perspective, in the same way that Mass Effect 3‘s ending angered legions of players who wanted to see the ripples their choices created just one last time, this “fatal flaw” at least lines up with Ice-Bound‘s major themes, reinforcing the ephemeral nature of the shifting, settling narrative you and KRIS have built.
*Watch the video Session Report here.