The Compass Rose (Yoon Ha Lee / Peter Berman)

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The Compass Rose is a spare, impersonal science fiction story by Yoon Ha Lee with tech support by Peter Berman; it’s the third of Sub-Q’s August lineup. It is a hypertext piece, but offers some directional options most of the time as well.

The premise is that a compass rose is a deeply powerful physical object. It is able to show directions and guide you (literally and metaphorically) in your environment, but its abilities go beyond that, terraforming a new world to conform to the values of its colonizers.

The story begins with your rescue of an old compass rose from a damaged planet, and escape. Then you have the opportunity to create your own colony, filling in your own rose-diagram with markers indicating the values you’ve chosen. Is coldness one of your primary directions, or mercy? Openness or paranoia? Each of your major actions affects the type of colony that will result, and orders the constellations in your sky. Once you’ve added to your compass rose, you can click these links for further information.

This is all pretty abstracted. We find out very little about the avatar of this story, and there aren’t other major individual characters either, just groups, such as “refugees” and “raiders” whose motives don’t get much exploration. Bad outcomes may be represented as numbers of dead, but without any single person for you to care about. The raiders are aggressive and cannot be reasoned with, so any approach you take will eventually have to confront that reality. I found one outcome that seemed less bad than the others, but this story (mercifully, perhaps) doesn’t glorify war but also doesn’t pretend that a pacifist worldview will keep you safe.

The Compass Rose reminded me a little of the solitary beauty of Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, and a little of Sam Ashwell’s description of Downfall, which I haven’t even had a chance to play yet. There is some lovely imagery; and how many other games, IF or otherwise, make the game about the composition of a culture?

All the same, I felt some of the time that I was working with the skeleton of a story, rather than the story itself — or, perhaps, as though I was playing the setup portion of a tabletop storygame, where the parameters of the world and characters were still being sketched in but the roleplaying had not yet begun. I might have liked to see just a bit more of what my cold, paranoid colony was like before the raiders attacked it. More personal detail would have been a way to address this, but certainly not the only one; I could imagine more extensive descriptions that still focused on long-term or broad trends rather than individuals. This would have made the story significantly larger, though.

A technical coolness: The Compass Rose lets you rewind (check out the About link), and (unlike most Twine pieces I’ve tried) allows you to select a choice point to go back to:

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This is nifty and is something that I would be happy to see in other Twine pieces in the future. It made it possible to explore variant colony builds here, for instance.

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