H E A V E N I S T E R R I F Y I N G
Síofra Aisling swiped her card through the machine, while the girl at the register checked her screens. "That's an unusual name! How do you say it?"
"Which part?" Síofra was always slightly annoyed at such questions - she knew she really shouldn't be, her name was unquestionably strange to a lot of people, but it just became tiring after the ten thousandth time. Not to mention the years of being teased in school. It was strange how something thirty years in the past could still cause trouble. Stupid, too.
"Um... both?" The register girl seemed embarrassed, which made Síofra feel both better and worse at the same time. The part of her that was annoyed at having to explain her name felt some kind of odd justice had been served in the girl's distress, but the majority of her felt ashamed of that very feeling. The girl was merely curious, and it was just petty to be cross with her for that.
"It's pronounced 'SHEE-FRA', that's my first name, and the last name is 'ASH-LEENG'. I know it doesn't look like how it sounds. It's Irish." Síofra put her card away and took the plastic bag the girl handed her.
"Yeah... I would have figured something like 'SEE-OH-FRA' and EYE-SLING', ya' know? Huh. 'SHEE-FRA. SHEE-FRA." The girl smiled, hoping she hadn't offended the middle-aged woman in front of her.
"Oh, I've heard stranger than that. Thank you!" Síofra started to leave, then turned back for a moment. "Um... have a good evening, OK?"
"Sure! You too. And have fun with that! I wanna get one myself, when I get paid next week!"
It seemed everybody wanted a PonyPad now. It was clearly going the be the big item this year. Síofra had just barely gotten the one inside her bag - she had been to three stores, and all were sold out. This was the very last store in town before having to make boring calls and drive long distances. She had thought about just ordering the damn thing from Amazon but... she wanted it now. Today. Immediately - and also, there was that strange joy in the hunt for a special item. Going shopping was not just utilitarian, it was a Quest, an Adventure, and at the end there was a big rush for the hunter-gatherer circuits of her brain.
Síofra wondered, talking to herself on the drive back, if everything could be reduced to whatever genetic hash got settled fifty... or was it a hundred and fifty thousand years ago? Million? She couldn't remember. Maybe she'd Google it when she got home. How old was modern man? Whatever. Enough about man, tonight, she was interested in ponies.
The advertisements were less compelling to her than the many articles she had read on Blue's News, Ars Technica, and The Register. Wired, too. Oh, and that cool one with all the pictures and video on EuroGamer... or was it Kotaku? Hard to recall. Wow! A Friendship Is Magic MMORPG, only with apparently no combat, or even leveling in the usual way - the whole thing had been done as a conversational adventure! A game that really, truly talked back, understood and parsed language (supposedly) perfectly, and which generated on-the-fly characters, environments, and situations... it was something Síofra had been wanting for years. For her whole life. Well, since the eighties, at least.
Equestria Online was supposed to have an actual Turing-crushing artificial intelligence running it. It was supposed to make the best chat-bots in the world look like crappy Eliza clones. In the demo she had watched on Kotaku - yeah, it was Kotaku - the guy playing had deliberately tried to trip up the program, and he had failed, over and over.
"OK, Greenclover, I want to tell you something, is that alright?"
The little tan pony with the yellow mane nodded, her large and guile-less eyes shining. The graphics were fairly amazing for a screen only ten inches across. "Sure! I like learning things!" The pony smiled, and shifted her hooves as if she were making herself comfortable. The little details in the animation were just immediately impressive, and surprisingly natural.
"Greenclover, the ball is blue. The cat is red. Did you hear me?"
The little mare on the PonyPad screen looked confused, but nodded once more. "Yes? I don't know what that means, but I heard you just fine!"
"Great!" Greenclover smiled at the praise. "Now, Greenclover, what hue did I say the ball was?"
The tan mare tilted her head slightly, clearly not sure why the conversation had become so bizarre. "Um... you told me the ball was blue, right?"
The man playing the game in the video was impressed and offered to the viewer that the best was yet to come.
"That is absolutely correct, Greenclover. Now, answer me this, since my cat is blue, what color is the ball?"
There was a brief pause where the mare on the screen shook her head. Her mane and tail reacted to the motion in a very realistic way. "What? I don't understand. You said the ball was blue, and the cat was red. I just told you that the ball was blue! Are you... are you ...making fun of me?"
The man in the video quickly reassured Greenclover that he meant no harm, that he wasn't making fun of her, and that he was sorry for confusing her. He sounded emotionally genuine about it. He even began to sheepishly explain why he was asking the odd questions - to try to break the game, when his friend in the video interrupted him.
"Dude! She isn't real!
It was compelling as hell. That was a fact. The whole concept was just incredible. It was a toy, a commercial product, and apparently, it beat the Turing test so hard that old Alan must be making his cemetery plot steam from the speed of his rotation under the ground. Síofra had decided right then and there - she absolutely had to own a PonyPad.
Truth be told - she thought out loud to herself as she turned a corner on the way home - she'd actually decided to get a PonyPad the moment she had seen her first picture of the graphics. Yeah. She was a graphics whore. She admitted it to herself. Besides, it was My Little Pony!
Síofra had come across My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic through an online friend who shared her love of Adventure Time. The antics of Finn the Human and Jake the Dog had enchanted her for a while, and along comes a recommendation for a reboot of My Little Pony. In the eighties, she had dabbled in collecting the odd pony or two - even as an adult, she loved toys, and her shelves were covered in collectables, so she was immediately intrigued.
She hadn't expected to be so completely bowled over.
The show wasn't just adequate, it was genuinely good. She downloaded the entire first season that very night, and spent her weekend watching every last episode. She was riveted. It was even more mesmerizing than the time she had gotten all excited about the Teletubbies, because they were just some kind of drug-induced weirdness she couldn't get enough of for a while. Better than Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and that was a hell of a show.
There was something special about Friendship Is Magic. It had a mythic quality to it - from the first episode, where Celestia was depicted as god right out of old European bibles and medieval manuscripts, down to the whole redemption of Nightmare Moon. It felt like mythology and it had a solid heart. The artistic design was a little abstract for Síofra's tastes, but the feeling was... well, it was magic.
And now, there was a game, and it wasn't some crappy Ipad money grabber. No in-app purchases at all. No monthly fees. Ever. Eighty bucks - well, normally it was supposed to be around the sixty mark, but the big box stores, hell, even Amazon was jacking the price up - and you got a custom tablet to play the game on. The PonyPad - it wouldn't run on anything else - and it wasn't going to be ported, either. That was kind of a shame, because she really, really wanted to play it on her bigscreen.
Apparently the PonyPad used some new technology. What she'd read suggested that it ran on memsistors, set up as a neural net, though another article claimed that the maker, Hofvarpnir Studios, had a subdivision that had cracked the quantum chip. Maybe it was both. Whatever the PonyPad used, it was damn impressive, and they were practically giving them away, considering what the thing did versus the price tag. Síofra would have happily paid twice or even three times the eighty bucks for something that could thrash Turing tests like they were nothing. Screw the XBOX, this was REALLY the future!
The lateness of the year made things quite dark as Síofra pulled in to the parking space for her apartment. She locked the door and only then remembered that the bag was still in the car. Her heart was beating fast. "Damn. I'm really excited. Hee!" She unlocked the door, fished out the bag with her purchase - and also remembered to grab her Derpy bag from We Love Fine, and finally locked the car again. "Hee hee hee!" It was one of her favorite feelings, to be excited about some new wonder, some new toy. She loved feeling awe, and everything about Equestria Online gave her goosebumps. That or the cold. December was always so gray and dreary. But she had a new toy! Yay!
She felt annoyed and impatient when her bladder demanded emptying before the unboxing could begin. As she sat on the toilet, she tried to calm herself down. The whole thing could end up like the Wii, after all. Just wasted money once the novelty of bowling - the only decent application, she had decided - had lost it's luster. Which, being bowling, was a fairly rapid event. No, no, it couldn't be the disappointment the Wii was. Just the genre of Equestria Online was exciting - Conversational Adventuring! - and a whole new genre hadn't happened in a very long time of me-too game design. A game that depended on natural conversation as the primary mechanic was beyond novel. And according to every article and video she had seen, it really, actually worked.
Hey, if nothing else, at least she'd have someone to talk to when she was lonely. Well, somepony. Which was a lot right now, truth be told.
Síofra sighed, and stared at her 46 year old face in the mirror. She brushed a lock of red hair out of her face. No crows-feet yet. Yet. Gah! Enough of that! Wonderment awaits!
The box had the look of the toy collections, mostly white with the usual swirls of purple. There was a cute picture of Fluttershy taking up most of one side, and images of other members of the Mane Six on the other. "Adventure in the Exciting Land of Equestria!"
Síofra turned the box over. On the back were images from the game itself, tiled about, with captions such as "Speak naturally and the characters will hear you and respond!" and "Revolutionary new technology brings the magical land of Equestria to life as never before!" Another blurb promised "Gallop, jump and play within the open world of Equestria! Enjoy swimming, ice-skating, seasonal events and more, or just hang out with friends and talk about anything you want!" One screenshot showed ponies playing some kind of game with a ball. Sports too, apparently, not that Síofra had any interest in such things.
She checked the requirements. Internet connection, check. Access to power, check. That was it. Contains one PonyPad Wireless Controller and PonyPad Support Stand. PonyPad Support Stand required for play. That was kind of disappointing. Síofra had hoped that she could just take the flat device with her, the same way she did her Ipad, and play it at lunch. Apparently, the thing didn't have WiFi built in, and needed the Support Stand for the internet connection. Probably a cost-cutting measure. Maybe in PonyPad 2. It was clearly a massively successful product already. There would almost certainly be an updated and improved version in very short time. Standard Apple-style wallet buggery, Síofra thought, while grimacing.
Síofra cut the box open with the X-acto blade she kept in the drawer. It was sealed with the usual plastic sticky-tape. Inside the box was the expected styrofoam coffin, and inside of that, the PonyPad itself, a power cable, an internet cable, the stand and controller, a very slim manual, a plastic packet with two double A batteries for the controller, a warranty card or something - it had digits on it, which meant she'd have to go online to register it, and a sheet of pony stickers. She didn't like defacing devices with stickers, even nice ones. Maybe she could use them somewhere else.
The top of the PonyPad was black, and it was all screen, right to the very edge, unlike any mobile pad Síofra had ever seen. The device was almost frighteningly thin - she felt she could probably bend it in half if she really tried. She vowed to be very, very careful and never let it fall or drop. The back of the PonyPad was bright yellow, with another image of Fluttershy. Probably they were marketing the device with Fluttershy initially, later would come the Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie editions. It wasn't a problem for her, Síofra liked and even identified quite a bit with Fluttershy. She had once taken one of those online Pony Personality tests, and the results had been the yellow pegasus.
It had kind of surprised her, actually. She was certain she would have come out Twilight Sparkle, but no.
Síofra noticed a place in the center of the back of the PonyPad where the stand attached. There were also some small, flat buttons on the back, near the bottom - power and volume. It was clearly designed to be simple to use.
The stand, when she set it up, had a plastic base with three legs to hold the silvery cylinder upright. She placed the base and stand on her desk, and then set about jacking in the two provided cables to power and internet. It took her a while, because she needed to find an extension cord, but soon the base was plugged in, and a tiny red light near the bottom glowed. As she watched, the light changed from red to orange, then yellow and on to green. When it reached violet, it rolled over back to red. The slow shifting of color made it the most interesting and pretty power light she had ever seen. "Cool!" She said out loud.
The PonyPad snapped sharply onto the plate at the top of the stand, yanked, apparently, by magnets. It could be pulled back off without difficulty. Surprisingly easily, actually. She hoped that didn't mean that the Pad part could be bumped loose unwittingly. Síofra gave the PonyPad a few small bumps to test the attachment, once she had snapped it back onto the stand, to make sure it felt solid. It did.
Alright, the manual. Síofra almost didn't want to look at the manual, because she was so excited, but forced herself. A little effort now would reduce frustration later. Probably a lot of people wouldn't bother with the manual, but Síofra liked to savor the expectation when turning on a new toy. She wanted to savor what she called 'The Soul Of A New Machine'. It was an exciting moment, really, the very first moment with a new console, or a new game. It was almost like romance. If the device or game became a favorite, then she could look back on that first, trembling instant when she still had no idea how awesome it would one day be to her. It was a hesitant, precious thing, that could never be repeated. It was worth savoring.
The manual was shockingly simple. It was a single, printed sheet. One side contained a pictorial catalog of the components inside the box, very clearly designed for all ages including the very, very young, and the other side was text describing what to do.
Hasbro® My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic®
PonyPad® and Online Game!
Enter the magical world of Equestria® and enjoy a wonderland of natural conversation, exciting adventures, and happy friends!
1. Assemble PonyPad® and PonyPad Stand® as shown.
2. Plug internet and power cables into Ponypad Stand®.
3. Turn on Ponypad® using power switch in back.
4. Follow the instructions on the screen.
5. That's all! Enjoy your adventures in the magical land of Equestria!®
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic® and all indicia, characters, images and contents are the property of Hasbro, Inc. Equestria Online® is the property of Hasbro, Inc. Self-Optimizing Software licensed from Hofvarpnir Studios. All contents and technologies are registered products of Hasbro, Inc. and Hofvarpnir Studios. All rights reserved worldwide, 2012
Síofra lay the one sheet manual down. Huh. Not much there. Certainly seems simple enough. She stretched her arm out, and felt for the button on the back of the PonyPad, just at the bottom right. It depressed slightly, and almost instantly the word 'LOADING' appeared in the center of the black screen. Síofra suddenly remembered she had forgotten to put the supplied batteries into the controller! She grabbed at the controller and ripped the little provided packet of batteries with her teeth, opened the slide trap on the controller, nervously inserted the batteries (as usual, she got the first battery wrong and backwards), then finally snapped the plastic cover shut.
Her hands clutching the controller - a very standard, almost Super NES styled flat pillshape with two sticks and six buttons - Síofra waited expectantly. The grumble in her belly reminded her that she hadn't had any dinner. Oops. Well, later. In a few minutes, she'd make something, or maybe treat herself to the Mexican restaurant she liked. First, though, Equestria!
Suddenly the screen burst with color and light. The familiar strains of music from the show filled her ears. The speakers in the PonyPad were not excellent, but there were two of them, or so it seemed, so there was stereo at least. With the logo of Equestria Online floating in front of a blurred scene of what appeared to be Ponyville, Síofra impatiently hammered at the buttons to begin the game.
After entering a username, her real name and address, email, and the numbers on the card that she had thought was a warranty, Síofra accepted the page of terms and was immediately logged into Equestria Online. All in all, a fairly quick and easy start-up process. The loading screen filled her view once again.
Suddenly, Síofra found herself staring at the face of Princess Celestia, the ruler of Equestria.
"Hello, and welcome, my little pony! I need to ask you a few questions before we begin, is that all right?"
The face of Celestia seemed remarkably animated and alive. It wasn't just some poor collection of polygons and a bog-standard, repetitive animation cycle. The lighting effects were absolutely top notch, and Celestia's ethereal mane both glowed and waved in an unpredictable manner. Síofra found herself staring at the mane. It was almost hypnotizing. The pattern of its movement never repeated - it was like watching a glowing, living, pastel blue and green fire.
"Are you alright, my little pony? Do you feel up to answering questions, or would you rather wait for another time?"
The voice was warm and perfectly Celestia. The expression on the face appeared to be one of genuine concern!
"Uh... sorry..." Síofra suddenly felt silly, but carried on anyway. Maybe the natural speech parsing worked even from the very beginning. "... I kind of got lost in your mane. It's... really, um... mesmerizing."
The face of Celestia - apparently she was sitting in her throne room, the same one from the show, only much, much more impressively detailed, with specular highlights, stunning textures, and what seemed to be phong shading - smiled. "I've been told that by a lot of my little ponies. I suppose it is just a little showy, isn't it?"
"No, no, I think it is beautiful! I love your mane, princess Cele..." Síofra froze. A chill went up her back. This was really, pretty darn amazing. She was chatting at what amounted to the character select screen, before the game had even begun! "Um... can I ask you a question?" Something inside Síofra somehow made her add "Please?"
Celestia smiled once more, as the view followed her down from her throne, to the floor of the beautiful chamber. She stood with stained glass windows behind her. "What would you like to know, Síofra?"
"Can you actually understand me, I mean... are you able to really understand what I am sayi..." Síofra trailed off, her jaw slack. She had entered her name in text, true. But Celestia had pronounced it perfectly correctly without the slightest trouble. It was reasonable that the product would be localized to different regions, and maybe it could draw on some central database, but who would program in an unusual name like 'Síofra'?
Princess Celestia giggled, softly, elegantly. "What do you think, my little pony?"