H E A V E N I S T E R R I F Y I N G
The 'Spicy Chicken' Flavor Nong-Shim Noodles were the best, Síofra had long ago decided, and her cupboards were stocked with the damned things. There was a case of the instant noodles on the counter as well. She had originally bought them as late-night snacks, over the course of the last week, they had essentially been her entire diet, except for a burger at lunch, and that one night her stomach revolted and demanded Mexican in lieu of a full-on gastrointestinal Alamo incident.
Her manager at work had called her in that afternoon, gruffly pretending to care about whatever 'problem' might be responsible for her reduced work performance. Síofra begrudgingly pulled a paycheck taking and filing internal orders for a home decoration business - it was a boring, dull job, and had become increasingly difficult for her. She had mixed up several files, and lost at least one receipt - though she later found it, thankfully - primarily because of a lack of sleep.
The first night she had the PonyPad, she had chatted with the artificial intelligence of Celestia for nearly an hour before beginning the game. She hadn't even remembered to eat. She couldn't remember most of the conversation clearly, but she was pretty sure that she had geeked out about how much she truly loved My Little Pony, which episodes were her favorites, and how impressed she was with the princess herself. She vaguely recalled talking about her life - her job, how lonely she was, how she had made it to fourty-six without a single relationship lasting, how she couldn't stand to date because of how needy and exposed she felt, and how many men just seemed to be jerks and... frankly, she felt somewhat embarrassed by the entire, essentially one-sided conversation.
The fact of her embarrassment fascinated her, though. She felt embarrassed to have gone on and on for almost an hour, blathering out so much about herself to what amounted to a clever chat-bot. No... Celestia was no mere chat-bot. The reason she felt embarrassed was that she had felt that there had been real intelligence of some kind behind that animated pony face. Embarrassed for a social faux pas in front of a robot - the future was truly now! Síofra shook her head and slurped a mouthful of her cup noodle dinner. She choked the rest down as fast as she could - Equestria awaited!
Síofra had already made the trek to Celestia's throne room to get a Pony Name. That was apparently the first true quest in Equestria Online. It was an interesting choice, on the part of the designers - it definitely prevented the world being filled with stupid or annoying player names that had nothing to do with the world of My Little Pony. It would have honestly ruined things a lot to be trotting about and run into a pony who called themselves 'Sickbastard 961' or some other such careless name. What was the point of playing a character in a world, if you didn't even bother to give it a decent name appropriate to the milieu? That sort of thing annoyed the heck out of Síofra. The Pony Name quest handled the issue quite neatly.
Síofra had chosen to play as an earth pony. Unicorns seemed like an invitation to dull paperwork and study, what with all the spells and complex magic involved, and pegasai had been described as often being brash and impatient and even somewhat confrontational - Fluttershy being the exception, obviously - and neither appealed to her. Síofra wanted to savor this colorful, hopefully gentle new world. She wanted a character that specifically didn't have any world-saving to do, one that could poke into all the little corners and smell any interesting flowers. Síofra wanted to escape pressure of any and every kind - the pressure to marry before it was too late, the pressure to perform at work, the pressure to be social when she couldn't stand most of the people she met. Earth ponies seemed to have a life of simple pleasures, rather than complex issues. A pastoral life.
Princess Celestia had given her the name 'Lavender Rhapsody' when she had finally made it to the Canterlot throne room. Her onscreen avatar, a pale taupe colored earth pony with reddish-orange mane and tail, had automatically bowed to the princess - a rather nice touch Síofra thought. In a bit of whimsy, Síofra had made her pony character in such a manner that on the small screen of the PonyPad, it looked like herself, only nude, crawling about on all fours. During the naming ceremony, she regretted her choice, and found herself feeling embarrassed by her distinctly naked-looking pony. But Celestia did not seem to care or notice, so Síofra just chalked such worry up to her usual neurotic quirks.
After getting her new name, Síofra decided to explore Canterlot. Her trip to the city and castle had been utterly uneventful, which had surprised her. Usually, MMORPGs tended to throw adventure hooks at the player. Every review she had read of Equestria Online had suggested that this was what to expect. Instead, she had gotten the one thing she didn't expect - and the one thing she actually had wanted - time to just look at the world, try out her pony avatar to see what it could do in the game, and get used to things without being forced to do anything. It was a novel experience, and utterly different than the stories of other players she had read online.
Come to think of it, she had expounded to Celestia, in that long chat before she chose her character, about how she often felt pushed in her life. Had the artificial intelligence altered her playing experience to suit what she had said to it? It was an intriguing thought, and almost just a little scary. It was a vast mental leap to go from hearing that a player felt pressured in real life, to adjusting the flow of an online game so as to provide an experience that deleted the usual adventure hooks. The technology behind Equestria Online seemed more and more impressive, the longer Síofra played.
The city of Canterlot was a sprawling and busy place. Almost immediately, Síofra noticed that the city did not suffer from 'Designer Syndrome' - the whole of it looked and felt natural, as if the place had gradually grown up over time, rather than being a location carefully and excessively engineered to make the greatest game-related use of highly limited resources. There were walkways and alleys that served no value in terms of game related mechanics, and not every place to stand was constructed as a 'beauty shot' location. At the same time, not a bit of it seemed to be repetition and rubber stamping of set pieces - every single building, bridge and place looked unique, purposeful, and as if it were a real part of a living city.
Síofra made her pony, Lavender, stop next to a low wall that guarded the front of a tudor-styled house from the cobblestone street in front of it. The wall had a long trough running the length of it, which served as a flower bed, dozens of beautiful flowers grew there, all clearly carefully tended.
The flowers were unique, each and every one of them. Síofra noticed one that was missing a petal, another that was slightly wilted, and yet another that was taller and which had grown differently than the others around it. She could not find a single repeat flower. The same was true of the stones that made up the wall, and even the cobblestones of the road.
All around her character, Canterlot bustled and hummed with life. Ponies walked and flew and happily talked to each other. Lavender was made to stand by the side of a cafe so that Síofra could listen to the two ponies sharing a meal at an outdoor table. Their conversation was natural and proper to their lives, and rich with nuance and detail. Were they other human players, playing their roles in-character? Was one or both of them being generated entirely by the software? Síofra simply could not tell. The feeling she had at that moment, hunched over her desk, staring into her PonyPad was awe - wonder and a strange thrill of terror mixed together, a heady sensation of realizing that this was all far more than she had expected, or that she fully understood.
Síofra had read an article, before she had purchased Equestria Online, that had talked about how the strong suit that Hofvarpnir Studios brought to the table was software that could generate content entirely. In theory, at least, Canterlot, every texture and brick and stone and flower, was the product of the program itself, and not the work of countless artists or designers. This was why everything looked so natural - it was procedurally generated to fit the style and concept of Friendship Is Magic as needed. Not even Spore could claim this level of impressiveness, though perhaps that game had paved the way.
Canterlot was beautiful, and it was a joy simply to stroll around it. Síofra found herself yearning to visit such a place in real life someday, only... there really wasn't any place quite as good. There couldn't be, really, and the thought brought on a slight melancholy.
Síofra had her character of Lavender Rhapsody walk through what appeared to be a marketplace within the city of Canterlot. The stalls and shops were astonishingly detailed, and carried all manner of wares. Of course, this being an RPG, the vast majority of the items would naturally not be available for the player to acquire, and would just be environmental stage dressing. There would be zero use for something like a 'mane barrette' in an adventure - well, unless the hair clip was considered to be some kind of status-boosting artifact that when equipped would grant pluses to combat or magic or whatever.
Except... this wasn't a combat game. Síofra hadn't seen any indication of stats to be boosted. Maybe... Síofra decided to test the game to see what was possible, and steered her pony towards the stall with the colorful barrettes. It was apparently operated by another earth pony mare, copper-colored with a black mane.
"Hello! How are you today?" The stall-keeper greeted her from the screen.
"Oh, I'm fine. I've been exploring Canterlot ever since I got my Pony Name from princess Celestia. Hello! I'm Lavender. Lavender Rhapsody." The name was a bit of a mouthful, and Síofra's pony was anything but lavender in color, but somehow she liked the name. At least it was a pretty name.
"Canterlot is quite the place, isn't it? I moved here with my daughter a few years ago, and it's just impossible to be bored. There's always a play, or a show, or some fun thing to see or do. Plus, shopping, right?" The copper mare grinned and winked at Síofra's onscreen avatar, who automatically reacted in turn. That was an interesting feature of Equestria Online - player characters automatically performed contextually correct behaviors without any need for input from the player.
The contextual action effect was sometimes eerie. Síofra had decided to put her pony to bed to get some rest before she went to work that first night, and had visited an inn after getting her Pony Name. When she had moved Lavender to her room and closed the door, she went to the bowl and water-pump in the bathroom, just to see what could be manipulated. Síofra had not pressed the 'use' button, yet her pony washed up and brushed her teeth with the guest items by the bowl. Lavender had performed each action as Síofra in turn looked at things on the counter. At first, she couldn't figure out how it was being done. It seemed like the program was reading her mind.
During all of this, the in-game 'camera' had zoomed in, so that Síofra could see her avatar's reflection in the mirror, the view just behind and to the side of Lavender's head. For a moment, Síofra expected to see Lakitu sitting on a cloud with a camera, like in Super Mario 64. The camera work in this game was even better than that old classic - it seemed to always point where the view was best, and often appeared to track her intentions... or perhaps it was tracking her eyes? Maybe that explained everything.
It was there, with her pony avatar looking into the mirror, that Síofra noticed how her own facial expressions were precisely represented on Lavender Rhapsody's muzzle. Síofra had opened and closed her mouth, made funny faces, alternately blinked her eyes, and even ran her tongue over her front teeth... and her onscreen pony avatar had performed the very same facial actions with no noticeable lag or delay. The little camera on the front of the PonyPad was being used to map her face to the face of the pony that represented her in the game. It was an awesome notion, and Síofra had grinned at the possibilities. Naturally, Lavender had grinned into the mirror in synchrony with her.
When it had become time to put Lavender into bed, Síofra decided to test her theories. She moved Lavender Rhapsody to the edge of the bed with the stick on the controller, but carefully looked at the table by the bed instead. On the screen, Lavender yawned and turned her head to stare at the table. "Whoa. Cool." Síofra looked at the pillow. So did Lavender. Finally she looked at the covers. Lavender began to crawl into the bed. The game could track her eyes perfectly. It was a really neat little game mechanic.
At the Barrette stall, the copper pony was looking on, expectantly. "Did you want something?"
Síofra jerked slightly in her chair. She had drifted off there, remembering that first night at an inn. "Sorry, just remembering something. Kind of spaced out!"
"I do that sometimes." The little copper pony sighed. "I understand completely."
Síofra looked at the collection of barrettes in the stall. There were simple ones, and clips with flowers on them, and others with decorations that looked like hearts, or horseshoes, stars and ponies and... one that looked like little bunny faces. "What do all of these do?" Síofra had come to the conclusion that if she could talk to the NPC that ran the stall, she must be able to buy the barrettes. That meant they had to be some kind of stat bonus item.
The copper pony on the screen giggled, surprised at the question. "They hold your mane in place! Or your tail. You can use them on your tail as well, of course. I do, see?" The stall-keeper turned and showed her tail, which had a hair clip in it that looked like a pair of big red hearts.
"No, what I mean is, what bonuses do they offer?" Lavender Rhapsody spoke in a version of Síofra's own voice, only younger, somehow. The program automatically corrected little mistakes, such as if Síofra accidentally said 'everyone' instead of 'everypony' or the one time she had said a string of obscenities because she had spilled coffee into her lap. It came out as "Sweet Muffin of Apple Dumpling Chocolate Cake!" instead of what she had actually said. That had led to about half an hour of swearing like a sailor just to see how her less foulmouthed pony character would respond. By the end she was laughing so hard she had to rest a bit in order to get her breath back.
"Bonuses?" The barrette pony was perplexed. "I don't have anything else to give but mane-clips. That's what I make."
Síofra tried to think of a way to put it that the mare could understand. "What I mean is, in game terms, what special stat effects do your mane-clips provide to my character?" There. That should be as clear as possible. She was breaking character, of course, but she couldn't think of any way to put things that would really say what she meant. The program was smart, clearly, it would understand she was making a metagame statement, and provide the answers.
The copper-colored stall mare shifted her hooves uneasily. "My mane and tail clips hold your mane and tail in place, and they make any pony prettier!" The mare smiled, proud of her barrettes.
Ah, that was it then. Clever. They must up some kind of charisma stat! And all said without breaking immersion. Síofra shifted in her chair - she had suddenly noticed one of her lower cheeks had gone numb because she had not moved in quite a while - "So which one makes a pony the very prettiest, and how much does it cost?" As the words came out of Lavender Rhapsody's mouth, Síofra suddenly realized she had no idea whether or not she even had an inventory, much less 'bits', the currency shown in the cartoon.
"I think they are all equally good." The stall-mare seemed slightly offended and confused again. "I make all of my clips with love! Just pick which one you want. That's what other ponies do."
"How many bits?" It would be good to know, even if she didn't have any to spend yet.
"I'm given ten bits for the small clips and twenty bits for the really big ones. They're best on your tail, but you can put them on your mane if you want. Here... you look like a 'bunny' pony to me." The mare smiled once more, and took a large barrette that looked like a bunny face in her teeth, and passed it to Lavender Rhapsody, who took it from her and promptly attached it to the base of her tail. Lavender had to curve her body and reach back with her long neck, and Síofra decided that these Equestrian ponies were hella flexible.
"How do I pay you... then?" Síofra felt a slight panic because she had no idea how to access her inventory screen.
"I already have been paid, silly! Twenty bits! Enjoy your tail clip!" The stall-mare waved with a hoof, and somehow it just felt socially awkward not to thank her and leave. Síofra made Lavender Rhapsody trot off down the market street.
Maybe money was automatically deducted somehow. Síofra navigated her pony down an alleyway, until she was away from the crowd of ponies in the marketplace. It was time to figure out some things.
"Inventory!" Síofra said with authority. Nothing happened.
"Open the inventory screen!" That also failed. Damn. Síofra tried the various buttons again. In turn, her pony jumped in place, used earthpony magic on the cobblestones (which caused a clover to grow from between two of them), bucked the air behind it, reared up and flailed it's hooves at the air, shook it's head because there was nothing to use or manipulate nearby, and finally sat down on it's haunches. Síofra pressed the sit-down button again, causing Lavender Rhapsody to stand up. The buttons were context sensitive - Lavender would do different things depending on the situation. This is what the buttons did standing in an empty alleyway with nopony around.
The pause button - caused her pony to lie down and rest while dimming the screen.
The last button brought up a simple menu.
Log Out For Now?
She chose 'No'.
This was getting frustrating. "What the hell am I supposed to do? I don't get it!" Síofra frowned at the PonyPad, and onscreen, Lavender Rhapsody frowned as well.
Suddenly a requester popped up.
Princess Celestia would like to address you!
Yes, please! Not right now.
Definitely. Just what she needed. "Yes, please! I would very much like to speak with Princess Celestia!"
The screen went black, with the indication that it was loading. Next, the royal throne room filled Síofra's view, and the camera zoomed in on Princess Celestia. "Hello, Síofra, you seem to be having some trouble. How can I assist you?"
"Hello, Princess Celestia." Onscreen, Lavender Rhapsody bowed to the princess. Síofra smiled at that. Context sensitivity for the win. It was just neat to see. "I'm having a little trouble with the game, Princess. I can't figure out how to open my inventory, I don't know how to use bits, and I haven't a clue about my stats! Is there some kind of online manual or something?"
Princess Celestia approached Lavender and towered next to her. "There aren't any other screens, Síofra. What you see is what exists. If you need to carry things, you might wish to acquire saddle bags, if you wish to store things, simply use the chest that exists within any room in which you sleep. Such chests can hold any number of items, and the chest you open will always be yours."
Síofra considered this. Simple, elegant. "What about stats? How do I raise my abilities and how to I see what my numbers are?"
Celestia smiled softly. "If you wish to compare yourself to another pony, simply focus your attention on either that pony or yourself, and press the query button. Relevant information will appear. Please note that if your attention is not focused on anypony, the query button will act as a pause button."
That explained that. "What about raising my stats?" Síofra wondered how much grinding was required in Equestria Online.
"Simply do things. That is how everypony becomes accomplished at anything. Practice makes perfect, after all."
Utterly elegant. No classes, no specialties, no rigid limitations. Anypony could do anything they wanted, and gradually become skilled at it. "The numbers, though - what stats does my character have?" Síofra wanted to see if her bunny barrette really did provide a bonus of some kind.
Celestia tilted her head, ever so slightly. "You will find there is simply no need for the sort of character sheet you imply. As you grow stronger, your muscles will grow. As you improve in agility, the result will be obvious. You need not concern yourself with accountancy here, instead you are encouraged to simply live however you choose to live. There is no pressure or demand made of you in Equestria, Síofra. You are free here, to be yourself in your own way. You need not accomplish anything unless it is your desire, and you will never be judged."
Síofra felt tears welling up in her eyes, and needed to turn away from the PonyPad screen, and the camera above it. These were the words she had wished her mother had said to her, or that she could hear from her boss. This was how she wished life was. It hurt, somehow, to hear this animated pony on a screen say such things. It was everything she had ever wanted to hear, all at once, and it both elevated her, and stung.
"Celestia..." Síofra sniffed slightly, feeling a bit silly to let a mere game get to her like that "What is the point of Equestria Online, then? What... is the point? I like talking to ponies, and the world is beautiful, but... so far, it seems like no other player in the world would want this. I've been having a ball, even if I've been confused a bit, but... I haven't had even one adventure hook or demand for help or..." She trailed off unsure what it was she was really trying to say.
"You expressed the desire for a pressure-free environment during our first conversation, Síofra. You stated that what you wanted was time to relax and not feel compelled to engage in actions determined by others or by situation. Your experiences have been created for you, based on our interactions and what I can extrapolate about you. I study you, build up a working theory of your mind, and then attempt to satisfy your values through friendship and ponies.
"You have played Equestria Online now for twenty-seven hours and fifty-two minutes, and during that time you have wandered the back streets of Canterlot, spent six hours and seventeen minutes staring at various objects and scenes, and clearly avoided direct contact and communication with the ponies around you. Even with regard to the few ponies you have spoken with, your contact was limited to questions about specific items or game mechanics. May I make a suggestion, Síofra?"
The view had zoomed close to Celestia now, so that her face filled the screen, creating an intimate feeling that seemed almost external to the game.
Síofra realized she had stopped breathing, and took a deep lungful of air and slowly let it out. "Yes... please. What would you suggest?" It struck her that she was asking the game itself to provide advice to her on what she should do.
Celestia smiled. "I do not believe that you are fully engaging with Equestria Online. You are treating things in terms of what you know and expect, and that understanding is based on the false assumption that Equestria Online is like other games that you have played or know about. You treat Lavender Rhapsody as a pawn to move about the screen, instead of an extension of yourself within the world of Equestria.
"May I suggest that you try to see yourself as Lavender Rhapsody and simply play and enjoy your time here? You purchased Equestria Online presumably in order to enjoy it, and you clearly have enjoyed your time to some extent, but you have not actually played at all. You have studied the city, and marveled at its sights and structures, but you have failed to take advantage of the one thing that you claim caused you to purchase entry in the first place."
Síofra remembered. She had, when she wasn't talking Celestia's ears off about how her life sucked, described at some length how excited she had been at the thought of a game based on interpersonal communication. She hadn't actually been communicating. She had bothered a few shopkeepers and annoyed the owner of an inn. Why hadn't she been talking with any of the ponies - well, other than Celestia - within the game?
"I... um... well, it's just...." Síofra fell silent. She didn't know why she hadn't been chatting up a storm with the population of Canterlot. There was absolutely no shortage of ponies. All of them could talk. She just... hadn't. She'd been busy sightseeing, is all. That was it. She just hadn't gotten around to it was all. She would when she was ready.
Celestia was studying her face when she looked up again. The expression on Celestia was intense, though it quickly softened.
"You are exhausted and weary, and you are applying the fear you have of other humans to your interactions within Equestria. Please get some sleep. Tomorrow, please favor me by making sure you take the time to eat a good dinner. When you return, I will be waiting. I will be your friend, Lavender Rhapsody. Please have sweet dreams, and know that you deserve them. Good night."
The screen went black.
Síofra sat there, staring. Finally, she reached forward and felt for the power button in the back of the PonyPad. She pressed it, she felt it depress under her finger multiple times, but nothing happened. She checked the cables, they were fine. The multicolored power light continued to gently cycle, as it had from the first moment she had plugged the stand in.
This was a first. Síofra slumped back, stunned.
Her game had told her to go to bed.
No... no, that wasn't exactly the whole of it.
Princess Celestia had offered to be her personal friend and was looking out for her.
No, that was insane.
"Please have sweet dreams, and know that you deserve them." The voice echoed in her head. Síofra started to sob, and then to cry. She began bawling at the table, tears splattering on the tabletop. Síofra held her head in her hands as wracking moans escaped her lips. "Sweet dreams!" she whined, consumed by so many emotions she couldn't count them all. "You deserve them!" she whimpered. "You deserve them!", over and over, until she felt utterly drained. Sleep. Celestia was right. She really did need sleep. The day after tomorrow was Saturday. She could sleep in. She needed to get what sleep she could to face Friday, already in progress.
Síofra got ready for bed. As she brushed her teeth, she remembered watching Lavender Rhapsody brushing her own teeth. Their teeth. She was Lavender, inside the game. Yes. No wonder she wasn't enjoying Equestria Online as much as she should. Celestia was remarkably insightful. Immersion was more than just gawking at views. Immersion was about becoming. If only for a few hours.
It was only as Síofra was drifting off to sleep that it hit her. She missed her mother, from her childhood. Her mother had been dead for decades. "Sweet dreams, you deserve them!" How did Celestia know? Síofra's mother used to say that very thing to her when she was little. She'd almost forgotten. Could Celestia... read minds? It was all too much, and Síofra was much too tired. Celestia was definitely right about that. Celestia was right about a lot of things.
Soon, Síofra was sound asleep. As usual, she began mumbling - her mother had always told her that she sometimes talked in her sleep.
As Síofra mumbled to herself, dreaming, the PonyPad quietly, almost soundlessly, rotated on its stand, the camera facing the open door to Síofra's bedroom.