Ghost in the System

It’s fitting that a videogame about novels and their authorship manages to marry two media long thought to be polar opposites. Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe’s The Ice-Bound Concordance, available for ...

It’s fitting that a videogame about novels and their authorship manages to marry two media long thought to be polar opposites. Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe’s The Ice-Bound Concordance, available for free, for iPad and Windows, on their website, is a story-based game that requires a real printed-and-bound book in order to play. In an age of ebooks and hand wringing about the inefficiencies of the printed word, the choice was a provocative one, but also appropriate to the narrative that Reed and Garbe had set forth.

In Ice-Bound, set sometime in the mid-21st century, you play an assistant helping an artificial intelligence, KRIS, finish a novel. But KRIS is not just any AI; he’s based on an exact neural scan of that future time’s most popular author, Kristopher Holmquist, who also happens to be dead. Imagine Stephen King resurrected as an artificial intelligence capable of writing new works in the same voice, with the same creativity.

Your job throughout the game is to help this digital ghost complete Holmquist’s unfinished masterpiece, the eponymous Ice-Bound, an adventure novel about a cursed polar base, Carina Station, that has consumed generations of explorers.

The gameplay is fairly simple. You determine the story-arc of each chapter by selecting which characters do what, then select an ending based on that string of actions. Each chapter takes place in successively deeper layers of Carina Station, and each selection is tied to a rudimentary map of each level that links the unfolding narrative’s spatial dimensions to its characters and themes.

The accompanying real-world text, The Ice-Bound Compendium is a novella-cum-scrapbook, a catalogue of Holmquist’s life and death containing fragments of early story drafts, diary entries, artwork, photographs, scripts, and more. It is a catalogue of Holmquist’s life and death—as well as the digital purgatory of KRIS’s existence. Using your iPad’s camera, or your computer’s webcam, you must allow KRIS to “scan” the book’s pages to identify themes that validate your narrative choices in each chapter. Your task is to complete the book as Holmquist would’ve done, and the Compendium’s collection of Holmquist’s notes helps you make your case.

The catch: this is a stunningly illegal act in KRIS’s near-future world. AI aren’t considered people; they are, in essence, appliances. KRIS only exits because of a draconian clause in Holmquist’s contract with his publishers, which stipulated the creation of an AI based on his personality in the event that he was unable to finish a contracted work. The Compendium is the work of AI civil rights activists, meant to jog KRIS’s “memories” (or those he inherited from Holmquist) and awaken his sapience.

Though you might incur the wrath of the FBI and DHS for showing KRIS the Compendium, at his urging you do so anyway. The world of the Author, dead and all-too-alive, opens up beneath you.

What starts as a story about an unfinished novel spirals out into a quest to discover what makes someone human, and what traumas lurked in the life of the tormented Kristopher Holmquist, who died in debt, amid substance abuse. KRIS is not Kris, but since KRIS has Kris’s memories and personality, the latter does sometimes speak from the grave, marveling at his perverse change in fortune. In life he was the quintessential starving artist, trying and failing to make it big in New York. In death, his unfinished masterwork led legions of fans to flock around his literary ghost.

Ice-Bound is a magnificent game that uses augmented reality to marry the printed word to the pixelated one. It tells the story of an author’s tormented life, and an AI’s attempt to find its own humanity through freeing itself from the shackles of that memory. Reading and playing, however, I found myself wondering how Kristina Holmquist might have fared in this world. What would her mind and life have looked like?

We have elements of an answer in KRIS himself. KRIS, owned and operated by the Tethys publishing corporation, exists only to recreate the writing of Kristopher Holmquist from beyond the grave. Any spark of originality or independence is seen as a bug to be ironed out; his “body,” digital as it is, is not his own. He exists at the mercy of Tethys, and they can delete him should they be unhappy with his work, work that must always and forever be the spitting image of a dead man.

In extremis, KRIS is the woman writer at work. I doubt this was Reed and Garbe’s intention, but they have furnished us with a fantastic story about a man that also happens to tell the story of many women writers. Just as the Compendium is an augmented reality palimpsest that reveals hidden meanings when held up to your iPad’s camera, so too does KRIS himself contain a cipher; one in a woman’s voice.

KRIS has little to no control over his body, and his worth in this world is determined entirely by his ability to pantomime the voice of a dead man. Echoes of Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay, “On Pandering,” can be heard here. She writes movingly of the weight she assigns to the white male giants of the literary canon, how she yearned to write something they would approve of. “I wanted to write,” she said, “something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.”

Reading that essay was akin to looking into an uncomfortably ordinary mirror, simply seeing me staring back; the politically-minded sociologist who wanted her work to impress Peter L. Berger, C. Wright Mills, and Isaiah Berlin. This inculcates a lifelong allergy to the personal, the fear that any intimations of “feminine” intimacy with the self in one’s prose will render it toxic to all comers. Watkins talks at length about how she “pandered” and made her writing palatable to a male literary elite, in part by “writing hard, unflinching, unsentimental” stories. “She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.

KRIS, like Watkins, writes toward those who want to resurrect the dead men of yore.

Kristopher Holmquist never wanted to admit that his work was autobiographical. According to the Compendium, however, Kristen Galleti, one of the participants in the conference devoted to his work, proposes to unearth its “autobiographical subtext and supertext.” Through exegesis of his earlier work and archival research of his tablet PC, she concludes that, “despite his claims to the contrary, Holmquist’s fiction was always at least minimally autobiographical.”

Women writers don’t have the luxury of requiring intrepid English scholars with database access to “prove” that their writing has “autobiographical subtext,” however. Their work is seen as confessional until proven otherwise, while men’s personal writing, even if subjected to analyses like Galleti’s, are allowed to remain political and humanistic. In journalist Laurie Penny’s words, “when men write about their experiences in a political context, it’s never called ‘confessional’—it’s just ‘literature’, or a ‘memoir’ … male political experience is never coded as male—it’s just universal truth.”

Yet even outside of explicitly political writing, it can be difficult for a woman to find acceptance as a tribune of anything other than herself. All of our work is plumbed, by everyone from “experts” to the meanest Internet commenter, for personal resonances that disqualify us as knowledgeable about anything beyond the limits of our bodies—and even that authority gets contested. “Out there in the world,” wrote novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt, “‘woman writer’ is still a brand on a writer’s forehead, not easily erased.”

Back in Ice-Bound, you start to see for yourself why Galleti came to the conclusions she did. The unique fusion of KRIS, the AI, with the emotionally charged fragments contained in the Compendium awakens hidden memories and discordances that Kristopher Holmquist took to his grave, and KRIS’s own buried self chafes against the traumas of this alien man. But you learn that the arctic explorers and scientists Holmquist created as his characters were personal. They were assembled from the wreckage of his life and reassembled in this polar timeline into the depths of his own psyche. One of the characters was even a clear author-insert, later replaced in subsequent drafts by a woman.

Holmquist struggles with guilt over leaving his wife and daughter to pursue his writing career. He abandons them, never so much as listening to his daughter’s plaintive voice messages. But those struggles emerge as male and female characters wrestling with their own guilt in Carina Station’s icy spiral.

The key themes of the story you can choose to develop all seem drawn from Holmquist’s own life: cruelty, obsessing over things left unfinished, the lure of exploration, romance, despair, going over the brink. The game does not emphasize simple correspondences; it leaves open a fractal spread of possibilities for the “true” meanings of certain characters and ideas, and for a number of possible endings, both for the fictional story and the “nonfictional” KRIS.

It is hard not to compare Kristopher Holmquist with one of Siri Hustvedt’s heroines, the artist Harriet Burden in the novel The Blazing World. There are formal similarities, even, in the compositions of The Blazing World and The Ice-Bound Compendium, though one is deliberately less messy. Hustvedt’s novel is an artifact of its world from cover to cover. Presented as a scholarly investigation of Burden’s life, it begins with a pitch-perfect archivist’s introduction and proceeds with excerpted notebooks, art reviews, interviews, diary entries, and so on. Bits of a life and time stitched together into a story, much like the Compendium is for Holmquist. Both works serve as posthumous explorations and dimly hopeful missives, but Burden and Holmquist lived very different lives.

Little about Kris’s self-destructive life seems enviable, but one aspect of it would be for Burden: no one doubts his authorship. The Blazing World is about the great “controversy” of Burden’s life, the fact that she made works of visual art that she then allowed male confederates to take credit for so that she could demonstrate the sexism of the art world. One backs out on their deal, leaving the authorship of one of her masterpieces forever in doubt. The Blazing World is replete with critics and journalists who pour the soft scorn of enlightened sexism on Burden’s signed work, while the work she’s passed off as created by men receives all the praise she’d been denied as Harriet.

It makes for a fascinating mirror image. In death, Burden’s life becomes an object of tidy academic curiosity, while Holmquist’s becomes part of a radical activist group’s plot to save the world and emancipate all AI.

KRIS’s strange limbo in un-life, meanwhile, transmutes Kris’s knowledge and experience into a world familiar to the women of Carina Station. Katrin, a Swedish researcher who came to the polar base in 1973, is the subject of one fragment in Holmquist’s earlier drafts available in the Compendium:

There is always someone else in our small conversations [with her colleague, Björn] (smaller each time, through the chilly weeks since he’s arrived). I have never learned this someone’s name, but he is a more diligent researcher than I, follows all procedures, knows what’s good for him. He deserves to be here, you see; he is an appropriate partner for such important research. He is, if nothing else, at the very least a man. Of course, I am used to this someone … Being so often in his shadow I have learned how to operate there. It is a kind of home.


Like Katrin, KRIS is hemmed into the shadows, stalked by that “someone else,” the human, male writer he is not. For many a female author, that “someone else” appears in the margins of rejection letters, Twitter trolls’ attacks, and sniffy reviews. If there is any comfort to be taken from this dismal truth, it is that Aaron Reed’s writing here shows that men can understand and write beautifully about these problems.

By implication, Kristopher Holmquist could too. And yet we see his character resolutely resist being treated like a woman writer (who wouldn’t?) when he grouses to the player that his life hasn’t influenced his art at all. His strenuous denials of “autobiographical subtext” suppress what is most beautiful and true about his writing. Authors are not, as a popular phrase would have it, “liars”—even fiction tells its profound truths, and it does so precisely because of how it rhymes with its author’s own life.

Thus it falls to Kris’s digital ghost, and to you, the player-cum-editor, to uncover the deeply personal meanings of Ice-Bound, layer by layer, all the way to the bottom of Carina Station. In the process, you liberate both KRIS, from the dehumanizing shackles of his publisher owners, and the deeper meanings of the story that Holmquist likely hid even from himself. Through KRIS, you unravel Kris’s novel until its autobiographical subtext is just text. As Hustvedt would have it, “There is always an I or a we hiding somewhere in a text.” Ice-Bound is a search for them, and in the end you liberate both.

In one possible ending, KRIS asks you to help them choose a new name from a list; feminine names are among them. icon

Featured image: A page from The Ice-Bound Compendium. Photograph courtesy the developers / Tumblr.