Digital Gems is our weekly column where we highlight contemporary and classic downloadable games that we think are worth your attention.
I was once a part of tight knit, invite-only fan communities online, as I suspect a lot of people once were. The communities I dabbled in, whether I was moderating or not, leaped from the depths of secretive forums to GaiaOnline to Livejournal and beyond. And in reality, existed long before forums too.
Arc Symphony, a new Twine adventure taking place entirely from an old desktop computer, has you navigating a fan community that you’ve been away from for some time. Naturally, your return to the closed-off community is met with raised eyebrows as you wade through laughs and drama that you haven’t been a part of recently. It feels familiar, overdramatic quotes being used as signatures and all (“Killing you won’t stop the pain…. But it’s enough,” reads one’s quote, referencing the fictional in-game boss Hawthorne, a seemingly tortured soul). It’s familiar because in all likelihood, you’ve been in this type of community before, even if it wasn’t for a specific game.
If Arc Symphony sounds familiar, that’s likely because the name was tossed around a lot online over the weekend. News swirled around about a long-forgotten PS1-era gem that deserved its own resurgence into the spotlight. But then the news shifted: Arc Symphony, or at least its JRPG iteration, was never alive at all. The fake game art fooled people on Twitter (and beyond) into believing some secret, uber-cult JRPG from the original Playstation warranted sudden adoration. In reality, the spur was the result of accidental viral marketing among a few Canadian game developers, and viewers who believed their nostalgic musings for a game they’d never heard of on the PS1 to be legit. And in actuality, the game it promoted rose above tongue-in-cheek goofs.
The actual Arc Symphony created by developers Sophia Park and Penelope Evans, not the faux-JRPG that people obsess over, begins with a player telnetting their way to access a Usenet server (think like an ultra-private forum, only accessible via connecting to a specific server). For the Arc Symphony fan community, it’s a way to keep everyone efficiently—and securely—connected. It’s a seemingly utopian community, where trolls are sanctioned out of threads and banned. Disagreements are met with passive aggressive messages, or nothing at all. And then the community grows more sour, as they tend to.
The world promised within the fictional game of Arc Symphony is one I can see warranting fan obsession. As its fake-Geocities fan page describes, the game has all the typical bearings of JRPG gold: an airship, stupidly named characters (*coughs* Dallas Flamestrike), a Great Flood wreaking havoc below. The site feels plucked directly out of the Geocities era; clad with a handy FAQ of community rules and a collection of fan fiction (complete with titles and descriptions that feel a bit too realistic) to boot. The community in Arc Symphony hosts discussions about everything Arc Symphony has to offer: from its characters (it’s widely agreed upon that Emilio is an idiot, but not to overload the hate) to theories about the next game in the series.
The game rolls quickly into a simple question: “Who are you?” The question permeates throughout the entire 20-or-so-minute message-navigating, text adventure. Depending on the answers a player chooses in a survey, they’re cast as a character from Arc Symphony (in my couple of playthroughs I once got an all-powerful goddess, later the airship-owning D’irasis).
There comes a point in nearly every online community when drama tears it apart. Naturally, in all the fan communities I’ve seen rise, I’ve watched them fall; whether over pettiness, fights, people leaving and newbies shaking up the community’s dynamic, moderators going power hungry, and so on. But I'll never forget the friends I've made across them. And even today, I still stay in contact with a select few friends I've made over the early years of rabid fandoms. The inevitable drama that unfolds in Arc Symphony’s fan community ends up feeling personal, not just because we've witnessed something like it before, but because so many of us have reinvented ourselves in one way or another online. We create the ideal self, and sometimes, we see that be rejected.
The best Twine games absorb the player by placing them directly into the story of a character, whether a self-insert or a fully written person of its own. Arc Symphony plops you into a world with characters you’ve likely encountered before in web-reality, such as the self-assured older fan (in this case, a professor who hates being called by his real name), a rules-heavy moderator, etcetera. By the short game’s end, I did a rare thing for myself: I queued it back up again for another playthrough. I chose different responses in my "Who are you?" questionnaire, and found subtle differences across the game (most notably in my character’s favorite movies list buried in a folder). Arc Symphony relishes in the most minute details—hell, it has a whole fansite dedicated to the phony game—and it’s all the better for it.
You can dive into the imaginative Arc Symphony fan community on itch.io from your browser for free.