Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 9 September 2023

The Long Goodbye

The signal arrived six decades ago. Directed from the Tau Ceti star system, it was proof that humanity was not alone in the universe. There was other intelligent life out there and it wanted to say hello. Not just say hello, but invite us to make contact, to journey to Tau Ceti where five great mega-constructs were being built. This of course, would have been impossible, had it not been for the information encoded within the signal. It advanced the study of mathematics and physics beyond the limits of human understanding, and with it, the means to create a technological and scientific revolution that enabled mankind to colonise the furthest reaches of the Solar System and give it a purpose—contact. Contained within the information was the means to construct engines that would enable a spaceship to become a starship and cut the journey from one star system to the next by a factor of ten. Where the trip to Tau Ceti would have taken thousands of years, now it would take hundreds. It took the whole of humanity over sixty years to build the fleet that would take the journey and carry the hundreds of thousands of crew and passengers to another star system and realise a dream. It was a one-way trip, for those chosen to travel aboard the Generation Fleet would never see their home again, let alone their destination. The selection process would split humanity, nations, and families, as would the journey.

It is this divide that is explored in Signal to Noise, an interstellar epistolary roleplaying game—that is, played out as a series of letters, for two players, published by LunarShadow Designs. It is the prelude to the Dyson Eclipse, a setting which explores the voyage of humanity and its subsequent exploration of mega-structures around a distant star. One player takes the role of the Explorer, one of the lucky few chosen to join Generation Fleet, whilst the other player is the Earther, forced to stay behind as their companion departs the solar system. Via a series of prompts—much like the journalling roleplaying games that include Colostle: A Solo RPG Adventure and Numb3r Stations – A Solo RPG, the players will exchange short letters with each other, looking back over their relationship and recent events—either aboard the Generation Fleet or at home—all with a wistfulness that comes from knowing that contact will be lost with each other forever and all they will have is their memories of each other and their pasts. As the game progresses and the Generation Fleet gets ever further from Earth, the ever-increasing time lag and distortion of the signal between ship and planet disrupts the messages, rendering communication and understanding increasingly difficult. How it does this is clever, enabling
Signal To Noise to explore loss and regret whilst also putting Communications Theory into practice.

Signal To Noise requires an ordinary deck of playing cards for each player and a text editor, such as Word or Google Docs, which has the ‘Find and Replace’ function. Initially, the Explorer and the Earther establish their relationship and the Explorer the how and the why he is aboard the Generation Fleet and how he feels about it, and the Earther the how and the why he is not aboard the Generation Fleet and how he feels about that. The initial scene takes place before the Generation Fleet and for the Explorer and the Earther it is their last face-to-face meeting before the former leaves. Next, the Explorer sends a message to the Earther saying how much he will miss him, but also how much he is looking forward to the journey. Then the game proper begins. From his hand of cards, each player will draw a single card. The card suit determines which Event Track the event for this exchange of messages is drawn from, whilst its number determines two factors. First, is a personal event, the second is the letters to be replaced in the message that will eventually reach the recipient. As the exchange of messages progresses, the storyline for the Event Track will progress as well as be joined by the storylines from the other Event Tracks, more letters will be replaced in the messages going back and force between Explorer and Earther—representing ever greater communication degradation, and time will increase between messages, growing from a week to several, a month to months, and from one year to ten…


For example, after three turns the Explorer player has drawn the seven of Clubs, the three of Hearts, and on his latest turn, the nine of Clubs. This is the second Clubs card to be drawn and continues its Story Track, which starts with a weak and distorted directional signal being detected coming from an empty region of space. In the second part of the story, the signal is decoded and the shipboard systems begin building a Faster-Than-Light drive, which is only discovered when the drive is completed. The personal event is “You’ve finally read that classic book you always said you would. Did you enjoy it?” The Explorer player sends the following message:

Already a month out. We can hardly see the Sun now. In a week or two it will be gone and your messages will be my connection to home. I have spectacular news to tell you and I have amazing news to tell you. You remember I mentioned that the fleet received a signal that we could not understand from a nearby region of empty space? The shipboard systems deciphered it and not only that, but directed the manufacturing systems to build a device. Our engineers are currently analysing it and they reckon it’s some kind of FTL drive. We’re just beginning to work the possibilities. If it is, it could mean we can cut years off the journey to Tau Ceti. It could even mean we can get there and get back again. Who knows? Course, we have to ask ourselves who sent us the instructions for the drive and what they might want in return, but until we switch the thing on or get another message, who knows?

And the amazing news? I finally read Three Men in a Boat. All these years of you saying I should read it and I have to get billions of miles from you to finally do so. Seems appropriate to the journey we are on. Instead of passing villages, we are passing astronomical objects, which have become the topic of conversation when not speculating about the star drive as everyone has taken to calling it. Anyway, it was very amusing and I am glad that I finally listened to you. Your turn next, you should read that Philip K. Dick novel I told you about. I know it is going to be a month before you get this, so happy birthday for seventh. By the time you get my next message, I hope I will have extra news about the star drive. We may even have turned it on and gone somewhere fantastic!

Hear from you as soon as we can.
The message is sent, but due to the distance and the signal degradation, Dave receives the following version of the message:

Already a mopth out. We oap hardly see the Sup pow. Ip a week or two it will ke gope apd your messages will ke my ooppeotiop to home. I have speotaoular pews to tell you apd I have amazipg pews to tell you. You rememker I meptioped that the fleet reoeived a sigpal that we oould pot upderstapd from a pearky regiop of empty spaoe? The shipkoard systems deoiphered it apd pot oply that, kut direoted the mapufaoturipg systems to kuild a devioe. Our epgipeers are ourreptly apalysipg it apd they reokop it’s some kipd of FTL drive. We’re just kegippipg to work the possikilities. If it is, it oould meap we oap out years off the jourpey to Tau Oeti. It oould evep meap we oap get there apd get kaok agaip. Who kpows? Oourse, we have to ask ourselves who sept us the ipstruotiops for the drive apd what they might wapt ip returp, kut uptil we switoh the thipg op or get apother message, who kpows?

Apd the amazipg pews? I fipally read Three Mep ip a Koat. All these years of you sayipg I should read it apd I have to get killiops of miles from you to fipally do so. Seems appropriate to the jourpey we are op. Ipstead of passipg villages, we are passipg astropomioal okjeots, whioh have keoome the topio of oopversatiop whep pot speoulatipg akout the star drive as everyope has takep to oallipg it. Apyway, it was very amusipg apd I am glad that I fipally listeped to you. Your turp pext, you should read that Philip K. Diok povel I told you akout. I kpow it is goipg to ke a mopth kefore you get this, so happy kirthday for sevepth. Ky the time you get my pext message, I hope I will have extra pews akout the star drive. We may evep have turped it op apd gope somewhere faptastio!

Hear from you as soop as we oap.

Signal To Noise will play out to between seven and ten exchanges of messages at which point time will have passed and the signal will have degraded to the point of incomprehensibility. It will take between two and even five years for messages to travel between Earth and the Generation Fleet. The game will end with the players first reflecting upon the exchange of messages and the story they have told of two lives, far apart, before a debrief together.

It should be no surprise that
Signal To Noise was written during lockdown, a roleplaying game entirely built for the exchange of messages via electronic mail. There are alternative rules which suggest it could be done via exchanged and later exchanged and edited video messages, as well as rules for extending play. The format means that it can be played at any distance and only one copy of the roleplaying game is needed as the author has given permission to share the PDF between the two players. As play progresses the game becomes about what we can understand, what meaning we can deduce from the increasingly garbled text from the context of the words and letters we receive at increasingly long intervals. Ultimately, the ‘noise’ of the signal will intrude to the point of incomprehensibility and loss of meaning accompanied by a loss of contact between Explorer and Earther. (As a side note, parallels could be drawn between the loss of communication and eventually, the loss of emotional connection in Signal To Noise and between a couple one of whom is suffering from onset dementia, though obviously it is not designed with that in mind.)

Signal To Noise is nicely presented. Its play is easy to read and grasp, made all the easier with the example of play included. The artwork is excellent.

Signal To Noise is about the long goodbye. Saying the long goodbye to a loved one or friend, one who is going away never to return, the other one who is staying behind. Within that long goodbye, Signal To Noise combines wistfulness and wonder, about that relationship that is to be lost and the future that is to be reached, and tells a story that will eventually be lost to the void between the stars.

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