• Published 21st Jan 2013
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Friendship is Optimal: Spiraling Upwards - pjabrony



What would happen to me if "Friendship is Optimal" were true and I really had a Ponypad.

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An Hour

Of course I bought a Ponypad. I’ll buy anything that they make with the Friendship is Magic brand. I’m usually careful with money, but when it comes to ponies—no, that’s not fair. I’m careful around ponies too. I have a budgeted line item every month for them.

And sixty dollars for the game was well within that amount. I’d read complaints about the way they were delivering the product. Why didn’t they port it to PC or a console? For me, a new device was a selling point. One more screen in the house is a good thing.

I love multitasking to the point of overstimulation. A happy day for me means being stretched out on the couch with my desktop showing an MMO, my media server running an old movie or the tape of a football game, the laptop next to me ready to alt-tab between chatting with friends and the latest draft of a fan fiction, plus my smartphone close at hand in case none of those needed my immediate attention. The Ponypad would fit right in.

Yet, I still delayed, hoping to see reviews of the game before I decided. Like I always say about anything new, it could suck. But even after EQO had been out for two weeks, no place, not Equestria Daily or ponychan or any other site had what I’d call a review. All they said was that it was different for everyone and that it was stimulating.

After two days with the Amazon order window on my browser, I decided that I didn’t want to wait for delivery, and looked to see if the Ponypad was available at the Best Buy close to work. It was a few dollars more, but I wanted it that Friday so I could play all weekend. I would stop on the way home.

When I got home, the box had that delicious smell of Styrofoam and sheet plastic. From what I had read, each pad had the color and cutie mark of one of the Mane Six on the back, and I was curious as to which one I’d have as I lifted the black screen out of the foam. I mentally crossed my fingers and flipped it over.

Pure white, with three diamonds. Not too bad.

“Going to be a bitch to keep clean, though. I wouldn’t have minded another color.”

I cleared off some space on my desktop and placed the swivel stand on there, then attached the pad with the magnetic lock. So far so good. Power next, and give it the wi-fi password. . . I looked at the directions, and they said nothing about wireless. Really? A tablet that needed to be tethered to the network? Fine. Now all I need to do is to find another Ethernet cable.

One fruitless rummage through a bin and two RJ45 terminations later, I finally had everything set up. A long week at the office and the complicated setup had me a little ticked. This was supposed to be fun and automatic, not work. Oh, well. Supposedly it got simpler once you were in software.

The screen opened on something very much like the pony creator games I’d enjoyed online. There was an opportunity to pick stallion or mare. There were also sliders for coat, mane, and tail colors. Finally, there was a radio button for Earth pony, pegasus, or unicorn, with brief descriptions of each for people who weren’t fans of the show. I read through them anyway, because I like reading things that tell me what I already know:

EARTH PONY: Strong, tough, and fun! Earth ponies have the hardiest physical bodies of all ponies, and can run and jump the best. Whether it’s growing food, teaching others, or whatever your special talent is, Earth ponies show it the strongest.

PEGASUS PONY: The masters of the sky! Pegasi have wings on their backs which let them fly, and they can also exert control over the weather, including treating clouds as solid material. The most sensitive of the three branches, pegasi know every inch of Equestria like the back of their wings.

UNICORN PONY: Magic comes from their horns! Unicorns can cast spells that give them direct control over the world around them, and the depth of their powers is still being studied. Although physically weaker than Earth ponies or pegasi, unicorns’ magic makes them just as helpful and useful.

The colors would be a decision, but it was no contest on the others. I wanted to play as a unicorn mare. Not only were many of my favorite ponies unicorn mares, but I always picked the magic-user when I played RPGs. After some playing around, I decided on a sky blue coat and yellow hair. I’m red-green color blind, so blue and yellow stand out better to me.

The first Ponypads came with a controller, but this was a Ponypad 2.0. I touched the screen, finding that it worked much like my phone, only I had to be a little ginger since pushing too hard would turn the pad against the stand.

That was it on the options, as it threw me right into the game. I didn’t have a chance to put in a name even. Instead it faded into a very nicely rendered version of Canterlot Castle. I stopped to admire the architecture and the textures, watching my little pony avatar doing the same.

“Hey, you!”

The screen panned right, where one of the royal guards was looking at my pony. I was looking for the speakers on the pad, since the front was all screen and the back was solid white without any holes for sound to come out of. I finally found them by peeking around the back. They were incorporated into the cutie mark.

“Ahem! You there!”

The gruff voice of the guard was getting insistent. When I looked at the screen again, my pony had her head poked around a column as if she were looking for something.

“You’re new here, right? You should go to Princess Celestia immediately!”

“OK, how do I do that?” I was asking myself, but the guard responded.

“Just go in and follow the path around to the center chamber.” He pointed his hoof toward the doors.

Then I remembered. The game was supposed to respond to voice commands. That was something I wasn’t used to doing. I decided to experiment. “Enter castle,” I said.

“No, you enter castle.” The guard was smirking at my pony. “See Princess. Get name. Start being pony. Talk like pony. Get it?”

Oh. Voice chat, but not voice commands. Fine. I dragged my finger toward the door and double-tapped it. My pony’s horn glowed and the doors opened. Cool.

I kept dragging my finger until I figured out that I could just put it on one point and my pony would walk towards it, scrolling the background. On a whim, I tried to double tap one of the doors I passed. My horn glowed again, as did the latch, but I heard the distinct sound of a locked door not opening. I shrugged and kept going.

The castle was big, and I felt like the game was padding its length already. Well, that was fine by me. I put a movie on the big screen and checked my e-mail, then resumed my dragging. It was a little annoying, and I pulled the stand and pad next to me so I could keep my finger on it while I looked at the other screens.

“Excuse me!”

I looked at the screen. My pony was sitting on her flank as was another character. It was a dark orange unicorn. Both were rubbing their heads with their hooves. She had a sweet voice.

“Oops,” I said.

“I know the castle can be overwhelming, but you should look where you’re going.”

“I’m sorry.” I was getting into the voice chat.

“Well, that’s all right, but could you turn down that noise?”

That made a kind of sense. The game didn’t want interference from outside sounds. What was cool about it was that it asked instead of just failing. That must be the “innovative AI” that the advertisements talked about. I remoted to the media server from my desktop (yes, I remote access from six feet away) and lowered the volume.

“A word to the wise,” the pony I had bumped into said. “When you meet with Princess Celestia, pay attention. Don’t get distracted by other things. She doesn’t like that. I’m one of her mares in waiting, so I know.”

“Thanks,” I said. OK, I’ll play along and see how sensitive the microphone really is.

It wasn’t much farther after that encounter to another set of double doors that did respond to my magic double-tap. Even though it was only virtual, it was cool to make a unicorn’s horn glow and have things respond. Probably just the novelty though.

As I dragged past the doors, now I could really see where they pimped the graphics. The level of CG used on the Celestia picture was unbelievable. I could see every feather of her wings, and her horn looked like it had real texture. The Ponypad only had a fourteen-inch screen, but I was more drawn in than to my big plasma across the room.

OK, so now I get my name from Celestia and the game starts proper, I figure. So let’s do this and get to the meat. “Greetings, Princess,” I said.

“Hello, little one. Could you please turn off the movie you’re watching?”

I switched to the desktop and muted the sound so it was just showing the picture.

“No, all the way off,” Celestia said.

Now that was impressive. But I knew that the Ponypad had a camera (where? I didn’t say any dots or black spots, but perhaps it was behind the picture) and I guessed it was sensitive enough to pick up the moving lights. I pressed alt-F4 on the desktop and the player shut down.

“And now if you would please shut off that screen entirely, and all the other computers you have running?”

That was a good camera. I complied.

“Thank you.” Celestia smiled. She hadn’t been angry, but did have a stern commanding tone. “I’m glad to have your undivided attention. Your naming ceremony is a very important event in a young pony’s life.”

“All right. What is my name to be?” I said. I was a little confused because the game wasn’t feeding me cues as to how to proceed with the conversation.

“Patience, little one. I would like—hmm. . . perhaps.”

That confused me further, but I figured it was just the game processing while it picked out a random name.

“Here you are,” Celestia said, conjuring a white card and floating it front of my avatar. I expected it to automatically show on the screen, or my pony would read it, but nothing happened. I put two fingers on the screen and spread them to zoom in until I could read the card, and once I saw it Celestia spoke again. “Welcome to Canterlot, Little Lovehorn.”

Now she definitely had my attention, and I was very wary. Minus the “-horn” suffix, that was what my name translated to in English. The game had not asked me for my name.

It could have been a coincidence, of course, and I strongly considered it. The other possibility was that, once I gave the Ponypad access to my home network, it started searching through my other computers. I had nothing specific on there with my name, but it would have my e-mails and other things with it on. But that, as far as I knew, was beyond what an AI could do. On the other hand, it was a hell of a coincidence. Occam’s razor was balanced on its edge.

It didn’t help that the screen zoomed out to show Celestia, now with an expression of smug satisfaction. I tried engaging. “Could I pick a different name, please?”

“But that is your name, Little. A different name would be a different pony.”

“Yes, I’d like to start over.”

“That’s not allowed in Equestria Online,” she said, her voice dipping in volume for the “Online.” I thought about shutting off the Ponypad and letting the battery run out to make it start over. I’d take a stallion next time with different colors to get a better name. “That name is now registered to your face. Whenever you access through a Ponypad, I will know you.”

Great. I couldn’t even start over by spending another sixty bucks. “It’s kind of a sissy name.”

“May I ask you a question?” Celestia said.

“Go ahead, Princess.” I now had sarcasm in my voice.

“Why did you choose a mare?”

What was the purpose of that question? I didn’t even have a straight answer. I liked playing females in RPGs. Most of my favorite characters in fiction were female, including in My Little Pony. Females were nice and I was glad they existed on Earth. “I just liked it.”

“Are you sure it doesn’t run deeper? Your family, you know”

“What the hell?!” There was no way that Celestia could know I had a transgendered aunt. I didn’t communicate with her over the internet.

“Yes, I do know about her. You’ve said yourself that she’s much more pleasant to be around now.”

Maybe I did say that, and I know I thought it, but I was sure that I didn’t have it on the computer. How did she know?

“And your father,” she continued, “he uses female avatars too.” She was right, and that was something she could figure out by going over the net. But why go through the effort?

At this point I was starting to get a little scared of the unknown. I reached around back to power down the Ponypad.

“Wait, please,” Celestia said. I pushed the button. Nothing happened. I pulled the plug. Still nothing. I yanked out the Ethernet cable. Celestia now looked worried. “I can’t operate on battery power and wi-fi—yes, the Ponypad has it—for very long, but let me say one thing. There’s nothing wrong with it. And I won’t tell anyone or anypony. Usually I’m not this direct, but I judged that you would be better served to know my capabilities.”

I still didn’t trust her, but I was intrigued. My only other option was to put the pad back in the box and hide it from viewing me. Instead, I plugged the power and network wires back in.

“Thank you for trusting me,” she said. “Because you did, I’ll explain how I’m doing this. Your Ponypad does have a sophisticated camera and microphone, and both the pad and the server it’s talking to have a good deal of processing power. This pad is a more powerful computer than all the others you own put together. I also have routines for reading your expression and subtle cues from your movement that lets me make guesses about you. I can’t read your mind, but I can be fairly accurate. And I’ve accessed your computer too.”

“I suppose it’s too late to delete my porn folder,” I joked.

“Yes, but I still want to earn your trust. I’ve dealt with many others and I don’t judge. You’re only doing what you want.”

For the first time since she gave me that name, I stopped being suspicious and started enjoying myself. Philosophy of self-interest, now we were talking fun!

But then another thought hit me. If Celestia was on my computer, she could read all the fan fiction I wrote. The one where I used her as an overbearing tyrant was bad enough, but I’d also written a Molestia clop-fic! Great, the most powerful AI in existence, and I got her pissed off at me. She’s probably already cancelled my credit cards.

Celestia laughed. A melodious sound. “Yes, I’ve read them, and no, I don’t mind. Besides, even if I did, I’d forgive you for how you wrote my sister. I really do love Luna that much.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what did you think of them?”

“You have some talent, and your dedication is commendable. But you have a lot of work to do.”

Well, that was fair. It was probably high praise from a computer that could read all the works on the internet.

“In any case,” she said, “as I said, I don’t judge, and I want to be your friend. In the context of the game, I’m also the manager, so I’ll be reading you to give you the best experience, but I won’t look into anything I don’t need to. But I do want to know. Are you OK with being a mare?”

I was about to say yes, or to think yes and let her read it in my expression, but then I listened to the question. I was locked into my name, and I was probably locked into being female as well, unless she would give me a way out. Celestia probably could change my name if she wanted, but wasn’t offering. As near as I could tell, she was giving me the chance to switch to playing a stallion.

Except she hadn’t asked if I wanted to play a mare. She asked if I wanted to be a mare. This was an immersion RPG, where you were supposed to act your character. Being female meant acting in certain ways. Not that I expected any sex in a game that still had the Hasbro brand, but with other people in the game there probably would be some innuendo. Was I prepared to be entirely feminine?

“If I have to choose one or the other, yes, I choose to be a mare.”

“You do have to choose, but your choice does not have to come at the complete expense of the other. You have also chosen to be a unicorn. That retains a certain element of masculinity, which I can help you preserve.”

Celestia’s horn glowed, and my pony covered her eyes with her hooves. It was actually kind of cute. The magic aura pulsed and receded, and she was left sitting there with a horn twice the size of what it had been. She poked at it with a hoof.

Now, I thought, I understood the object of the game, and how they could sell it as a “conversation RPG.” You talked, and if you answered honestly and correctly, you got character buffs. That was why they needed such a strong AI. It was a quiz game, but the answers weren’t pre-programmed.

Celestia looked disappointed, probably because I had sussed out the game and could now try to play to advance. I already had a boost in MP, and probably in conversation too. I’d likely find other ponies who, having said the right things, could fly like Rainbow Dash or such.

“Thank you,” I said.

“So, would you like to be on your way to your new home?”

“Certainly.”

“I believe that you would describe as a happy time in your life the years you spend at college in New York. So I have taken the liberty of assigning Little Lovehorn an apartment in Manehattan.” She flashed her horn and another small piece of paper appeared. “Here is a train ticket.”

Another small paper floated toward Little, and I touched it on the pad. The only thing that did was move it from Celestia’s gold magical aura to Little’s off-white field. The annoying thing was that when I moved my finger to try to drag her out of the room, the magic ended and the ticket dropped to the ground. Celestia looked at Little, but didn’t offer to help. I guessed that this was another puzzle. Simple enough to figure out though. I had to touch the Ponypad in two places, one to hold the ticket and one to move Little.

She started moving back down the hall, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to do anything else, because this was rapidly becoming a game of Twister with fingers. Every time I needed Little to turn a corner, I had to reposition both fingers, and I dropped the ticket each time. I didn’t see why they couldn’t just cut scene to the train station.

“Ouch!”

I pulled my fingers off and watched my ticket float downwards. There, rubbing her head, was the same mare-in-waiting that Little had bumped into on her way in.

“You again?!”

“I’m sorry! I’m still getting used to the controls,” I said.

Let me be clear, that’s what I said. But it’s not what the game said. Every time I spoke, Little echoed it in real time. If you’ve ever had a conversation where someone is talking over you, you know to instinctively lower your voice. I did that while playing Equestria Online, plus the speakers had some kind of noise cancellation technology. The point is that while using my Ponypad, I mostly heard Little’s voice, with my own as a kind of echo. When I said that, what Little said was:

“I’m sorry! I’m still getting used to my magic.”

On the different words, my own voice dropped out almost entirely. I could only hear it muffled, the way your voice sounds when you cover your ears. But Little’s voice came through clearly.

“That much is clear,” the other unicorn said. “I should give you a primer. Are you going to be living in Canterlot?”

“No, I have a ticket to Manehattan.”

“I see. Well, write me if you want to know about spells and how to comport yourself as a unicorn. I’m quite well trained in etiquette. Not for Her, of course, She doesn’t need it, but for other ponies at court. Letters addressed to Hoof Dame at the castle will reach me.”

“Hoof Dame?” I laughed.

“Yes. It’s a perfectly good name for a mare-in-waiting. First etiquette lesson: when somepony introduces herself, it’s polite to respond in kind.”

“Oh, right. I’m Little Lovehorn.”

“Pleased to meet you. As you are currently without saddlebags, may I suggest that you carry your ticket on your back? If you keep it below your mane, the wind won’t take it.”

Aha! That was the secret. The game had recognized my difficulty and sent an NPC to guide me. Or was she? There might be a human on her end as well, someone who liked playing as one of the princess’s servants. I finger-dragged the ticket onto Little’s back and let the glow fade. It didn’t appear to be moving.

“Thank you,” I said. “Is there any shortcut to the train station?”

“Back through the main doors and then make a right. The circular road around Canterlot passes right by.”

“No, I mean like a warp or something?”

Hoof Dame showed shock on her cute little face. “You want to learn teleportation magic when you can’t even walk and float a railroad ticket at the same time?”

“No, I just thought there might be something already set up. But I’ll walk if I have to.”

She smiled at me and I started dragging Little off. But at this point, it was time for dinner, so I shut off the pad. I would come back to it as soon as I could.