Friday, July 27, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 86: Silent Ponyville

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

Given that the adult pony fandom is primarily an internet-based phenomenon, I suppose it's not surprising that video game crossovers are so common within the fanfic community.  And wouldn't you know, here's one of them!  Or rather, a whole bunch of them.  My review of Jake Heritagu's Silent Ponyville et al, after the break.

Impressions before reading:  Considering how many fanfics-of-fanfics and other derivatives this has inspired (there's a Silent Ponyville video game currently in production, among other things), I'm surprised by how little I know about this.  Whether I'd actually read them or not, I was at least conscious of things like Fallout: Equestria and The Conversion Bureau, two stories famous for the number of spinoffs they've inspired.  Maybe it's just that I've missed some of the hype, but these stories don't seem as pervasive around the fandom, despite the obvious popularity of the original(s).

Since there's a whole bunch of stories here, allow me to break down how I'm going to be conducting this review.  I'll tackle each of the primary author's stories from this set separately, sans the still-incomplete Silent Ponyville 3.  Following each, I'll briefly touch on any side-stories or alternate endings which take place following that fic.  As usual, stories not by the original author won't be getting full reviews (since it was presumably on the basis of Mr. Heritagu's work that this set is 6-starred), but if nothing else I want potential readers to have an idea of what order all these pieces take place in.  Also, the side-story Silent Ponyville: Reunion remains incomplete, so I'm passing over it for now as well.  If you do want to read it though, it slots in after Silent Ponyville 2.

Oh, and add in the usual "I've-never-played-Silent-Hill-I-sure-hope-I-can-still-enjoy-the-story" bit here as well.  Though judging from Sethisto's comment on the top of the post ("Sounds like even the Pre-readers that have never played Silent Hill really liked this one"), I'm optimistic on that front.

NOTE: The top review is only of Silent Ponyville. The other stories are done separately below.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When Pinkie starts suffering from constant nightmares every time she tries to sleep, she turns to Twilight for answers.  But Twilight's attempt to help leaves Pinkie stranded in a mysterious, deadly mirror of Ponyville.

Thoughts after reading:  While it would be going too far to say that I think authors have an obligation to give readers some idea of what the tone and style of story they've written might be, I would say that I think it generally ends better for both parties when they do.  Readers who aren't interested in a particular genre or story type can avoid it more easily, and for those who remain, expectations can be calibrated (though hopefully not lowered) accordingly.  As such, I did appreciate that the story opens with a note warning (assuring?) readers that it is, in fact, a grimdark fanfic.  Those who aren't interested in pony blood and guts can pass it over without wasting their time, and everyone else has the chance to put themselves in an appropriate mental frame.  And right from the beginning, Silent Ponyville isn't afraid to paint disturbing, and sometimes disgustingly graphic, images.

Unfortunately, the grim fascination of reading about a pony being devoured by worms or what have you (to be fair, that is in fact a very vivid and effective scene) is practically the only draw (if such a thing can properly be called a "draw") for large stretches of the story.  From a technical perspective, there's more than enough problems here to deter many readers.  Although grammar is generally correct, punctuation is constantly abused throughout the story, leaving a great number of sentences unclear or subject to various possible readings.  This turned out to be doubly problematic, as the author often used deliberate run-on sentences in action scenes to try to represent the overwhelming nature of Pinkie's plight.  While these could have been powerful tools otherwise, the poor technical structure throughout the rest of the story prevented them from standing out in the way they were supposed to.  Throw in a variety of errors less damaging to readability but still frustrating to encounter, from a heaping helping of randomly capitalized words to repetitious choices of phrase, and it's hard to say that this story is anything but a mess from a technical perspective.

As with the run-ons, some of those writing choices may have been deliberate, but this effect was lost amid the myriad errors.  For example, "She stopped next to the wall and slammed the creature hard against the wall.  The creature was still there, she slammed it hard again.  She slammed it again and again and again.  Warm blood splattered against the wall and onto her coat.  She summoned all of her strength and slammed it against the wall."  Is the repetitious literal restatement intentional?  If so, the fact that so many other passages read similarly, even where there's no obvious need to highlight the event, masks that intention.

Characterization was also a major weak point throughout the first three-quarters or so of the story.  Pinkie is faced with terrifying trials, both mental and physical, but almost nothing is done with how she personally reacts to being put into such traumatic situations.  If the story lacked any downtime for her to grapple with her emotions--if she was thrust immediately from event to event without being given time to react--I could understand this.  But with the action taking place over two full days (as near as I can tell; time is difficult to track during the main portion of the story), I really think more could have been done with how Pinkie would deal with things like pseudo-zombies or having to kill another pony with her own hooves.

Although I haven't played Silent Hill, I wonder if some of the problem might not be an over-reliance on the structure of those games.  There just isn't much "Pinkie" in the middle chapters; she could be replaced with "generic pony X" and only a couple of minor modifications would have to be made that part of the story.  In fact, it would be stronger in many ways, because the reader wouldn't be bringing a preconceived notion of the protagonist into the story, and thus her goal-oriented and straightforwardly strategic personality wouldn't have seemed as incongruous.

However, the end of the story thankfully does come back to justify some of those elements.  The world in which the story takes place is eventually given meaning, and although I suspect that the ways the author chooses to connect it to the show won't sit well with everyone, they are at the very least present.  I just wish it hadn't taken until the very end to introduce some of these elements.  As it stands, reading the first four chapters requires a lot of faith on the part of the reader that this all is, eventually, going somewhere.

Coming back to the game elements present here: although some were well-executed, many could have been toned down or removed entirely.  Multiple times in the story, Pinkie has to solve elementary logic puzzles whose presence defies explanation; I assume something similar was in the game proper, and was included as an homage?  While these puzzles are used as gatekeepers to story advancement, many don't themselves tie into the narrative in any obvious way; their presence seems to be wholly unnecessary.  Other features, like the multiple endings, I didn't mind nearly as much.  While the "canon" ending is part of the story proper, the author  separately produced more than a half-dozen alternate conclusions, each based on different scenarios within the story.  While these didn't really expand the narrative, they offered a short glimpse at some of the possible "what ifs?" which any good fanfic will necessarily inspire.

A final note: this story borrows heavily from other fanworks, featuring Cupcakes elements and Slendermane among others.  While I felt these were generally integrated into the story proper, I understand that some readers' interest will be tempered by their presence.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Although the story does eventually explain and justify both its gruesomeness and many of its "world-building" elements, the majority of the fic leaves readers totally in the dark concerning its impetus and reason to be.  While this technique can be used to build suspense, there's not even any assurance prior to the end that there is an explanation which it is building towards.  Coupled with some very poor editing and some problems with characterization and game/story melding, Silent Ponyville was an interesting idea which I felt suffered a few too many avoidable missteps.

Recommendation:  I suspect that both Pinkie's characterization during the main portion of the story, and the puzzle elements which baffled me, will be of less bother to people who identify more as gamers than as readers.  I mean no offense to either gamers or readers when I say that, nor to those who will quite rightly point out that you can be both; I'm just trying to say that the attempt to meld video game structures and characterizations directly into the story will hold less appeal to those treating this primarily as a work of literature than to those who see it more as a Silent Hill expansion/spinoff.  To those latter ones, I would recommend this story with the qualification that unclear and structurally weak writing are common to the entire story.  For the former, this isn't a story that I'd suggest.

After that:  As I mentioned, the story proper includes a "canon" ending, but once you've read it you can skip down and check out several alternate conclusions which the author also produced.  If you enjoyed Silent Ponyville, these are definitely worth checking out, if only because they're short and offer a chance to wonder how key differences might have changed the course of the story.

I Met a God Today, a side-story to the main work, deals with the fate of the colt from Silent Ponyville, and may appeal to readers looking for closure on that front.  Compared to the work which inspired it, it focuses more on the psychology of its focal characters, and although it can't stand alone, does offer a welcome bit of insight into them.

Finally, there's Too Shy for a Rainbow, a story not on the EqD main page, but which takes place about halfway between Silent Ponyville 1 and 2.  As the author says, however, "if you can simply accept that [Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash are] dating, it is not a required read."  So I'll be passing over it, and taking that relationship as a given going forward.

Silent Ponyville 2:  [may contain spoilers for Silent Ponyville]

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When Fluttershy's sleep is disturbed by unceasing nightmares, Dash decides to take her to Twilight to get help.  Pinkie gets wind of this, and when it becomes clear that the mind delve spell is the only immediately available solution, she insists that Fluttershy only attempt it on one condition: that Pinkie be allowed to accompany her.

Thoughts after reading:  As usual when reviewing multiple connected works like this, I'm going to take the first story as a given, and focus here on what Silent Ponyville 2 does better, worse, or just differently than its predecessor.  Like most sequels, the writing style and story structure are very similar to the original, but there's still plenty here to comment on.

Sometimes, it's amazing how much a small change can help.  In this story, it's made clear from the get-go exactly where Fluttershy's going (into her own psyche) and why (to help her come to terms with repressed trauma in a timely manner).  This little bit of setup makes the entire story much easier to accept prior to its reveal, as it's immediately clear to the reader that there's some sort of direction to the narrative.  I really wish something similar had been done in the first story, rather than simply dropping Pinkie in dream-Ponyville without any hint as to why she's there, whether it's real, or what she's supposed to be doing.  Here, the worldbuilding which goes into Fluttershy's dreamscape is far more effective than Pinkie's in the previous story, precisely because its purpose and nature are clearer from the start.  Moreover, this doesn't stop the author from keeping several important twists for the very end, so suspense isn't sacrificed, either.

Characterization is also improved in this story compared to the previous entry.  Although Pinkie remains a weak spot, saddled with over-serious dialogue (which can only partially be excused by the seriousness of their situations) and a few one-off problems (including a pet peeve of mine, a break-the-fourth-wall gag in an otherwise serious story), Dash and Twilight both are much more convincing.  Dash especially struck me as well-written, with powerful scenes such as an early segment where she blows up at Pinkie for an (admittedly major) error, but remains quick to forgive.  And Fluttershy, now the protagonist, manages to strike a balance between introspection and mental/psychological reaction on one hand, and action and physical/spacial observation on the other, in a way that Silent Ponyville never managed.

Many of the other problems from the first story remain, however.  There are still multiple puzzles whose function within the dream are unclear, other than to arbitrarily stand between the ponies and their goals, and which seem to be present only because the games on which this story is based had something similar.  Although the editing after chapter one is significantly better than in the previous entry, the first bit does still contain a number of mechanical problems which mar readability.  And wording remained a weak point throughout ("Fluttershy tried to not let her worries hold her back, before moving to the front door of the house she was in. The door was locked; she stared at the door in shock. The door was locked from the inside. Above the handle to the door there was a doll shaped symbol hovering over the lock.")

Still, in many ways this is a clear improvement upon Silent Ponyville, borrowing much of the structure of the original while cleaning up and smoothing out its rougher spots.  It's clear that Mr. Heritagu worked to improve upon his original with this piece, and that effort payed off.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

It would be only a marginal simplification to say that this is, "Basically Silent Ponyville, but with better characterizations, writing, and worldbuilding."

Recommendation:  Anyone who read Silent Ponyville and enjoyed it is likely to enjoy this story as well.  Anyone who read Silent Ponyville and didn't like it might still want to consider this, if their main gripes were textual or character-al in nature.

After that:  As with the previous story, there are several alternate endings available here (including one, expansion ending 4+, written by Ace2401).  As before, they're interesting to read, if ephemeral to the story proper, and I thought them a nice touch; they allow for a structural reference to the games on which the stories are based, but their removal from the narrative means that they aren't a distraction to readers trying to enjoy SP2 as a story.

After that, there are two potential AU fics: Blood Chronicles and Silence of Ponyville.  The former is a bit of a pain to read (the EqD page links to a deviantart collection, from which each individual chapter can be accessed--but only if you have a deviantart account.  Otherwise, you have to then go to the gdocs link in the description from there for each chapter),  but does introduce an interesting OC (albeit one far more in touch with the tone and sensibilities of Silent Hill than MLP) and go into the idea of the mind delve spell a little more deeply than than the previous "continuity" installments of the series.  Silence of Ponyville, despite being burdened with dull and tell-y narration, does answer one question which immediately popped into my head after SP2: how does Twilight feel about the fact that nopony will tell her what the mind delve actually does?  While neither of these are stories I'd recommend to anyone save readers who are desperate for more material set in this universe, they're both perfectly adequate within that context.  Although with Mr. Heritagu's subsequent stories, both are now explicitly non-canon, if that's the sort of thing that bugs you.

Study of the Mind Delve:  [may contain spoilers for the previous stories]

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Despite having cast it multiple times, Twilight knows almost nothing about the mind delve spell; none of her friends will tell her about their experiences with it, save that their nightmares were cured.  Curious, she decides to do a little research, only to discover that the spell and its origins are more mysterious than she realized.

Thoughts after reading:  This story was somewhat confusing at first, if only because it occasionally references the as-yet-unfinished fan derivative, Silent Ponyville: Reunion, which I have not read (and would have had trouble accessing in any case, as it's only available on deviantart and has a mature tag, preventing anyone without an account from seeing it.  I was able to find it on FIMfiction, if you want to read it for yourself).  But there's nothing here that's actually incomprehensible without that.

What really bothers me about this story is that, well, there's no story here.  What Study of the Mind Delve really is is a bridge between Silent Ponyville 2 and 3, and I'm not sure that publishing it as an independent story (rather than as part one of the latter, for example) was a great choice.

Of course, that's something of an academic complaint; it seems unlikely that anyone will try to read this story independent of the SP stories.  Leaving aside the fact that there's no real plot to speak of here ("Twilight finds out a little bit about a spell from another story, and learns how to cast a spell which she won't actually use until the next story," doesn't really count), the story is interesting enough for what it is: a glimpse at some of the magical and historical background which informs this setting, told by way of Twilight's trip to Canterlot to meet with the Princess and take her final exam.

There's not much else to say, in terms of writing, quality of characterizations, or otherwise, that isn't true of SP2.  This is what it is: a bridge between stories.  How a reader reacts to it will most likely prove entirely dependent on their opinion of those stories, as this isn't really an independent entity; it's nothing more or less than a bit of connective tissue.

Star rating:  N/A

I think I made clear up above why I can't rate this as a story.  That's not to say it's bad, mind you--it just doesn't have the structural or story elements which would allow me to evaluate it independent of Silent Ponyville 2 and/or 3.

Recommendation:  If you intend to go on and read SP3, read this first.  If you don't, don't.  It is a necessary introduction to that story, and it's fine so far as that goes, but there's no reason to read it by itself.

After that:  The only story in this post which I haven't yet mentioned is Darkness Scoots, which takes place after Study of the Mind Delve.  Unfortunately, I can't comment on it, as there's no way to read it without getting a deviantart account (authors take note: if you insist on publishing your fanfics to a site/in a format which many readers will be unable to access, either resign yourself to fewer readers than you might otherwise have, or provide an alternate link).

...Well, that was fun.  Lots and lots of words, but fun nevertheless.

Next time:  The Worst Bakers in Equestria, by Bob from Bottles


  1. I was looking forward to this all day! Really needed to read one of your reviews

    In the future, I'd be happy to copy any stories from dA for you. You should already have my e-mail address if you haven't deleted my message from last month. It was about star-ratings on EqD and I mentioned MoTWGBU

    1. MoTFWGBU*

      Just realized I've been consistently leaving out "Friends" for the last few months

  2. Mmmm, integrating video game elements into a crossover fic. I know that pain well. The best advice I have is "don't". Take the asthetics, the setting, the characters, what have you, and let them interact in some other way. You can't treat a story like a video game.

  3. I only read the first one and some commentary is going to be limited to that.

    Quite frankly I didn't care for it. The issue isn't blood and gore. I've said before that it often doesn't bother me because too many people make it far more sillier than it really should be such as by being excessive with it. Silent Ponyville isn't as bad as a Saw movie in terms of silliness but truth be told, I've seen gags from Tom and Jerry or even the show that have made cringe more (just to tell you I think that's a failure on their end as well).

    No my problem is that much of what happens between the Pinkie entering her mind and the revelation at the (I will say that it was a good one, no one could go through at that without being heavily traumatized, basically I mean it made sense) comes across as filler. It didn't provide me with any insights to Pinkie's character nor did it seem to help work towards that final revelation. So I was rather bored reading through this.

    As for video game elements, quite frankly I feel that it's part of a larger issue. Video games are to me are not good examples of good storytelling. Not that a good story can't exist in a video game (the Lucas Arts Adventure games would be much poorer without insult sword-fighting and hamsters in microwaves) but I have yet to see one on the same level as the best novels or movies. And that's fine because video games should be focused on gameplay anyway, it's about the player having fun and winning (all the cutscenes are just fancy ways to get the player to do something). But this means that when one takes elements from them and puts them in another medium they can look like bad writing for any number of reasons (implausibility, poor plot structure, dull moments, etc.). I think this was true here, and it's true in other fanficts (this why I don't read crossovers in general when it comes to ponyficts). Even Fallout: Equestria makes these mistakes because not everything borrowed from Fallout was well integrated into the story (and in some cases was detrimental to it).

  4. Oh, good! Looking forward to the next review! Like "My Little Dashie," "The Worst Bakers in Equestria" was one of the first fics I read upon entering the fandom, and I found it to be quite entertaining despite dragging in a few places. I haven't had occasion to read or even discuss it since, so it will be interesting to see if it holds up. Bob from Bottles' comedy work is pretty solid, so I expect it does.

    1. I hope you're right. My list of fanfics to read doesn't contain enough random comedy (a genre whose name, I just realized, slightly irks me)

  5. Hey Chris, I'm not sure if you read these old posts or not but Darkness Scoots is on fimfiction now.

    Here's the link:

  6. That also reminds me. Silent Ponyville 3 was finished on Halloween. It looks like Jake Heritagu lost a lot of motivation to draw over the last year-and-a-half, but still managed to piece together the last of his notes for the conclusion. I recommend checking it out. SP3 is definitely darker and even more hellish than SP and SP2. I somewhat disagree with the ending, but the overall story is pretty good in my opinion.