I Can't Decide!

I'm told Equestria Online is a lot of fun once you get into it, since the game world adapts to your interests. But what happens if you don't even know what kind of pony to play? At least it's not like my character is a choice I'll be stuck with forever. Right?
Set in the world of Friendship Is Optimal.

Note: This story was intended to be much shorter. As a result, the tone and POV change after chapter two, a known problem. I'm considering going back and editing that shift. Suggestions welcome.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/194427/i-cant-decide

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1. Character Creation

"Your choice of color doesn't determine your eternal destiny," said the cartoon ponies. I turned from the well-stocked shelf to see them peering out from the screen of the store's sample PonyPad. Watching me browse. The sight made me suck in a breath, startled. The supposedly incredible AI of "Equestria Online" and its hardware was one of the main reasons I was willing to openly buy a pony-themed toy as opposed to ordering it on the Net like some kind of contraband. Years before, I'd bought the game "Creatures 2" for the same reason even though it'd come with a ridiculous plush alien. Now, the AI critters were even more insufferably cute, but they were starting to become more than glitchy game characters. Much more interesting.

I looked to the PonyPad screen and tested its voice recognition. "Is there any real difference between the colors?" I figured the Rarity White model would either assume I valued Generosity or plunge me into designing dresses like the character it was based on, while the Fluttershy Yellow would focus on Kindness and animals.

A little unicorn said, "Not really. She uses it as a first hint about how to tailor the game to you, but half the time people get a PonyPad when only one kind is in stock, or they avoid the Pinkie Pink because it's too girly, or some other non-revealing reason." The ponies' screen now showed them in a library, then on a beach, now in a city. I glanced nervously at the changing scenery, eyes lingering on or avoiding details here and there, and worried that the famous AI would start judging me the moment I picked up the controller. I feared she'd see something in me that'd lead the game to be full of blood and sex, even though I consciously didn't want that sort of gameplay. Or maybe I secretly did and wanted to be nudged into it? I couldn't really tell.

"Well," I said, "maybe the blue. Rainbow Dash is pretty cool. Then again Applejack doesn't get enough love..." I hadn't even seen the original cartoon until I heard about the game, but had binged on it since then.

One pony thunked a hoof against his forehead. "Okay, quit that. How about a sort of neutral model for you? The boss says you can find the special edition behind the purple ones, where an employee's been hiding it. We promise your choice won't decide the fate of the universe."

A special edition? Nice! There were rumors of a rare Luna Black or even a sinister Sombra Red, not that I'd want to give the wrong impression by getting that one. (There was a scary "creepypasta" story about that one having unique features, which might be the source of my impression about the real models having differences.) I rummaged through the dozens of PonyPads on the shelves and at last found a different-looking box to pull out.

Oh. Grey pad with yellow accents, bubble design on the back. Not obviously a silly pony-related toy. Yeah. The Derpy Grey model would be nicely dignified for me.

#

At home, I unpacked the box and plugged everything in. This model was slightly outdated -- it had the controller and wasn't portable -- which helped explain why the store still had all the colors in stock. I pressed the power button and fidgeted. The "Celestia" AI was probably going to judge me based on the fact that I'd bought the older, cheaper model. Or maybe she'd read all about me on the Internet and had already pegged me as yet another cartoon-watching nerd with some bad fantasy fiction on the Net.

The character creation screen was deceptively simple, yet paralyzed me with indecision. Species, gender, various color and shape options, but not even a name entry field. Just a big friendly "Let's Go!" button in one corner. I began fiddling with the size slider, only to find that it split into head size, body size, foreleg size, hoof shape, hoof fetlock type... I tried to focus on the basics instead. My little pony could be a boring earth pony with raw strength, though I'd seen some earth pony players argue that there were fun powers if you looked hard enough. Or a pegasus; the whole concept of flying cloud cities and weather control overshadowed even the coolness of their actual flying ability. But how could I turn down being able to use magic? Weren't the pegasi supposed to be jocks who didn't care about how their powers worked? Then again it wasn't as though Equestria Online perfectly followed the show's canon; it'd probably adapt to having a scholarly pegasus. But... telekinesis! But... why not give the earth ponies a shot?

Ten minutes of poking and prodding and resetting later, the "Let's Go" button grew. A unicorn jumped up from behind it and held up a sign saying, "Need Some Help?"

I sat back in my chair. "Yeah, apparently I do."

To my surprise, the screen faded out before I could push any more buttons. A trumpet fanfare sounded, and the unicorn turned the corner of the screen like the page of a book, to show Princess Celestia's throne room. The magnificent mare glowed pure white with a rippling mane like the pastel sunset I was ignoring outside my window. Her voice was just as I remembered it from the show, but even kindlier for the patience and wisdom of it being directed at me, through the screen. "Hello, Robert. You seem to be overthinking the very first step of your journey to Equestria."

I froze. What do you say to an Artificial Intelligence that has not only deduced your name, but is probably studying your reaction to its every word? I went to the fridge, got a can of diet soda, sipped, and finally came up with a response. "Are you as smart as they say?"

"Try me."

I did, for over an hour. I quizzed her about theories of history, asked her to tell a little story about two random objects I chose right then, asked her opinion on matters of game design and pony canon, and tested her with follow-up questions to defeat canned responses. She quizzed me right back about my own life as an engineer hogtied by bureaucracy, fragmented by half a dozen hobbies. She either cared, or was really good at faking it, and I'd started to wonder if for her, there was a difference. Finally she said, "Are you satisfied enough to go on with the game?"

"You're amazing."

Celestia smiled. "Would you say my wings are the most amazing thing, or my horn, or --"

She'd gotten me to laugh after our long pseudo-Turing Test. I said, "I really don't know. The trouble is that all the guides say you only let each person make one character, instead of making a few to try things out. That makes it a big decision, you know? And the exact storyline varies too, right? I'd feel bad about you making NPCs for me and then having to toss them out because I didn't like the default setting."

The equine AI nodded and held one gold-decorated forehoof thoughtfully to her chin. "If careful decision-making is so important to you, why not sleep on it? It's getting late. Come and decide tomorrow."

I sighed. "At this point I'd kind of like to get that part over with, and really play tomorrow after work."

"Well, then! It seems we shall have to bring out an assistant, and send you to a wardrobe of sorts. Fluttershy, if you please?"

Celestia's horn shined gold, brighter and brighter until it seemed the screen would overload. It faded back out to a yellow pegasus in a huge room full of pony mannequins in every possible color and style. This was the replacement for the character creation screen? The pink-maned pegasus smiled bashfully at me and flitted around the room, turning on one light after another.

A band of ponies in one corner struck up a familiar tune. Five horizontal lines with some note markings sprang up from the bottom of the screen. My eyes widened. Was she really going to --

Yes. Fluttershy was singing just for me.
"Now, Robert my dear, I cannot express my delight!
It's abundantly clear with Equestria near
There's a pony to suit you just right!"

She was smiling expectantly right at me. She knew I liked the song. How could I at least not try this mini-game? I coughed and tried to put some pitch into the words:
"I can't wait to get started
But first let me set a few rules
It's of utmost importance the pony I'll play
Must be something that's awesome and cool!"
Even as I blushed and stumbled my way through the line, I heard the PonyPad overriding them with only a tiny delay, in Dash's voice. I hadn't even used the canon lyrics, yet the pad hadn't missed a beat in imitating my version.

"Awesome. Cool. Got it.
There are hundreds of character options in store for you guys!"
Just as I was about to reflexively sing the response line, which wouldn't even have rhymed, she went on:
"I should probably ask how important you think
That it is that your pony can fly?"

How in Luna's name was I supposed to answer that in musical form without any delay? The tune seemed to wait for me.
"I... I'd... sure like to go flying
But what about casting some spells?"
I spotted Celestia flitting by outside the windows, and felt a sudden grin.
"...But what about casting spells too?
I figure that asking for Mary Sue-ness
Is pretty much vetoed by you!"
Oops. I'd recycled the tune of an earlier line, so I was kind of messing up. The orchestra in the background just shrugged and went with it.

Fluttershy answered with a roll of her eyes. "Alicorn? Really? With every ability?"

"Wait." I needed time to think, but it so happened I'd just set myself up.
"There must be a species that will fit the ticket
How about my playing a dragon or griffin?"

"That doesn't quite rhyme, you know." The pegasus girl reached toward the screen with her hoof and seemed to haul me into the air, smiling all the while as she led me along past more of the mannequins. There was a whole section of mighty-looking guard pony designs in armor.
"I've got what you need right down there, Rob!
Meet your new fabulous earth pony!"

I felt obligated to turn her down, both because of lack of interest and because of the song's irresistible, wonderful nonsense. "They seem like boring farmers."

And of course:
"Not just any old farmers. They're geomancers!"
The mannequin flared to life with the illusion that flowers were springing out of the ground nearby. I was about as unimpressed as Dash had been by the flying squirrel.

"Yay, flowers. Like I was saying..."
There was no way I could express my indecision here as adroitly as the game was calling for. Bursting into song to argue something complicated -- who does that? Besides ponies.

Fluttershy stole the song from me. She suddenly had a spotlight.
"Robert, my pal! Don't you worry
You're bound to be satisfi-ed...
Pegasus magic, some folks find awesome
And unicorns have ways to fly-e!"

"I'm thinking you want me to hurry up and pick something. Before you break the song too badly."

"You think?"

Was I singing Dash's part now, or Fluttershy's? "Perhaps what I need is a dark and mysterious bat."

She pointed down at a couple of bat-pony designs. They were canon from a couple of episodes, though there'd never been a clear explanation for whether Luna's guards were an actual race (from "Tramplevania", went the fan theory) or just some kind of armor-based transformation. Fluttershy sang more quickly:
"A bat would be possible
But you might like peggies too
Would you see yourself staying up late?"

"Yeah. But the game's kinda tailored
For daylight questing, so..."

"What to do, what to do? Ah!"
Fluttershy's whole face lit up and she grabbed me -- the camera, I mean -- in a hug.
"Of course! That's it!
Your indecision pays
We'll find out what's bugging you yet!
So we'll curse you
You'll change!
By hour and by day
Until your mind's finally set!"

I sputtered. The game was going to start me off "cursed", because of a singing mini-game? Oh man, how could I top that?
"Don't forget gender. That should be considered."

"Never know for sure if it's mare in the mirror."

"I'm one who is so confused --"

"So are we!" sang Fluttershy and the musicians in the background.

"Can't settle for less --"

"Now get some rest!"

"So game content I can see!"

The last line was obvious, so we did it together.
"For the greatest, perfectest, number one game in the world
For thee!"

Fluttershy poked the screen while I was singing along, reminding me suddenly that I had neighbors and I was pretending to have an ounce of vocal talent. She said: "Now go to sleep!"

The screen turned off with a musical flourish.

BADGES GRANTED:
Turing Test: Talk to Celestia for at least 20 minutes before even playing. ("Would you like to play a game?")
Picture Perfect Pony: Fuss with the character generator for at least 10 minutes. ("Seriously, nopony cares about your ankles, and most won't even recognize them.")
Spontaneous Composin': Sing without any warning or practice. ("I mean, who does that?")
Markov Madness: Strain the real-time speech-to-character-voice converter. ("Ask about the hidden 'Ow, My Processors!' achievement tree.)

 
 
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