20020: Questions and answers – SBNation.com

I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun working on a project than I did with 20020. It was a long time in the making, as was this website, Secret Base. We intend this to be a place where we tell stories, whether they happened last night, a hundred years ago, 18,000 years from now, or some nightmarish video game realm that exists outside of time. In that sense, 20020 doesn’t define this place. Secret Base is the place where something like 20020 can actually live. I don’t want to get too overdramatic; Secret Base is a website where me and a bunch of of other jerks make shit we hope you’ll like. It’s a place I love nonetheless.

I started planning 20020 about three years ago, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just writing a sequel to 17776 for its own sake. This time I wanted to piece together a single, cohesive story, rather than a series of loose vignettes. I also wanted to explore certain themes more specifically. What happens to the concept of time if time becomes infinite? What defines a “good game,” and can it be laid out completely by accident? Who are Americans – specifically, these Americans, us? What the Hell is this place, and what was it? What would we do with ourselves if we actually got everything we wanted?

I tried to make something bigger and better than 17776, rather than just bolting on another installment. Personally, I feel like I did, but ultimately, those of you who have read it can be the judge of that. At any rate, thank you so much for reading. I know it was a big ask of you – not only is it roughly as long as a book, it’s a mashup of two things that typically don’t go together. A lot of you came in with zero interest in American football, and a lot of you came in without any particular inclination to read a work of science fiction where humankind never explored space because it was too boring.

A couple of people deserve an extra-special thanks here. Graham MacAree edited the piece from start to finish, and help me close as many logical loopholes as we could, picking out every time a player broke a rule, or one rule was inconsistent with another rule. Throughout the whole process, Graham was totally bought in, and was always in favor of making it more weird over less weird.

Meanwhile, Frank Bi engineered the entire thing so it could actually exist on the Internet. I’m still amazed that some of these pages weigh upwards of 50 megabytes, and yet they scroll completely smoothly without glitching out and slowing down. Frank also built an app on the back end that allowed us to easily format things like dialogue.

Anyway. Earlier this week, I solicited any questions you might have had about 20020 – why I made it, how I made it, how the game works, or literally anything else about it. I received a few hundred of those, and while I couldn’t get to all of them, I’ve answered as many as I could. Thanks so much for sending them in.

* * *

I haven’t read it yet – is it good?

– Anonymous


20020 feels a lot lighter than 17776. Why did you decide to go with that tone?

– hali

It’s interesting to me that it struck that tone with you, and I’m actually glad it did, because at some points the story actually felt slightly darker to me than 17776 did. I had a couple of priorities this time around.

The first was to continue to avoid what I hopefully avoided in 17776, which was writing some kind of morality play. I am tired of reading stories and watching shows that are trying to teach me some kind of lesson. I’m a grown adult! You’re a television, I don’t want to learn concepts like “right and wrong” from you! Fuck off, loser!

Instead, I mean 17776 and 20020 as open-ended explorations of themes and concepts. It’s so great to see people walk away from them with different ideas. Some people see this post-scarcity eternal playpen as Heaven, some see it as a completely nightmarish existence, and some see it as a sometimes-promising, sometimes-unsettling in-between. Far be it from me to call it one way or the other.

when designing The Bowl Game, how bogged down did you get in rules/technicalities? a game of this scale seems so hard to effectively govern, and many readers seemed to get stuck on rules technicalities that didn’t affect the plot much. i guess a better way to phrase this question is: did you develop the rules of the game first and then write a plot around them, or did the rules emerge naturally as you wrote?

– Victoria (@dirtbagqueer)

This was by far the toughest part of the whole thing. The field itself actually inspired the entire story.

Early in 2018, a few months after finishing 17776, I had a little bit of time in between major projects, and that’s when I started drawing up the fields. The geometry and weird aesthetic of it fascinated me. At the same time, I had absolutely no fucking idea what to do with it. I wanted it to make some sort of sense somehow. I wanted to design actual good, solid gameplay within it, but I just could not figure out how to do it. Over the course of two years, I would occasionally open it up and stare at it, practically begging for some kind of solution to present itself.

It never did, and my stupid ass finally got the point: this thing is a tribute to chaotic, senseless institutions. It’s a monument of the absolute nonsense that spews forth from ostensibly rational architecture. Like, imagine the most grating, insulting, senseless corporate drivel you’ve ever heard. To me, this that in the form of a football field.

It all clicked from there. Who would come up with such a bewildering and obnoxious thing? Obviously, Juice would. He’s amused by the literal interpretations of things and he delights in inanity and chaos. I needed Ten to hibernate, because she loves well-considered, intelligent gameplay, and she would have shot him down at every opportunity.

From there, I just wrote the rules in accordance with what I felt would be the most interesting story. After looking at San Diego State’s sad little field, I realized I wanted them to star in the A-plot, and I’ll admit to writing some of the rules in service of their story.

Chapter 4’s Georgia Quarterback is introduced to us by screaming into a phone for a pizza that never gets to him. It’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time and I have to know, was there something or some things that inspired it?

– @Kay_N_B

That guy’s ripped straight out of real life. I used to work at a call center doing tech support for an Internet service provider. Legend has it that if you simply yell REPRESENTATIVE or SUPERVISOR to an automated system enough times, it will get you off hold and talking to someone more quickly. This was definitely not true, but it didn’t stop people from trying.

On one occasion, I picked up the phone to a woman yelling SUPERVISOR! SUPERVISOR! SUPERVISOR! SUPERVISOR! over and over and over. She was yelling it so loud that she couldn’t hear me. Or, more likely, she was just holding the receiver to her mouth without actually holding the speaker to her ear. At any rate, I just could not get through to her. After about two minutes of that, I hung up. Sometimes I wonder how much longer she sat there yelling like that.

Is Lori from the Illinois chess chapter the same Lori who talked to the Durabos in the Koy Detmer chapter in 17776?

– Ale

She is! Not for any particular reason, other than that I liked the idea of bringing someone back. She’s named after my fourth-grade teacher and ninth-grade science teacher.

Why do trains still run on diesel fuel and how does this not affect the climate/environment?

– Vince

In this universe, humans have learned how to perfectly synthesize fossil fuels that are environmentally harmless. (That’s why I was fine with Nick just carelessly pouring gallons of diesel fuel on the ground while he was fueling the train.) In my optimistic view of the real-life future, I’m sure we’ll opt to solar power or some other environmentally benign solution, but these peoples’ insistence on fossil fuels reflects what does and doesn’t change about you if you live for thousands of years. If there are no coming generations to prod you along and find solutions of their own, how much would we really be compelled to change?

That’s a foundational theory of this story, however right or wrong: change happens generationally far more than it does internally. Once we grow up, the cake’s baked. With no generations to come, there are no more agents of change, and we’re the same old slobs. I’m going to want to smell gasoline when I mow the lawn.

What would happen if a team relocated its stadium? Or repainted the field within their existing stadium at a slight angle?

– Dave

Another fundamental theme of this story is that humanity, or at least America, is very, very preservationist. Architecturally, very little has changed, because there’s a sense that if things change, they’ll never truly get back what they once had. Whether or not that’s healthy is entirely up for debate.

Someone in the 20020 thread (apologies, can’t find the comment and don’t remember who it was!) had the idea of one school building an apparatus underneath their field that would allow it to rotate. This would be both fascinating and an absolute nightmare to calculate/write, but I loved that.

How did you create the animations and videos and such with Google Earth?

– @xyleb_

Google Earth allows you to import image overlays and slap them over the terrain. It took me a long time to figure out how to get 111 image files to stretch all across the country without the frame rate slowing to like three frames per second. In the end, it was a matter of making the field image files just about as small as possible (20×1 pixels) and stretching them from coast to coast. Given that Google Earth was never intended to do anything like this, I’m kind of stunned by how well it worked.

How do you choose the names for the players? Are they based off people you know or do you just make up names you think sound cool?

– Arp1033

When it comes to naming characters, my biggest screwup was naming the Georgia Tech quarterback Connor O’Malley. Conner is a very, very college football quarterback name, so I just bullshitted a last name that I thought would fit. Not only is Connor O’Malley an actual public figure, he’s actually a guy I’m a fan of and have been aware of for some time, and yet I somehow never connected those dots until a reader pointed it out.

I tried to give lot of consideration to the naming of characters. Since I prioritized representation, I did want to signal that certain characters were Black, or Hispanic, or Asian. Sometimes this was because I felt it was essential to their character, and sometimes it was just for the sake of representation.

In a couple of circumstances, such as the UAB Steamroller poster in which I named literally 125 characters, I partially relied on name generators. Even with those, you have to be careful. At first, I used one that allowed you to generate names that are traditionally women’s names, or more typically Black names, or Asian names. So I was like, all right, give me 50 women’s names, and it returned a bunch of names like Heather and Sally and et cetera. Yes, of course there are Black women named Sally and Asian women named Heather, but if they all have such names, that doesn’t feel entirely representative. So I requested 20 typically Black women’s names, and like six of them were Keisha. All right, cool, thanks! In that case and a few others, I just ditched name generators entirely and took first names from people I’ve known personally.

If I recall correctly, in the 17776 q+a, you talked about Nines identity a little bit and how you wanted to include an NB character in your stories. In this story, is Nine using they/them pronouns a decision they have made to identify as NB?

– Anonymous

Yep, Nine is non-binary. In 17776, Nine was non-binary simply by virtue of only having been conscious for a few days and not even having the time to examine or consider it. But now it’s been a while, and they actively identify as NB.

do you plan on bringing back any other space probes, like hubble in ‘76?

– scotty

Yes! I’ll spill the beans on that now. Hubble was originally going to appear in 20020, but there was just too much other stuff to get to. He’ll be seen in 20021.

how do you manage to find the “non-dull” part of each of the stories you write? like how do you find the newspaper clippings, names, etc?

– Carter Briggs (@carter1137)

Before I started writing, I spent two whole months just scrolling across every single field. If I hit a town, a lake, a mountain, or even a road with a weird name, I’d stop and search the newspaper archives to see if I could find anything interesting. This was definitely a test of Nancy’s sentiment in 17776 that you can’t walk ten feet in American without running into a story.

Technically speaking, it turns out that this is more or less true, but the vast majority of these stories are UNBELIEVABLY FUCKING BORING. As far as a lot of town are concerned, if anything interesting ever happened there, it sure as Hell didn’t make the papers. I’d say a good 10 percent of old newspapers are just, “Mrs. Hubbard took a trip here to visit her sons.” Just a 19th-century proto-Facebook check-in app. But one time out of a hundred, I’d find out about the James gang’s forgotten stash, or the Stannard Rock Lighthouse, or the escapes of Eugene Jennings, and it was all worth it.

I feel really, really gratified by those. I’m not so sure anyone has explored American history the way I did – by literally drawing lines across it and following those lines. It’s a very silly, stupid way to do it, but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have found some of these things that would otherwise have been lost to history.

What do the probe’s voices sound like over the phone? Synthesized? Uncannily human? Like a Siri kind of thing?

– Anonymous

They sound human, yeah. How exactly they sound, I can’t say, but I can kinda hear Juice. Despite being French, I hear him as a fast-talking, hyper-charismatic, high-energy Southern dude, like some guys I grew up around. Think some weird amalgamation that’s reminiscent of Matthew McConaughey and Chris Tucker.

what is the answer to nines postscript(what happens when a ball is on a intersection)

– Anonymous

So when a ball is on Field A, and it crosses Field B at an intersection, the scoreboard doesn’t change. It still belongs to Field A, and only transfers to Field B if the player makes a turn.

What do video games look like in the year 20020? Do they still make new games or do they just kind of permanently update the old ones, like an MMO or something?

– Ben

This is not necessarily canon, and is just my real-world feeling on the matter seeping out: the real frontiers in gaming aren’t about graphics or technical ability or anything like that, they’re about creativity and art. Like, Breath of the Wild? That plays at 720p on my Switch, and while it’s artistically breathtaking, I think that strictly from a technical perspective, it could have been made 10 or 15 years ago. And yet it’s probably the greatest video game ever made.

Was there always an intention to do multiple parts (17776, 20020, 20021), or did that evolve as you wrote? What does the idea generation stage look like for a story as massive and out there as this one?

– @stxnmxn

When I finished 17776, I knew I wanted to write a sequel at some point, but didn’t always imagine it in two parts. As recently as this summer, I’d planned on writing it all at once before Graham and I decided to break it up. I’d just found too much stuff to condense it into one thing.

Did you have fun writing it?

– benfrosh


ballground & ballplay — how did you think to link them to this story? were you looking for them? when did you make the connection to the fields?

– @heysihui

That was an unbelievable coincidence! Clemson’s field just ran across both of them. I knew for sure I wanted to talk some about indigenous peoples, and I’ve long been fascinated with the seemingly far-flung concept of replacing war with sports. It was just the perfect opportunity.

I loved how in 20020 there are so many smaller stories being retold, some of which even affect the larger story. Of all the places big and small visited over the course of 20020, which location had your favorite historical event? I think mine was the 1910 Emory Gap runaway train.

– @jj_jjjjj_jjjjjj

The story of Eugene Jennings takes it for me. I was so profoundly touched by the story of a guy who had an incredible gift for escaping. He wasn’t an evil person, he was just born into a world he wasn’t compatible with. I think lots and lots of people like him have lived and died, and I hope we don’t forget them. You can barely find anything about Jennings on the Internet; his story could only be found in old newspapers. I’m honored I got to tell his story. I sure as Hell won’t ever forget him.

first of all, thanks for making an explicitly lgbt couple, one where the romance is directly shown, part of your main cast for 20020. did you really give much thought to it, or was it a decision that felt natural?

– jijo, @optikalcrow

Part of the reason I wrote 17776 in the first place was to take football, which I view to be this spectacular, fascinating thing, and imagine a world where it’s opened up to every single type of person. A long while back, a friend and I were talking about football. He’s gay, and he supposed that while football seemed like the sort of thing he’d like, he never got into it growing up because he “never got the invite.”

So I did that as a means of sending an invite. More generally, I really liked the idea of making a gay couple the main characters because I almost never see that anywhere, and if I do, it’s probably a story about them being gay.

As I did last time, I wanted to represent people completely matter-of-factly. I don’t delve into the experience of being gay, because I don’t have valuable perspective to offer there, but I did want to establish Nick and Manny as fleshed-out, imperfect, warts-and-all human beings. Sometimes they argue, sometimes they make a bad call, sometimes they say stupid things, and sometimes they’re unsure of themselves, just like everybody else.

who is your favorite character to write for?

– @mwuffie

It was a lot of fun writing Nick and Manny’s pointless arguments. Mimi was great too, since she was inspired by a few people who are very close to me. But Bryce, the new Troy recruit from Chapter 10, might be my favorite.

I grew up around so many guys exactly like Bryce. A young guy who’s not sad, really, just mopey. He’s an asshole in a mostly benign way. He seems to want to do nothing but just sit in a parking lot smoking menthols and leaning against his Nissan, and mumble something about wanting to challenge someone to a street race but never, ever actually doing it. He doesn’t seem to actually like or dislike or want anything. You have absolutely no clue what makes him tick or what ever motivates him to do anything, or whether he likes you. He’s just kinda there, but you get the sense that he’s perfectly content. He fucking rules.

I also enjoyed hate-writing Chess Guy. I never bothered to give him a name because he didn’t deserve one. When Graham first read that chapter, the first thing he told me was, “I fucking hate chess guy.” Mission accomplished.

juice mentions in ch 7 that he worked with indigenous tribes to get permission for fields/players to cross native land (which, of course, all of america is native land). some tribes said no — are these tribal lands OOB and/or handled in the rules?

– lily b.

Yep, for the indigenous peoples who did not grant permission, those portions of the field are out of bounds. Some also have special conditions – for instance, a limit on how many players can be on the field at the same time. These changes aren’t reflected visually on the map for two reasons: first, I couldn’t quite figure out how to do it from a technical sense, and second, I didn’t think it was particularly important or appropriate for me to guess which tribes would and wouldn’t grant permission.

Why hasn’t technology really developed that much? Besides the nanobots, there really isn’t anything else. They still watch/follow games through normal tv’s/radios. Just wondering how boring this must be for anyone not involved in the football games.

– permian triassic extinction event

I think old people just like what they like and don’t need much more, and these are the oldest people in history. Just like folks from decades ago were perfectly fine with their three TV channels and crossword puzzle, I think we’d be okay with an eternity of, I don’t know, online gaming.

Not to be a downer but at times I felt almost guilty about this future with nothing left that needs to be done while we live in this society that’s a total hell-hole for so many. Did you have any feelings like that while writing? Is there a message here linking our harsh reality with the immortal 20020 world that went over my head?

– Anonymous

These times are full of struggle and defeat. The thing I want most and believe in most for this country and this world are things I might never get to see for myself. But god damn it, I will imagine them. It’s practice for the real thing. I believe that one day we’ll actually have the world we want, and we’d better have a plan when that day comes. What are we gonna do with it?

Is it pronounced 20020 or 20020

– Mylograms

20020, yeah.

Any other questions? Graham and I will be hanging out in the comments sections for a while, so feel free to yell at us down there.

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