Fight the Gods, Take Their Shoes
or, what happened when we went up against a cheating god
For purposes of this article, Sam Kabo Ashwell was the wind beneath my myriad, black, portentous wings as they filled the darkening sky.
What do I even say about this one.
Well, uh, congratulations to the Shoe Thieves? That was one hell of a postseason. But we can't just go careening into the wild chaos of Season 9's crowning event, though. Blaseball is all about ramping up the tension until the out-and-out horror of the revelation. Without context, it just doesn't hit as hard.
Season 9 started out like any other season, with the usual chaos we've come to expect from blaseball. Bird weather now has a chance of summoning a flock of Crows that chase the current batter off the field, resulting in an out. Because it was a new event, the code hadn't quite accounted for every possibility. With the Lovers already at two outs, Crows chased off their batter Alexander Horne… and an out was recorded, but the inning continued. And then Ortiz Lopez hit a ground out, but that didn't end the inning either—the code condition to end the inning was exactly three outs, not three or more. Fifteen more outs were subsequently recorded—during which time the Lovers scored seven dubious runs, turning a close-fought tie into a rout—before Helga Moreno was caught stealing a base, an action which apparently did have "equal to or greater" than three outs in its code, the inning ended, and the bug was quietly fixed. The incident called "Crowvertime" is another great example of how, because blaseball is weird and uncanny (and text-based), bugs enrich rather than undermine the game. What exactly happened here, fictionally speaking? A number of surreal and hilarious images come to mind.
We were anticipating something big from the Peanut after the Fourth Strike, but early signs weren't anything near as scary as we'd been built up to expect. During the opener between the Dallas Steaks and the Kansas City Breath Mints, a giant peanut crashed into the field, but landed harmlessly. I pointed out that the construction of those clauses suggested the possibility of harmful peanut landings, and on Day 46 we saw that effect when the Tacos' Wyatt Quitter was encased. But other than Wyatt Quitter's shelling, and the permanently Flickering players' team swaps, the events of the early season didn't seem to have a huge impact.
The one exception was our perpetually wandering revenant pitcher, Jaylen Hotdogfingers. Early in the season, she swapped onto the Philly Pies, only to swap back to the Garages 14 games later. Feedback and other forms of player-trading are fairly common in blaseball, and there are plenty of players who've moved around many times, but returning to an old team is very unusual. I wrote last week about how repetition is a requirement for patterns, which we seek explanation for, and so I enjoyed thinking that Jaylen had clashed with her equally-famous Shelled teammate Jessica Telephone. Jessica and Jaylen have history—in season 7 Jaylen beaned her to confer Flickering, but she avoided the consequences and remained on the Pies. I like the idea that there was bad blood, that their rivalry only grew and Jaylen promptly ditched the Pies at the earliest opportunity. And Jaylen kept moving: she was only with the Garages briefly before she Feedbacked to the Moist Talkers, then to the Shoe Thieves, where she remained for the rest of the season. Each of those teams benefited from her formidable arm, and a number of players gained the modifier Repeating from her debt consolidation.
By the middle of the season, there was a general sense that the Fourth Strike really ought to have done more than just dropping giant peanuts onto the field. Around that time, the season's scheme began to come together. The Monitor had appeared next to the idol board next to the highest Shelled player; whenever the leaderboard changed, it followed the highest Shelled player. The Monitor only has one stated motive, and that's to eat Peanuts. There was not any great mystery about the basic deal here.
The Tacos, perhaps tired of being the center of chaos for so many seasons in a row, expressed their reluctance at the Monitor consuming one of their Shelled players—the pitching machine was highest-placed at the start of the season, and would have been the obvious choice. The next most likely player to attract the Monitor's attention would have been York Silk. Fanworks most commonly depict York as an eight year old child. The optics of feeding a child to a monster wouldn't have sat right with many fans, even though his age is pure fanlore without any mechanical status. Enter the Moist Talkers.
The Moist Talkers have cultivated a reputation for a certain style of enthusiastic bad idea: they played a major role in Necromancy, and ever since the Monitor's emergence, they have essentially become squid cultists, embracing the commonality of the damp. They figured that offering their top-tier Shelled pitcher Polkadot Patterson would either do something interesting or further their lore, and when I checked in with them, they were all very strongly committed to the bit. I had my doubts that this was strictly speaking a good idea, which of course meant I wanted them to do it anyway. Propaganda asking fans to help the arguably-willing sacrifice commune with the Monitor circulated through the league.
(This is the most Canadian propaganda in blaseball I've ever seen.)
When Friday came, Polkadot Patterson rose into the appointed slot at the appointed hour. The Monitor showed up and dutifully crunched down on Polkadot's shell as we all watched. But the creature declared Polkadot to be "spoiled" and spat them back out, declared that it was still hungry, and then asked—in its most threatening stance to date—if we were holding out on it. (If my theory—which I am not posting publicly in case I give the Monitor ideas—is right, then we are in fact holding out on it. And it won't be pretty.)
The site hung for a few breathless moments, but when things finally settled, there was Polkadot Patterson, Unshelled. And with one new modifier.
The playoffs seemed like they'd be the exciting culmination to a fairly quiet season: the Wild Cards decree introduced a (cool, but not exactly transformative) playoff twist, in which the fourth-placed team in each sub-league had to play a randomly selected team in a best of 3 series. The Tigers faced off against the Fridays, pulling the Fridays out of Extended Party Time for a shot at the championship. It looked on paper like it should be a very uneven matchup, given that the Fridays inaugurated Season 9 Party Time on Day 73, a new record for underperformance: but Extended Party Time gives players the chance to party during games, which gives them slight stat boosts. It's what in board games is called a "catch up" mechanic—offering bonuses and penalties that make falling behind less brutal and leads less easy to hold on to. The Fridays partied enough to make them better than their 21-78 record suggested, even if still uneven. Game 1 settled 13-1 in the Tigers' favor: but the Tigers love drama and the Fridays rallied to take the second game of the series. Game 3 started with tensions high, and a friendly rivalry formed between me, our resident Hades Tigers unapologist, and Stephen, the Game Band's narrative designer and Hawaii Fridays fan. The Fridays and Tigers remained tied or within one run from the second inning onward—until the game broke open in the 8th with 3 doubles in a row, capped off by a two-run home run by everyone's favorite slightly unsettling good moist boy, Richmond Harrison. The final score was Fridays 5, Tigers 10. I want to assure my readers that I was a very gracious winner and that the Tigers would never hold back and play with their food purely to make a point. On an entirely unrelated note, the Tigers will be incinerated. Rest in violence to the Tigers.
The nailbiting playoff games began. Baltimore Crabs star Nagomi Mcdaniel was pecked free from her giant peanut shell by birds in a quarterfinal match with the Hellmouth Sunbeams, and with Nagomi back in action, the Crabs looked even more formidable. We've written here about the fallacies in the Inevitable Crab Dominance narrative, and even the return of Nagomi wasn't enough to make them the invincible team that many in the league believe them to be. We saw that other teams could match them in the faceoff between the Spies and the Crabs, where the Spies trailed most of the game to come back strong in the last few innings. This isn't that surprising: the Spies have been a quietly good team since Season 6, when their lineup swapped and Alexandria Rosales became a solid pitcher, and they benefited from Reverb in Season 9. Nagomi Mcdaniel got a chance to showboat by hitting a home run in the ninth, but even that solo run wasn't enough to catch the Spies. Nonetheless, the Crabs won the three other games of that series to progress to the finals, where they faced the Mild league champions, the Charleston Shoe Thieves.
The Shoe Thieves flew under the radar all of season 9; they've always been a pretty decent team, but were never as dominant as the Season 3-4 Hades Tigers or the current Baltimore Crabs. They hadn't featured prominently in any big league-wide storylines; they were a fun team with a cool appealing theme that mostly stayed out of the spotlight. Nonetheless, with a 62-37 season record and a solid lineup boosted by the addition of uncanny ace Jaylen Hotdogfingers, they can hang. And hang they did: they took the Crabs to Game 5 of the Internet League Series, after the Crabs blew a 2-game lead. This was kind of a big deal in its own right; nobody would have been surprised if the Crabs had swept them.
The Game 5 score settled at Crabs 4, Thieves 2, in the bottom of the 3rd, where it would remain until the bottom of the ninth. It's a semi-common rhythm in blaseball and baseball alike where it's often hard to score, but if you get into the right situation—bases loaded, with less than two outs, it becomes pretty easy to score—and to potentially score a lot. With the Shoe Thieves up at bat, Velasquez Alstott hit a single, Simon Haley drew a walk, and then Stu Trololol stepped up to the plate and hit a 3 run home run to shame the Crabs and clinch the series.
That would have been enough as an incredible capstone to the greatest upset blaseball has ever seen, or, to quote the Game Band directly, "what many experts are calling the biggest choke job in Internet League Blaseball history".
But immediately after, the screen went dark and began to display a series of warning messages.
We had been told all season that a Storm was coming. Perhaps we had grown used to the Peanut's empty posturing and dismissed the warning. But now it was here.
And then the new game began.
The usual interface, which resembles a sports site's box scores, was replaced with an interface out of Pokémon or a JRPG boss fight. The Charleston Shoe Thieves, just-crowned Internet Series champions, found themselves facing a new team, THE SHELLED ONE'S PODS, made up of all of the Shelled players plus the three Peanut-named players. In other words, every player we Idolized throughout the seasons—because we loved them or because they earned us massive amounts of passive income or both—were now the antagonists. This was an incredible twist, and a thematically resonant one: the Idol board has been a critique of fan culture under capitalism since its inception, but that's another article. Having our favorite players turned against us was devastating, but also satisfying: it resolved a lot of threads that had been hanging for a while. It hit hard because every one of those players had featured in important story; it was scary because we knew that a lot of those players had been effectively chosen, by us, specifically because they were so good at blaseball.
Each team had health bars with staggeringly large numbers: Jace in the SIBR discord has suggested that the number is a multiplier of the team's total stars, but that connection certainly wasn't apparent in the moment. Fouls, strikes, and outs did a certain amount of slightly-variable damage. Throughout, the Peanut taunted us, backgrounded by a representation of the ever-shifting weather conditions of the Storm. It was a stacked game from the beginning. The Pods team had an array of new modifiers that would do various forms of damage: Peanut Rain, Crunchy, God, The Fourth Strike, Curse of Crows, Subjection, Pity, and Destruction. Every one seemed more ominous than the last: "Crunchy", for instance, says that "the Honey-Roasted players on a Crunchy team will hit 100% better and with +200% Power". The blessings conferred on the Shelled team ensured that the Shoe Thieves could not hope to win, and in the moment, they added to the barrage of new information as we struggled to figure out exactly how fucked we all were.
The interface shift felt like we were playing an entirely different game, one that none of us had signed up for. It's impossible to overstate the effect of this. The Baltimore Crabs had been calling Game 5, and their stunned disappointment quickly turned to utter incomprehension. The Crabs broadcast team, comprised of Al Exoskeleton, Emma Shannon, Riley Lowther, and Orange Fox, scrambled to describe this entirely new game and interface in the same style as they were processing the events in real time. At first this was mostly an exclamatory incoherence, but they rallied admirably. It was a paradigm shift, something we genuinely weren't expecting from the game of blaseball, where we're already accustomed to the unexpected.
All we could do was watch as the Peanut taunted us and the Shoe Thieves—who were very much suddenly "our" team, representing not just Charleston but the whole league—valiantly faced off against Axel Trololol. Another piece of fortuitous emergent weirdness: Jaylen Hotdogfingers, the perpetually wandering undead revenant who had been cursing the Internet League with death and disruption for multiple seasons, was suddenly our champion. We were finally doing what we'd said we'd wanted to for so long: actually fighting a god. That's one hell of a redemption arc.
I should say: this wasn't the only way it could have played out. It probably wasn't the way the Game Band expected it to play out. Let's say the Crabs had won, as most expected—then you'd have had a different hero-story of Nagomi Mcdaniel, newly Unshelled and technically a stronger batter than Jessica, barely avoiding being drafted to the vengeful god's side. (For bonus points, Nagomi spent some time on the Fridays, and—according to some lore—is York Silk's stepmom and the reason he's playing blaseball in the first place.) Is that a better story? What if the team that makes it is the Tigers, who Jessica played for in their championship days? What if Jaylen had switched teams in the postseason? What if Jessica had been unshelled and led the Pies to the finals? A good GM doesn't rely on a single plan—you've got enough material so that any roll of the dice leads to something interesting.
By the top of the fourth, the Shoe Thieves had been reduced to 1 HP. Because this was not a normal game of blaseball, and clearly followed boss fight rules, this—not the 9th inning—should have been the end. Instead, the Peanut offered its patronizing mercy, taunting us with our lack of Spirit and transferring 23,813,322 Team Spirit to the Shoe Thieves, leaving the Pods with 5,953,330. The Pods then lost the modifier Pity, which previously had caused them "to hold back, out of Pity"; when the game continued, they dealt damage in the millions, instead of the previous thousands. The game was, manifestly, rigged. It was pretty clear we didn't stand a chance, but we also knew we didn't understand any of what we were watching, and that gave us enough hope to keep us glued.
The second chance wasn't enough. The Shoe Thieves burned through their HP now that the Pods had dropped Pity, and as defeat loomed, the Peanut demanded that we bend the knee.
To add insult to injury—and give the uncomfortable sense that it had been watching us more closely than anyone imagined—it leaned on ironic reincorporation of fan chants, the way a movie does a pop song in a slow orchestral minor key, or when the villain's song steals parts of the hero's harmony, twisting them to mock our affection. Fans have chants for favorite players. Back before York was shelled, when he was the golden boy of the Fridays, his was York the Dork. And suddenly, here was the Peanut: "MY DORK".
Readers, we screamed.
Immediately after that, Jessica Telephone stepped up to the plate, wielding—as ever—the Dial Tone. Jessica Telephone is arguably blaseball's most famous and beloved player—only Jaylen comes close, and that only post-necromancy. The community dubbed her bat the Dial Tone; the devs acknowledged this by giving her an item called the Dial Tone that (as far as I know) is solely cosmetic. Jessica Telephone is the only player to be shelled twice as a result of her position on the Idol board—even when fans knew what the top of the board did, they didn't stop Idolizing her enough to keep her out of the danger zone. And now the fans had given her to the Peanut, as our greatest antagonist. She hit a home run, dropping the Shoe Thieves' Spirit to zero and ending the game.
Everyone's been talking about this as a JRPG boss fight, but to me? This looks like a heel turn. The Peanut is setting her up as our nemesis, the beloved player forced to sabotage the desperate hope of the ragtag rebels against Heaven. Which makes Jaylen, incredibly, a face. After the Garages nerfed their own pitching lineup because the effects of her league-wide carnage were just that widespread, suddenly Jaylen is the unlikely hero.
We were left reeling in the aftermath, which brought a deluge of new information almost as overwhelming as the battle had been. The players that made up the Shelled One's Pods were not returned to their original teams—they're on the Peanut's team, for now. More importantly, they were not replaced, leading to shortened lineups—this has hit the Tacos particularly hard, given that the Snackrifice meant that all but one of their pitchers is Shelled. They now have an eight-player lineup: but also, that truncated lineup is actually quite good. It's led to the very blaseball disconnect of feeling like your team is completely gutted and unrecognizable, when actually on paper they're improving.
The Pods' modification Destruction said that they would "add 5 Curses to their Opponent when defeating them in battle", and we saw at least two of them. The Charleston Shoe Thieves' hitters now all Flinch when at bat, meaning that they won't swing before the first strike. (This sounded really bad before we saw it in action. Turns out, this mostly means that they end up walking a lot.) Their pitchers, including Jaylen, now have the possibility of throwing a Mild pitch. And of course, the Monitor showed up significantly after it would have been useful, its brand of blasé curiosity now deeply infuriating.
What Season 9, Game X did was something games can really shine at: the paradigm shift. In a paradigm-shift moment, you as a player are given an affordance you never expected to be offered, and the stakes are suddenly completely different. Suddenly you're standing in an entirely different place, with entirely different tools and an entirely different sense of what's possible and necessary. And that is a euphoric feeling, as we saw on Saturday night. This has precedents in the narrative idle game genre: think about the shifting of scale and scope in both Universal Paperclips and A Dark Room, and the moment of horror when you realize exactly what significance your actions have at a broader scale.. Blaseball as a game has offered relatively little minute-to-minute agency, and a sense of detachment from the main action; we're mostly watching as our teams go up against each other, and voting (as best we can) to steer the game's larger direction. We are not the players. But in moving into a JRPG battle screen, we're given the feeling of immediacy; and our lack of control feels even more agonizing when we're used to that UI in a different context.
Blaseball is a horror game, and thus relies on the unexpected: both the unnerving mystery of hidden things and the shock of their revelation. And horror is most powerful when it doesn't just reveal monsters, but shocks us into the awareness that our assumptions were wrong, that the world isn't as we thought. It's impossible to do this week after week: Seasons 8 and 9 were relatively light on the all-out screaming moments, no doubt in anticipation of this moment. If you keep perpetually escalating those revelations and shocks, there's no room to take a breath or find relief. And on the subject of relief, there's a catharsis here, too: we'd been quietly disappointed with the Peanut's previously-ineffectual displeasure, the Monitor's slow buildup, and even the delicate nibbling of Polkadot Patterson rather than outright bone-crunching carnage. Was that really it? The Boss Battle proved that it wasn't. The terrible thing had happened, and it was as enormous and unspeakable as we had imagined—even more so. There was a satisfaction to be found in the wake of that, and a thrill, and excitement for what terrible thing would happen next.
I can't wait.