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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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1-5 of 5


Guilded Youth, by Jim Munroe

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Instance Classic, November 18, 2012
Guilded Youth is a short, aggressively compact coming-of-age story, with well-considered, strongly-executed, attractive presentation that contributes a great deal to the content without overwhelming it. You play Tony, an 80s teenager whose world is viewed through the lens of a fantasy-RPG BBS; recruiting various allies from his online world, he leads a series of quixotic real-world raids to plunder treasures from a derelict house. The interest lies not so much in trespass and theft, however, as it does in learning things about the NPCs (though this mostly feels like glances at the surface). Munroe is a capable writer. There's well-chosen music. On the surface, this feels like a polished product; indeed, it's really the product of four different specialists rather than one overworked generalist.

Once you get to grips with it, though, it's not quite there. Gameplay is restricted to a narrow set of verbs and interactions. This makes play easier, but has the side-effect of making Tony's engagement with his world and peers seem very impoverished: going on a great adventure doesn't change the fact that he's an awkward kid. Some games parlay limited verb sets into rich and engaging gameplay: Guilded Youth very much doesn't. Interaction rolls along smoothly enough, but it always feels constrained.

The narrative, too, is clipped, narrow, to-the-point; we see nothing at all about Tony's mundane life, or very much of what matters about alternative world of the BBS. The story offers subplots, suggestions of character arcs, then prunes them away after barely a plot beat. The story has been much-compared to 80s children's adventure movies, particularly The Goonies, but to me it felt more like YA novels of the same approximate era: willing to touch on big, thorny, uncomfortable issues, brave enough to avoid neatly resolving them. There's perhaps something to be said here about the experience of being a teenager, of being in a place where everything is done for a future that's taking its time in arriving; of feeling that everything important, everything fulfilling, has been indefinitely put off; but this explanation has the feeling of an excuse. Rather than a conscious design decision, it's probably the result of the game being written hurriedly as a tech demo for Vorple. Jim Munroe:

"I just kind of dropped it when I was done. Me and Matt considered it a lark, a nostalgic trifle, so much so that we didnít anticipate people would care what happened to the quickly sketched characters."

(Post-comp, an epilogue was added, allowing the player to focus a little more on one of the characters. These sections add a small but important sliver of character development, player choice and much-needed narrative closure; they make the thing feel more like a complete piece, even if they don't entirely fix all its weaknesses.)

Nonetheless, it's a pretty damn good tech demo; the importance of launching a new IF tool with a first-class demo game can't really be understated.

Snowblind Aces, by C.E.J. Pacian

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Love In The Time of Hypothermia, August 31, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: conversation, flight, steampunk, romance, NPCs, love
One of a small but important subgenre, the single-NPC conversation game. Games of this form inevitably have a romantic subtext: you are, after all, focusing intently on a single person for quite a while. ("I think I can fall in love with anyone," a friend once said, "if I spend enough time looking into their eyes. Hairdressers are a problem.") In Snowblind Aces, the subtext stops being subtext and dances around in the foreground.

During a war roughly analagous to WWI (but with more steampunk-fantasy elements), two fighter aces on opposite sides collide, crash in a snowbound waste, and must work together to survive; this is the climax of a long flirtation based on being honourable to one another in dogfights. The attraction is obvious: the question is what you do about it.

Pacian is consistently good at creating characters who are, if not particularly deep or complex, at least memorable and attractive. If IF fanfic were a thing, Pacian would be the genre's biggest ship-baiter. I've always felt that this character-design approach feels much more like a visual medium, and that of comics in particular: and the first impression that I got on examining Imelda was "man, this feels like a Phil Foglio character."

So the game succeeds at the first hurdle of romance-oriented plots: the audience should like the leads and want to see them get together. At the second requirement (there should be serious obstacles to the relationship) it's a little more shaky. As in Walker & Silhouette, the leads begin the conversation totally eager to jump into one anothers' pants, and largely remain thus throughout. This, combined with the highlighted-keyword conversation system, makes the flirtation feel like an effortless glide rather than a dogfight or a fraught landing. You have opportunities to disrupt it if you want, true, but doing so by mistake is unlikely. And because the game is so centrally focused on the romance, you're not really given any motives to do so, except to be perverse: I never felt as though Lucas' love of flying, or for his homeland, were evoked strongly enough to make for character conflict. You do not feel as though you're sacrificing a great deal by spending the rest of the war in prison. And of course, that frission is the obvious point of the game's premise -- so if it comes across weakly, that's a big problem.

Though generally strong and efficient, the writing is conspicuously less smooth than in Pacian's later works. There were a number of moments in the dialogue that broke the tone for me. The cutting banter is good at times, but less convincing at others; and the tone doesn't shift enough in response to key events in the conversation.

The game states that there are a good number of endings, but I didn't find myself wanting to seek out more than a couple. I can't help but compare the play experience to that of Galatea. There, conversation was much more of a struggle: finding enough topics to discuss in order to reach an ending can take a while. But because you have to search for them, there's a stronger feeling of things to find. After one playthrough of Snowblind Aces, however, there's a pretty strong sense that you've exhausted the great majority of topics.

But there's much to like about Snowblind Aces: a satisfying epilogue section, mostly fluid play, a distinctive and engaging premise. Like Pacian's output in general, it's overtly pulpy, but it's tasty pulp. (For me, this was one of those games that you save up for when you want to play something that you can be sure is going to be pretty good.)

TriadCity, by SmartMonsters, Inc.; Gary Smith; Mark Phillips

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Something Omitted, August 24, 2012
TriadCity is an ambitious MUD with some unusual goals, set in a fantastic, genre-bending city.

Given the long-term nature of play, and the world's very-incomplete status, this review should be treated as more provisional than usual, and less likely to age well. Also, I am inexperienced in MUDs generally -- but, since TriadCity seems to be aiming at a fairly different audience, that shouldn't be a disqualification.

The game really, really wants you to acknowledge that it's postmodern and literary. (When you log out, it gives you Amazon referrals to all the books it's referenced.) I'll grant this, but with the caveat that these categories aren't really badges of honour; what's important is whether it's good literature.

And as a literary work, TriadCity leaves a good deal to be desired. Compared to the average work of IF, or mainstream CRPGs, there is very little active narrative; at least at lower levels, it's more of a sandbox than a quest-driven system, and more about exploration than either. Apart from a number of chatbots that seem disconnected from the world proper, NPCs are minimally reactive. There seems to be the idea that player-driven roleplay would fill a lot of the space, but at present the users are too sparse for this to be viable; and it seems likely that there is more to do at moderate-to-high levels, but leveling is quite slow.

To repeat: sloooow. At low levels, much of your time will be spent managing sleep. There are hunger and thirst counters too, but these are less obnoxious. While fatigue is a MUD convention, it adds very little to gameplay, detracts a great deal from the enjoyment of exploration, and is most annoying at the worst possible time -- that is, the very early game. There are ways to make it less awful (make a high-CON character, invest in certain magic items) but these are largely just compensation for a terrible idea.

The game has some pretty laudable ideas about how it would like to work: less gameplay focus on combat and theft (they exist, they're just hard), with a polite and supportive player culture of intelligent adults. How much this is actually achieved is another matter; the people who are on are friendly and very helpful, but too few to really constitute a culture. And there doesn't seem to be much to replace combat and theft.

The prose tends towards the genially brief; it's competent, in general, but not strong enough to constitute an attraction in its own right. NPCs receive very light characterisation and, as already mentioned, are largely non-interactive. Some of these characters are drawn from literature and folklore and oddly juxtaposed into the world -- but this is a common practice of games of this ilk, and I don't think it's inherently better literature just because they come from books rather than pop-culture.

The main immediate attraction of the game, as it stands, is exploration of the City. Most low-level experience is gained by walking around and looking at stuff. Roughly, the city is divided into three sections: the anarcho-socialist, hippy-agrarian Northwest, the morally ambiguous high-tech, artsy, technocrat-capitalist South, and the dystopian, authoritarian-capitalist Northeast. If you have detected a slight element of political bias in the above, you don't know the half of it. While TriadCity purports to be interested in subjectivity and morally complex issues, it pretty much establishes who the good guys and the bad guys are from the outset; and further, because most of its elements are versions of real-world things, it often comes across as sorting things into neat little Good/Bad/Ambiguous boxes. (Good: vegetarianism, liberation theology, wine, kaballah. Evil: guns, goths, slavery, smoking, cannibalism.) As satire, it's not enormously sophisticated. Now, I'm pretty damn close to this thing's political demographic. I enjoy a socialist-utopia fantasy as much as the next pinko. But even so, jeez, this needs to be rendered a whole lot more problematic. Possibly it gets more nuanced later on -- but there's little sign of it thus far, and I doubt too many people would be willing to stick around and find out.

The other thing about exploration is that the map is quite large and often very empty. The game touts its thousands of rooms; people from an IF background, where four high-detail rooms are usually considered superior to any number of low-detail ones, will generally react to this as a reason to run away screaming, possibly undergoing flashbacks to Time Zone. The huge map multiplies the fatigue problem, and makes it necessary to map; plenty of user-made maps exist, but they're poorly indexed. Because the world is very much under construction, it's possible that more richly-detailed rooms are intended; but it seems as if the idiom is inclined towards much, much more of the same.

Which brings me to the next point: at present, it seems as though a lot of the draw of TriadCity lies in the opportunity to contribute to the world. Characters can earn in-game roles and rewards by contributing code and worldbuilding to the game itself, or art, maps, and various categories of writing to the website that supplements it. With this in mind, I started to design a small area for the game -- but then I balked, because I felt as though I was creating something dead. The game doesn't need more areas; it needs more active narrative, more detail, more things to do in the world that already exists. And after several days of pretty intensive play, I just haven't seen any examples of how the game might do that kind of thing.

Cryptozookeeper, by Robb Sherwin

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Chimeric Drift, June 25, 2012
A feckless loser, likeable but kind of awful, has his life even further ruined by the intrusion of an SF/F trope. He joins up with a group of yet-more-awful guys and an cute girl or two; together they navigate a grody, nocturnal Americana fever-dream, overcome obstacles through randomised combat, and squabble interminably; a extensive range of graphics and atmospheric music rounds the experience out. Scatology, sass and geekery abound. If you've enjoyed previous Robb Sherwin games, then, this is a safe bet.

In Cryptozookeeper the subject is aliens and cryptids; the result is something that feels like The X-Files cross-bred with Pokemon, with an all-slacker cast. A lot of things don't make sense, and the general feeling is of a partial hallucination; wisecracking is juxtaposed with graphic horror, the plot develops tangled corners that you don't need to keep track of, and gameplay alternates between drifting easily along while expostulation happens, and being stuck in a frustrating corner with a skewy puzzle just beyond your grasp. And it's always night. And characters point out, repeatedly, the many aspects of the story that make no sense. It's a very particular kind of surreal.

At Cryptozookeeper's heart is a mini-game in which you create cryptids by combining DNA that you've collected, then battle them in an underground animal-fighting ring, in order to level them up to face a final challenge. The design is such that collecting all the DNA and discovering all the cryptids is optional. Combat is old-schoolish and random, but handled automatically and quickly; your main decisions are about gaining stats. On the other hand, you'll do a very great deal of it, it involves few strategic decisions, and it's not very clear how much is enough; players who dislike grinding may grit their teeth.

Thorough implementation is often talked about as a sine qua non of IF authorship, but it comes at a high cost. Sherwin puts as much effort, care and love into his games as anybody making IF, and does extensive testing; but robust implementation comes fairly low on his list. (Save often.) Among his higher priorities, it seems, is long-arc story. Cryptozookeeper is sometimes buggy or cumbersome, and often sparse and linear -- but it's also large and brim-full of content.

For much of the game you have three or four NPCs in tow, but you can talk to them rarely and on very limited topics. Despite this, they feel more developed than many NPCs with ten times their conversation topics -- Robb writes very well, the images help, and you have time to get to know them. (Too, you're constantly sniping at one another; the silences feel, appropriately, like irate sulking.)

Like most Sherwin games, this is basically about how the world is dark and horrible but even the most abject can be redeemed; it manages the difficult task of making both the darkness and the light seem genuine.

The Play, by Dietrich Squinkifer (Squinky)

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Theatre of Mercy, December 5, 2011
One of the better CYOAs to be released in an IF context, this deals with territory that's unusual for IF but standard for theatre: a small group of characters who don't like each other very much but are stuck with one another. There has been a fair amount of discussion in IF circles about the PC as director, steering other characters rather than driving the action directly, but The Play is the first game I've seen in the IF sphere that really does this.

The pitch: you're the struggling director of a wretched play, trying to get your demoralised, infighting actors into some kind of shape in your last rehearsal. The tone isn't as doom-laden and jaded as it initially appears; in spite of the acrimony, it's a comic melodrama at heart. The writing is solid and efficient if not scintillating, and the game in general gives the impression of a high craft standard.

It's very much a set-piece, short and efficient: narrative backbone is provided by the rehearsal, which you're determined to plough through. Most choices are binary, but (with considerable state-tracking) this adds up to a broad range of possibilities. The overt mechanic lies in managing the enthusiasms of all four NPCs, trying to elicit strong performances without annoying anybody so much that they quit.

The framing of gameplay, then, suggests that you should take a balanced approach and rely on moral credential effect. But the hidden mechanics tell a different story: individual decisions have individual effects, managing people is not a zero-sum game, and some viewpoints genuinely are better than others. This conflict between apparent and real best-strategy is a standard technique of persuasive games, but as a persuasive game The Play has some problems. First, its delivery of its main theme -- sexual harassment and institutional resistance to addressing it -- is somewhat uneven: some players miss it entirely and others end up feeling rather bludgeoned. Secondly, it's not interested in persuading anyone that sexual harassment is a genuine probem: it takes this for granted and moves on to the (more difficult) question of what can be done about it, and about how institutional resistance works. Thirdly, its use of slapstick and melodrama don't quite mesh with the serious material; the women are all Strong Women and predictably capable at traditionally-male roles, the sexist villain is straightforwardly villainous, there's a general sense of values being enacted rather than explored.

Persuasive games are always difficult, and I don't want to give the impression that The Play flubs anything terribly; the core of its ethical arc works as designed, I think. Rather, a lot of things are just a bit off, and this adds up. But despite this, it's an entertaining and impressive piece of work.


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