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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

childhood

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The Forgotten Girls, by Brent H.

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Well-intentioned but ineffective, August 20, 2012
The Forgotten Girls is about child sex slavery in the developing world. This is difficult material, and the author seems to be a novice at both writing and IF design. You play a child prostitute who attempts to rescue another and escape slavery.

Narratives about atrocity have a particularly strong relationship to authenticity. First-hand accounts by victims or witnesses are highly potent, even if the narrator is unskilled; second-hand accounts, by people who have spoken with actual witnesses, still have the impact of immediacy, but require somewhat more technical skill. Third-hand accounts, fictionalised, seriously reduce the impact, and a great deal of skill is required to impart the appropriate feeling to the audience. And interactive narratives are generally harder to get right. So I can't really blame the author for too much, here, other than underestimating the difficulty of the task.

Verisimilitude is the biggest weakness of The Forgotten Girls. It's set in a specific culture (India, with Hindu and Sikh surnames) with which the author does not seem to be particularly familiar. That said, the NPCs are not convincing as humans of any culture; their dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and they're conspicuously pawns of a puzzle structure. This makes it difficult to take them seriously as monstrous abusers. While the intention here seems good -- showing abuse victims working actively to empower themselves, rather than passively awaiting rescue -- the effect kind of diminishes the seriousness of the issue. If you can easily manipulate your abusers with adventure-game tricks, the power dynamic is all wrong. (I'm reminded, again, of the slapstick ghetto scene in The Great Dictator, in which Jews outwit beer-gutted, oafish Nazi police with skillets and flower-pots.) Depicting abused women as active agents in their own rescue has its virtues, but depicting victims as more resourceful than abusers makes the entire scenario nonsensical.

The problem's compounded because this world-illogic-for-the-sake-of-puzzles isn't just about NPC behaviour; the physical world works like this as well. A wooden cupboard can be set alight with matches. An ordinary car can smash through a brick wall from a dead start. A girl is able to walk (let alone flee) immediately after a vicious and prolonged beating with an iron rod. This could have been glossed over if the characters were less mechanical, and fixing it wouldn't compensate for the mechanical characters; but it does make the problem worse. Along similar lines, room descriptions are often laid out as ungainly inventory listings, and synonyms and close-but-wrong attempts are rarely implemented; you're never allowed to forget the artifice of your environment. (And from a gameplay perspective, read-author's-mind is a huge problem. There is, at least, a pretty good hints menu.)

It's worth comparing this to another game about real-world atrocity, Gigantomania. While suffering from similar problems (counternarrative gameplay elements; a general feeling of sophomore inauthenticity), Gigantomania made a creditable attempt to represent life under Stalin through modes of interaction, to explain experience through doing, to bring home a point by exploring how a system works. The Forgotten Girls doesn't really do anything like this; it's really just the statement "sex slavery in the developing world exists." That's not a pointless statement, for all that it makes for a less interesting work. But I think there's little point in fictionalising that statement if the fiction has less force than the bare facts.

The Rocket Man From The Sea, by Janos Honkonen

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Bees, roses and a dark sea, June 28, 2012
Citing Ray Bradbury as a primary influence, this feels very much like a SF short story from the 50s or 60s, the sort of SF you could make a movie about without any need for a special effects budget. The protagonist, a child, lives with his parents on an island across the bay from Astro City. Earth is at war with Mars, and the protagonist plays make-believe games based on this distant conflict. But then a rocket-man washes up on the shore, and reality and fantasy intermingle. (There is a general feeling of WW2 fiction here.)

Though capable overall, both the writing and the overall design have some rough patches. The prose feels a little first-draftish in places. Most of the gameplay is quite narrowly focused -- probably too much so, in the make-believe sequence -- but there are a couple of points where the solution is a little counterintuitive. The denouement is rather heavily foreshadowed, the protagonist is perhaps a little bit too much of a Disney innocent. But there are many gleaming moments here, little bursts of rich, world-grounded imagery that make this feel less like a fantastic piece and more like a childhood memoir.

As science fiction IF goes, it's uncommonly good in that it has its feet planted on the ground, it grasps and is concerned about the flight-of-fancy aspect of the genre.

Bee, by Emily Short

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Words Apart, June 5, 2012
The fundamental subject-matter of literature is difficult loves: problems that matter deeply but are insoluble. By this standard, Bee is the most literary CYOA that I've encountered. A coming-of-age story about impossible parents, limited means and awkward emergence from isolation, it put me a little in mind of I Capture the Castle (which Emily tells me she hasn't read).

Rather than being structured around a strict linear tree like the bulk of stateless CYOA, Varytale encourages modular design more akin to RPG gamebooks or Echo Bazaar style browser-adventure-RPG games. Bee is structured around the passage of the year, with different events becoming available at different seasons; age, the state of your stats, and previous events also determine which options are available. A number of sections can be repeated with variations, but (more so than its antecedent Echo Bazaar) these are things whose repetition makes sense as narrative and as reality: chores, seasonal religious festivals. The fragmentary nature of Varytale stories is very well-suited to the retrospective style, with its assembled incidents of memory.

It should scarcely need repeating by this point, but Emily writes consistently sharp, telling prose. The story would not work without it.

One of the game's strongest points is how successfully it evokes the particular intensity of the aesthetic sense emerging in adolescence, the discovery of a transformative power, burning in isolation, standing out sharply against the world of drab concerns and tired formulas. The most prominent parts of this involve the protagonist mapping out for her own feelings about Christian ritual and the English language, but also in the seasons, in the contemplation of an emotion, in the elusive moments of family happiness. It's a story about learning to appreciate things deeply, and how to negotiate for a better deal, and reconciling the two. It's about the realisation that you're smarter than your parents. Like much of Emily's work, it's about the pathos of limitations, about lofty ambitions that will inevitably be diminished -- you're told from the outset that you will not win Nationals. (Despite the competitive framing, and in line with the Varytale ethos, this is only slightly game-like; character stats are tracked loosely, and while not every node can be found in a single playthrough, there is not really any challenge per se.)

It's also about an interweaving of shame and bristly pride; at its most documentary, Bee becomes something of an account of the culture and experience of homeschooled children. It's neither an attack nor an apology, though it has definite elements of both; it paints a more nuanced picture of homeschooling than is usual from either its advocates or mainstream critics. One obvious effect is that the protagonist has no friends in the normal sense: the listing of known characters makes a distinction between family (too basic to list) and Acquaintances, an uncomfortable and lukewarm category that's confirmed by the text. (Of course, much of this is because the protagonist's intellectual development is far in advance of everything else; it's easy to think of her as being considerably older than she is. For a while I had the vague sense that the story dealt so slightly with sex and romance because she was from a repressed religious family; but once I actually articulated the thought, I realised it didn't hold up.)

(As a technical note, I first played this when play was restricted by Story Points, Varytale's equivalent of the Echo Bazaar candle. Bee is, at present, no longer thus restricted. Generally speaking I loathe the candle system; it's horribly anti-player. But I'll admit that its artificial choke on pacing does affect how one reads, and offset the distinctly CYOA-ish temptation to hurry through the text and to get to options.)


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