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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

children's

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The Lost Islands of Alabaz, by Michael Gentry

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Kid Knight Super Gem Collect, May 16, 2011
A just-so story: an author has some small children. Every night, at bedtime, he sits down with them and invents another installment of an ongoing story. The children chip in with suggestions. The story they tell has a lot of problems -- exactly the sorts of problems you get with stories told off the cuff. It's mostly a series of fragmentary set-pieces, it's heavily derivative, it lacks cohesion, there are a lot of loose ends that never get tied up; the stories are mostly unified by a broad setting and recurring characters. The children don't care about any of this, because they're sharing a story by their dad. Later, the author assembles some of these stories into an IF game, designed to be accessible to children. Whether this actually represents how Alabaz was written is irrelevant: it's very much how it feels.

The plot: you are an Everyman child hero, tasked by the fatherly but inert King of Alabazopolis to reunite an archipelago-kingdom sundered by mists. To do this, you must take your child-crewed ship, explore the islands and recover magic pearls; there's more than a touch of anime about the scenario. Its strength is in its set-pieces, which include plenty of strange and striking imagery. (Some work much better than others.) The novice-friendly design is a more questionable virtue; the influence of casual gaming is obvious, with heavy-handed pointers and showers of achievements, and a character whose main function is to follow you around dispensing tutorials.

Despite this, Alabaz is consciously old-schoolish; it's a substantial size, and there's a lot of Zork and Myst here. As a game for children, its worst structural flaw is that it's a big-map game that's designed in ways that make travel very tedious, even when you've solved all the relevant puzzles. Apart from this, the puzzles are solidly designed and appropriately easy; but I think that this was intended as a game to be played over many evenings, which is hard to do with easy puzzles. The tedious navigation fills that gap.

In terms of content, there's a sort of uneasy dissonance that a child might or might not pick up on: it's a world where adults behave like sulky children and children behave like responsible adults, and it's also a world that promises heroism but fails to deliver, because heroism requires real monsters, and in Alabaz all apparent monsters quickly turn out to be paper tigers. The game seems designed for very small children -- too small to cope with very much conflict in their fiction. I can't say how well it'd work for its target age, but there's a great deal that makes this translate poorly for adults.

I suspect that children’s literature is best written not by a doting parent -- someone who primarily wants a safe, clean, improving world for their children -- but a crazy uncle, someone who wants to entertain, inform, subvert.


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