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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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1-10 of 10


Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, by S. John Ross

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
The Snarking of the Hunt, July 26, 2014
A heroic fantasy romp, and probably the best such in IF. Good for many hours of fun. One of those situations where I'd like to be able to give four-and-a-half stars.

Treasures is conspicuously non-literary: it does not try to do anything except amuse, but it has high standards for this. It is written in an overblown cod-medieval heroic jargon. Like a Fighting Fantasy book, a Gygax dungeon or Zork, its worldbuilding is a melange of convenience, with SF and fantasy tropes thrown together in a big nonsensical pile. Its dominant tone, though, is one of old-school swords-and-sorcery, all villainous port-cities, cunning young courtesans and ripped barbarians. The protagonist is a straightforward rip-off of Conan.

None of this is taken remotely seriously. Fond, over-the-top lampoons of a schlocky genre, attempts to replicate the so-awful-it's-accidentally-brilliant, can very easily become lazy and tiresome; but ToaSK is saved by quality of writing, by balanced economy of design, and by meticulous implementation -- none of which you'd expect from a heroic-fantasy thing that presents itself as a retrogame.

The game avoids guess-the-verb by limiting the verb set very tightly: USE, for instance, covers essentially all fiddling with objects. Most of the action, then, is about guess-the-object (difficulty: easy to moderate), or fighting monsters of a low enough level for you to defeat. At the lowest difficulty setting, I encountered only one or two monsters who couldn't be defeated when first encountered; at the highest, a bit more care is required but progress is by no means grueling. The pace and difficulty is very well-measured indeed; I played this in a group on a car journey, and while things were never a cakewalk, we never got stuck for long enough for our enthusiasm to flag. It is (I think) possible to make the game unwinnable in a place or two (edit: I'm given to understand that this has been fixed in the most recent version), or to shut off certain important optional content, though mostly it's pretty generous.

Also, although the game sets itself up as a treasure hunt, this is really not the central interest; almost everything that you gank will end up being used for something else, the non-functional treasures will mostly be used to buy time with Vessa the Delicate Doxy, and having an overfull inventory makes you less effective in combat. Most objects are single-use and disappear when used; so your inventory is a to-do list, rather than an inert pile of points scored.

While the prose is very much a lampoon, it displays a strong sense for (not just a snickering love of) the godawful language of pulp fantasy RPGs and their relatives. There's a freakin' reference to Tarkus, for fuck's sake, a strong contender in the Top 10 Most Embarrassing LPs My Dad Owns. And with its profusion of all-caps phrases, there's a definite aroma of DWJ's sardonic Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Ross has a very fine ear for just how far to push this; the thees and thys, for instance, are used only when they genuinely make a sentence funnier, rather than being slathered all over everything in the hope that comedy will result. This is not always infallible: the pirates and the end boss are kind of cringeworthy. But there's a lot more substance here than mere nostalgia disguised with a thin coat of irony.

Much fun is had at the expense of the barbarian's machismo and stupidity, but this is, crucially, of a good-natured sort that includes the player, rather than blaming them for things that aren't within their control; the player's job is to steer the PC through things he doesn't really understand. (The approach of Lost Pig is very similar.) And, indeed, the whole world feels pretty good-natured, which makes the general tone feel somewhat lighter than the material it's drawing on. While in theory the game-world is ruled over by an oppressive tyrant, in practice you can mostly wander about as freely as you please. All the villainous low-lifes of the port-city turn out to be good-hearted and on your side. Your enemies are mostly independent monsters, rather than agents of the Slaver King. So while there are theoretically tortures and slavery going on, the general feel is never very bleak.

The good-natured non-seriousness is also the thing that lets the game get away with lots of women who have plainly walked off the cover of a 70s pulp novel, by way of an adolescent fantasy. There are lots of heaving oiled chests and sex-for-fetch-quests, but these are not really twinned with the animus towards women or blithe sketchiness that makes so much classic fantasy creepy as hell. Like many heroic protagonists, the barbarian isn't all that interested in women, sex aside; but this is portrayed as part of his risible stupidity, rather than a sensible manly attitude that the reader is assumed to share.

There's something about the whole thing of very early Discworld, back when Pratchett wasn't doing much except sniggering at fantasy tropes. Of course, Pratchett fairly quickly moved on to using the setting to reflect real-world things and explore more complex characters; ToaSK never pretends to be remotely interested in that. But there's a moment at the very end, after the kingdom is saved (in an apocalyptic orgy of violence that leaves most of your allies dead), where the writing steps aside a little from the lampoon and the mood finally takes the barbarian seriously. The ending itself is precisely what the genre demands, but the tone is handled to perfection.

Treasures will not change your life, deeply stir your emotions, or grant you insights into the human condition. Its design does not purport to light a way forward to anything. It will probably be befuddling to anyone who didn't, at some stage of their life, enjoy crap heroic fantasy. Accept all that, and it's a highly entertaining game and an impressive piece of craft, which is precisely what it sets out to be.

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.

Magocracy, by Joseph Rheaume

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Banal Royale, June 25, 2012
The protagonist is an underdog in a murderous struggle for succession. The action takes place in a sealed castle, with four towers around a central hub area and a throne-room to the north. Dying many times is to be expected before winning, and (Spoiler - click to show)nasty things lurk in the basement. Unlike Varicella, however, the antagonists of Magocracy are autonomous and unpredictable, and must be overcome through random RPG combat. Rather than the elaborate choreography of Varicella, then, you'd expect more strategic decisions, made up of cost-benefit judgments rather than the gradual uncovering of the One True Path. Sadly, Magocracy retains much of what's annoying about the gradual-uncovering approach, abandons most of what's fun about narrative IF, and brings in a host of new problems with its RPG elements.

The main problem with Magocracy is that, in terms of the immediate experience it delivers, it's really boring. The fantasy world is transparently made up of cheap knock-offs of Earth cultures and lifeless genre tropes. The writing is pedestrian, the setting bland; the PC has no personality to speak of. There's no sense of drama: moments that should be big dramatic reveals mostly leave you scratching your head. This is particularly bad because the general pattern of play is to try things out, get killed trying them, and hopefully learn a little bit with each death. It's a style of design that desperately needs to offer the player some sustenance to keep them going: and very little effort is spent on this.

The game's central conceit -- that you're the hopeless underdog who somehow has to find a way to triumph over the world's most powerful mages -- is used to justify some odd behaviour, like enemies who totally ignore you (they don't see you as a threat, or don't want to kill a helpless bystander). But among these high-powered mages there are also characters who will flee in terror the moment you attack them with a flimsy conjured staff. The general feeling is that Magocracy isn't really interested in narrative, even a narrative that's mostly about combat.

The hopeless-newbie conceit also reflects the player's learning curve. In Kerkerkruip, a great deal of effort was spent on making sure that the player had some idea of the general structure within which your strategic choices would operate. By the time you've died once in Kerkerkruip you should have a pretty good grasp of the general pattern of play. Magocracy does spend some time on explaining its mechanics, but getting a sense of strategy is much more slow and tedious. In this respect it fails because it's designed too much like conventional IF; you have to spend a lot of time on mapping and searching for hidden things before you can even really start to strategise. The author seems aware that this is a problem, and has included a number of items to compensate; but all of these are, likewise, rather hard to find.

IF that makes heavy use of randomisation, such as RPG-like combat, struggles with whether to allow UNDO. There are various approaches to dealing with this -- preserve a random seed, allow UNDO contextually -- but Rheaume's approach is to say that UNDO isn't cheating, then design the game to be so filled with death, randomness and near-unwinnable states that UNDO is essential to survive. But cheating isn't the most worrisome cost of UNDO; heavy use of it is, I think, inherently disruptive to the play experience.

Magocracy is not a slight work, and some of my dislike for it is because my priorities are so very unlike the author's. It might appeal to the type of gamer who requires no motivation whatsoever to solve a tough puzzle, other than the fact that it's tough. But even as a pure-RPG-combat exercise, it doesn't instill a huge amount of confidence. The hints file suggests 'find a better weapon straight away by looking under the kitchen table'; but this replaces a weapon with 1d4+1 damage with a 1d6 one, which gives you precisely the same mean damage. There are minor bugs like the arrival of creatures in darkness being reported as if it were light, and monsters being awarded points for kills (presumably they're not eligible for the crown). Only one tester is credited -- which would be too few even if the game was less experimental. Given that the overall design of the game has some questionable choices, small but glaring errors do not dispose one to trust the author. And for a game in which success is slow in coming, the author badly needs that trust.

There's not much feeling of unity or distinctive vision, either in mechanics or content; the magic system, for instance, is a grab-bag that doesn't operate, or even follow names, in any consistent manner. >CONJURE is different from >SUMMON for no particular reason; the light spell is a Crazy Magic Word but everything else is normal verbs. The maze monsters are cameos from other works, not members of the world. (A standard approach in roguelikes, Eamon and some MUDs, but it needs a little more work to be effective in narrative IF.)

CRPG-like IF continues to be a popular aspiration, particularly among new authors, and I certainly don't want to suggest that it's a doomed exercise. It's not difficult to imagine the basic premise of Magocracy rendered as a much more enjoyable game. But mixing IF with other game styles is a tough task, and highly risky to undertake as one's first IF game. (Even veteran authors can end up producing something pretty underwhelming.) A good feeling for the design strengths of both forms is crucial; the ability to smooth over the join with strong writing is a huge asset. Without either, dedication and diligence are unlikely to count for very much.

Danse Nocturne, by Joey Jones

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Bite-sized Saga, January 10, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: poetry, adverbs, tone, fantasy, romance, tragedy
Adverbs are usually a joke in IF. There's so much work to do just to make the game respond sensibly to straightforward actions that adding subtle qualifiers to those actions seems like an impossible task. Where they do appear, they tend to be used for conversation and other social contexts, where how something is done is as important as what is done. In the romance-parody Forever Always, for instance, you negotiate a fraught social situation (disrupting your lover's wedding without fatally irritating her) by using different verbs and adverbs for speech. ROAR ANGRILY gives different options than WHISPER LUSTILY, and gives those options different effects.

Danse Nocturne is a slighter piece even than the rather brief Forever Always; the verb is always DANCE and your only control lies in the selection of adverbs. The emphasis on tone and mood is reinforced by the writing, spare blank verse that focuses on the core of the story without giving much away beyond that. Avoiding the usual IF methods of detailed, object-oriented setting allows it to get away with a much more immediate, sparse, focused world than would normally be possible, and to deliver poetry without waffling. The core story, a revenger's tragedy that could be summed up in a line or two, emerges at just the right pace: not so slowly as to be irritating, but slowly enough to have dramatic impact. There's a well-maintained feeling of the epic or mythic. The Germanic naming style evokes a feeling of tragic saga.

Again, the core thing that the player does is not exploring the PC's range of action, but her range of attitudes, social styles, emotional responses. This ends up enabling action, but the game's core is: how should this character feel about this? It's about a character who is trying on different personas, seeing if any of them will help her -- a process at the heart of role-playing and of socialisation.

As a speed-IF, this is all quite brief and simple. While the game recognises a great many adverbs, the territory you negotiate with them is not complex; most adverbs give a single response and don't change the game-state. Play is mostly about thinking up new adverbs and trying them out. This is not to say that it should have been longer or more difficult: the strong poetic approach probably couldn't have been sustained over a bigger game. But it does leave me wistfully hoping for more substantial games that are navigated by manipulating tone, style, mood, focus, rather than medium-size dry goods.

Bringing the Rain, by Lumin

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Desert Railroad, August 21, 2011
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: fantasy, magic, quest
Bringing the Rain was written under the narrow coding restraints of the ADRIFT EvenComp. (In this case, 8 rooms, 12 objects, 14 tasks, 2 events and 4 characters.) It tackles these restraints with a heavily linear structure and essentials-only approach to scenery, thus managing to get in a rather longer plot than the constraints would normally support.

It's a fantasy quest minus the swords, a third-son kind of story. Your town is suffering a prolonged drought, the witch Melda is holding the town to ransom, and you need to bring the rain back.

At its outset, the game presents you with two courses of action: investigating Melda, or going straight to Feather Mountain. If you go to Feather Mountain first, the story assumes that you've already taken the other path and found an important item. The bug isn't fatal, but it is pretty disruptive. Travel is often described in static room descriptions, and room descriptions don't reflect things you've taken or destroyed. Scenery implementation is very limited; this is largely due to the comp constraints, but it does make for a moderate amount of pointless frustration. Apart from this, the correct action is usually obvious and the story flows easily.

The writing is competent but not striking, and the story feels much the same way. It's a very basic plot; that isn't inherently a bad thing, but I came away feeling unsatisfied. Having conceived of its basic story, Bringing the Rain doesn't really add anything to it; the wicked witch is as wicked as you'd expect, the protagonist is thinly characterised, the challenges are unchallenging. I began to be a little irritated with the wicked-witch-is-wicked plot, but it's fairly clear that the story isn't interested in trying to make any kind of ethical point. Everything feels adequate and un-elaborated, which is acceptable in individual elements as long as they're in service to something. In this case, I think the author's interest lies in big dramatic spectacle: (Spoiler - click to show)the great avalanche, the exhilaration of flight, the elemental power and beauty of the gryphons. This is a difficult kind of effect to render in a non-graphical format, particularly an interactive one; if the most interesting elements of an IF piece are in the cutscenes, it's worth considering whether it needs to be IF.

The Matter of the Monster, by Andrew Plotkin

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Narrative Gymnastics, May 23, 2011
Zarf has a keen instinct for taking things -- code, puzzles, narrative structure -- to pieces, then seeing if they'll fit together in a different way. Here he's tinkering with CYOA. Written for a SpeedIF challenge that required authors to use unfamiliar IF languages, The Matter of the Monster is a highly experimental minor work, both deeply impressive and faintly disappointing.

The story itself is, consciously, nothing very special; three siblings set out on a quest to slay a giant monster. It's heavily framed as a bedtime story; there's a well-observed tension between the serious, insistent child and the mother, who thinks that heroic fantasy is a bit silly. The story is told mostly back-to-front, starting with the final success of the youngest sib and working backwards by hops and jumps; depending on the chronologically earlier events, the later sections change somewhat. This doesn't affect the final outcome; what's at stake is the shape of the story, and secondarily the nature of the hero's family. Although the writing has some fun details, it's very clear that content is secondary to form; the hacking of narrative is more important than the narrative.

Undum was, to put it mildly, not really designed for this, but it's made to work; the story jumps up and down the page, so there's a strong sense of thumbing back and forth in a text that should be static, even though it's shifting before your eyes. (Vorple may have been an inspiration here, but Undum has its own transcript-editing habits.) With the reading habits of conventional IF, however, it's easy to miss the changes, even though the total amount of text is quite small; what really matters is that it's intuitively clear which section of the text you've jumped to.

It's probably best to think of this as a hugely-expanded approach to The Girl and the Wolf, rather than as a hugely stripped-down version of a scarily flexible work of IF. It's hard to imagine a larger work built on TMotM's techniques. As an approach to short, dense pieces, though, it's intriguing.

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, by One of the Bruces and Drunken Bastard

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Nelson, May 19, 2011
An excellent game, many aspects of which will be deal-breakers for many players. Let's start there.

First, it involves a lot of sex, much of it grotesque. With both genders, a variety of inanimate objects, corpses. There is a great deal of scatology. There are mohel jokes. Yahweh figures as a poor cousin to the Hellenic pantheon. (Spoiler - click to show)You will catch the clap and have it cured with a hash-pipe and a leather mallet. You will be raped and mostly enjoy it. If you are fond of taking offence at things, you will find ample opportunity here.

Second, although its sex operates under porn-logic, it is not really pornographic in motive; there are numerous sex scenes, yes, some of them with attractive people, but they're mostly played for laughs or squick or glossed over in jaded tones: "Of all the times you've ever boned a slatternly servant on a reeking mattress, this is certainly one of them." It's unlikely to function as wankfodder.

Thirdly, considerable background is required. You definitely want at least a passing familiarity with Graham Nelson's Curses (on which it is largely a commentary), Classics in general, and classical satire and comedy in particular. (Apart from anything else, there is at least one point at which insufficient knowledge of mythology can put the game in an unwinnable state.) It also helps to be acquainted with T.S. Eliot, Discordianism, the earlier Stiffy games, AIF conventions, Adventure and a broad swathe of assorted literary and geek lore. The overwhelming majority of players will feel they're missing things; some will feel they're being sneered at. You also have to cheerfully accept that none of this is going to be treated with anything slightly resembling reverence. (Fondness, yes. Reverence, oh my no.)

Fourth, it's quite old-school in structure and style. Scenery is sparse, wacky anachronisms abound, NPCs are very simple, and you're on a MacGuffin quest. It's cruel, too; a good deal of content can easily be missed, and there are several ways to put the game in an unwinnable state without realising it. On the other hand, the puzzles are mostly not very difficult, there are numerous modern conveniences, and the underlying design is well-crafted enough that play is generally smooth; but you will, nonetheless, want to save often.

The good news: if none of these forms a major objection you will probably enjoy Mentula very much indeed. Mentula is not a game that anybody has mild opinions about; it didn't earn a single 5 or 6 score in Spring Thing, and earned more 10s and more 1s than any other entrant. So, the good stuff: it's funny, clever, hugely good-natured, it's an overflowing cornucopia. Okay, it's an overflowing cornucopia in which some of the fruits turn out to be penises, but it's very clearly a game that was an immense amount of fun to write, and it conveys that sense of fun very well.

Gilded, by John Evans

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
An Embarrassment of Sparklies, May 17, 2011
RenFaire medieval with an anime flavour; textdumps abound, there's rather flat humour and a great deal of bishounen faerie mages kissing. The world is full of sparkles and flowers and pretty details. Even if this isn't really your thing, it's an unusual style for IF; the world feels oversaturated as a Technicolor musical. What starts out looking like a standard-issue D&D quest turns into a grand struggle between high-powered mages... or, well, that's the idea.

Gilded is mainly of interest because of its horribly overpowered magic system. The player can shapechange at will, but this is the easiest aspect of its design: you can also magically create and summon objects. This would suggest a creative, simulationist approach to puzzles, but... well, imagine Scribblenauts with a plot, an antagonist and an expansive setting, but without clear, limited objectives. Now imagine it as implemented by a single author of moderate ability. You can create or summon virtually any object, but the game almost never understands the implications of this. Your antagonist is digging a hole; you summon his spade, and he keeps right on digging. You can summon the pants off NPCs and they carry on regardless. And sometimes the system just fails entirely. You're faced with an impossibly vast array of options, almost none of which do anything significant.

This is compounded by writing that doesn't always successfuly convey what's going on with the plot. The result is something that relies on read-the-author's-mind, that's near-unplayable without a walkthrough and difficult even then. Gilded isn't exactly a work of mad genius; its core mechanics are all old ideas, just hugely overextended. But it has a strange charm, and its design is a useful cautionary tale.

The Lost Islands of Alabaz, by Michael Gentry

8 of 8 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.

Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, by Andrew Plotkin

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful:
The Wine-Dark Cosmos, December 16, 2010
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: science fantasy, fantasy, fairytale, SF
Heliopause looks, on the surface, like far-future SF. It's a veneer. A very good, lovingly crafted veneer, rich with knowledge of astronomy and the knowing evocation of tasty SF tropes; but the heart of the game is fantasy, and this is understood, and it's very adeptly handled.

The framing of the story makes it clear that we're dealing with a tall tale, a reliable signal not just of narrative unreliability, but of entry into realms of Story where versimilitude is beside the point. The threefold repetition, the fisherman's-wife motif of a fourth greedy wish cancelling the previous three, the three gifts whose use emerges only at the moment of crisis -- these are solid motifs of the fantastic, and deftly employed. The protagonist gives lip-service to the idea that he's collecting stuff for its unique scientific properties, but really what's being sought isn't something with a technical application so much as Herodotean wonders.

SF treats space as a rational quantity to be managed in some way or another: an ocean to chart, a frontier to advance, an empire to administrate. In Heliopause, space is the Great Forest of Arthurian knight-errant and Grimm fairytale, or the ocean of the Odyssey: anything might be encountered there, but you won't be able to plot it on a map. The principal controls, which you're given enough time to figure out intuitively but not enough to really master, feed into this feeling, as does the low-level approach to scenery; the standard IF game encourages a rather Aristotelean, sift-through-lists approach to one's surroundings, but this feels more like fable than fieldwork. The problem with this in a game context is that things end up feeling quite linear; the sense of vast possibility in the early stages gets closed down towards the end.


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