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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

heroic fantasy

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

8 of 8 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.

Magocracy, by Joseph Rheaume

7 of 7 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.

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.


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