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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

how not to do it

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1-4 of 4

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.

Kallisti, by James Mitchelhill

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Crimes Against Eros/is, July 24, 2011
Kallisti is the game I most love to hate. There are few pleasures in IF more deliciously guilty than introducing Kallisti to someone and watching their jaw drop. Most bad IF is just boring; it's rare to find one where every piece of text makes you flinch.

Synopsis: sophisticated-yet-rugged Gustav seduces sophisticated-yet-virginal Katie in a stilted and stalkerish conversation. In the second scene, they have pretentious, mildly kinky sex. The third scene, the strongest, shortest and least interactive, descends into the surreal.

It wants to be darkly significance-laden, cosmopolitan and erotic, something in a European arthouse idiom. To put things mildly, it doesn't work. In part this is because it's trying to do a lot of things that are quite difficult: nobody has succeeded, for instance, at making IF that works as both literature and porn (and most are too sensible to try). But it can't really be credited even as a heroic failure.

It tries to be dark and smouldering, and comes across as creepy and pathetic. It tries to be elegant, stylish and sophisticated, but feels flowery and sophomoric. When it tries to be deep it's laughable and when it tries to be funny it's flat. It routinely presents weary cliches as dazzling insights. The writing transcends the merely awful: there is something painfully wrong with almost every sentence. Here and there, as is usually the case when someone overwrites at length, there's a phrase that would be quite good in another context. But it's far more fruitful as a source for entertainingly awful quotations. ("I am called Katie, I work here, as you know.")

It's unlikely to function as pornography, either, even to people unbesquicked by the predator-and-virgin premise; the overwriting and the pseudo-intellectualism get in the way. Elements that could be handwaved in conventional AIF, like the unnatural-feeling seduction, look a lot worse when you're invited to consider them as literature. It's possible that it might appeal to someone who liked intellectualism as an aesthetic fantasy element but was utterly indifferent to its substance. But I'd guess that "pondering socio-sexuality as he grazed his teeth over her pert mounds" is a bonerkill for most people. And it lingers too long over physical details and uses too many AIF conventions to make it plausible that it's not meant to be porny.

It's technically competent and player-friendly, for the most part, although the pacing is far too ponderous in the first scene. (Long, awkward pauses make sense in conversation games like Galatea or Shadows on the Mirror; in a scene that's meant to be spontaneously witty and intense, they're a much bigger problem.) I've never made it past the first scene without exploiting one of the rare bugs. (You can repeatedly pat Katie on the ass, presumably raising her Seducedness score every time, until after a few dozen iterations she stops slapping you and falls into your arms.) The broader implied setting is evoked fairly well, even if the actual prose used to describe it is cringe-inducing. It does some sensible things to distinguish story text from parser responses, but manages to make this come across as a lazy affectation.

It frames itself as a Discordian work, but takes itself much too seriously to be credible as one. It's worth contrasting against Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, another sex-driven Discordian piece which tries to do rather less and accomplishes a great deal more.

Jarod's Journey, by Tim Emmerich

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Judge, Lest You Be Judged, July 16, 2011
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: rhetoric, ethics, religion, how not to do it
Painfully earnest and rhetorically self-defeating, Jarod's Journey is the canonical example of How Not To Do It when it comes to IF that aims to make a point about ethics, politics or religion.

Jarod is a Christian pilgrim (or possibly evangelist; it's not very clear) in the late first-century Holy Land. The game's themes have little to do with the concerns of first-century Christians, though, and thinking of it as a historical piece would be a mistake; rather, it's consciously modeled on parables. In each section, Jarod visits a city and observes the ways different people express their faith; he then has to decide which of them is doing it right, or rather which message God wants him to derive from his observations. In each case there is only one right answer.

There are several problems with this. One is that the scenes Jarod observes don't always translate readily into parables; another is that the parables don't translate straightforwardly into morals. Yet another is that choosing between the morals is often arbitrary and unsupported; a lot of the morals don't seem to be in conflict with each other, and in places the texts quoted to explain why a choice was wrong could quite reasonably be taken to mean that it was right. In other words, unless you are already familiar with the author's very specific theological concerns and idiom of interpretation, Jarod's Journey is not just unfair as a game but incoherent as an argument.

The game violates a few of its own expressed maxims; one of the obviously-wrong choices is a Pharisee who prays in a conspicuous, repetitive, hollow, bombastic style that closely resembles the game's own approach to biblical quotes. Its text argues for the primacy of simple faith and prayer, but its mechanics seem to say that it's more important to give the correct answers to questions of doctrine.

It doesn't help that the tone is one of clean-cut, sanctimonious enthusiasm. Although the story makes it clear that he has been raised as a Christian, Jarod seems ingenuously surprised at basic tenets of the faith. The Holy Land seems to have been rather cleaned-up since the life of Christ; there are lots of hard-working tradespeople and a distinct absence of lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors and lunatics. (The most disreputable people are a bunch of nasty-looking street toughs who turn out to be exactly what they look like.)

Games about ethics and religion are very difficult to do well, particularly if they advocate a very specific position. But the most basic design principle for them is that it's never a good idea to give the player a set of choices, then tell them that A is good and B and C are bad; it's boring gameplay and it's unpersuasive rhetoric. Jarod's Journey is worth playing because it demonstrates very clearly why this is.

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.

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