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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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TriadCity, by SmartMonsters, Inc.; Gary Smith; Mark Phillips

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Something Omitted, August 24, 2012
TriadCity is an ambitious MUD with some unusual goals, set in a fantastic, genre-bending city.

Given the long-term nature of play, and the world's very-incomplete status, this review should be treated as more provisional than usual, and less likely to age well. Also, I am inexperienced in MUDs generally -- but, since TriadCity seems to be aiming at a fairly different audience, that shouldn't be a disqualification.

The game really, really wants you to acknowledge that it's postmodern and literary. (When you log out, it gives you Amazon referrals to all the books it's referenced.) I'll grant this, but with the caveat that these categories aren't really badges of honour; what's important is whether it's good literature.

And as a literary work, TriadCity leaves a good deal to be desired. Compared to the average work of IF, or mainstream CRPGs, there is very little active narrative; at least at lower levels, it's more of a sandbox than a quest-driven system, and more about exploration than either. Apart from a number of chatbots that seem disconnected from the world proper, NPCs are minimally reactive. There seems to be the idea that player-driven roleplay would fill a lot of the space, but at present the users are too sparse for this to be viable; and it seems likely that there is more to do at moderate-to-high levels, but leveling is quite slow.

To repeat: sloooow. At low levels, much of your time will be spent managing sleep. There are hunger and thirst counters too, but these are less obnoxious. While fatigue is a MUD convention, it adds very little to gameplay, detracts a great deal from the enjoyment of exploration, and is most annoying at the worst possible time -- that is, the very early game. There are ways to make it less awful (make a high-CON character, invest in certain magic items) but these are largely just compensation for a terrible idea.

The game has some pretty laudable ideas about how it would like to work: less gameplay focus on combat and theft (they exist, they're just hard), with a polite and supportive player culture of intelligent adults. How much this is actually achieved is another matter; the people who are on are friendly and very helpful, but too few to really constitute a culture. And there doesn't seem to be much to replace combat and theft.

The prose tends towards the genially brief; it's competent, in general, but not strong enough to constitute an attraction in its own right. NPCs receive very light characterisation and, as already mentioned, are largely non-interactive. Some of these characters are drawn from literature and folklore and oddly juxtaposed into the world -- but this is a common practice of games of this ilk, and I don't think it's inherently better literature just because they come from books rather than pop-culture.

The main immediate attraction of the game, as it stands, is exploration of the City. Most low-level experience is gained by walking around and looking at stuff. Roughly, the city is divided into three sections: the anarcho-socialist, hippy-agrarian Northwest, the morally ambiguous high-tech, artsy, technocrat-capitalist South, and the dystopian, authoritarian-capitalist Northeast. If you have detected a slight element of political bias in the above, you don't know the half of it. While TriadCity purports to be interested in subjectivity and morally complex issues, it pretty much establishes who the good guys and the bad guys are from the outset; and further, because most of its elements are versions of real-world things, it often comes across as sorting things into neat little Good/Bad/Ambiguous boxes. (Good: vegetarianism, liberation theology, wine, kaballah. Evil: guns, goths, slavery, smoking, cannibalism.) As satire, it's not enormously sophisticated. Now, I'm pretty damn close to this thing's political demographic. I enjoy a socialist-utopia fantasy as much as the next pinko. But even so, jeez, this needs to be rendered a whole lot more problematic. Possibly it gets more nuanced later on -- but there's little sign of it thus far, and I doubt too many people would be willing to stick around and find out.

The other thing about exploration is that the map is quite large and often very empty. The game touts its thousands of rooms; people from an IF background, where four high-detail rooms are usually considered superior to any number of low-detail ones, will generally react to this as a reason to run away screaming, possibly undergoing flashbacks to Time Zone. The huge map multiplies the fatigue problem, and makes it necessary to map; plenty of user-made maps exist, but they're poorly indexed. Because the world is very much under construction, it's possible that more richly-detailed rooms are intended; but it seems as if the idiom is inclined towards much, much more of the same.

Which brings me to the next point: at present, it seems as though a lot of the draw of TriadCity lies in the opportunity to contribute to the world. Characters can earn in-game roles and rewards by contributing code and worldbuilding to the game itself, or art, maps, and various categories of writing to the website that supplements it. With this in mind, I started to design a small area for the game -- but then I balked, because I felt as though I was creating something dead. The game doesn't need more areas; it needs more active narrative, more detail, more things to do in the world that already exists. And after several days of pretty intensive play, I just haven't seen any examples of how the game might do that kind of thing.

Cheiron, by Elisabeth Polli and Sarah Clelland

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Resolving the Enigma of the Fever Chart, August 18, 2011
By any reasonable standard of craft, Cheiron is a very poorly-made piece. It was not originally designed for general consumption, and only marginally as a game. Rather, it was designed by med students as a study tool. It's technically fiction, but it's the fiction of training scenarios, intentionally avoiding literary qualities.

The game contains four patients. You need to diagnose them using the standard methods available to a doctor: part of this lies in asking them about a fixed set of topics, and part of it involves a physical examination using a lot of specialist verbs (AUSCULTATE) and an immense list of anatomical nouns (FIFTH CRANIAL NERVE, STANDING BLOOD PRESSURE). Some of this is accompanied by stock medical photographs. The overwhelming majority of details are default responses, some of them totally inappropriate. All the patients are built from the same template and imperfectly customised, so you can (for instance) receive assurances from male patients that they are menstruating normally.

Given the game's intent as a revision tool and its sandboxy implementation, it's easy to assume that the patients will have a different condition each time. This was, I think, the original design intent, but it was never accomplished. Worse, once you've reached a diagnosis there's no way to tell the game this; the answers are included, and you have to be satisfied with that.

All this said, I had a hugely entertaining time with Cheiron. I played together with an EMT and anatomy student, and we made heavy use of internet resources. Divorced from its usual context -- the anxiety that you or someone you care about might have some horrible condition -- amateur diagnosis becomes a fascinating mystery, a complicated puzzle striking a balance between research, deduction and informed guesswork that I haven't seen equaled in any IF mystery. Most IF is designed to be self-contained, requiring as little external knowledge as possible; Cheiron demonstrates that taking the opposite approach can be compelling, although it doesn't suggest that it could be done in a stable and easily-played way.

The answers are telegraphed slightly -- you can't send off for lab tests, but you can see the results of the tests that a qualified doctor sent off for. The choice of tests alone is often a strong clue, but it still requires some interpretation.

Cheiron could, with a vast investment of work, have been turned into an excellent game. As it stands, its half-baked implementation will probably make it a frustrating experience for most players, its heavy requirement of specialist knowledge is likely to seem unfair, and some will find its focus on disease and infirmity off-putting.


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