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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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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.

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.

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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