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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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PataNoir, by Simon Christiansen

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Hopeful Monsters, November 28, 2012
Simon Christiansen's work has been characterised by brilliant concepts that are ultimately let down in the execution. The execution has improved considerably (and so have the concepts, really); the overall experience, though, is still a little rough.

The big concept of PataNoir is that similes occupy their own adjacent reality that you can manipulate: change the simile, change the real world. One frequently-employed subset of this involves altering the personalities of people. Elements of one simile can be used to tinker with another, and in some sequences similes are gates that allow you to plunge into entirely separate worlds. There are, then, a number of distinct kinds of manipulation that can be performed with similes, and they're thrown at you pretty much all at once, together with rules about how the system works (similes can be used to modify real-world things, but can't act directly on them: a simile key will not unlock a real door.) When I first played it I had a little trouble taking on everything at once, and stalled out perhaps halfway in.

The simile hook provides a good deal of rather lovely imagery (kicking in good and early), with elements of fantastic journey about it; to film this you'd want Terry Gilliam (or Švankmajer, though it's not quite that dark). There is a hauntingly dark atmosphere to much of it. Not every section is quite as spectacular as it could be: the climactic scene in particular could be richer and darker. But there are many images I took away from this: (Spoiler - click to show)the angel fountain encircled by snake-paths, the sleeping giant, the eyes you swim into like subterranean lakes, the plunge from bottles on a table in a messy apartment into a minaret-studded city. There's much here of the raw stuff of imagination, the pure delight of strange transformations.

Structurally, the game has areas you can travel between, and you will fairly often need to travel back and forth. The game's natural pace is a sort of Anchorhead-like, leisurely poking around at things; but I ended up speeding things up with the walkthrough a good deal, for a couple of reasons. Dream or hallucination is a flow state: it's not something where you get hung up on a fair-but-difficult conundrum for a while and have to work through it logically. The play experience matches up much better with the experience-as-written when you cheat. Simile-logic isn't really consistent enough for a Savoir-Faire simulationist approach, and there's often a whiff of read-author's-mind about the solutions. In the impossible-to-make Platonic ideal of this game, more or less everything you tried would advance the plot somehow. That said, going to the walkthrough really doesn't ruin the experience: it's still hauntingly strange.

Christiansen's biggest limiting factor remains narrative voice. This is exacerbated because of PataNoir's reliance on a genre that makes very strong demands on narrative voice, even when done as a pastiche. Noir needs a tone of slangy self-assurance, murky motives, a grimy, uncomfortable world full of implied sex, violence and desperation. PataNoir feels a bit more in Thin Man territory: there's a noir template, but it's being used in service to something else, it's as much a comedy on noir tropes as anything, and thus it's rendered nonthreatening. The characters are a little too straightforward: the obligatory femme fatale has the mandatory dangerous curves, but these are only significant as a simile: but the PC doesn't feel as though he regards her with either lust or trepidation.

And then there's the ending. (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist, it turns out, has a rare mental-health condition ("Lytton-Chandler syndrome") and, off his meds, has likely fantasised the entire thing. A lot of people felt this was a cop-out; I'm not convinced of this, but I don't think it really matches up with the story as written. The tough, non-flowing puzzle structure isn't suggestive of hallucination, but of solid, graspable, permanent worlds; the contrast between the rich simile-worlds and the flat detective-noir story suggests that they genuinely do occupy separate worlds, rather than being elements of the same hallucination.

So ultimately I came out of this hoping that Christiansen would team up with a more confident wordsmith, or perhaps find something that allows him to develop his own voice rather than trying to replicate an established style.

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.

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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