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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

romance

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1-4 of 4


Guilded Youth, by Jim Munroe

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Instance Classic, November 18, 2012
Guilded Youth is a short, aggressively compact coming-of-age story, with well-considered, strongly-executed, attractive presentation that contributes a great deal to the content without overwhelming it. You play Tony, an 80s teenager whose world is viewed through the lens of a fantasy-RPG BBS; recruiting various allies from his online world, he leads a series of quixotic real-world raids to plunder treasures from a derelict house. The interest lies not so much in trespass and theft, however, as it does in learning things about the NPCs (though this mostly feels like glances at the surface). Munroe is a capable writer. There's well-chosen music. On the surface, this feels like a polished product; indeed, it's really the product of four different specialists rather than one overworked generalist.

Once you get to grips with it, though, it's not quite there. Gameplay is restricted to a narrow set of verbs and interactions. This makes play easier, but has the side-effect of making Tony's engagement with his world and peers seem very impoverished: going on a great adventure doesn't change the fact that he's an awkward kid. Some games parlay limited verb sets into rich and engaging gameplay: Guilded Youth very much doesn't. Interaction rolls along smoothly enough, but it always feels constrained.

The narrative, too, is clipped, narrow, to-the-point; we see nothing at all about Tony's mundane life, or very much of what matters about alternative world of the BBS. The story offers subplots, suggestions of character arcs, then prunes them away after barely a plot beat. The story has been much-compared to 80s children's adventure movies, particularly The Goonies, but to me it felt more like YA novels of the same approximate era: willing to touch on big, thorny, uncomfortable issues, brave enough to avoid neatly resolving them. There's perhaps something to be said here about the experience of being a teenager, of being in a place where everything is done for a future that's taking its time in arriving; of feeling that everything important, everything fulfilling, has been indefinitely put off; but this explanation has the feeling of an excuse. Rather than a conscious design decision, it's probably the result of the game being written hurriedly as a tech demo for Vorple. Jim Munroe:

"I just kind of dropped it when I was done. Me and Matt considered it a lark, a nostalgic trifle, so much so that we didnít anticipate people would care what happened to the quickly sketched characters."

(Post-comp, an epilogue was added, allowing the player to focus a little more on one of the characters. These sections add a small but important sliver of character development, player choice and much-needed narrative closure; they make the thing feel more like a complete piece, even if they don't entirely fix all its weaknesses.)

Nonetheless, it's a pretty damn good tech demo; the importance of launching a new IF tool with a first-class demo game can't really be understated.

Snowblind Aces, by C.E.J. Pacian

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Love In The Time of Hypothermia, August 31, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: conversation, flight, steampunk, romance, NPCs, love
One of a small but important subgenre, the single-NPC conversation game. Games of this form inevitably have a romantic subtext: you are, after all, focusing intently on a single person for quite a while. ("I think I can fall in love with anyone," a friend once said, "if I spend enough time looking into their eyes. Hairdressers are a problem.") In Snowblind Aces, the subtext stops being subtext and dances around in the foreground.

During a war roughly analagous to WWI (but with more steampunk-fantasy elements), two fighter aces on opposite sides collide, crash in a snowbound waste, and must work together to survive; this is the climax of a long flirtation based on being honourable to one another in dogfights. The attraction is obvious: the question is what you do about it.

Pacian is consistently good at creating characters who are, if not particularly deep or complex, at least memorable and attractive. If IF fanfic were a thing, Pacian would be the genre's biggest ship-baiter. I've always felt that this character-design approach feels much more like a visual medium, and that of comics in particular: and the first impression that I got on examining Imelda was "man, this feels like a Phil Foglio character."

So the game succeeds at the first hurdle of romance-oriented plots: the audience should like the leads and want to see them get together. At the second requirement (there should be serious obstacles to the relationship) it's a little more shaky. As in Walker & Silhouette, the leads begin the conversation totally eager to jump into one anothers' pants, and largely remain thus throughout. This, combined with the highlighted-keyword conversation system, makes the flirtation feel like an effortless glide rather than a dogfight or a fraught landing. You have opportunities to disrupt it if you want, true, but doing so by mistake is unlikely. And because the game is so centrally focused on the romance, you're not really given any motives to do so, except to be perverse: I never felt as though Lucas' love of flying, or for his homeland, were evoked strongly enough to make for character conflict. You do not feel as though you're sacrificing a great deal by spending the rest of the war in prison. And of course, that frission is the obvious point of the game's premise -- so if it comes across weakly, that's a big problem.

Though generally strong and efficient, the writing is conspicuously less smooth than in Pacian's later works. There were a number of moments in the dialogue that broke the tone for me. The cutting banter is good at times, but less convincing at others; and the tone doesn't shift enough in response to key events in the conversation.

The game states that there are a good number of endings, but I didn't find myself wanting to seek out more than a couple. I can't help but compare the play experience to that of Galatea. There, conversation was much more of a struggle: finding enough topics to discuss in order to reach an ending can take a while. But because you have to search for them, there's a stronger feeling of things to find. After one playthrough of Snowblind Aces, however, there's a pretty strong sense that you've exhausted the great majority of topics.

But there's much to like about Snowblind Aces: a satisfying epilogue section, mostly fluid play, a distinctive and engaging premise. Like Pacian's output in general, it's overtly pulpy, but it's tasty pulp. (For me, this was one of those games that you save up for when you want to play something that you can be sure is going to be pretty good.)

Danse Nocturne, by Joey Jones

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Bite-sized Saga, January 10, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: poetry, adverbs, tone, fantasy, romance, tragedy
Adverbs are usually a joke in IF. There's so much work to do just to make the game respond sensibly to straightforward actions that adding subtle qualifiers to those actions seems like an impossible task. Where they do appear, they tend to be used for conversation and other social contexts, where how something is done is as important as what is done. In the romance-parody Forever Always, for instance, you negotiate a fraught social situation (disrupting your lover's wedding without fatally irritating her) by using different verbs and adverbs for speech. ROAR ANGRILY gives different options than WHISPER LUSTILY, and gives those options different effects.

Danse Nocturne is a slighter piece even than the rather brief Forever Always; the verb is always DANCE and your only control lies in the selection of adverbs. The emphasis on tone and mood is reinforced by the writing, spare blank verse that focuses on the core of the story without giving much away beyond that. Avoiding the usual IF methods of detailed, object-oriented setting allows it to get away with a much more immediate, sparse, focused world than would normally be possible, and to deliver poetry without waffling. The core story, a revenger's tragedy that could be summed up in a line or two, emerges at just the right pace: not so slowly as to be irritating, but slowly enough to have dramatic impact. There's a well-maintained feeling of the epic or mythic. The Germanic naming style evokes a feeling of tragic saga.

Again, the core thing that the player does is not exploring the PC's range of action, but her range of attitudes, social styles, emotional responses. This ends up enabling action, but the game's core is: how should this character feel about this? It's about a character who is trying on different personas, seeing if any of them will help her -- a process at the heart of role-playing and of socialisation.

As a speed-IF, this is all quite brief and simple. While the game recognises a great many adverbs, the territory you negotiate with them is not complex; most adverbs give a single response and don't change the game-state. Play is mostly about thinking up new adverbs and trying them out. This is not to say that it should have been longer or more difficult: the strong poetic approach probably couldn't have been sustained over a bigger game. But it does leave me wistfully hoping for more substantial games that are navigated by manipulating tone, style, mood, focus, rather than medium-size dry goods.

The PK Girl, by Robert Goodwin, Helen Trevillion, Nanami Nekono, and Oya-G

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Psionic Child-Women Need Your Manliness, July 15, 2011
I first played this in IF Comp 2002, and didn't get very far; I was running on an unsupported Mac interpreter. It placed sixth of thirty-eight -- which, looking back, seems to be roughly the line between the games of some enduring quality and the those that were unremarkable or deeply flawed. And it remains one of the more popular ADRIFT games, so I thought it might be worth revisiting.

The basic premise is that a shadowy agency is trying to kidnap or control a number of psychokinetic girls; more or less at random, they ask the PC for help and proceed to become entirely reliant on him. The main aim is to pick a girl, then develop your relationship score to a high enough level to get a special ending.

As everybody else has stated, it's conspicuously sexist, in a genre-derived, uninteresting way. Further, it's in denial about it: the hero is portrayed as chastely chivalrous and pointedly contrasted against "real" sexists and perverts, while rhapsodising over the sweet submissive innocence of childlike girls. This worldview is not an unfortunate flaw: it's foundational. Inhabiting a particular representation of gender is the central purpose of the game, and considerably less attention is paid to the evil-institutional-conspiracy / paranormal-powers plot.

Romance is portrayed in a decidedly unromantic way, as a matter of dispensing gifts, assistance and compliments while not hitting on other girls (if it might be noticed). It's romance stripped of the complicated social intangibles; though never turning into porn, it's definitely running on porn-logic. If it actually acknowledged that it was D/s lifestyle fetish, it'd be rather less unnerving.

The writing is going for a sort of charmingly-awkward effect, the sort of not-quite-fluent style you often get with second-language writers or patchy translations. It doesn't always sustain this, frequently dropping into Generic IF Bland. Other anime-derived stuff -- overuse of ellipsis in dialogue, busy upbeat music, template characters and settings -- is likely to annoy anybody not already enamoured with the form.

Gameplay wobbles between linearity and go-everywhere-to-see-if-anything's-changed, although this is largely a conscious design decision; the plot's streamlining is sacrificed at various points to allow for lots of optional content. On the other hand, the map tends to be designed with an eye to its effect on pacing the first time you run through, to the detriment of re-exploration, and there's a narrow inventory limit. Conversation is rather stunted; when it breaks into multiple-choice menus, it's often a matter of one Good Choice and several bad ones that end the conversation.

If you can get past all this, it has a number of things to offer: it's quite long and has considerable replay value. It may appeal if you like games which involve hunting out optional content, of which there is a great deal. Its use of multimedia is genre-appropriate and executed with skill, and for a game of its size, particularly in ADRIFT, it has a more than respectable level of polish. But this is like saying that GTA has really immersive world design, if you can just get past the violence and reckless driving. Slow pacing and lots of optional content is fine if you enjoy the basic texture of the world; if the world makes your skin crawl, it becomes a liability.


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