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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

satire

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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.

The Spy Who Ate Lunch, by Robert Rothman

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Twit, March 8, 2012
This aims to follow the tradition of Bureaucracy, The Goon Show or Brazil: a hyperbolic anti-authoritarian satire. It ends up, I think, being more like Austin Powers, Robert Rankin or the weaker efforts of Mel Brooks, without the frenetic pacing that (if anything) makes those works tolerable. You play a spy struggling to complete a (ludicrous) mission despite the institutional obstruction of your own agency. Much of the humour is derived from Dirty Acronyms (your boss is the T.U.R.D.) and the tone is generally at about that level. If that style of comedy works for you, you might enjoy this; if not, stay well back.

Satire's difficult. Satire cannot be done well from a complacent position. Satire fails when it says nothing new, when the author seems untroubled by the material: it involves a lot more than a comic assertion of one's opinions about what's wrong with the world. The Spy Who Ate Lunch takes on a broad swathe of issues -- bureaucratic incompetence, security theatre, jingoism, detention and torture, food regulation -- but doesn't ever seem to progress beyond cheap sniping. (It's possible that the tone shifts in the later game; I didn't get beyond the initial area.)

One of the more obvious targets of The Spy Who Ate Lunch is political correctness. It mostly handles this by embracing over-the-top, nuance-free stereotypes: there's a bitch secretary and an Nazi interrogator, and once you recognise their Type you know everything about them. It's possible to pull off satire through ludicrous, overblown caricatures, but not easy; it presents an almost insurmountable temptation to resort to lazy strawmanning, sneering and irrelevance. The other problem is that off-the-shelf stereotypes aren't inherently very funny. They can be rendered so, but by default they're tired, weak jokes. Julia in Violet is (Spoiler - click to show)promiscuous and obnoxious, but she's treated as an individual rather than an iteration of a stock character; this offers the author a lot more opportunity for fresh jokes, makes the character more interesting, and is harder to interpret as implying attitudes about women in general.

The part where this shifted from being mildly annoying to kind of objectionable, for me, is the torture bit. (Spoiler - click to show)In one corner of the HQ, the ex-Nazi interrogator is torturing a supposed Islamic terrorist who, it quickly emerges, is actually Korean. This isn't treated as horrific or shocking, exactly; it's just another gag. I was put in mind of the weaker half of The Great Dictator, the part wherein Jews evade portly, blundering stormtroopers by bopping them with skillets. Chaplin later said that he could never have made those parts if he'd known about the reality of ghettos and concentration camps.

Given more focus, the inability of the institutionally-minded PC to do anything about this could have made a genuine point, but the opportunity seems wasted; it comes off as just another gag. It's fine, I think, to make this sort of thing the subject of humour; but it's much more important for it to constitute genuine satire rather than the repetition of established tropes. Spy really doesn't seem interested in any kind of coherent stance: the abduction and torture of innocents isn't really presented as a more terrible activity than clamping down on food trucks. It makes me uneasy precisely because it's not all that interested in being uneasy.


These problems are exacerbated by the game's approach to interaction, which mostly takes the old-school attitude that anything that makes interaction more annoying counts as a puzzle. Spy is not a half-assed piece; it's sizeable, bristles with extensions, has been duly tested. Rather, I think, it's aiming to be a frustration comedy. Again, this is a hard thing to do well; to pull it off, you need to give your players the rock-solid assurance that the annoyance will be worth it, and that they'll only be frustrated when they need to be. Spy doesn't offer either assurance. (Admittedly, my tolerance for this is lower than most; Fine-Tuned and Gourmet were well-liked, but I didn't enjoy either much on a first play.)

The annoyance isn't arbitrary: its aim is to simulate the feeling of bureaucracy and security-theatre. The intelligence agency HQ where you start is broken up by keycard-locked doors: you have the card, but you have to swipe it every time you want to go through a door. This is a reasonable simulation: real-life keycards are fiddly and irritating, and having this constant annoyance in the background while you do other busywork tasks gives a good feel of what it's like to work in this place. But this player-unfriendly interaction style extends beyond the things that the bureacracy should directly control, and into things that are just politeness to the player. Even in the legit bureaucracy stuff the instinct for how tightly to turn the screw is off. I ended up abandoning the game after (Spoiler - click to show)having gathered that I couldn't leave the first area without unlocking and reading the manual, going through all the steps to unlock the manual, leaving the area, reading the first entry and discovering that the manual re-locks itself every time you read an entry, and that you can only unlock it in one place.

It's possible that Spy may appeal to players with more old-school expectations than mine, a great deal more patience, less sensitivity to tone, and different tastes in humour. But as I get older, I increasingly find myself considering art in terms of how much respect it has for its audience; by that standard, this does very poorly.

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, by One of the Bruces and Drunken Bastard

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Nelson, May 19, 2011
An excellent game, many aspects of which will be deal-breakers for many players. Let's start there.

First, it involves a lot of sex, much of it grotesque. With both genders, a variety of inanimate objects, corpses. There is a great deal of scatology. There are mohel jokes. Yahweh figures as a poor cousin to the Hellenic pantheon. (Spoiler - click to show)You will catch the clap and have it cured with a hash-pipe and a leather mallet. You will be raped and mostly enjoy it. If you are fond of taking offence at things, you will find ample opportunity here.

Second, although its sex operates under porn-logic, it is not really pornographic in motive; there are numerous sex scenes, yes, some of them with attractive people, but they're mostly played for laughs or squick or glossed over in jaded tones: "Of all the times you've ever boned a slatternly servant on a reeking mattress, this is certainly one of them." It's unlikely to function as wankfodder.

Thirdly, considerable background is required. You definitely want at least a passing familiarity with Graham Nelson's Curses (on which it is largely a commentary), Classics in general, and classical satire and comedy in particular. (Apart from anything else, there is at least one point at which insufficient knowledge of mythology can put the game in an unwinnable state.) It also helps to be acquainted with T.S. Eliot, Discordianism, the earlier Stiffy games, AIF conventions, Adventure and a broad swathe of assorted literary and geek lore. The overwhelming majority of players will feel they're missing things; some will feel they're being sneered at. You also have to cheerfully accept that none of this is going to be treated with anything slightly resembling reverence. (Fondness, yes. Reverence, oh my no.)

Fourth, it's quite old-school in structure and style. Scenery is sparse, wacky anachronisms abound, NPCs are very simple, and you're on a MacGuffin quest. It's cruel, too; a good deal of content can easily be missed, and there are several ways to put the game in an unwinnable state without realising it. On the other hand, the puzzles are mostly not very difficult, there are numerous modern conveniences, and the underlying design is well-crafted enough that play is generally smooth; but you will, nonetheless, want to save often.

The good news: if none of these forms a major objection you will probably enjoy Mentula very much indeed. Mentula is not a game that anybody has mild opinions about; it didn't earn a single 5 or 6 score in Spring Thing, and earned more 10s and more 1s than any other entrant. So, the good stuff: it's funny, clever, hugely good-natured, it's an overflowing cornucopia. Okay, it's an overflowing cornucopia in which some of the fruits turn out to be penises, but it's very clearly a game that was an immense amount of fun to write, and it conveys that sense of fun very well.


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