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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

science fantasy

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Nostrils of Flesh and Clay, by Porpentine

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The Scent of Defeat, March 11, 2012
Narrative-centred, vivid, weird SF noir, short and fast-moving. If you enjoy Robb Sherwin games or Deadline Enchanter you're likely to enjoy this.

The idea of a PC with a prodigious sense of smell has been floating around the IF world for an awfully long time. And a detective piece seems like a good fit for a smell game: the PC can see evidence that nobody else can, and you can deliver forensic-science details without having to mess around in a lab. The thing practically writes itself, and Nostrils of Flesh and Clay looks almost nothing like it.

Nostrils is a sort of science-fantasy noir. The SMELL verb is, indeed, more useful than EXAMINE, but it doesn't give concrete information so much as emotions, associations and metaphors. This meshes in heavily with the lurid, punchy prose, which would be at risk of becoming purple if it wasn't so admirably concise. The world is grimy, threatening, nauseous, bordering on the surreal; everything is experienced viscerally. There's heavy use of gesture-worldbuilding; China Mieville or Blade Runner territory. You are not meant to understand everything, and there's a significant gap between player and protagonist.

Once the central plot thread emerges, it's pretty clear that things are not going to end well. The protagonist is a bent cop; her special powers bring her little joy and cause her plenty of suffering. The world does not contain anybody trustworthy or pleasant. The IF feeling of isolation is in full effect. There is, in theory, a payoff you're working towards, but this isn't a character who sees any real hope of things getting better. It doesn't wallow in misery, and the language is too tasty to make the experience particularly grim; but the content's still pretty freakin' dark.

Mechanically, it's a rather simple game, without much in the way of deep interaction or significant choice. Cut-scenes feature heavily. The whole thing has the instincts of a short story, with all the unnecessary elements sheared off; it wants to keep the plot moving. At points it's somewhat more sparsely implemented than might be hoped, but mostly (particularly considering that it credits no testers) it's remarkably smooth to play.

Highly promising; hoping for more.

Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, by Andrew Plotkin

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful:
The Wine-Dark Cosmos, December 16, 2010
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: science fantasy, fantasy, fairytale, SF
Heliopause looks, on the surface, like far-future SF. It's a veneer. A very good, lovingly crafted veneer, rich with knowledge of astronomy and the knowing evocation of tasty SF tropes; but the heart of the game is fantasy, and this is understood, and it's very adeptly handled.

The framing of the story makes it clear that we're dealing with a tall tale, a reliable signal not just of narrative unreliability, but of entry into realms of Story where versimilitude is beside the point. The threefold repetition, the fisherman's-wife motif of a fourth greedy wish cancelling the previous three, the three gifts whose use emerges only at the moment of crisis -- these are solid motifs of the fantastic, and deftly employed. The protagonist gives lip-service to the idea that he's collecting stuff for its unique scientific properties, but really what's being sought isn't something with a technical application so much as Herodotean wonders.

SF treats space as a rational quantity to be managed in some way or another: an ocean to chart, a frontier to advance, an empire to administrate. In Heliopause, space is the Great Forest of Arthurian knight-errant and Grimm fairytale, or the ocean of the Odyssey: anything might be encountered there, but you won't be able to plot it on a map. The principal controls, which you're given enough time to figure out intuitively but not enough to really master, feed into this feeling, as does the low-level approach to scenery; the standard IF game encourages a rather Aristotelean, sift-through-lists approach to one's surroundings, but this feels more like fable than fieldwork. The problem with this in a game context is that things end up feeling quite linear; the sense of vast possibility in the early stages gets closed down towards the end.


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