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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

science fiction

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1-5 of 5


Changes, by David Given

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Invasion of the Bunny Body-Snatchers, November 17, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: science fiction, environment, setting
A piece of ecological science fiction with obvious similarities to the James Cameron Avatar, Changes relies on a contrast between an idyllic setting and violence and destruction. Some fairly nasty behaviour is required to make much progress in the plot: (Spoiler - click to show)a space explorer crashed on an alien world, you must kill a succession of alien creatures in order to steal their bodies and abilities, enabling you to return to your ship.

The immediate attraction of Changes is environmental; it is set in a good-sized map full of attractively-described locations, pleasant to explore and absorb. (Given how well-suited IF is to environment-focused games, it's surprising that so few exist, so this was pretty refreshing in its own right.) The writing is strong enough to serve as an immediate draw. At the larger scale, it has a consistent, overarching set of puzzle goals that are readily grasped, are deeply tied into the world, themes and plot, and do a good job of directing short-term motivation.

It's at the intermediate scale that Changes stumbles: between the immediate experience of setting and prose and the grand arc of the puzzle sequence, a player has to figure out the shape of individual puzzles and get them to work. Here, the extensive map becomes a drawback: it's not always very clear which problems can be tackled at any given time, and even when you know what to do the execution can be fairly frustrating. A good deal of effort has been made to provide clues, but these often appear long before they can be usefully acted upon and don't show up again. Experimentation isn't always as well-rewarded as it might be.

In some ways, it's tempting to think of Changes as a belated artefact from around the tail-end of the Middle School period, something to be shelved alongside The Edifice and Babel, intended to be played over multiple sittings, likely to stump the player for considerable periods of time. (Tending to support this: the backstory is doled out through amnesia-recovery.) The game might have been served better by that model, perhaps; at any rate, the two-hour Comp doesn't seem to be its optimal environment.

The Rocket Man From The Sea, by Janos Honkonen

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Bees, roses and a dark sea, June 28, 2012
Citing Ray Bradbury as a primary influence, this feels very much like a SF short story from the 50s or 60s, the sort of SF you could make a movie about without any need for a special effects budget. The protagonist, a child, lives with his parents on an island across the bay from Astro City. Earth is at war with Mars, and the protagonist plays make-believe games based on this distant conflict. But then a rocket-man washes up on the shore, and reality and fantasy intermingle. (There is a general feeling of WW2 fiction here.)

Though capable overall, both the writing and the overall design have some rough patches. The prose feels a little first-draftish in places. Most of the gameplay is quite narrowly focused -- probably too much so, in the make-believe sequence -- but there are a couple of points where the solution is a little counterintuitive. The denouement is rather heavily foreshadowed, the protagonist is perhaps a little bit too much of a Disney innocent. But there are many gleaming moments here, little bursts of rich, world-grounded imagery that make this feel less like a fantastic piece and more like a childhood memoir.

As science fiction IF goes, it's uncommonly good in that it has its feet planted on the ground, it grasps and is concerned about the flight-of-fancy aspect of the genre.

Cryptozookeeper, by Robb Sherwin

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Chimeric Drift, June 25, 2012
A feckless loser, likeable but kind of awful, has his life even further ruined by the intrusion of an SF/F trope. He joins up with a group of yet-more-awful guys and an cute girl or two; together they navigate a grody, nocturnal Americana fever-dream, overcome obstacles through randomised combat, and squabble interminably; a extensive range of graphics and atmospheric music rounds the experience out. Scatology, sass and geekery abound. If you've enjoyed previous Robb Sherwin games, then, this is a safe bet.

In Cryptozookeeper the subject is aliens and cryptids; the result is something that feels like The X-Files cross-bred with Pokemon, with an all-slacker cast. A lot of things don't make sense, and the general feeling is of a partial hallucination; wisecracking is juxtaposed with graphic horror, the plot develops tangled corners that you don't need to keep track of, and gameplay alternates between drifting easily along while expostulation happens, and being stuck in a frustrating corner with a skewy puzzle just beyond your grasp. And it's always night. And characters point out, repeatedly, the many aspects of the story that make no sense. It's a very particular kind of surreal.

At Cryptozookeeper's heart is a mini-game in which you create cryptids by combining DNA that you've collected, then battle them in an underground animal-fighting ring, in order to level them up to face a final challenge. The design is such that collecting all the DNA and discovering all the cryptids is optional. Combat is old-schoolish and random, but handled automatically and quickly; your main decisions are about gaining stats. On the other hand, you'll do a very great deal of it, it involves few strategic decisions, and it's not very clear how much is enough; players who dislike grinding may grit their teeth.

Thorough implementation is often talked about as a sine qua non of IF authorship, but it comes at a high cost. Sherwin puts as much effort, care and love into his games as anybody making IF, and does extensive testing; but robust implementation comes fairly low on his list. (Save often.) Among his higher priorities, it seems, is long-arc story. Cryptozookeeper is sometimes buggy or cumbersome, and often sparse and linear -- but it's also large and brim-full of content.

For much of the game you have three or four NPCs in tow, but you can talk to them rarely and on very limited topics. Despite this, they feel more developed than many NPCs with ten times their conversation topics -- Robb writes very well, the images help, and you have time to get to know them. (Too, you're constantly sniping at one another; the silences feel, appropriately, like irate sulking.)

Like most Sherwin games, this is basically about how the world is dark and horrible but even the most abject can be redeemed; it manages the difficult task of making both the darkness and the light seem genuine.

Mammal, by Joey Jones

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Banality Of Evil Adventure, April 11, 2012
Mammal is a small-to-medium-sized treasure-hunt game with mild puzzles. As the human slave of reptilians, you are tasked with eradicating all traces of mammals from a museum.

(Spoiler - click to show)This is a fairly grim premise, since you're effectively a Sonderkommando. The wider context of the purge is never explicitly stated, but there's ample evidence that it has been a violent and chaotic process. The featureless protagonist shows no signs of emotional reaction, and dutifully goes about a set of simple tasks that are perfectly familiar to an IF player: find and identify the treasures, solve some mild puzzles to secure them, return them to the trophy-case. The PC is wholly subsumed by their role.

There are some obvious homages: the skip as trophy case is a throwback to Ad Verbum, and the reptilians bear no small resemblance to Dr. Sliss of Rogue of the Multiverse. (If there are any direct references to the TMBG song, I wouldn't notice them.) More generic stock IF devices are common, too: a crowbar to pry things with, a wandering cat. This is about the morally numbing effect of familiarity, of how having an excellent practical grasp of how to do something can make it seem less ethically troubling. That this is a mechanically unremarkable game is kind of the point. The puzzles are just fiddly enough to engage your attention and keep it away from the elephant in the room. Ultimately, you incinerate yourself for the lousy last point. (I assume; there's a point or two that I haven't found.)

Mammal is not an ethically deep work; it has a single trick to pull, a single point to make. But it's cleverly handled, and it delivers a mean little moment of realisation. And it's very clearly not about the rather tired point that players will cheerfully do atrocious things if shepherded by gameplay; rather, it takes that as read and takes advantage of it.

(There is one small bug: if you incinerate yourself while holding other mammals, the other mammals are not incinerated.)


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.


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