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Reviews by Jim Kaplan

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Zork: A Troll's-Eye View, by Dylan O'Donnell
A cute, underdeveloped idea, July 5, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: one-room, zork, short, parody, fantasy, dylan o'donnell, puzzleless, fanfiction
Play it if: a five-minute joke game playing off Zork cliches sounds like your cup of tea.

Don't play it if: you're hoping for a full-blooded critique of NPCs and minions in old-school IF.

This is a short game, short enough that it would probably take longer to read a review of it than to play it. A one-room, puzzle-less game, A Troll's-Eye View's basic function is to turn a little part of Zork on its head by showing it from the perspective of the embattled guardian troll encountered early in the game.

This is an excellent idea for a game in my opinion. Unfortunately, the execution is undercut by a rather limited implementation of the idea. The writing plays with the timeless Zorkian language, but not in a very complete way: a fair amount of the responses are stock Nelson-era statements which feel anachronistic.

It's one thing to pose a question about identity and agency in games. But you don't really need to make a game to accomplish that, and deciding to make use of IF as a medium for the critique of IF sort of demands more than this game has to offer. Only the barest mention is made of the troll's reasons for being there - not, in fact, much more than the game A Troll's-Eye View parodies. So while it does mirror Zork in certain respects, they aren't really the right ones to produce a critique that is particularly new or memorable.

A more complete attempt would have taken the perspective of a character with more agency, such as the main antagonists, as the gulf between their potential relationships with the protagonist and their actual non-existent relationships are much wider - and therefore a more fruitful source of study.

Glass, by Emily Short

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Light Fun, April 1, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: Emily short, one-room, short
Play it if: you're in the mood for bite-sized IF with a bit of innovation and Emily Short's trademark narrative voice.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for something more ambitious, or if you're easily put off by gameplay that constrains player actions.

This is a curiosity: a non-linear game that feels linear. Emily Short's Glass tells a modified version of the Cinderella story from the point of view of the parrot. The objective is to use your limited speech skills at opportune moments to influence the story.

The one or two twists on the classic tale are interesting enough to make the game worthwhile by themselves, but perhaps the biggest draw (at least in concept) is the ability I influence the flow of things from a bird's-eye-view.

Unfortunately, I played Glass very soon after another conversation-based game, Whom The Telling Changed by Aaron Reed, and it blows Glass out of the water when it comes to the main gameplay mechanic. Choosing what to say and when to say it in that game required paying close attention to the story and constantly trying to interpret it subtextually. In contrast, getting to any of the endings in Glass feels more like an exercise in trial and error, and as such the gameplay is not as satisfying as it could have been.

Nevertheless, Glass is a good five-minute distraction with good writing and some engaging concepts. Now that the game's source code has been made public, it can also serve as an educational exercise by giving aspiring IF writers some insight into the inner workings of conversation- and scene-heavy games.

Burn the Koran and Die, by Poster

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
Tedious, March 28, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: poster, one-room, short
Play it if: your understanding of the nuances of the Muslim world has the depth of a dessert spoon, and you enjoy reveling in this fact by playing one-note nonsense like this.

Don't play it if: you have a soft spot for troll-feeding, because a game this irritating is sure to provoke more people like me into writing unnecessarily long reviews.

I might not have bothered with this review had I only played the game.

I mean, yes, the satire is one-note (only Muslims will kill you for criticizing them in public, apparently). I mean, yes, the premise is unrealistic to the point of utter absurdity (a college student decides to take five tomes and burn them for no clear reason). I mean, yes, the overall tone of the game is one of self-aggrandizement, attributing free speech to the author's personal deity (Jesus, apparently) and a specific military subsection of a national identity (American soldiers), in spite of the fact that modern democratic ideas have their roots in, among others, philosophers (not soldiers) of revolutionary France as well as the (non-Christian) Hellenic world of antiquity.

No, what finally motivated me to actually review this game was the help file.

Firstly, the author gives thanks to Jesus for "a spiritual empire not dependent upon theft, slavery, lust, or murder". Rather bizarre, given the theft of land, enslavement of Africans and Native Americans, and mass murder that helped build the United States (I'm not sure how lust figures into U.S. history).

Secondly, the author describes the game as "a hard-edged satire". In a word: no. Hard-edged satire presents novel constructs that force its audience to re-think their perspectives. This offers caricature that will appeal only to those already in agreement with the author's views. It's not even as hard as the "Draw a Picture of Muhammad Day" exercise, which in and of itself was nothing more than a brief irritant as far as political activism goes.

Finally, and perhaps most insultingly, is the claim that the game was inspired in part by "a concern for the First Amendment". I don't doubt the author's support for the First Amendment. But censorship is only one of two ways to undermine it. The second is to destroy the integrity of communication. A considered attempt to respect the First Amendment would have resulted in a more complex game, and moreover, one which at least attempted to forge some basis in researched fact rather than general opinion. I don't mean to say that the underlying sentiment - that Islam is uniquely intolerant of criticism and has created a double standard for itself in Western society - is necessarily baseless in reality. In some areas, it is; in others, it isn't. But the game itself makes no attempt to acknowledge this.

The author writes, "My thanks also go out to those who understand and defend this right, no matter whatever else your politics." The irony is that the author has done something worse than not defending this right: the author has defended this right poorly, by offering subjective and simplistic propaganda - yes, propaganda - in place of the kind of considered and enlightening discussion that the First Amendment is ultimately intended to promote.

Had the author designed "Burn the Koran and Die" in mind with actually making a subtle point and substantiating it, I would gladly have called it a success, whether or not I particularly agreed with the point being made. As it is, I can't even call it that. Non-American, irreligious, and non-conservative as I am, I have to say that American conservatives deserve better material than this in the public forum.

Paranoia, by cpuguy89

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The Shortest Waste of Time in IF, March 27, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: cpuguy89, one-room, short
Play it if: you thought Asylum was the bottom of the barrel, and you want to prove yourself wrong.

Don't play it if: you were hoping for more of the hysterical mis-coding that characterized Asylum, for while this game is undoubtedly fatally flawed, it has even less of the unintentional entertainment value.

Set in a mysterious toyroom, Paranoia is in fact both vastly easier and vastly shorter than the author's earlier work, Asylum. There is a little less in the way of (unintentionally?) hilarious coding errors,(Spoiler - click to show) (though this could be thought of as a one-move game - try going east!) there's still some clunky writing here. The parser won't recognize any substitutes for "jack-in-the-box", for instance, and a certain object(Spoiler - click to show) apparently hidden inside the jack-in-the-box that seems to be vital to completing the game(Spoiler - click to show), barring your one-move victory option, is not implemented!

Conan Kill Everything, by Ian Haberkorn

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Funny Enough, March 27, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: ian haberkorn, one-room, short
Play it if: you've got a few minutes to kill and a few brain cells to waste.

Don't play it if: you want a bit more ambition in your IF than - well, almost nothing - and if you are easily enraged by the dumbing-down of the character of Conan as portrayed in external works.

A seemingly one-note joke of a game that actually does have a few puzzles, I'm not sure whether to praise Conan Kill Everything for keeping its admittedly simple premise brief, or wonder if a longer pastiche of the (now ubiquitous) dim-witted caricature of the character is in order.

But I won't be too picky. This is a fairly funny game, and the point of the joke is made. There are even some minor puzzles and a number of nice touches like Conan's reactions to kissing or cutting things. In sum, it's an OK time-waster.

Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die, by Rob Noyes

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Other Games Do It Better, March 25, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: rob noyes, one-room, short
Play it if: you have fairly low standards for joke IF.

Don't play it if: you prefer a bit more elegance in your parodies.

In brief, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die is a punchline game, where the whole point of the thing is just one big joke. This doesn't have to make it bad, but while games such as Adam Cadre's 9:05 and even Ian Haberkorn's Conan Kill Everything accomplish this with some degree of elegance, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die has basically no replay value - because its joke is one-note. A funnier and thus more effective game might have resulted if the objective had been to avoid picking up the phone booth at all costs, in spite of various incentives to do so.

There's not much to say about a game that has so little to recommend it and so little to damn it. It's too insubstantial to even be considered a waste of time, but that's not really a good reason to play it, is it?

Asylum, by cpuguy89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Thankfully Short, March 24, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: cpuguy89, one-room, short
Play it if: you're looking (with all due respect to the author) for the kind of example game not to show beginners to IF, or if you have a strong sado-masochistic streak.

Don't play it if: you want to play a game with any real level of thought or creative input.

I'm going to go ahead and disagree with the author: this is very much not the kind of game to show IF beginners, and here's why.

First, the game has little to entertain beginners enough to get them interested in more IF. The descriptive text is Spartan at best (the room description consisting of a list of objects, for instance), and there is no story or atmosphere besides a basic need to get out of a room.

Second, there's no fair challenge in the game. Most of the "puzzles" require either a brute-force approach to opening containers and trying keys out in differenet locks, or guess-the-verb minigames. Neither of these are a genuine test of intellect, and as a result neither are rewarding; any prospective IF player is likely to feel frustrated with this work.

Finally, the game's underlying logic is almost non-existent. One has to wonder what kind of asylum would put its patients in a room chock-full of keys or hire staff who ruin your plans for escape on the basis of a clock's alarm. The corners of the desk are sanded off to prevent you from hurting yourself, and yet the room contains (Spoiler - click to show)a fragile glass object, a heavy hammer, and a chisel capable of penetrating a wall, among other things! Not to mention the time limit - (Spoiler - click to show)if there are no doors described in the room, how do the asylum staff get in to "ruin your plans"? Dearie me. An unintentionally hilarious coding error - and one that could have been fixed with a marginally thorough beta-test - is the error message that pops up whenever the player tries to off himself (the kind of response games of this caliber inspire in me, I'm afraid). The "remove player from play" error, in case you were wondering...which is odd considering that the author successfully wrote in a defeat condition!

Hopefully the author's subsequent work will have more in the way of invested effort.

P.S. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this game is that the author voted for it in a list of Best Short Games. I don't mean to sound...well, mean, but...really?

Damnatio Memoriae, by Emily Short

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Short and Sweet, March 21, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy, short
Play the game if: you're a fan of Emily Short's trademark attention to detail and creative command systems, or if you want a short, not-too-challenging puzzler which will nevertheless excite your curiosity.

Don't play the game if: you wished this was comparable in scale to Savoir-Faire, or if you're looking for a story that is emotionally gripping.

Damnatio Memoriae is a flawless game, by which I mean that it hits all the marks it's aiming for. It adapts the magic system from Savoir-Faire into a novel setting and a more constrained story, the premise here being that you have to find a way of effecting a room escape and the destruction of certain objects at the same time.

The difficulty level on this one is quite low, which is understandable given the constrained environment that allows for brute-force solutions; it is, however, tricky to get the most desirable ending on a first attempt, though not impossible. Even without prior knowledge of how linking, reverse linking and enslaving work, it shouldn't take more than a few playthroughs to get the hang of things. A minor flaw here is that the help file is perhaps a tad bit too vague for the newcomer as to the magic system: I hadn't played Savoir-Faire when I first tried this one out, and as a result my initial attempts were perhaps more clumsy than they needed to be. In the event of an updated version or future installments in the series, I'd recommend an inclusion of some basic example scenarios to get across the points - as certain help files will so often do for the basic command system.

The setting is a rather cool mix of ideas - Imperial Roman political intrigue mixed with a crime story mixed with fantasy. The environment was given sufficient detail and verisimilitude that I wouldn't be averse to a future game exploring some side of Agrippa's family history. In some ways, though, that's the great gift and curse of complete short stories: they can stir up such curiosity about the world, rather than making it feel mundane by actually showing it.

Although I can't really fault the story for anything, it gets a four-star rating from me just because, apart from being entertaining and interesting, it won't occupy much of a place in my memory next to more complex or emotionally engaging works, many of which were authored by Ms Short herself. Sometimes perfection and inspiration just aren't the same thing.

(But there are worse things than a perfect game!)

A Day for Fresh Sushi, by Emily Short

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Fun Distraction and A Good Introduction To IF, March 20, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy, one-room, short
Play this game if: You have a fondness for witty banter and a craving for short and easy games.

Don't play this game if: Just play the darn thing.

Something akin to a slice out of a fantasy/soap/comedy webcomic, A Day for Fresh Sushi is short, simple, and fun.

The main reason you'd want to play this - other than as a basic introduction to IF - is of course the fish, the feeding of whom is the objective of the game. It's an objective you may want to put off, though, because the fish's commentary on what you're doing in the meantime is hilarious enough that you may find yourself just trying to get him to react more.

Certainly not the kind of game one plays for a challenge,(Spoiler - click to show)since after all you can win in three turns, A Day for Fresh Sushi is instead an entertaining five-minute distraction.

Shade, by Andrew Plotkin

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Solid Four-Star Game, March 20, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: andrew plotkin, one-room, short
Play the game if: you simply want to enjoy a competent and in some places innovative work of interactive fiction without getting bogged down in complex intellectual challenges.

Don't play the game if: you want to be dazzled with narrative brilliance, or if you want more out of IF than good prose and atmosphere.

Shade is a work of interactive fiction that could easily have doubled as a script for The Twilight Zone. In fact, certain very apt comparisons could be made to (Spoiler - click to show)Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", a film adaptation of which was shown on The Twilight Zone.

The bare mechanics of Shade work rather well. In fact, the very question of "difficulty" doesn't even seem to exist in this game. Plotkin's writing is sharp enough that when the rules begin to change, the differences will leap out at you even though they're rather subtle - details such as (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist's vacuum suddenly being full of sand, or the apartment's plant changing species.

The apartment setting is implemented with convenience in mind, the game allowing for multiple locations in a single-room setting without forcing the player to resort to constant commands of "enter" and "exit". My favorite games in IF focus on synchronizing the kind of decision-making underlying in-game actions with the player's own mind. Such games, and in this case Shade, impart a sense of intuitive control and completeness that can help the game transcend itself in the Turing-esque sense that IF has always striven to accomplish.

There is only so much one can discuss in the story itself without referring to heavy spoilers. The fact that there even exist heavy spoilers is in and of itself something of a spoiler, which poses something of a problem. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, the attempt must be made.

An undeniable strength of the story is the atmosphere. The one-room setting achieved the right balance of comprehensibility and potential to explore; the pacing of your introductory searches around the room is good enough to introduce all the important elements at play and keep them in your mind at all times.

Perhaps because I've seen this particular brand of story before, Shade's actual narrative doesn't come across as particularly fresh or new for me. This is likely more a subjective nitpick than an objective criticism, but there you go. What might be called the second act (Spoiler - click to show)(specifically, the process of turning all of your apartment to sand) was for me a rather laborious process of carrying out the obvious, even though I understood more or less where this story was going to end. Even before getting to this stage I'd more or less guessed the ending - showing that while subtle details will leap out at you, there's an added risk of too much foreshadowing.

The result was that I wasn't as gripped by Shade as I might have been - the two moments of genuine excitement being the realization of what was actually going on (turning out to be something I'd seen before), and the epilogue of sorts, which is written rather well.

Still, this is, if not a great work, at least a very good one; the implementation of the setting, the comfortable command system, and the prose are by themselves enough to make this game worth your time.


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