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Ratings and Reviews by CMG

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Ladykiller in a Bind, by Christine Love
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All Roads, by Jon Ingold
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Fail-Safe, by Jon Ingold
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Yellow Dog Running, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Yellow Dog Running, May 23, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
This game was made for a speed-writing contest. It’s rough. It has unimplemented scenery. Its conversation menus are formatted wonkily. In order to advance the story, at certain points you have to “follow tracks,” which initially creates a guess-the-verb problem. Worse than that, there are no “tracks” in the room descriptions. There are footprints, but “footprints” isn’t a synonym for “tracks.”

Despite these issues, there’s a little masterpiece buried in here.

I like interactive fiction that uses interactivity to put the reader through an experience. Yellow Dog Running takes the reader on a vision quest. Other games would use that as an invitation to roll out hallucinations and weird imagery. Not this game. Its landscapes are real landscapes whose details have been sharpened into unreality. It has a sense for texture, temperature. Dried mud cracking under your feet isn’t a trivial detail. It’s not flavor text. It’s everything.

You’re pursuing a wounded troll, and the story is divided into conversations with characters who block your path forward. At each stage, you have to barter with them. These are short scenes, and you always pay dearly in the end, but sometimes you pay more dearly than others. Making the conversations interactive is what makes you appreciate the price. It only takes a little to get the idea across.

These characters you meet, they’re all guardians and gods. They’re also predators. The first is a hyena who will kill you if you refuse to make a deal. Yellow Dog is a similar figure, but you can never speak to Yellow Dog, and Yellow Dog never blocks your path. Yellow Dog follows because Yellow Dog knows that, sooner or later, he’ll have your bones anyway.

Thwarting interaction is itself interaction, and Yellow Dog’s constant presence coupled with his inaccessibility is a great use for the parser. The mechanics express the meaning.

About halfway through the game, there’s a single puzzle. I don’t like it. What happens in the story during the puzzle is fine, but this isn’t a game about puzzles. We’ve established a rhythmic pace with repeating cycles, and then the puzzle throws a wrench into it. I would’ve preferred for the story to continue flowing onward.

I have another complaint. A few times, the protagonist talks about embarking on this journey to slay the troll because “there’s this girl…” How romance does or doesn’t figure into the story is actually, in the end, handled with maturity. But the way these parts are written makes the story seem to dip into something like teen angst, when otherwise its tone is mythic and universal.

Complaints aside, broken implementation aside, Yellow Dog Running still ranks among my favorite games. It has the perfect size and shape for a parser “short story,” and its subject and mood are unique. It may be a pipe-dream, but I hope Sam Ashwell polishes it up for a second release someday in the future.

The Anachronist, by Peter Levine

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
The Anachronist, May 21, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Anachronism is usually considered a mistake. Often it is. Readers want to know a story’s time period. When they can’t find solid ground to establish one, or when what they thought was solid proves unstable, they report confusion or annoyance. Their suspension of disbelief has snapped.

I have a hard time remembering dates. A very, very hard time. You have no idea what a hard time. When other people discuss generations, when they delineate time by decades, this seems alienating. There’s no great change from December’s last day to January’s first. Dividing the time on either side into different years makes sense for practical matters. Treating that distinction as more than an arbitrary line drawn on a calendar, discussing years as though they were truly distinct -- this is where I start to sink while everyone else floats. For whatever reason, the timekeeping systems that most people use to organize their lives feel meaningless to me. Perhaps I’ve read too many fairy tales.

I think this is why I’m more sympathetic to anachronism. Actually, I’m more than sympathetic. I tend to like it. Rather than creating confusion, it makes sense. It’s fertile ground to explore. Which is a long prologue to explain why this game’s subject matter was like having a favorite dessert served on a silver platter.

You play as a woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. She is lashed to it when the story starts. It is being lit. But she doesn’t burn just yet. She has been apprenticed to an alchemist, and has gleaned the art of memory. This allows her to retreat into her own mind and escape the fire -- temporarily.

A single moment expands to encompass days, weeks, years, lifetimes as she plunges deeper and deeper into her memories. But they aren’t only her memories. Her perception is sharp enough, her empathy keen enough, her imagination wild enough, perhaps, this close to death, that she can share her consciousness with other people. She can look, from the stake, across the city and know what’s happening in distant towers. She can remember stories that her cellmates told her, before she was convicted, and relive their lives through those remembered tales.

Time obviously goes out the window. Anachronism isn’t a mistake: it is the truth. The more time decomposes, the more we understand as we come to learn the circumstances surrounding the present moment. It’s a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonist’s focus sharpens. Structurally, this means that the story is based around increasingly dense telescopic descriptions. We have a scene, we concentrate on a detail, that detail becomes another scene, we concentrate on another detail in that scene…

More than any other interactive fiction I’ve played, this feels like a novel. It’s very long for a Twine game. It took me a few days to finish, and probably around ten hours total. My reading speed, granted, is slow as a slug, but still. If you plan to play it, treat it more like a book than a game.

It also features long stretches of non-interactive text. Extremely long stretches. Stretches that tested my patience. I’m reading interactive fiction to interact with it, after all. I have nothing against traditional fiction, but I’ll read that if that’s what I want. Stone Harbor is another recent game that had similarly long, non-interactive passages. I finished that game feeling as though the brief interactive bits were window dressing, that the story would’ve worked as well printed on paper. The Anachronist is even more extreme. When it’s not interactive, it’s not interactive.

But when it is, it is.

I faced the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a choice-based game in this story. At multiple points, you can break your concentration and return to focusing on the stake, the rising fire. I didn’t do that. I stayed in the protagonist’s head (or maybe the protagonists’ heads). And finally I reached a point where I had been reading for hours, for days, while the stake was still burning, and the game confronted me: what was I accomplishing by living in my memories? Shouldn’t I focus on the fire, what’s actually happening?

I didn’t know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the story’s reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I should’ve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the story’s most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.

What I chose to do next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isn’t a story whose strength rests on making the “right” choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the reader’s own experience, which can only happen because it’s interactive.

In this sense, it’s some of the strongest interactive work I’ve seen. I was tempted to give it five stars for the concept alone. But although the concept is great, the game suffers from a few things apart from its long non-interactive patches.

It’s written very well. However, the writing tips more toward scholarly than literary. Scenes usually don’t unfold through direct action. Instead they’re summarized. Considering how much happens, the sheer volume of events packed into the story, you’d expect a certain amount of summarization. But this much makes the prose taste more like a history textbook. You read about what happened. You aren’t always there yourself.

It’s also impeccably researched. Although the story is about anachronism, this is no slapdash text that throws whatever it wants into the pot. It’s Elizabethan, and it revels in intimate period detail. Tastes, sounds, textures. Clothing, accents, architecture, music, food, religion, law. Everything feels evocative and real, and also researched. You can sense the research in every line. Again, that textbook flavor emerges, where you feel more like you’re reading a scholarly article than a story. Even the artwork (there are many nice illustrations) is captioned with bibliographic information if you click it. Attributions are good, but presenting them on every single page really puts the story’s academic foot forward.

Finally, there is stat-tracking. Depending on your choices, you can increase or decrease your “entropy” or “knowledge.” What these stats do doesn’t become clear until the end, when they determine the end. I tried to decrease entropy throughout the story, even if it meant sacrificing knowledge, which led to a sub-optimal ending. Whoops. Since the game is so long, it’s unlikely I’ll play again to do things differently.

You can also look for literal literary anachronisms in the text, quotations that don’t belong, which are links disguised as normal prose. If you click them, your “entropy” decreases. A potentially interesting mechanic, but it didn’t work for me: a) because I didn’t know what the “entropy” stat actually did, and b) because sometimes it plain didn’t work. I know I saw some Alice quotes, for example, but I couldn’t click them. I only managed to find about four clickable anachronisms in the whole text. Which meant I spent a lot of time clicking on nothing when I could’ve been more immersed in reading.

These criticisms are certainly not flattering. The game is not perfect, and I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But it is ambitious, sophisticated, and despite everything that I thought it did less than ideally, it still did enough right to keep me engaged to the end.

Burning Temples, by ghostwrassler
CMG's Rating:

The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, by Ryan Veeder

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, May 18, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Along with The Baron, this was one of the first parser games I ever played when I discovered interactive fiction back in 2014. At the time, I thought it was great, but on The Baron’s heels it felt less substantial (what wouldn’t) and I gave it four stars. Now a few years have passed. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower remains a touchstone for me. It deserves five.

In many ways, this game helped shape my outlook on the parser medium. It’s not about puzzles. It’s not about “Aha!” moments that come from deducing the right command to type. It’s not about deep simulation or intricate world modeling. Instead, it’s about guiding the player through a sequence of events carefully designed, above all else, to produce a mood.

Your only goal is to ascend a tower with which the player-character is “mildly” obsessed. No real obstacles stand in your way. It’s twilight, and the tower is located on a campus whose population is thinning as night falls. You’re alone to contemplate the scenery.

As a traditional short story, this wouldn’t work. There isn’t much story to tell. As a space to explore, were the game to be stripped to its bare geography, it also wouldn’t offer much. There’s a parking lot, a lawn, some empty halls, etc. These locations aren’t compelling on their own, and as I mentioned, they’re not that deeply implemented. What makes the game is the experience itself that the player has while moving through the environment.

That word, “experience,” is awfully vague, but it’s what matters. A story as the word “story” is normally understood isn’t required, perhaps isn’t even advisable, because the player’s experience is the story.

It’s the writing that does the trick here. Well, it ought to be. This is a text game. When a reader has to interact with text, move through it, move it around, this changes both what text does and what it has to do.

Not just anybody could’ve written a game like this and made it good. It’s good because Ryan Veeder’s got his finger on your pulse as you’re playing. He knows where you’ll try to go, what you’ll try to do, what you’re thinking at each step. He’s attuned to the experience you should be having, which allows him to gently guide you along and drop little surprises at the right moments. Finding a plain old quarter on the ground, for example, which you don’t even need, feels special.

Wrenlaw is another Veeder game with a similar style. I have to admit, I don’t like it as much. It tips more into modern literary melancholy, where you’ve got mundane objects and scenes, and they’re significant because they’re ever-so-slightly sad. But not too sad. Just enough to feel wistful. This sorta thing, to my taste, is like playing with fire for a writer. It’s really hard to nail. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, however, pretty much does nail it. Gothic Tower feels more self-assured, and it’s certainly more slyly constructed. I don't think it's going to budge from my personal parser canon anytime soon.

Save the World in 7 Moves, by chintokkong
CMG's Rating:

Inhumane, by Andrew Plotkin
CMG's Rating:

The Cavity of Time, by Sam Kabo Ashwell
CMG's Rating:


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