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Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Story; Nominee, Best Setting; Nominee, Best Individual PC - 2000 XYZZY Awards
-- Duncan Stevens
Eyeing the LASH
At this point, LASH looks like a superior treasure-hunt. Not a cave crawl, but an after-apocalypse, burnt Earth crawl. That game might be interesting, but it's not LASH. Or at least, not after the first half-hour or so. After that point, LASH becomes a much more complex game, the IF Literature fans get even more interested and those who wanted a new Adventure kick their computer in dismay.
If LASH has a greatest flaw, then it is this initial misleading. This is also its greatest strength, despite the possibly that the initial premise will be enough to persuade literature-seekers that LASH is a puzzler. Regardless, this is a very literate game. Half SF, half Family Saga, and half fable; which makes LASH a game and a half, which is accurate. There's a lot crammed into its z8 frame.
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Paul O'Brian's LASH is a puzzler (and not in the sense that it's full of puzzles). It's an intriguing story, well told, and technically it all hangs together well. The writing is strong, and the exploration options wildly diverse--there are lots and lots of endings and different options to explore, and any given player is unlikely to see all the text the game has to offer without the aid of TXD. But for LASH to really work as interactive fiction, it has to resonate emotionally with the player, and unfortunately the nature of the story makes significant emotional impact somewhat unlikely.
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But as the player continues, LASH reveals itself to be anything but a simple treasure hunt. Tackling issues of race, violence and slavery, it not only attempt to say important things; it also silently but mercilessly mocks the shallowness of any fiction that revolves around looting, and the mindset of any player happy to just see his monetary score increase. (I suspect we are all of us such players.)
This game deserves to be played. It is well-researched, well-crafted, intelligent, and to a certain extent wise. It is not without its problems, but those can only be discussed within spoiler tags. Big spoiler tags. Huge spoiler tags. Do not enter these spoiler tags, ye who have not played the game!
(Spoiler - click to show)The slavery sequence has several problems, most of which have been pointed out by previous reviewers. The identification of human slavery with robotic slavery is only one of them: pulling this off would require a good amount of setting up the scenario of robotic slavery, and instead, we get almost nothing. A second problem is that the game seems to claim that we need to experience slavery first-hand in order to be changed by it; otherwise, why build something that goes beyond literature, movie and even virtual reality? But if this is true, then the game itself cannot work, since it only offers us interaction with a piece of IF. This weird tension cannot, I think, be resolved. But for me the greatest problem is that the slave narrative ends with apparently successful escape. Rather than exploring the true despair of inescapable slavery, we get something that is a little too reminiscent of Hollywood and historical romance:"it's your father" + somewhat happy ending. Hm.
But these criticisms should be understood for what they are: taking something that is impressive and thinking about how it could be even better. LASH is far more sophisticated and thoughtful than most IF, including most award-winning IF of the past years. And sometimes, it is pure gold, as in this exchange:
> take bolls
[I recognize that you are a human, and therefore unaccustomed to the endlessly repetetive tasks that we machines are asked to do for most of our lives. Therefore, if you like, you may command me simply to WORK UNTIL SUNSET, and avoid any boredom you may be experiencing.]
Finally, a few words about the writing. It is generally very good, although in certain places there are large text dumps of the kind IF readers dread. The fact that they occur as menus helps, but they still should have been paired down or spread out more.
Finally finally, allow me to pick one nit. This is not the way to invoke Dante:
"The drawback is that on summer days like this one, the kitchen is as hot as the bottom ring of Hell."
The bottom ring of Hell, where Lucifer is contained as he tortures Judas and the murderers of Caesar, is a huge lake of ice. As a result, it is not very hot. (I wonder to which circle of Hell I will be condemned for this nit. That of the prideful and the boasters, no doubt.)
This piece has been difficult to review. The code is solid. The writing is good. The gameplay is smooth. The hook hooks. The dramatic arc is clear. LASH has every reason to succeed. And yet, I'm giving it only two stars. [edit: I revised this to three stars, since it is good, just not great.]
Like Duncan Stevens, I felt the premise of LASH had something significant to deliver. Like Duncan Stevens, I felt it didn't quite reach me in the way that the author probably intended. While I find the piece interesting, most of my interest involves trying to understand what went wrong in the execution of what is clearly a compelling vision.
Functionally, I think it boils down to two issues. The first is time, and the second is the essential mechanics of player/PC interaction.
Regarding time, LASH is simply too short to build up the tension that is required to deliver the message well. Though the work was not entered into the IF Comp, it would have been well-suited to that venue owing to its short playtime and multiple endings. While this has been a winning formula many times for Comp winners, this structure shows its essential weakness when taken outside of that artificial environment.
Regarding player/PC interaction, it is hopefully not too much of a spoiler to state that the story's conclusion depends on a successful division of the player from the PC in the player's mind. It seemed to me that this division occurs somewhat abruptly and artificially, a perception that is very probably related to the short playing time.
There may also be a problem at the broader thematic level. Though I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I can't see how to get around that this time while still being clear, so please don't read the following until after you've played: (Spoiler - click to show)The main problem may be that LASH's story depends on achieving an identity between the historical slaves of America and the fictional slave machines in the game universe. This is both conceptually and ethically challenging in light of the fact that the machines are, by definition, purpose-built tools, and the conceptual gap between "tool" and "slave" is naturally much wider than that between "person" and "slave" -- especially in an era where nothing like the artifically-intelligent PC exists in the real world. Building a bridge across that gap is a hefty undertaking, and further complicated as described below.
While I am sympathetic to the idea that no sentient should be held captive, the crux of this story revolves around making the player realize that he or she has, in some small way, adopted the mental habits of a slave master while dealing with the PC. There is significant interference here as a result of the default player/PC relationship in interactive fiction, which is to some degree dependent on forgetting that you, as the player, are not the PC. The key difference between player and PC is the "realness" of their existence in their respective worlds (actual vs. fictional).
This dynamic is very different from what I would expect between slave master and slave, where the owner and slave by definition inhabit the same world, and the key difference is the "realness" of the slave's status as a free and equal human being. Mr. O'Brian may have done better by trying to achieve the player/slave master identity directly instead of indirectly through the analogy of "Player is to PC as 'owner' is to slave."
Overall, this work clearly had the potential for greatness but ended up falling short. Its finalist (but not winner) status for every major XYZZY award in 2000 shows that this is a pretty common perception. I do recommend that authors examine this work as a study in how to implement well on a functional level, and also as a thought challenge -- to explore how one might successfully achieve what Mr. O'Brian set out to do.
I like the fact that the "treasure hunt" aspects of this game are used in the service of the greater plot, and are well-motivated. And then once you finish up that segment of the game, you have a good idea of the geography you'll be dealing with in the next segment.
I appreciated the multiple different endings (including the nested ones) and the obvious care and craft that went into this title. It was obviously well-researched, well-written, and well-implemented. The opening background material and the help menus really helped set the initial post-apocalyptic tone, and I kept expecting the promised bands of slavering mutants to set upon me at any time.
The impact of the ending of the game hinges on several factors: You have to preserve a distinction between the player and the protagonist; you have to have emotional resonance built up in the second half of the game; and you have to (Spoiler - click to show)transfer sympathy for the plight of the slaves to the "plight" of your MULE.
I thought the distinction between player and protagonist was well-established through use of first person perspective (paradoxically more distancing, as others have observed in the past) and specific error messages that emphasized the robotic nature of the protagonist. Shorting out "x me" was also a nice touch.
I also thought the simulation section did a good job of furthering this distinction, using the mechanism of the bracketed comments from the robot.(Spoiler - click to show) I found myself strongly identifying with the simulated slave, to the point that I felt very much on edge while sneaking around to get my supplies for the escape. When you're in the room off the kitchen, with nowhere to run, and you hear the Master's feet approaching? These types of scenarios were very well done and left me feeling trapped and panicked.
As far as depth of characterization goes, I felt that Momma and the Master were well-written given their roles in the story, but I never got that feeling from Matthew. He seemed insufficiently motivated to me, and mostly seemed to exist to recite pro-Abolition lines to give his father something to tee off on.
Unfortunately, successes on the first two points were rendered largely irrelevant(Spoiler - click to show) by the failure to facilitate transferring the emotion generated by the mistreatment of the slaves in the second section to your MULE in the third.
The robot was nothing but an emotionless perfect servant during the first part of the game. Granted, the documentation talks about it being part-organic, but it didn't really act like it. It interacted with the world in an emotionless state that didn't really do much to make you think that it was a feeling being with rights that should be respected. After the simulation, it did start expressing more of these feelings, but all that did for me was to establish cognitive dissonance and make me confused. In fact, the first time I played, I just ran down to the airlift platform and ordered an airlift, never having received any of the balking messages it mentioned in the ending blurb, so it just confused me as to why I was suddenly the bad guy.
I would sum up LASH as a brilliant concept implemented in a just-short-of-brilliant way, or a brilliant game with a misstep at the end. Still enough for a 5 in my book.
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