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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

CYOA

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1-5 of 5


Cook-Off!, by S. Miracle

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Flavourless, July 12, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: fanfiction, food, cooking, minigame, cyoa
Heavily reliant on cult JPRG Suidoken II, this is a minigame about head-to-head cooking contests. The only possible interaction is cooking, which is a two-step process; you pick a base food from a list, then modify it with seasonings from a second list. The modification is more conceptual than literal; mayonnaise turns into cream if you combine it with a quiche, or transforms fried chicken into french fries. Add salt to a sandwich, and it becomes peanut butter and jelly. There's no way of getting any more information about these ingredients -- such as the ones with Japanese names -- or predicting what effect a seasoning will have, short of experience. Other than this, play consists largely of pressing any key over and over to see what happens.

The NPCs -- your cook-off opponent, and the judging panel -- are drawn from Suidoken II, which you are assumed to be familiar with; each is described with only a brief phrase that makes little sense out-of-context. Sometimes there's a hint about the sort of food they prefer, but not enough to formulate anything like a strategy with. Still, random selections will usually be enough for victory. Winning contests unlocks more base recipes, but other than this there appears to be no progress; win or lose, you still go around and play another contest.

The writing has a sort of manic anime feel about it, but is generally not really enough for the job. It doesn't provide either enough information or enough interest. It does not seem designed with a prose format in mind; rather, it's a little as if someone stripped out the text from a medium more reliant on visuals. The effect is a bit like a radio broadcast of a gymnastics contest; sure, you get the general idea of what's going on, but it's clear that you're missing out on the most crucial element.

As a coding exercise, it might be considered a small success; the presentation is smooth enough. As game design, it leaves something to be desired.

Bee, by Emily Short

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Words Apart, June 5, 2012
The fundamental subject-matter of literature is difficult loves: problems that matter deeply but are insoluble. By this standard, Bee is the most literary CYOA that I've encountered. A coming-of-age story about impossible parents, limited means and awkward emergence from isolation, it put me a little in mind of I Capture the Castle (which Emily tells me she hasn't read).

Rather than being structured around a strict linear tree like the bulk of stateless CYOA, Varytale encourages modular design more akin to RPG gamebooks or Echo Bazaar style browser-adventure-RPG games. Bee is structured around the passage of the year, with different events becoming available at different seasons; age, the state of your stats, and previous events also determine which options are available. A number of sections can be repeated with variations, but (more so than its antecedent Echo Bazaar) these are things whose repetition makes sense as narrative and as reality: chores, seasonal religious festivals. The fragmentary nature of Varytale stories is very well-suited to the retrospective style, with its assembled incidents of memory.

It should scarcely need repeating by this point, but Emily writes consistently sharp, telling prose. The story would not work without it.

One of the game's strongest points is how successfully it evokes the particular intensity of the aesthetic sense emerging in adolescence, the discovery of a transformative power, burning in isolation, standing out sharply against the world of drab concerns and tired formulas. The most prominent parts of this involve the protagonist mapping out for her own feelings about Christian ritual and the English language, but also in the seasons, in the contemplation of an emotion, in the elusive moments of family happiness. It's a story about learning to appreciate things deeply, and how to negotiate for a better deal, and reconciling the two. It's about the realisation that you're smarter than your parents. Like much of Emily's work, it's about the pathos of limitations, about lofty ambitions that will inevitably be diminished -- you're told from the outset that you will not win Nationals. (Despite the competitive framing, and in line with the Varytale ethos, this is only slightly game-like; character stats are tracked loosely, and while not every node can be found in a single playthrough, there is not really any challenge per se.)

It's also about an interweaving of shame and bristly pride; at its most documentary, Bee becomes something of an account of the culture and experience of homeschooled children. It's neither an attack nor an apology, though it has definite elements of both; it paints a more nuanced picture of homeschooling than is usual from either its advocates or mainstream critics. One obvious effect is that the protagonist has no friends in the normal sense: the listing of known characters makes a distinction between family (too basic to list) and Acquaintances, an uncomfortable and lukewarm category that's confirmed by the text. (Of course, much of this is because the protagonist's intellectual development is far in advance of everything else; it's easy to think of her as being considerably older than she is. For a while I had the vague sense that the story dealt so slightly with sex and romance because she was from a repressed religious family; but once I actually articulated the thought, I realised it didn't hold up.)

(As a technical note, I first played this when play was restricted by Story Points, Varytale's equivalent of the Echo Bazaar candle. Bee is, at present, no longer thus restricted. Generally speaking I loathe the candle system; it's horribly anti-player. But I'll admit that its artificial choke on pacing does affect how one reads, and offset the distinctly CYOA-ish temptation to hurry through the text and to get to options.)

Encyclopedia Fuckme and the Case of the Vanishing Entree, by Anna Anthropy

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Scary Monsters, Super Creeps, April 9, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: bondage, food, lesbian, bdsm, kink, pornographic, CYOA, AIF, sex
What you get out of Encyclopedia Fuckme is largely going to depend on your reaction to its particular kinks: chacun a son gout. Normally, the polite thing to do here would be to list the particular kinks involved, but this would probably be spoilerish; it's a fundamentally transgressive piece, and the tension of not knowing what shit it's going to pull next is a great deal of the point. Still: this is not one of those Anthropy games in which lesbian BDSM smut is merely a mild aesthetic theme. You have been warned. (As someone who is not all that into most of its kinks, I ultimately found it more charming than offensive or gross, but it is possible that the Internet has jaded me.)

Its purpose is clearly pornographic, in that it appears designed to get someone off. It doesn't take itself very seriously, and it aims to squick you out by running roughshod over your boundaries, but (contrast Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country) these seem in service to its pornographic aims, not a negation of them. It's largely about how being forced outside comfort zones gets people hot. The writing is headlong, hard-breathing and frantic, throughout: a great many of the choices are unpunctuated speech in all-caps, and the protagonist's conflicting motives of horniness and self-preservation are... not exactly understated.

As CYOA goes, it is very linear; up until the end, basically all your options remerge into the same central track. Many of the choices conspicuously make no difference. There's more than one ending, but the mechanics that distinguish them are not conspicuous from play. Its game-like aspects, then, are all about the surface, about employing the promise of interactivity as a tool to foster engagement. There's obviously some content-form relation here, although this is getting to be a rather old saw: yeah, the game is controlling, we get it.

The Play, by Dietrich Squinkifer (Squinky)

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Theatre of Mercy, December 5, 2011
One of the better CYOAs to be released in an IF context, this deals with territory that's unusual for IF but standard for theatre: a small group of characters who don't like each other very much but are stuck with one another. There has been a fair amount of discussion in IF circles about the PC as director, steering other characters rather than driving the action directly, but The Play is the first game I've seen in the IF sphere that really does this.

The pitch: you're the struggling director of a wretched play, trying to get your demoralised, infighting actors into some kind of shape in your last rehearsal. The tone isn't as doom-laden and jaded as it initially appears; in spite of the acrimony, it's a comic melodrama at heart. The writing is solid and efficient if not scintillating, and the game in general gives the impression of a high craft standard.

It's very much a set-piece, short and efficient: narrative backbone is provided by the rehearsal, which you're determined to plough through. Most choices are binary, but (with considerable state-tracking) this adds up to a broad range of possibilities. The overt mechanic lies in managing the enthusiasms of all four NPCs, trying to elicit strong performances without annoying anybody so much that they quit.

The framing of gameplay, then, suggests that you should take a balanced approach and rely on moral credential effect. But the hidden mechanics tell a different story: individual decisions have individual effects, managing people is not a zero-sum game, and some viewpoints genuinely are better than others. This conflict between apparent and real best-strategy is a standard technique of persuasive games, but as a persuasive game The Play has some problems. First, its delivery of its main theme -- sexual harassment and institutional resistance to addressing it -- is somewhat uneven: some players miss it entirely and others end up feeling rather bludgeoned. Secondly, it's not interested in persuading anyone that sexual harassment is a genuine probem: it takes this for granted and moves on to the (more difficult) question of what can be done about it, and about how institutional resistance works. Thirdly, its use of slapstick and melodrama don't quite mesh with the serious material; the women are all Strong Women and predictably capable at traditionally-male roles, the sexist villain is straightforwardly villainous, there's a general sense of values being enacted rather than explored.

Persuasive games are always difficult, and I don't want to give the impression that The Play flubs anything terribly; the core of its ethical arc works as designed, I think. Rather, a lot of things are just a bit off, and this adds up. But despite this, it's an entertaining and impressive piece of work.

The Matter of the Monster, by Andrew Plotkin

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Narrative Gymnastics, May 23, 2011
Zarf has a keen instinct for taking things -- code, puzzles, narrative structure -- to pieces, then seeing if they'll fit together in a different way. Here he's tinkering with CYOA. Written for a SpeedIF challenge that required authors to use unfamiliar IF languages, The Matter of the Monster is a highly experimental minor work, both deeply impressive and faintly disappointing.

The story itself is, consciously, nothing very special; three siblings set out on a quest to slay a giant monster. It's heavily framed as a bedtime story; there's a well-observed tension between the serious, insistent child and the mother, who thinks that heroic fantasy is a bit silly. The story is told mostly back-to-front, starting with the final success of the youngest sib and working backwards by hops and jumps; depending on the chronologically earlier events, the later sections change somewhat. This doesn't affect the final outcome; what's at stake is the shape of the story, and secondarily the nature of the hero's family. Although the writing has some fun details, it's very clear that content is secondary to form; the hacking of narrative is more important than the narrative.

Undum was, to put it mildly, not really designed for this, but it's made to work; the story jumps up and down the page, so there's a strong sense of thumbing back and forth in a text that should be static, even though it's shifting before your eyes. (Vorple may have been an inspiration here, but Undum has its own transcript-editing habits.) With the reading habits of conventional IF, however, it's easy to miss the changes, even though the total amount of text is quite small; what really matters is that it's intuitively clear which section of the text you've jumped to.

It's probably best to think of this as a hugely-expanded approach to The Girl and the Wolf, rather than as a hugely stripped-down version of a scarily flexible work of IF. It's hard to imagine a larger work built on TMotM's techniques. As an approach to short, dense pieces, though, it's intriguing.


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