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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

Spring Thing 2011

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Bonehead, by Sean M. Shore

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Rounders + Nostalgia + Statistics =, May 16, 2011
An impressive piece of work: although its core appeal is probably limited to nostalgia-addicted baseball nerds (a category which, as far as I can tell, makes up about 99.95% of baseball's fanbase) it succeeds in emotionally engaging people who don't know or care about baseball and are never going to.

The game recounts a famous 1908 screw-up that defined the career of Fred Merkle. From the outset, in no uncertain terms, you're informed that the disaster is coming and that it will scar your life. Yet you still keep working towards it, through a difficult commute and an indecipherable morass of baseball terminology. The game is broken up by flashbacks that imply the main story is just a flashback. There are obvious debts to Photopia and 1893: A World's Fair Mystery; one could choose worse models. It seems diligently researched.

Bonehead has a number of conflicting, emergent morals, some of which the author certainly didn't intend. The point could be that Merkle was a clueless blunderer, only barely holding on moment to moment, and some horrible mishap was inevitable; this comes out of gameplay, and contradicts statements that Merkle was actually pretty savvy. Another is that Merkle is a sort of sticktoitive hero, unable to give less than his all even when it leads to his destruction; this feeling hangs around the story even though it makes no chronological sense. Another, probably closer to the intent, is that even solidly competent people fuck up all the time; whether a fuck-up goes unremarked or haunts you your entire life is largely a matter of luck.

Bonehead's main flaw is a tendency to cheesiness that it can't quite sustain; there's that historical-fiction thing where you always meet significant historial figures who are just now thinking about something that will ring down the ages, and there's a Hollywoodish moment of Touching Redemption. Overall, though, a really strong debut.

The Lost Islands of Alabaz, by Michael Gentry

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Kid Knight Super Gem Collect, May 16, 2011
A just-so story: an author has some small children. Every night, at bedtime, he sits down with them and invents another installment of an ongoing story. The children chip in with suggestions. The story they tell has a lot of problems -- exactly the sorts of problems you get with stories told off the cuff. It's mostly a series of fragmentary set-pieces, it's heavily derivative, it lacks cohesion, there are a lot of loose ends that never get tied up; the stories are mostly unified by a broad setting and recurring characters. The children don't care about any of this, because they're sharing a story by their dad. Later, the author assembles some of these stories into an IF game, designed to be accessible to children. Whether this actually represents how Alabaz was written is irrelevant: it's very much how it feels.

The plot: you are an Everyman child hero, tasked by the fatherly but inert King of Alabazopolis to reunite an archipelago-kingdom sundered by mists. To do this, you must take your child-crewed ship, explore the islands and recover magic pearls; there's more than a touch of anime about the scenario. Its strength is in its set-pieces, which include plenty of strange and striking imagery. (Some work much better than others.) The novice-friendly design is a more questionable virtue; the influence of casual gaming is obvious, with heavy-handed pointers and showers of achievements, and a character whose main function is to follow you around dispensing tutorials.

Despite this, Alabaz is consciously old-schoolish; it's a substantial size, and there's a lot of Zork and Myst here. As a game for children, its worst structural flaw is that it's a big-map game that's designed in ways that make travel very tedious, even when you've solved all the relevant puzzles. Apart from this, the puzzles are solidly designed and appropriately easy; but I think that this was intended as a game to be played over many evenings, which is hard to do with easy puzzles. The tedious navigation fills that gap.

In terms of content, there's a sort of uneasy dissonance that a child might or might not pick up on: it's a world where adults behave like sulky children and children behave like responsible adults, and it's also a world that promises heroism but fails to deliver, because heroism requires real monsters, and in Alabaz all apparent monsters quickly turn out to be paper tigers. The game seems designed for very small children -- too small to cope with very much conflict in their fiction. I can't say how well it'd work for its target age, but there's a great deal that makes this translate poorly for adults.

I suspect that children’s literature is best written not by a doting parent -- someone who primarily wants a safe, clean, improving world for their children -- but a crazy uncle, someone who wants to entertain, inform, subvert.

The Promise, by Sean Huxter

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Chore Quest, May 16, 2011
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2011
A children's game that sets out to teach the importance of hard work, promise-keeping and the total inflexibility of social obligations. It's painfully earnest, cheerful but oddly joyless, and it ends up badly botching the moral (in a way that leaves a lot of players drop-jawed).
Wil, nine-going-on-ten, lives in a rural village under a curse of perpetual winter. Most of the game is about doing chores for the local artisans, and at first it seems as if this will entail some rich economy-worldbuilding; but this never gets very far, and ends up feeling incomplete and inconsistent. The villagers are uniformly cheerful and pleasant, but the world feels grim and cold; the chores are mostly fetch-quests, and the game runs somewhat slowly, so navigating the large map can feel very much like trudging through ankle-deep snow doing a job that somebody else cares about.
There is potential here; there were plenty of things that caught my interest that were never fully developed, and the game's basic structure and implementation is competent (if not hugely exciting). It's appropriately easy, and (with some minor exceptions) bug-free. Its failings are mostly quite high-level intangibles: the delicate matters of pacing, engaging gameplay, tone and theme. Still, I would not recommend this to a child -- not just because of its stark and bungled ethics, but because it never really gets to the fun part of a proper child's story, the part where the child breaks the rules and gets to have an adventure. (Spoiler - click to show)At one point Wil stumbles into a supernatural realm, the Valley of Perpetual Summer, and meets a fairy girl. Almost immediately, he leaves -- he has to get on with his chores.


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