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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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TriadCity, by SmartMonsters, Inc.; Gary Smith; Mark Phillips

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Something Omitted, August 24, 2012
TriadCity is an ambitious MUD with some unusual goals, set in a fantastic, genre-bending city.

Given the long-term nature of play, and the world's very-incomplete status, this review should be treated as more provisional than usual, and less likely to age well. Also, I am inexperienced in MUDs generally -- but, since TriadCity seems to be aiming at a fairly different audience, that shouldn't be a disqualification.

The game really, really wants you to acknowledge that it's postmodern and literary. (When you log out, it gives you Amazon referrals to all the books it's referenced.) I'll grant this, but with the caveat that these categories aren't really badges of honour; what's important is whether it's good literature.

And as a literary work, TriadCity leaves a good deal to be desired. Compared to the average work of IF, or mainstream CRPGs, there is very little active narrative; at least at lower levels, it's more of a sandbox than a quest-driven system, and more about exploration than either. Apart from a number of chatbots that seem disconnected from the world proper, NPCs are minimally reactive. There seems to be the idea that player-driven roleplay would fill a lot of the space, but at present the users are too sparse for this to be viable; and it seems likely that there is more to do at moderate-to-high levels, but leveling is quite slow.

To repeat: sloooow. At low levels, much of your time will be spent managing sleep. There are hunger and thirst counters too, but these are less obnoxious. While fatigue is a MUD convention, it adds very little to gameplay, detracts a great deal from the enjoyment of exploration, and is most annoying at the worst possible time -- that is, the very early game. There are ways to make it less awful (make a high-CON character, invest in certain magic items) but these are largely just compensation for a terrible idea.

The game has some pretty laudable ideas about how it would like to work: less gameplay focus on combat and theft (they exist, they're just hard), with a polite and supportive player culture of intelligent adults. How much this is actually achieved is another matter; the people who are on are friendly and very helpful, but too few to really constitute a culture. And there doesn't seem to be much to replace combat and theft.

The prose tends towards the genially brief; it's competent, in general, but not strong enough to constitute an attraction in its own right. NPCs receive very light characterisation and, as already mentioned, are largely non-interactive. Some of these characters are drawn from literature and folklore and oddly juxtaposed into the world -- but this is a common practice of games of this ilk, and I don't think it's inherently better literature just because they come from books rather than pop-culture.

The main immediate attraction of the game, as it stands, is exploration of the City. Most low-level experience is gained by walking around and looking at stuff. Roughly, the city is divided into three sections: the anarcho-socialist, hippy-agrarian Northwest, the morally ambiguous high-tech, artsy, technocrat-capitalist South, and the dystopian, authoritarian-capitalist Northeast. If you have detected a slight element of political bias in the above, you don't know the half of it. While TriadCity purports to be interested in subjectivity and morally complex issues, it pretty much establishes who the good guys and the bad guys are from the outset; and further, because most of its elements are versions of real-world things, it often comes across as sorting things into neat little Good/Bad/Ambiguous boxes. (Good: vegetarianism, liberation theology, wine, kaballah. Evil: guns, goths, slavery, smoking, cannibalism.) As satire, it's not enormously sophisticated. Now, I'm pretty damn close to this thing's political demographic. I enjoy a socialist-utopia fantasy as much as the next pinko. But even so, jeez, this needs to be rendered a whole lot more problematic. Possibly it gets more nuanced later on -- but there's little sign of it thus far, and I doubt too many people would be willing to stick around and find out.

The other thing about exploration is that the map is quite large and often very empty. The game touts its thousands of rooms; people from an IF background, where four high-detail rooms are usually considered superior to any number of low-detail ones, will generally react to this as a reason to run away screaming, possibly undergoing flashbacks to Time Zone. The huge map multiplies the fatigue problem, and makes it necessary to map; plenty of user-made maps exist, but they're poorly indexed. Because the world is very much under construction, it's possible that more richly-detailed rooms are intended; but it seems as if the idiom is inclined towards much, much more of the same.

Which brings me to the next point: at present, it seems as though a lot of the draw of TriadCity lies in the opportunity to contribute to the world. Characters can earn in-game roles and rewards by contributing code and worldbuilding to the game itself, or art, maps, and various categories of writing to the website that supplements it. With this in mind, I started to design a small area for the game -- but then I balked, because I felt as though I was creating something dead. The game doesn't need more areas; it needs more active narrative, more detail, more things to do in the world that already exists. And after several days of pretty intensive play, I just haven't seen any examples of how the game might do that kind of thing.

Nemesis Macana, by Herman Schudspeer, Victor Gijsbers

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Stiffy Agonistes, May 7, 2012
Nemesis Macana is one of those games, like 9:05, that takes less time to play than it does to describe, and which is better-described by playing it. So, the rest of this is going in spoiler-space, and you can come back once you've played it. Oh, right, and it's a Stiffy Makane game, so there will be penises. Consider this your penis warning.

(Spoiler - click to show)Formally speaking, it's not much of a game, and probably better thought of as a character portrait. The great majority of its text comes in the form of the Manifesto, a rambling and uninteractive document in which the fictional author (a sort of sexual Raskolnikov) lays out his tormented position on art, sex, and Stiffy Makane's rightful position at the pinnacle of IF, interlarded with philosophical references and worrying tangents about his girlfriend. The game proper is very short, linear and lightly implemented (albeit with a few gems of parser response here and there), but thick with entertainingly overwrought prose; its basic form roughly mirrors the original Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane.

Since The Undiscovered Country, Stiffy Makane has been a character whose purpose is to wade through a morass of references, to which he is blithely indifferent due to his monomaniacal (but totally unconflicted) focus on sex. The narrator of Nemesis, on the other hand, is heavily invested in Art and has a deep, conflicted loathing of sex. His name is a portmanteau of Shakespeare and Melville (the pale-assed Stiffy plays Moby Dick to Herman's lunatic Ahab); his sexual attitudes are a munge of Victorian propriety, wretched Freud (literal castration? Really?) and overblown, inconsistent towers of theory built upon these.

To a large extent, the game is a parable about the fundamentally neurotic nature of totalising theories, particularly of aesthetics or sex. It's also , like The Undiscovered Country, a critique of the basic crapness of AIF as pornography, the attitude Stephen Bond described as "an inner belief that eroticism, including auto-eroticism, is dirty and shameful; and this no doubt also accounts for the puerile and fucked-up attitude of so much of their Wankstoffe". (You might also read it as arguing that it's senseless to try and make porn into something artistically valid; Schudspeer's porn stylings are ludicrously unarousing precisely because he's trying to make them worthy of the Bard. Bonus points for the use of the word 'vulva', by the way; there are worse terms for it, I ween, but none quite so horribly suitable.)

Much of my reaction was, oh man, are we even still talking about this? This isn't the 70s, so why do we get a fictional world that works according to Freud's stupid logic? Didn't that go out along with rectal thermometers turning you gay? (When first announced, it was widely assumed that the self-aggrandising Schudspeer was the sockpuppet of a troll; the portrait is too conspicuously hyperbolic to be plausible as sincere.) Then I recalled that we live in an age in which the political apparatus of the most advanced nation on Earth can be distracted for weeks debating whether contraception transforms women into slatterns of Beelzebub. So, okay, the past isn't dead, it's just really creepy. Creepier than Stiffy Makane.

The ending is interesting mostly because the choice you're offered is meaningless, a flip of the coin; either way, you're still the same fucked-up person and nothing has really changed. There's a direct reference to the art-or-love choice in Blue Lacuna, which the game implicitly rejects: in the loveless world of Schudspeer there can be no good art, no good sex, precisely because he's so committed to the idea of their necessary antagonism.

So: if ridiculously over-lyrical prose and fucked-up POVs amuse you, this is a fine way to spend the few minutes it'll take to reach its climax. Shakespeare it ain't, but an engaging creation nonetheless.


The House of Fear, by Gwen Katz

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Regenerate Art, January 31, 2012
The thing that struck me most about House of Fear was the contrast between content and structure. For Leonora Carrington and the world of 1940, surrealism was challenging, avant-garde, politically potent. For IF, surrealism is a stock approach, comfortable and familiar. The strange-but-consistent world built from psychological allegory, the focused set of interaction styles, the house-of-locked-doors map will all be immediately familiar. The disorientation of the protagonist isn't shared by the player.

There is, in fact, an unusually strong division between player and PC in this game. In the archive photographs that illustrate the story, Leonora is always looking out, directly at the camera. The flashbacks that recount her past remind us that we're not involved in her real life. The game's plot, which follows a predictable arc of defeating one's demons and self-actualising, feels like something viewed from the outside. There's the sense that Leonora is already pretty damn self-actualised and that the game's events are just a re-enactment of that. There are two elements that don't quite mesh: a coming-of-age, self-creation story, and the depiction of Leonora as someone who already has a strong sense of her own identity and strengths.

As a piece of design, House feels patchy. There are two major gameplay mechanics, which are easy enough to figure out but aren't smoothly managed. The acquiring-forms mechanic is the more interesting of the two, but it tends to default towards one-key, one-door; the alchemy puzzle, on the other hand, is actually two puzzles but doesn't make this clear. The setting feels fractured, lacking aesthetic unity (this may be because I'm unfamiliar with Carrington's work, which is not reproduced in the game). There's less polish than you'd expect out of a design style this orthodox. And I have a particular personal hatred for the floating-in-a-formless-void opening.

House of Fear succeeds insofar as it makes the real Leonora seem like an artist I should find out more about; it doesn't quite succeed at giving me much sense of her personality beyond Strong Feminist Artist. Extensively researched, it sensibly errs on the side of directly using too little of that research, rather than laboriously spelling everything out. The writing is competent to good, and doesn't become obtrusive even when dealing with quite difficult material; if it has a flaw, it's that it verges at times on the overly earnest.

Implementation is mixed; quite robust in places, sparse and patchy in others. The NPCs, in particular, are a little too inert. But I found it impossible not to like House; at heart, it has interesting subject-matter, decent writing and good gameplay flow everywhere but one point.


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