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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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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.

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 Spy Who Ate Lunch, by Robert Rothman

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Twit, March 8, 2012
This aims to follow the tradition of Bureaucracy, The Goon Show or Brazil: a hyperbolic anti-authoritarian satire. It ends up, I think, being more like Austin Powers, Robert Rankin or the weaker efforts of Mel Brooks, without the frenetic pacing that (if anything) makes those works tolerable. You play a spy struggling to complete a (ludicrous) mission despite the institutional obstruction of your own agency. Much of the humour is derived from Dirty Acronyms (your boss is the T.U.R.D.) and the tone is generally at about that level. If that style of comedy works for you, you might enjoy this; if not, stay well back.

Satire's difficult. Satire cannot be done well from a complacent position. Satire fails when it says nothing new, when the author seems untroubled by the material: it involves a lot more than a comic assertion of one's opinions about what's wrong with the world. The Spy Who Ate Lunch takes on a broad swathe of issues -- bureaucratic incompetence, security theatre, jingoism, detention and torture, food regulation -- but doesn't ever seem to progress beyond cheap sniping. (It's possible that the tone shifts in the later game; I didn't get beyond the initial area.)

One of the more obvious targets of The Spy Who Ate Lunch is political correctness. It mostly handles this by embracing over-the-top, nuance-free stereotypes: there's a bitch secretary and an Nazi interrogator, and once you recognise their Type you know everything about them. It's possible to pull off satire through ludicrous, overblown caricatures, but not easy; it presents an almost insurmountable temptation to resort to lazy strawmanning, sneering and irrelevance. The other problem is that off-the-shelf stereotypes aren't inherently very funny. They can be rendered so, but by default they're tired, weak jokes. Julia in Violet is (Spoiler - click to show)promiscuous and obnoxious, but she's treated as an individual rather than an iteration of a stock character; this offers the author a lot more opportunity for fresh jokes, makes the character more interesting, and is harder to interpret as implying attitudes about women in general.

The part where this shifted from being mildly annoying to kind of objectionable, for me, is the torture bit. (Spoiler - click to show)In one corner of the HQ, the ex-Nazi interrogator is torturing a supposed Islamic terrorist who, it quickly emerges, is actually Korean. This isn't treated as horrific or shocking, exactly; it's just another gag. I was put in mind of the weaker half of The Great Dictator, the part wherein Jews evade portly, blundering stormtroopers by bopping them with skillets. Chaplin later said that he could never have made those parts if he'd known about the reality of ghettos and concentration camps.

Given more focus, the inability of the institutionally-minded PC to do anything about this could have made a genuine point, but the opportunity seems wasted; it comes off as just another gag. It's fine, I think, to make this sort of thing the subject of humour; but it's much more important for it to constitute genuine satire rather than the repetition of established tropes. Spy really doesn't seem interested in any kind of coherent stance: the abduction and torture of innocents isn't really presented as a more terrible activity than clamping down on food trucks. It makes me uneasy precisely because it's not all that interested in being uneasy.


These problems are exacerbated by the game's approach to interaction, which mostly takes the old-school attitude that anything that makes interaction more annoying counts as a puzzle. Spy is not a half-assed piece; it's sizeable, bristles with extensions, has been duly tested. Rather, I think, it's aiming to be a frustration comedy. Again, this is a hard thing to do well; to pull it off, you need to give your players the rock-solid assurance that the annoyance will be worth it, and that they'll only be frustrated when they need to be. Spy doesn't offer either assurance. (Admittedly, my tolerance for this is lower than most; Fine-Tuned and Gourmet were well-liked, but I didn't enjoy either much on a first play.)

The annoyance isn't arbitrary: its aim is to simulate the feeling of bureaucracy and security-theatre. The intelligence agency HQ where you start is broken up by keycard-locked doors: you have the card, but you have to swipe it every time you want to go through a door. This is a reasonable simulation: real-life keycards are fiddly and irritating, and having this constant annoyance in the background while you do other busywork tasks gives a good feel of what it's like to work in this place. But this player-unfriendly interaction style extends beyond the things that the bureacracy should directly control, and into things that are just politeness to the player. Even in the legit bureaucracy stuff the instinct for how tightly to turn the screw is off. I ended up abandoning the game after (Spoiler - click to show)having gathered that I couldn't leave the first area without unlocking and reading the manual, going through all the steps to unlock the manual, leaving the area, reading the first entry and discovering that the manual re-locks itself every time you read an entry, and that you can only unlock it in one place.

It's possible that Spy may appeal to players with more old-school expectations than mine, a great deal more patience, less sensitivity to tone, and different tastes in humour. But as I get older, I increasingly find myself considering art in terms of how much respect it has for its audience; by that standard, this does very poorly.


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