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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.

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.


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