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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

poetry

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Swanglass, by Yoon Ha Lee

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The World's Tiniest Violin, September 1, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: poetry
Yoon's talents lie strongly on the writer side, as an author of lyrical, strange, high-concept SF/F in traditional prose formats. She has a proclivity for improbable fanfic mashups. And thus, here we have a short, poetic, lachrymose and opaque piece -- a fragment, really -- about Swan Lake and Klein bottles.

As an Artshow piece, there is not a great deal to do in Swanglass except to try out commands and piece together fragments of story, until you find the thing that ends the game. The writing sometimes works and sometimes is too overwrought to take seriously (">X MOSS Soft and green and vulnerable. Like your heart, once.") If you're not vaguely familiar with the plot of Swan Lake, it'll make very little sense; even if you are, you'll get little more than glimpses.

One of the big problems with more serious IF is how to maintain tone when the player resists it by entering silly or out-of-character commands. This is more of a problem when tone-viable, useful actions aren't obvious. It's tempting, in this situation, to write in snarky dismissive responses, in the same general style as the rest of the game; this works very well for some narrative voices, and quite poorly for others. Swanglass, with its tone of highly-strung, lyrical grief, is not really appropriate for response-snark, but the snark's there regardless. The answers to >EAT SWANGLASS or >COUNT LEAVES are entertaining, but give up too much: you get the sense of the author lampooning her own style. A larger game might get away with this.

In most respects this is like a tiny, puzzleless Moonlit Tower. If you enjoyed that and want more, this will deliver a very small taste, but probably not one that will satisfy.

Danse Nocturne, by Joey Jones

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Bite-sized Saga, January 10, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: poetry, adverbs, tone, fantasy, romance, tragedy
Adverbs are usually a joke in IF. There's so much work to do just to make the game respond sensibly to straightforward actions that adding subtle qualifiers to those actions seems like an impossible task. Where they do appear, they tend to be used for conversation and other social contexts, where how something is done is as important as what is done. In the romance-parody Forever Always, for instance, you negotiate a fraught social situation (disrupting your lover's wedding without fatally irritating her) by using different verbs and adverbs for speech. ROAR ANGRILY gives different options than WHISPER LUSTILY, and gives those options different effects.

Danse Nocturne is a slighter piece even than the rather brief Forever Always; the verb is always DANCE and your only control lies in the selection of adverbs. The emphasis on tone and mood is reinforced by the writing, spare blank verse that focuses on the core of the story without giving much away beyond that. Avoiding the usual IF methods of detailed, object-oriented setting allows it to get away with a much more immediate, sparse, focused world than would normally be possible, and to deliver poetry without waffling. The core story, a revenger's tragedy that could be summed up in a line or two, emerges at just the right pace: not so slowly as to be irritating, but slowly enough to have dramatic impact. There's a well-maintained feeling of the epic or mythic. The Germanic naming style evokes a feeling of tragic saga.

Again, the core thing that the player does is not exploring the PC's range of action, but her range of attitudes, social styles, emotional responses. This ends up enabling action, but the game's core is: how should this character feel about this? It's about a character who is trying on different personas, seeing if any of them will help her -- a process at the heart of role-playing and of socialisation.

As a speed-IF, this is all quite brief and simple. While the game recognises a great many adverbs, the territory you negotiate with them is not complex; most adverbs give a single response and don't change the game-state. Play is mostly about thinking up new adverbs and trying them out. This is not to say that it should have been longer or more difficult: the strong poetic approach probably couldn't have been sustained over a bigger game. But it does leave me wistfully hoping for more substantial games that are navigated by manipulating tone, style, mood, focus, rather than medium-size dry goods.

Sentencing Mr Liddell, by I-K. Huuhtanen

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Village of the Doomed, November 16, 2011
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: poetry, abuse, surreal, dream, alice
Drawing heavily on the Alice corpus but not precisely retelling it, Sentencing Mr. Lidell is a guilt-ridden, surreal journey that partially reveals the history of a deeply messed-up family.

Partially is the key bit, here. Most of the story takes place in a state of dream-logic, laden with significance that can't be unpacked. Elements of characters are gestured at rather than explained or directly shown, and little that is suggested is ever really cleared up. Even before the dream-sequence, most things are not expressed directly.

The plot, such as it is: after work at his hat shop, Alastair Lidell meets his wife Catherine and their infant daughter, and they go to visit the funfair. Their relationship is falling apart: Alastair is numb and withdrawn, Catherine hypersensitive. As they argue, the pram rolls into the canal. Alastair dives in after her and enters a dark Wonderland from which he never emerges, an underground train populated by strange versions of his family.

A good number of people viscerally dislike Sentencing; the amount of misery floating around is so high, and the specifics so indefinite, that it's not hard to end up loathing one major character or another, and with them the whole game. At one point of the dream-sequence you have to (Spoiler - click to show)viciously beat a family member in order to advance. If you're sensitive to issues of PC-player complicity, you're likely to have a hard time with this.

It develops a strong feeling of doomed, dreamlike inevitability, but this involves to scanty implementation, linearity and other unfairness to the player; and this, in turn, ends up disrupting the dreamlike flow. One of the strongest examples: there are scenes in which a previously unmentioned character speaks up out of nowhere. This is just how dreams work, but as far as gameplay goes it doesn't inspire confidence in the world. And that confidence would be misplaced: the implementation is pretty ragged. At various points this interrupts the dreamlike flow of the game; it's somewhat too puzzley for the sort of experience that it's trying to deliver. When it does flow smoothly, these problems fall away; but the texture isn't as even as it could be. Its central gimmick -- in which you gather words from the text, then assemble them into a sentence that determines the ending -- falls far short of what it could be, and is incomplete even at its relatively unambitious scale.

At its best, Sentencing Mr. Lidell is poetic, evocative and challenging; at its worst it's noncommittal and incomplete. Whether its emotional impact is a cheap and nasty trick or an artistic accomplishment is going to depend heavily on your individual reaction.


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