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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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1-4 of 4


Changes, by David Given

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Invasion of the Bunny Body-Snatchers, November 17, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: science fiction, environment, setting
A piece of ecological science fiction with obvious similarities to the James Cameron Avatar, Changes relies on a contrast between an idyllic setting and violence and destruction. Some fairly nasty behaviour is required to make much progress in the plot: (Spoiler - click to show)a space explorer crashed on an alien world, you must kill a succession of alien creatures in order to steal their bodies and abilities, enabling you to return to your ship.

The immediate attraction of Changes is environmental; it is set in a good-sized map full of attractively-described locations, pleasant to explore and absorb. (Given how well-suited IF is to environment-focused games, it's surprising that so few exist, so this was pretty refreshing in its own right.) The writing is strong enough to serve as an immediate draw. At the larger scale, it has a consistent, overarching set of puzzle goals that are readily grasped, are deeply tied into the world, themes and plot, and do a good job of directing short-term motivation.

It's at the intermediate scale that Changes stumbles: between the immediate experience of setting and prose and the grand arc of the puzzle sequence, a player has to figure out the shape of individual puzzles and get them to work. Here, the extensive map becomes a drawback: it's not always very clear which problems can be tackled at any given time, and even when you know what to do the execution can be fairly frustrating. A good deal of effort has been made to provide clues, but these often appear long before they can be usefully acted upon and don't show up again. Experimentation isn't always as well-rewarded as it might be.

In some ways, it's tempting to think of Changes as a belated artefact from around the tail-end of the Middle School period, something to be shelved alongside The Edifice and Babel, intended to be played over multiple sittings, likely to stump the player for considerable periods of time. (Tending to support this: the backstory is doled out through amnesia-recovery.) The game might have been served better by that model, perhaps; at any rate, the two-hour Comp doesn't seem to be its optimal environment.

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 Rocket Man From The Sea, by Janos Honkonen

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Bees, roses and a dark sea, June 28, 2012
Citing Ray Bradbury as a primary influence, this feels very much like a SF short story from the 50s or 60s, the sort of SF you could make a movie about without any need for a special effects budget. The protagonist, a child, lives with his parents on an island across the bay from Astro City. Earth is at war with Mars, and the protagonist plays make-believe games based on this distant conflict. But then a rocket-man washes up on the shore, and reality and fantasy intermingle. (There is a general feeling of WW2 fiction here.)

Though capable overall, both the writing and the overall design have some rough patches. The prose feels a little first-draftish in places. Most of the gameplay is quite narrowly focused -- probably too much so, in the make-believe sequence -- but there are a couple of points where the solution is a little counterintuitive. The denouement is rather heavily foreshadowed, the protagonist is perhaps a little bit too much of a Disney innocent. But there are many gleaming moments here, little bursts of rich, world-grounded imagery that make this feel less like a fantastic piece and more like a childhood memoir.

As science fiction IF goes, it's uncommonly good in that it has its feet planted on the ground, it grasps and is concerned about the flight-of-fancy aspect of the genre.

Bloodless on the Orient Express, by Hannes Schueller

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Dracula: Guerilla Chef, March 9, 2012
1899: a train is trapped by snow, and a murder has been committed; but you are Count Dracula, and identifying the murderer is only one part of the more pressing objective of getting some blood.

Written in 3 hours for Ectocomp, in which it placed 1st of 8, this is essentially a speedIF. That considered, it's an impressive piece of work, if not a hugely distinctive one. It's designed along unadventurous but very solid lines; gather some inventory, assess the situation, solve a straightforward puzzle. The map is well-organised, the puzzles are easy to pick up without being obvious, and you are deftly turned away from red herrings. The terse efficiency failed me at (Spoiler - click to show)lighting the stove, where failure responses don't really signal the correct action; otherwise, for a game written this quickly it's remarkably robust.

Genuinely horrific effects take time to build and a lot of fine-tuning, and few Ectocomp games really attempt to create them; Bloodless is no exception, and mostly feels like a neutral-affect oldschool piece. It does, however, manage to develop a strong, atmospheric setting in a few minimalist strokes; I got a good impression of the creaky, dimly-lit, narrow environment of the train carriages.


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