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Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

wacky

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Narrow Your Eyes, by Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Machine Tools, July 8, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: roborally, boardgame, trial and error, wacky
A game that feels very much like an exercise in learning the multimedia features of Glulx, and using them in puzzle-critical ways. The basic conceit is that, eyes dilated and without your glasses, you must rely on your next-generation smartphone to deal with the world.

Your ultimate objective is to reach your wedding rehearsal, and the tone is generally light-hearted and wacky; but the TMBG song on which the game is based is about trying to screw up the courage to end a loveless relationship, and there are enough hints of correspondence between the two early on in the game to give a suspicion that all is not necessarily well.

The core of the game is a punishing puzzle highly similar to (Spoiler - click to show)the classic boardgame RoboRally, in which players control robots racing through a factory full of laser beams, pits and conveyor belts. Most of the entertainment value comes about because commands are pre-programmed in blocks of five, which has unpredictable and messy results when robots interfere with one another. Narrow Your Eyes' version is in some respects simpler; there is a single robot, control of which alternates between you and an evil scientist. Instead of relying on drawing the right cards, you can enter any commands you like. (To work this out, you absolutely need to go straight to the hints.)

On the other hand, the commands are entered by entering two-digit numbers, and you have to figure them by trial and error; firing the robot's laser is not automatic; and the board is unusually complex for a RoboRally map, being entirely covered in conveyor belts.

There are two big appeals of RoboRally: the spatial-logic challenge of setting up a good turn sequence, and the entertaining chaos when sequences get broken. Narrow Your Eyes places the emphasis heavily on the former -- which may appeal to people who prefer more pure logic puzzles, but which I find less interesting.

What's lethal, though, is the combination of less-than-ideal graphics and the trial-and-error commands. Each turn, the robot alternately moves under its own power and is moved by the conveyors; sounds are included to help distinguish between them, but the timing of these is Not Right somehow, and I found the effect confusing. The images are not animated, but simply disappear and reappear in their new location -- which is considerably more difficult to follow than visuals of a robot actually twisting and jiving. And in order to figure out commands, you'll need to take notes, and while taking notes you take your eyes off the screen and lose track of the sequence. Also, the robot kills you quite a lot, so heavy UNDO is required.

It's possible that this represents intentional design, and the game is aimed at people who really enjoy tracking and processing many pieces of hard-to-track, logically tidy information in quick sequence.


So this struck me as a successful coding exercise but an intensely frustrating user experience, and I cannot report on the ending.

Under, In Erebus, by Brian Rapp

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
What Is It Like To Be A Superbat?, August 1, 2011
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: Zorkian, wordplay, darkness, surreal, wacky
A game of two gimmicks: it takes place largely in total darkness, and the mechanics centre around wordplay. Among its many problems is that players may take quite a while to fully notice either of these.

Like earlier wordplay games (Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head Or Tail Of It, Ad Verbum) Erebus mostly eschews coherent plot and builds itself around word puzzles. The tone is wacky Zorkian, and the writing's main strength lies in mildly amusing silliness. The setting is the main divergence from this: islands in a dark subterranean lake, with an atmosphere not unlike like the game's namesake Hunter, in Darkness. This, combined with the opening sequence, make Erebus feel rather like two games that aren't quite on speaking terms; a Zorkian wordplay game set in a wacky hell, and a moodily surreal game about darkness and silence.

The core gameplay is about constructing short words from letters that you've found. The most annoying thing about Erebus is that using a letter consumes it; a replacement appears where it was originally found, and this entails a great deal of unnecessary trudging around the map. The second most annoying thing is that some of its puzzle solutions, particularly towards the end, feel quite arbitrary; this exacerbates the first problem, because the only real way of working the solution out is to try making lots of different words. Erebus shoots itself in the foot by saddling its fun central mechanic with tedious makework.


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