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Reviews by Jim Kaplan

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The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet, by Graham Nelson (as Angela M. Horns)

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Schizophrenic, June 14, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: graham nelson
Play it if: you have a strong love for the old Infocom classics and want to re-live the experience with a slightly shinier veneer.

Don't play it if: you expect the narrative element of the story to be developed in much of any sense.

Maybe we've been spoiled by modern IF. My first experiences with the medium were on Ye Olde Classics such as Zork and Planetfall, but it wasn't very long before I stumbled onto the more contemporary literature and, to be honest, I haven't really looked back since. I can handle basically anything up to fifteen years old, and before that it tends to get a little rocky in terms of whether or not I'm likely to have the patience to enjoy it.

The shame of playing Sherbet is that it feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch. At first, it looks like this is going to be a creatively structured game: you're limited to a single location, there's strong effort being put into describing objects, characters, the passage of time. The hints menu has a fairly detailed explanation of the world the game inhabits. The main character is actually a character - yes, not a very vivid one, but bearing the signs of personality nonetheless.

Then you do a thing, and basically all of that goes away. And with what is it replaced? A sprawling, disconnected, Zorkian cave adventure starring our old amorphous friend AFGNCAAP.

Enthusiasts of Zorkian gameplay will be delighted. Me, not so much.

It feels a bit churlish to express this sort of disappointment at a work by Graham Nelson - who kind of literally wrote the book on IF. Nevertheless, Sherbet feels like two entirely different games stuck together: a detailed fantasy story of political intrigue with a comedic touch, and a standard (though not uncreative) under-implemented hunt-the-treasure romp.

A certain someone compared IF to a narrative at war with a crossword. A more accurate statement would be that the process of writing IF is like a narrative at war with a crossword - IF itself should be a harmonious relationship between the two. As it is, the relationship between the narrative and puzzles here is not unlike a tense Cold War-esque standoff: they flirt with reconciliation, but never get there before one side runs out of steam and lets the other have the last laugh.

Sherbet could have been enjoyable, excellent even, as a tale of diplomatic intrigue. It could have been enjoyable, excellent even, as a loving homage to Zork. As both, it's the result of crashing a Ferrari into an Aston Martin to get a super-car: in practice, you just get a rather disappointing mess.

The three stars are for the puzzles, which are creative and worthy of the tradition they inhabit, as well as the writing, which is sharp, witty, and evocative (when it knows what it's about).

World Builder, by Paul Lee

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Asimovian vignette, June 13, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: paul lee
Play it if: you're in the mood for a short, high-concept piece of sci-fi.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for puzzles or much in the way of interactivity.

World Builder seems to draw strong influence from the Isaac Asimov short story "The Last Question". I could be wrong about that, but given the common themes of man, machine, and cosmic godhood, I think I could be forgiven for drawing the comparison.

Perhaps appropriately, World Builder as a narrative shares most of The Last Question's strengths and weaknesses. It succeeds in moments where it evokes grand imagery and higher powers: this is a universe inhabited by machine intelligences, planetary designs and would-be gods. The prose is acceptable, perhaps under-implemented in places but functional in conveying the settings and possessed of occasional moments of striking imagery. The scope of the story requires that the characters speak with Tolkienic grandiosity, which while appropriate does serve to distance the player from any deep emotional connection with the characters, especially given the short length of the game; beside their immediate goals, the characters are generally ciphers. This is not entirely a flaw in a short game emphasizing high-concept imagery: "The Last Question" also had fairly flat and static characters, and it's (by most standards) a gem of sci-fi short stories (Asimov's personal favorite, incidentally, and my favorite short story of his ouevre).

As a game, there's not much to speak of. There are no real puzzles and no real gameplay stakes - as far as I can tell, there's no way to lose, though perhaps the game was just very forgiving. This is understandable when dealing with a PC who is close to apotheosis, but it does make me wonder if the story of "World Builder" wouldn't have been better served as straightforward fiction than as IF.

Still, a diverting five minutes of your time.

The Legend of Robin Hood, by Craig Dutton

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Curiously off-putting, June 13, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: craig dutton
Play it if: you'd like to witness an instructive example of how to alienate a player in the first thirty seconds of play.

Don't play it if: you want a game that makes much of any effort to engage the player.

I like Robin Hood. He's a character with a long and rich tradition in history, politics and artistry; like King Arthur, he combines elements of real folk heroes, poetic exaggeration, outright falsification, and Jungian archetype into something timeless. The point is, Robin Hood is cool, and in the expansive and variegated world of adaptation there's room for more Robin Hood stories in IF (we already have Robin of Sherlock as a good entry).

That being said, this is a rather disappointing effort. Craig Dutton seems not to have beta-tested the game, or even particularly proofread it: grammatical errors and puzzling capitalization abound. The lack of a hint system or walkthrough, coupled with the extremely open-ended nature of the game's beginning, means that I have no way to understand whether or not I've made the game unwinnable or missed anything of importance when I come up against a seemingly insoluble situation (being locked in a cell).

The gameplay itself is poor. I can understand the fascination with mazes even though it's difficult to make them novel or interesting, so to some degree a maze that seems to run on nothing but trial and error is forgivable. That being said, I fail to understand what choice motivated the author to actually start the game with the PC in a maze and no reference points. As a hunter, the main character presumably has some ability to track his quarry, or at least some familiarity with the forest. None of this is translated into the gameplay experience, though, leaving the player to basically wander around a region of single-sentence rooms until stumbling across the deer. And I think the player is supposed to find a couple of items in the process, but these appear to be almost randomly scattered in the forest. I'm looking for a deer. It doesn't make sense to find the deer then go back into the woods to more thoroughly search it for useless objects. Yet that is what the game apparently requires of me.

I mentioned that the forest is a series of one-sentence room descriptions. That isn't limited to the forest. A boring maze is followed up with a locked-room puzzle whose terse implementation verges on the hilarious:

You can go west.
>west
That way is locked.

>x door
A strong iron-bound oak door.

>x slit
A very narrow window. Impossible for anyone to squeeze through.

>speak to much
He grins back at you.

Pervading the game is a sense that the author didn't think much about verb implementation either:

>shoot deer
I don't understand your command

>kill deer with bow
That doesn't work.(Spoiler - click to show)

("Use bow on deer" is the required command.)


>knock on door
I can't see that. (on door)

>knock door
You can't knock it.

It's not my habit to review a game without having completed it. I felt the need to do it in this case because, while the game afforded me neither the support nor the inclination to progress beyond about five minutes' worth of play, it failed to do so in a rather fascinating way. I've always thought that bad art is as instructive as good art when it comes to learning the craft. As a learning exercise in failed gameplay, this one may actually be worth the time of a novice writer.

Head of State, by ronkimmons

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Shallow gameplay makes for a poor economics simulator, June 12, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: ronkimmons
Play it if: you want a bite-sized summary of the more straightforward economic issues developing countries tend to face.

Don't play it if: you want to play a game which takes nuance and interactivity to be must-haves in a game that simulates the effects of political and economic policies.

Head of State is an extremely brief government simulator placing you in charge of the monetary policy of a nascent Southeast Asian country. It bears a superficial resemblance to Jennifer Government: NationStates, a browser-based government simulator - though NationStates is more about exploring the ideological implications of policy choices than modeling their practical consequences, whereas in Head of State that emphasis is flipped.

I happen to be a political science major specializing in comparative government and international relations, so I'm not entirely unfamiliar with the types of issues being raised here. So I can say with some confidence that the author isn't, either. When it comes to detailing possible economic policies and their likely results, there's nothing particularly implausible or eye-poppingly ideologically biased in the game's logic.

That being said, the worth of Head of State as a simulator is suspect. The game forces you to jump through certain hoops to accept the premise - that the player is acting as both the executive and legislative branches, for instance - that rather devalue the kind of verisimilitude needed for a game examining real policies in detail.

Worse is the interactivity - or rather, lack thereof. Insofar as the goal of the game is to determine a policy plan for a country's economy, this is a fairly shallow success. But anyone can lay out a policy plan if they have the time and the masochistic inclinations. The interest lies in the practical effects of those policies, and the reactions of one's constituents to the plan. Head of State is only about building a policy plan in the sense that that all the input it requires is a series of policy choices (though six isn't much of a series). But it also takes the time to point out the public's response and the effect of the policies on the economy, and the problem is that the game has no scope for this. The player is given no opportunity to modify, moderate, or reform his proposed policies with the passage of time (and given that there are no specific time frames, these elements are fairly hazy given the game's own distinction between long-term and short-term policy effects). There are no complicating factors introduced.

In real politics, as basically everyone knows, it's not a simple matter of enacting the "right" policies. Compromises are necessary, often because the people whose interests you're contradicting have some sort of power over you. Yet you can simply choose to stick it to prominent local interest groups by refusing to impose high-tariff barriers to free trade. See, if government would be that simple, most of our problems could be fixed almost overnight. And a simulator is necessarily a simplification of what it simulates - but the model this game proposes is so stiff as to be of little use or interest to anyone.

It's a shame because I do think there is room in the medium for a government sim of depth. I can't be the only person who spent endless hours in fascination with SimCity 3000 or Civilization II and III, marveling at the depth of gameplay, the emergent properties of the world model and the underlying game mechanics whose discovery was left up to the player's experimentation. While the largely textual nature of IF poses a challenge to replicating this effect without becoming a tedious exposition-fest, a little part of me says it can be done well.

So I'll give Head of State this much credit. It does try - not very hard, but it does try - to do something worthwhile with the medium. Consider this as much a public service announcement as a review: interactive fiction is waiting for its great government simulator.

For a Change, by Dan Schmidt

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Evocative and imaginative setting, June 11, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: dan schmidt
Play it if: you're in the mood for a short, light, memorable story which follows intuitive, dreamlike connections rather than logic-based ones.

Don't play it if: you prefer logic-based rather than intuitive puzzles, are looking for a longer story which emphasizes plot or characterization, or are easily frustrated by decoding descriptions.

For a Change was apparently Dan Schmidt's first completed work, and I have to say it's pretty impressive. It doesn't succeed so much in terms of puzzles, plot, or characters so much as it does in worming its way into your head and making itself easily remembered.

The most distinctive thing about the story is of course the language in which it is narrated to the player. It doesn't go out of its way to invent an entirely new vocabulary like The Gostak, but the game shows a strong preference for describing things in metaphor and generalizations. The player character is "faded and silent". A bed is called a "resting". Occasionally the language will reverse intuitive causalities: "the High Wall looms above the shade, creating it". A lot of the joy in playing the game comes from unpicking the games Schmidt plays in his construction of the descriptions and action, and you can tell he had a lot of fun writing them.

The world itself is also bizarrely engrossing. The style of narration (assuming the player character has knowledge of the world), the oblique language, and the small scale of the game necessarily results in a rather minimalist and vague approach to the description of the world. But unlike situations, where this would simply be hallmark of flawed writing, here the poetry of the game's language succeeds in letting the player's imagination fill in the gaps. While I wasn't particularly invested in any emotional sense, I was intensely curious about the nature of the setting, and those questions are still bumping around in my head. Is the model simply an enchanted object, or is it the world itself (as in, a recursive universe that contains itself)? Is the player character just a manifestation of the world, or is it the world's caretaker? I didn't get the impression that Schmidt was writing with a specific allegorical or thematic goal in mind, but Change nevertheless succeeded in engaging my interest on a mythological level.

In a gameplay sense, Change is a little more straightforward and a little more problematic. A couple of red herrings, including in the hints, make the game perhaps a little more complicated than it needed to be.(Spoiler - click to show)I would also say that the puzzle requiring the lie-opener depends on a rather unfair definition of "lie"; after all, it is true that gravity is working oddly in that room and so not technically a lie. It's also unfair considering that how gravity works in our world is not a reliable reference for how it would work here.

At the same time, the final puzzle, while straightforward and appreciated for its connection to the cube puzzle, suffers a little from a lack of synonyms. I would have appreciated "flip" or "turn x upside down" as alternatives, especially given the extremely limited time the player is given to enact the solution.


Still, I don't think these are major concerns in a game which clearly emphasizes setting and atmosphere above everything else. On its own terms, as a brief romp in a surreal, alien world of dream-logic, For a Change succeeds.

Christminster, by Gareth Rees

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Very good, but bettered by its successors, June 10, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: gareth rees
Play it if: you want to play a medium-length game emphasizing clean, forgiving gameplay and a detailed, engaging setting.

Don't play it if: you want plot-heavy IF that hits the narrative highs of later masterpieces such as Anchorhead.

Christminster to me suffers from the rather thankless role of being a classic game overtaken by its successors. It's a shame because in many ways Christminster is contemporary in its design: lower on cruelty and higher on fairness than most of the Infocom classics. In that respect it's the sort of game that will outlive the Zork series, whose entries will more often than not frustrate the contemporary player in spite of their positive attributes.

I think it comes down to the balance between puzzle-solving and storytelling. For every area in which Christminster presented clean, quality gameplay, there's another area in which it falls just a little bit short in its narrative. Yes, the puzzles have both variety and verisimilitude, depending as much on the manipulation of characters as on that of everyday objects. Yes, they're (mostly) well-clued and engaging enough to keep you playing through to the finish. But then I have to stop and wonder why I'm researching the alchemical history of the university when I should be demanding a police investigation into my brother's disappearance. (Spoiler - click to show)And concocting the Elixir of Life is all very well and good for a puzzle, but what is going through Christabel's mind when she is making it? What is the connection between making the Elixir and saving her brother?(Spoiler - click to show) These sorts of details by no means ruined the game, but they did prevent me from really connecting with Christabel and by extension the actual plot.

The thing is that Christminster feels like a prototypical version of Anchorhead. I know it's not really fair to judge one game by the standards of another, but Anchorhead, which might be considered this game's spiritual successor, really did do it better. The personal stakes are higher, the environment is more atmospheric, the backstory and research more detailed and engaging. Christminster paddles along at a good pace in terms of gameplay, but the plot itself changes very little between the beginning and end; nothing of real emotional significance happens until the ending, and there is little build-up to the climax. It works more as a string of well-connected puzzles than as an actual story, whereas Anchorhead managed to balance both of those elements.

So is it a masterpiece? For its time, yes; and even now it has aged extremely well - the original release was in 1995, but it may as well have been yesterday (barring a couple tell-tale gaps in implementation). So it's still entirely worthwhile as a game, if not as engrossing a story as it could have been.


Child's Play, by Stephen Granade

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Babypolitik - The Game, June 9, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: stephen granade
Play it if: you're in the mood for two hours inside the head of a resourceful, self-aware infant, concocting and enacting daring plots to get what you want.

Don't play it if: you want something more narratively substantial, or you have a hair-trigger pet-peeve for anything to do with kids.

I've had a running idea in my head about a work of IF based around a robot protagonist who wakes up in a state of semi-assembly, and has to work to complete itself while having to work around its inability to carry out certain very basic tasks. I mention this because Child's Play is basically a complete fleshing-out of that idea, with the difference being that the half-formed PC is a human rather than a robot.

The challenge and fascination of the game is that the PC's goals are entirely straightforward and achievable for most human beings (i.e. retrieving a toy and playing with it), but require significant effort and lateral thinking for the PC here. The puzzles are surprisingly tough and complex given the limited range of actions the PC can take, but that sort of demonstrates the ingenuity of the game: it's all about milking your few reliable skills for as much as they're worth, and manipulating others to do the things outside your own capabilities. Even though they draw on the same basic principles, the puzzles never feel repetitive or boring, though I suspect that with this game Granade may have exhausted most of IF's potential for games based around plausible baby-behavior.

Plausible baby-behavior is another notable thing. The writing of the parents and the babies betrays significant personal experience with both. The children are believable in their free-form, goal-oriented behavior - most of the time, just living in the moment according to what their personalities dictate, and occasionally acting in the service of some higher agenda - and even more so in their elicitation of parental responses.

The PC is a touch more self-aware and wise than one might expect an eleven-year-old to be, but it was clearly intentional and it adds a neat humorous dimension to the story (with the PC taking pride in his/her age and refusing to commit certain acts as being "unseemly" for such an age category). As with other good examples of prominently-featured narrative voices such as Lost Pig, For a Change, and Counterfeit Monkey, the novelty doesn't outstay its welcome but takes a step back and lets the exploration and challenge of the game take center stage.

This is normally where I would butt in with some discussion of the less positive aspects of the work. But the truth is that I can't see any holes in Child's Play. The author's commentary might have worked better as a running part of the description rather than requiring a separate command for each note, but it would be absurd to count that as a flaw. The game is simply a good, fruitful concept fully fleshed out and executed with wit and polish. This is the kind of short game I think most IF writers want to publish at least once in their lives, and Granade should be very proud of it. Highly recommended.

IF Whispers 5, by Chris Conley, Joey Jones, Marius Müller, Tom Blawgus

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
John Carpenter comes to IF, June 9, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: IF whispers, chris conley, joey jones, marius muller, tom blawgus, horror
Play it if: you have half an hour to spend on a short, sharp genre exercise which delivers a surprisingly punchy and tightly-written horror experience.

Don't play it if: you're looking for a puzzle-solving experience, a long, involving story, or any particular depth of characterization.

I like puzzles and experimental narrative as much as the next person, but at heart I think I'm a genre enthusiast. I love it when IF takes the most memorable elements of beloved genres in other media and makes them into something fresh and new.

Anchorhead did this with the H.P. Lovecraft oeuvre, The Baron did it with German Expressionism...and here we have a bite-sized homage to John Carpenter's The Thing.

I think the most impressive technical feat here was the writing style. As has already been mentioned this iteration of the IF Whispers was geared towards a more cohesive story, but it's still striking how seamless the writing and gameplay feels given that there were four authors at work here. If they hadn't told me, I'd never have guessed it.

Another thing I found impressive was the structure of play. The game is nearly puzzle-less (at least by most definitions of "puzzle"), but it succeeds in gently steering the player towards the next stage of the story. Sam Raimi once said something about how his approach to filmmaking was an exercise in planting seeds and letting the audience's imagination do the rest. That seems to be the principle at work here, with the player left to infer a lot of what's going on based on certain clues. I like that the process partly depends on a degree of genre savvy; once I understood what was going on it became immediately clear to me what I needed to try to do, even though the game never outright tells you(Spoiler - click to show) that you have to destroy the base to prevent the rescuers from causing a pandemic. A significant degree of the game's appeal comes from what TV Tropes likes to call "Fridge Logic"(Spoiler - click to show) - the revelation that the cuddly little cat is the carrier sheds a whole new light on that pesky cold, doesn't it?.

The horror elements here work well because they take their time, letting the player soak in the unsettling environment but never letting the player forget that there is a danger here which has yet to be uncovered. There are some good touches, like the dynamic object descriptions(Spoiler - click to show) and the hallucinations, which let the player appreciate the psychological horrors of the game with a greater immediacy than is possible in a more detached medium like film.

Flaws? Well, there are a couple. The game is a little too difficult for a player to realistically get the "good" ending on the first playthrough, if you ask me. By this I mean that the time limit, when it eventually asserts itself, feels more frustrating than challenging. Then again, there doesn't appear to be a limit to the "undo" function, so maybe I'm just nitpicking there.

There is also the matter of a few items.(Spoiler - click to show)It makes sense to me that the generator and screaming television could be products of hallucinations - or that hallucinations could block out the ability to see the diary - but why are these in play before you've even been exposed to the carrier? If you've contracted the plague from some secondary source, shouldn't the more usual symptoms also manifest? These feel like easily fixable glitches and they have a disproportionately confusing effect on gameplay given those items' importance to the story.

Still, these aren't game-killing details by any stretch of the imagination. This game remains an excellent, atmospheric short entry into genre IF.

A fun list for people who've finished the game:

(Spoiler - click to show)Parallels between this game and The Thing:
1. The main threat is "infectious" and spreads itself.
2. The protagonist's experience with the "infection" is foreshadowed by his encounters with the previous victims.
3. The exploration of an abandoned Antarctic research facility.
4. The first living thing we see is the vector for the infection (the wolf, the cat).
5. The protagonist must destroy the facility to prevent the infection from posing an apocalyptic threat to human civilization.


Spider and Web, by Andrew Plotkin

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A good magic trick of a game, June 8, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: andrew plotkin, zarf
Play it if: you want a short, sweet line of puzzles with a couple of good twists.

Don't play it if: you want a less linear, more open game that lets you take your time and explore, or a spy story that focuses less on plot and more on theme.

At least at the time of its release, Spider and Web was obviously a novel concept for IF, if not so much for storytelling in general (connections to Rashomon have already been pointed out, but let's not forget The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; and The Usual Suspects, which had hit the theaters in 1995). Me, I came to IF relatively recently barring Zork I, so the historical impact of the game is lost on me. But does it hold up by itself?

Yes. Putting aside the then experimental nature of the game, this is still an appreciably good bit of IF. One thing I've always liked about the medium is that, aside from the really early history, IF can age extremely well, and this is one work which feels like it could have been written yesterday.

Aside from a couple of people who seem not to have finished the game, there's not much other than high praise for Spider and Web here. Most of the positive aspects of the game have already been outlined. So I'll mostly skip that, except to say that I really love games like this and Sean Barrett's The Weapon, where you have to discover and solve at the same time, and do it under observation (it really adds a sense of urgency and pizzazz to the puzzle-solving process). Instead I'll take the time to address some of its flaws.

This is necessarily spoiler-heavy, so...

(Spoiler - click to show)In terms of gameplay before the big reveal, there are one or two moments which feel somewhat underclued. The lockpick distraction method doesn't entirely make sense to me, not least because the lockpick strikes me as the tool a master infiltrator would be least likely to part with. I might as well have just thrown the minilamp, surely? It didn't also make much sense to me that the functions of each dial on the timer weren't explained in the descriptions of the dials; pretty much everything that wasn't intuitive for the other tools was explained upon examination, so why not the timer?

The game does lose a lot of my interest after the big reveal, and I think it's because the climactic sequence is longer than it really needs to be. In a longer game with more varied puzzles I would have found it acceptable, but choreographing your efforts to complete the game takes up enough of the gameplay time that it feels like another game tacked on. It doesn't help that the puzzles bear little relation to what you've been doing up until that point, with the exception of the common geography.

I accept that it might have been difficult to squeeze the post-escape sequence into just a few paragraphs of exposition, and there's no honest middle ground between the two options...but then I simply have to chalk it up to the story being written into a corner, albeit an enjoyable one. The Usual Suspects, in contrast, basically ends with that analogous twist and, regardless of whether or not you appreciated the plot that came before, I think it's fairly obvious that setting the film's climax after that reveal would have been a lot less punchy and a lot more tedious.

I also have mixed feelings about the discussion of moral concepts in the story. Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for Cold War narratives and the murky worlds of arms escalation and espionage, but in order for such narratives to work you need the other side to give you something to work with, and while the interrogator has a good deal of personality the PC has almost none (aside from a few flashes of attitude in the first couple of turns). While the conceit of having the PC know more than the player is well-done, it would have worked even better had it been connected with the moral dimension of the story. If the PC actually responded to the interrogator with opinions and ideas, it would have added an extra layer to the intrigue: is what you're saying part of the patter to get him to accept your story, or is it actually what you believe? Or is it even both? The ambiguity in the game is purely external - by which I mean it affects the plot, not the actual stances and opinions of the player character.


In the end, this is still a very good game, and I would argue, worth your time. It's not really a masterpiece, though. A generally well-done employment of one or two neat tricks in a story short enough for them not to outstay their welcome.

De Baron, by Victor Gijsbers

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
A brave, engaging work, June 7, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: victor gjisbers
Play it if: you're interested in spending half an hour with a courageous, if flawed, moral allegory with overtones of Nietzsche.

Don't play it if: you were looking for a game, or have little to no tolerance for some grim realities in your IF.

Reviewing The Baron demands a kind of scrupulousness not common to the medium. This is fundamentally a work which is not about gameplay or puzzle-solving, nor even necessarily about character, but about theme and allegory. In this respect it's sort of the Der Himmel über Berlin of IF - though tonally the subject matter is in almost diametric opposition.

The Baron's main strength lies, I think, in its ability to draw you into responding emotionally to the character, whether it be sympathy or revulsion. The means by which it does this is interesting and worthy of a degree of analysis. In essence, the story is driving at a question about human nature, a question we might summarize as "Do we bear responsibility for our animal desires?" The question experiences four major iterations in the story: the wolf, the gargoyle, the baron, and finally the PC himself.

In another review, Pavel Soukenik comments that the conversation with the gargoyle is slightly undermined because there was another dialogue that made it feel repetitive. I would respond to this with two points. Firstly, repetition is an intentional element of this story - I mean, the gargoyle outright says the phrase "eternal recurrence". The repetition of old habits, old battles, is not just tacked onto the story, but also an important motif in discussion of these taboos.

Secondly, there is a progression in these four iterations, though it may take a bit of thought to see it. The four iterations do re-state the question, yes, but they begin from a point of distance from the player character and become more personalized. It's easy not to blame, even to sympathize with a wolf for fearing and attacking humans; this is after all what a wolf does. The gargoyle frames the question in sharper and accessible terms: both by introducing spoken language and by explicitly referencing specific emotions like joy and lust. The baron gives these emotions human immediacy because he is the first time we are coming face-to-face with the human consequences of acting out one's animal desires. The specific nature of the act, if not obvious beforehand, is made explicit here. And the final iteration, that of the player character's own response to Maartje, brings the point home by asking the player to do more than judge and respond to others, but apply the morality to himself.

The secondary point being made by the story is thus that it's a lot easier to agree to or sympathize with an idea when it is presented in general terms, but often becomes a lot more difficult or complicated as it gains focus, specificity, and a human dimension.

When still ignorant of this structure, I found myself playing out the PC's inner conflicts at different stages of the game. My first response to the wolf was to talk to it and howl at the moon to share its grief. I told the gargoyle that he could only receive forgiveness from his victims, but that there was always hope he could break the cycle. But when I got to the baron and heard his excuses for his actions, I got irritated with him and responded with hostility. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with responding one way to an idea in principle and another to the idea in practice, but it was in my conversation with the baron that I realized the game had made me play out that discontinuity: that I had given different visceral reactions to what is basically the same philosophical question, merely because the environment framed that question in different terms (generalisms about emotion and freedom versus the "real" consequences of an actual crime).

And of course in the end I found myself driving the player character towards the most positive outcome I could imagine, essentially in total opposition to my instinctive sympathy for the devil at the story's outset.

Just as we have a high regard for puzzles that engage the player's intuition, for elements that seem to anticipate what the naive player would do, I have a high opinion of The Baron for its rather shrewd understanding of how I would react and modify my reactions to the scenarios it poses. I do have a couple of notes, though.

(Spoiler - click to show)If there is a weak point to this allegory, it would have to be the final sequence between the player character and Maartje. Firstly because, as Maartje doesn't respond to anything the character says, the scene is just a way of literalizing the work's ideas, which I thought had more weight when they remained implicit. "I learned X was wrong today" doesn't feel like an ending worthy of allegory with this sort of depth. An attentive reader - even a fairly inattentive one - will have formed their opinions on their own. With no way of affecting the game world, there's no real reason to make them say them outright.

Second is the degree of choice the player is given, and here I mean two specific choices: the choice of repeating your crime (or not), and the choice of breaking the cycle (or not). In both cases I don't think this should have been left up to the player. The instinctive choice of most all players would be simply to have the player character not rape Maartje and break his cycle of lust. The problem is that this is too easy to be true to the realities of child abuse. The kinds of deep-seated psychological factors that lead to this sort of behavior do not resolve themselves due to dreams, and aren't overcome by anything so simplistic as "choosing not to". That final scene gives the player a get-out-of-jail-free card which has not been earned - and I would argue, cannot be earned.

My alternative to that scene would simply be ending the game with the player character entering Maartje's bedroom, and leaving it up to the player to decide how the character as played would act. That to me feels like the most "honest" ending.


Another issue is with the mapping. I feel The Baron would have benefited from more conviction in how it chose to shape the player's navigation. There is a degree of free movement in that the player can seek out details not necessary to advancing the story, but at the same time the goals to be hit are ostensibly linear in progression. The two coexist a little awkwardly here for my taste. Making the geography more linear while having the player cross the path of those details might have served the flow of the story better (though I must admit that it isn't immediately obvious to me how I'd go about doing it).

The English translation of the work is good, with only a couple distinctive typos betraying its previous life as a Dutch-language work. The narrative voice does a good job of complementing the dreamlike nature of the setting without making it too obvious.

In conclusion, The Baron is very much worth your time, though more as an exercise in allegory and theme-centric narrative than as an intellectual exercise. I can see it not being for everyone in the way 2001: A Space Odyssey is not for everyone (I personally find 2001 bloated and meandering as hell), but it deserves at least a playthrough - by those willing to engage with a couple of admittedly difficult concepts.


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