Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell

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Samhain, by Marc Valhara

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
(in progress), December 30, 2016
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

A goofy, frenetic lampoon of slasher-horror. Take the genre-consciousness of Scream, turn up the wackiness to 11, and put it in the hands of someone whose basic attitude to the genre is one of amused contempt, and you basically have Samhain.

Samhain's comedy is a scattered, hyperactive mess of one-shot gags, fourth-wall breaking, and 90s pop culture references, sprinkled with the occasional hot-take social satire. The author's voice is very prominent, to the point where it feels like a particularly self-indulgent stand-up set. Occasionally a joke works, but on the other hand, occasionally a Hot Take breaks through the light-hearted goofiness and just feels gross.

The basic premise is that you're a pumpkin-headed scarecrow brought to life, and now you're running around a high school killing cheerleaders. The game's structure is very linear, and it does a decent job of cluing in the next thing you're meant to do.

Mountains of Ket, by R. A. McCormack

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Disincentive Software, August 26, 2016
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

An old-school cave-crawl; part of an unfortunate trend, predominantly in the UK, of games which offered a prize to the first player to complete them, as documented by Jimmy Maher:

To make a puzzle that will be attempted by thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people and not have it solved within hours ó a development that would be commercially disastrous ó requires making that puzzle outrageously hard. And outrageously hard puzzles just arenít much fun for most people. Itís this simple truth that makes the idea of a mass treasure hunt much more alluring than the reality. The differences between the demands of the contest and the demands of good puzzle design are almost irreconcilable.

'Outrageously hard' is a qualitatively different from 'very hard', here. The approach all but mandated games which weren't just difficult, but cruelly unfair. In order to win Ket, you must use a password which only appears, randomly, for no diegetic reason, in a particular room of the early game; that room has become inaccessible by the time you need to use the word, rendering the game unwinnable without the player ever knowing why. There are a number of tightly timed sequences which will kill you if you do anything wrong, and a lot of random combat which will usually kill you even if you make optimal choices. The mid-game features a brutal inventory-management puzzle. Even with a walkthrough this is a painfully difficult game to play.

Ket has modest narrative ambitions: it's a minimally-written D&D-style melange with a nondescript hero who has no very strong motivation other than getting from point A to point B. A small distinctive feature is that the narrator is meant to be a companion of the player-character - so 'we' gets used a lot, and occasionally the companion passes comment - but this is rendered in an unclear and often confusing way, and it's never really built into anything more than a gimmick.

Mildly interesting as a piece of archaeology; not recommended otherwise.

Inside the Japanese American Internment, by tfickle

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
History Project, March 22, 2015
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

A school-project-feeling piece about an important topic; incomplete. At least in the early game, the writing has a tone of terse, bored diligence about it:

You step off the bus and are greeted with a sign: ďCentral Utah War Relocation Center.Ē Thereís barbed wire everywhere, and a bunch of barracks. This is it. Youíre now a prisoner in an internment camp.

However, once you get past the relatively weighty decisions during the war itself, the experience shifts somewhat; you develop a host of connections to family and friends that were never mentioned before, and the writing takes on a more descriptive (sometimes over-wordy) quality.

It occupies that uncomfortable space in between first-hand personal account and impersonal factual account. I found myself uncertain about lots of details of accuracy; I think it would have been stronger with inline quotes from primary sources, or at least a bibliography. The author suggests that theyíre aiming to expand the work with (among other things) a parser-based section of the camps themselves, which may go some way to explaining why this section is so minimal.

♥Magical Makeover♥, by S. Woodson

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Body-Horror Godmother, March 22, 2015
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

A familiar tack of Twine advocacy pieces: take some problematic social issue, particularly as expressed through games, and make it grotesque and unsettling. In this case, itís a satire/re-appropriation of beauty-oriented games targeted at young girls: beauty products are presented as uncanny magic, and have actually-transformational results with strange consequences. There is a judgy magic mirror.

Mechanically, itís a Sorting Hat kind of game: your choices of beauty product determine which of several branches you find yourself going down, most of which are pure-choiceless. Although the results are weird and are at least informed by Twineís strong taste for body-horror, they donít get so visceral as to make the piece unsuitable for its ostensive audience; and the story progresses away from its beauty-myth opening into fantasy adventure thatís only tangentially related. The on-the-nose theme and long linear sections could easily have rendered the piece tedious, but itís buoyed up by a pleasant Diana Wynne Jones-ish ordinariness-of-the-fantastic charm.

dirty words in the dictionary, by hcgoldsmith

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Circular Reference, March 22, 2015
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

This does (almost) precisely what it says on the tin: it is a linkified version of a sex and gender-related subset of Johnson's dictionary, plus some marginalia-like notations representing the thoughts of a reader, which suggest other cross-references.

Poking around in dictionary-like things can be fun; Diana Wynne Jonesí Tough Guide to Fantasyland could probably be considered as a CYOA (if so, itíd be one of the better ones). There, however, a lot of the enjoyment is of the discovery kind. This is more of a twinebound (adj. used of any work of choice-based interactive fiction in which the playerís experience of constrained or denied agency is a central rhetorical point) piece, the dictionary looping back heavily on itself in circular definitions and elision, relying on cultural assumptions which it avoids explaining.

I enjoy digging through old books dealing with sexuality Ė one of my most prized books is W.J. Truittís Natureís Secrets Revealed: Scientific Knowledge of the Laws of Sex Life and Heredity, a Christian eugenics health-manual published in Ohio in 1916. The fun, in that kind of thing, lies in discovery: you know in general the variety of awfulness that itís going to express, but the pleasure lies in finding strange extended metaphors, over-the-top illustrations, turns of phrase, weird theoretical deviations from the expected script. The much more constrained forms of dictionary entries means that DWitD doesnít really provide any of that. So, a neat idea, but not as interesting as that idea promised to be.

Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, by S. John Ross

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
The Snarking of the Hunt, July 26, 2014

A heroic fantasy romp, and probably the best such in IF. Good for many hours of fun. One of those situations where I'd like to be able to give four-and-a-half stars.

Treasures is conspicuously non-literary: it does not try to do anything except amuse, but it has high standards for this. It is written in an overblown cod-medieval heroic jargon. Like a Fighting Fantasy book, a Gygax dungeon or Zork, its worldbuilding is a melange of convenience, with SF and fantasy tropes thrown together in a big nonsensical pile. Its dominant tone, though, is one of old-school swords-and-sorcery, all villainous port-cities, cunning young courtesans and ripped barbarians. The protagonist is a straightforward rip-off of Conan.

None of this is taken remotely seriously. Fond, over-the-top lampoons of a schlocky genre, attempts to replicate the so-awful-it's-accidentally-brilliant, can very easily become lazy and tiresome; but ToaSK is saved by quality of writing, by balanced economy of design, and by meticulous implementation -- none of which you'd expect from a heroic-fantasy thing that presents itself as a retrogame.

The game avoids guess-the-verb by limiting the verb set very tightly: USE, for instance, covers essentially all fiddling with objects. Most of the action, then, is about guess-the-object (difficulty: easy to moderate), or fighting monsters of a low enough level for you to defeat. At the lowest difficulty setting, I encountered only one or two monsters who couldn't be defeated when first encountered; at the highest, a bit more care is required but progress is by no means grueling. The pace and difficulty is very well-measured indeed; I played this in a group on a car journey, and while things were never a cakewalk, we never got stuck for long enough for our enthusiasm to flag. It is (I think) possible to make the game unwinnable in a place or two (edit: I'm given to understand that this has been fixed in the most recent version), or to shut off certain important optional content, though mostly it's pretty generous.

Also, although the game sets itself up as a treasure hunt, this is really not the central interest; almost everything that you gank will end up being used for something else, the non-functional treasures will mostly be used to buy time with Vessa the Delicate Doxy, and having an overfull inventory makes you less effective in combat. Most objects are single-use and disappear when used; so your inventory is a to-do list, rather than an inert pile of points scored.

While the prose is very much a lampoon, it displays a strong sense for (not just a snickering love of) the godawful language of pulp fantasy RPGs and their relatives. There's a freakin' reference to Tarkus, for fuck's sake, a strong contender in the Top 10 Most Embarrassing LPs My Dad Owns. And with its profusion of all-caps phrases, there's a definite aroma of DWJ's sardonic Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Ross has a very fine ear for just how far to push this; the thees and thys, for instance, are used only when they genuinely make a sentence funnier, rather than being slathered all over everything in the hope that comedy will result. This is not always infallible: the pirates and the end boss are kind of cringeworthy. But there's a lot more substance here than mere nostalgia disguised with a thin coat of irony.

Much fun is had at the expense of the barbarian's machismo and stupidity, but this is, crucially, of a good-natured sort that includes the player, rather than blaming them for things that aren't within their control; the player's job is to steer the PC through things he doesn't really understand. (The approach of Lost Pig is very similar.) And, indeed, the whole world feels pretty good-natured, which makes the general tone feel somewhat lighter than the material it's drawing on. While in theory the game-world is ruled over by an oppressive tyrant, in practice you can mostly wander about as freely as you please. All the villainous low-lifes of the port-city turn out to be good-hearted and on your side. Your enemies are mostly independent monsters, rather than agents of the Slaver King. So while there are theoretically tortures and slavery going on, the general feel is never very bleak.

The good-natured non-seriousness is also the thing that lets the game get away with lots of women who have plainly walked off the cover of a 70s pulp novel, by way of an adolescent fantasy. There are lots of heaving oiled chests and sex-for-fetch-quests, but these are not really twinned with the animus towards women or blithe sketchiness that makes so much classic fantasy creepy as hell. Like many heroic protagonists, the barbarian isn't all that interested in women, sex aside; but this is portrayed as part of his risible stupidity, rather than a sensible manly attitude that the reader is assumed to share.

There's something about the whole thing of very early Discworld, back when Pratchett wasn't doing much except sniggering at fantasy tropes. Of course, Pratchett fairly quickly moved on to using the setting to reflect real-world things and explore more complex characters; ToaSK never pretends to be remotely interested in that. But there's a moment at the very end, after the kingdom is saved (in an apocalyptic orgy of violence that leaves most of your allies dead), where the writing steps aside a little from the lampoon and the mood finally takes the barbarian seriously. The ending itself is precisely what the genre demands, but the tone is handled to perfection.

Treasures will not change your life, deeply stir your emotions, or grant you insights into the human condition. Its design does not purport to light a way forward to anything. It will probably be befuddling to anyone who didn't, at some stage of their life, enjoy crap heroic fantasy. Accept all that, and it's a highly entertaining game and an impressive piece of craft, which is precisely what it sets out to be.

Light My Way Home, by Caelyn Sandel (as Venus Hart)

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Going Gentle, June 10, 2014
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

Light My Way Home is a simple, evocative little game. The unfolding of exactly what is going on is, I think, important to its emotional arc, so I'll avoid spoilers.

Knowing how to make use of empty space is a big deal in most artistic disciplines. Home is deft in how it employs the gaps often present in games: the dark loneliness of night-time in interstitial urban space, the gaps in recognition and memory, the unbridgeable distance between PC and NPC. It shows rather than tells, and doesn't overshow. It's able to do this without being frustratingly opaque, because the underlying story is quite simple; it is more of a tone piece than a plot or character piece. There is a small knack to interaction, and a little thought is required about how to progress, so the pacing is neither puzzly-slow nor trivially-rapid.

To some extent, it felt akin to a small, moody point-and-click 2D Flash adventure: the single mode of interaction, the genderless NPC who follows your actions rather than being explicitly directed, the atmospheric music and emphasis on lighting.

Champion of Guitars, by Bill Meltsner

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
One-Note, March 21, 2014
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

In order for parody to work, it has to be salient criticism: it needs to articulate and illuminate a problem with its subject.

I haven't ever played Guitar Hero - I'm not a console gamer, timed pattern-matching isn't a mechanic that appeals to me very strongly, guitar-driven rock music isn't high among my musical preferences - so I don't have much invested here, but I know that it's a timed pattern-matching game about music. Champion of Guitars demonstrates that if you remove the timing and the music from this formula by making it a turn-based text game, and make no attempt to replace those features with any of the strengths of that medium, it becomes trivial and boring. This is kind of like saying that Adventure is boring if you take out the puzzles, navigation and room descriptions. It's a feeble argument.

Of course, Champion of Guitars is kind of a tedious game - that's the point. But if you're going to waste anybody's time with a crappy game, your point had better be a good one. Parody works best when it wants to understand its subject, when its mockery gets to the heart of something important. When it demonstrates a wilful ignorance, a refusal to try and understand what's going on, it becomes nothing more than a loud, sneering expression of dislike.

Choice of the Deathless, by Max Gladstone

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Attendant Lords on the Holodeck, January 24, 2014
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

Choice of the Deathless has the most richly-developed, distinctive, ambitiously-written world of any Choice of Games work I've played to date. Its setting has previously been explored in two static novels by the same author, and it shows: the world feels concrete and confident, able to veer well outside standard genre templates without getting bogged down in exposition. It's a world in which souls are standard currency and soul contracts are the principal focus of law; law, here, being a largely magical discipline that serves as mankind's best defence against alien demons and not a few gods, beings with massive (but circumscribed) power. This aside, law firms function more or less like their real-world versions, only with more entrails. The player is an entry-level lawyer in one such firm, saddled with student debt and eager for advancement in a cutthroat field.

The world is skilfully evoked, and I'm a sucker for world-twist fantasy driven by venal sins and human frailty. Like Emily, I found that it perhaps evoked an intensely high-pressure career a little too well; I broke up my play into multiple sessions, because playing this in a single sitting would have been a bit much.

Structurally, it closely follows the standard CoG pattern: you follow the promising career of a talented PC of user-determined gender and sexuality, leaping months or years to keep the narrative focus on Critical Life Decisions. Choices that you make shape character stats, and in general it's a good idea to play to your character's strengths. Romance or rivalry may be established with various NPCs.

Deathless reminded me to some extent of the board game Arkham Horror. Arkham is designed to give the player a constant impression of being really, really screwed - but in fact, with some light strategy and planning it's not all that hard to succeed. Rhetorically, Deathless implied that my character would have to make major sacrifices, but by the end it seemed as though I was doing pretty well on all fronts: my character had resounding career success, was well-liked by every tracked character and maintaining amicable romance with one, had heroically saved the day several times, hadn't suffered any great loss or had to compromise any principles close to his heart. The student-debt mechanic seems to be mostly a rhetorical flourish, intended to make the player feel as though they're making bad decisions regardless of what they do.

Deathless attempts a bit of narrative framing, with shades of triangle-of-identities shenanigans. To me, this felt like a lot of setup for something that, ultimately, ended up falling a little flat. (Spoiler - click to show)At the climactic moment, fighting in the demon realm, the antagonist shatters the PC's very being into pieces; the entire story up to this point is a process of putting the pieces back together, of reconstructing an identity. This was meant to feel, I think, like a moment of existentialist triumph of the will, of transformative power derived from defining and asserting one's identity. It's not intended to be just about overcoming this one attack: at the climax of a story that's about being a beleaguered cog in a vast and threatening system, the idea is meant to be that the protagonist has developed and retained a strong sense of self that surpasses their functionary role, an identity that is in itself power. The hero creates their own rescue by understanding who they are and what truly matters to them.

So it's clear that the author has been thinking about the thematic implications of the game structure, of the way that the CoG template is all about character-defining choices. But in the event I think that the climax fell a little flat, because it doesn't make sense unless the character is able to come across as a strongly-defined individual - something that's very hard to accomplish in a game that leaves character definition largely in the player's hands. Because, as RPG players know, there's vastly more to character definition than can be encapsulated in a form: the form is a starting point that you need to elaborate on. The player, here, is filling out a character sheet; they cannot improvise. It falls to the game to construct something on that foundation - and this is a really hard thing for a game to do to any meaningful degree. This is material that deserves a meatier protagonist.

So like most CoG stories, this does a good job of revealing a world and a trade within that world, but ends up being unsatisfactory at depicting character. This is more of a problem for Deathless because its world is not a fun genre exercise, so its hero can't really be a cheerful adventurer; and unlike (say) Fallen London, it's not an open world but a bounded story with narrative velocity, so it's less feasible for the hero to work as a Virgil, a backgrounded guide to a strange world.

Sorcery!, by Steve Jackson and inkle

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Eat Sword Pray Die, January 12, 2014
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

My dim recollection is that The Shamutanti Hills was one of the first CYOAs I ever played, and the first game I encountered that really featured the lethal combination of heroic fantasy and dice-rolling. Around the age of eleven, I ate this stuff up. I'm pretty sure that it was Shamutanti that prompted me to lay out pages and pages of horribly-designed, painfully-derivative fantasy CYOA, all written in pencil and in a hand far too small for anyone else to ever read. It was some gateway-drug shit, let me tell ya.

While the prose is solid, as literature Sorcery! doesn't have high aspirations. It's a post-Tolkienian hero's journey, heavily shaped by the school of RPG design that's all about individual, discrete encounters. There is an overarching story, but it boils down to "retrieve the immensely powerful artefact, save the world: to do this you will need to traverse most of the map." The hero is a blank, and the moral range is the familiar RPG dichotomy of "help people, or be a heartless mercenary." But within this overworked genre, it occupies a pretty specific style, with a grimy swords-and-sorcery feel.

The art from the original book has a huge influence on this: it's from a school of 1980s British fantasy art, all hippies-gone-heavy-metal, macabre and hideous, wherein everyone looks monstrous and threatening. Given how much of the contemporary reworkings of medieval fantasy sanitise and soften the era, this is kind of refreshing: it's a world of disease, deformity and desperation, where you're much more likely to catch the plague than to own a suit of shiny plate-mail. Unlike some of Jackson's gamebooks, The Shamutanti Hills is actually not a totally hostile world - allies and neutrals are by no means uncommon, if rarely straightforward - but the art style constantly hints at something nastier and more alien. (The more recent elements of the art, while capable and well-integrated, are a good deal less flavourful.) Much of the original art is finely-detailed enough that it's not really shown to best effect on a phone-sized device.

But about that hostility level: the design of the original is very much derived from a style of tabletop RPGs in which the GM is primarily an antagonist, not a guide, play is meant to be challenging. Like many of Steve Jackson's gamebooks, it actively works to instill paranoia in the player, but sometimes punishes paranoia. Enemies can be allies in disguise, or vice versa. Cues about the better decision are not to be trusted.

The combat is a big improvement from the gamebook version, which (in my faulty memory) mostly consisted of repeatedly rolling dice until someone was dead. The new mechanic is intuitive, not trivially easy, and involves some real tactical decisions. The gloss and guesswork of the magic system is far less worthwhile. Sometimes the adaptation isn't entirely smooth - you can play a male or female character, but there are certain romance-edged scenes that were clearly written with the assumption that the protagonist is male. But in other places the additions are just right, often in ways that make play less brutal - the rewind mechanic allows you to UNDO to any point along your journey, which is super-convenient.

Overall, Sorcery! is a strong and professional-feeling adaptation, and the things that prevent me from being a wholehearted fan of it are largely to do with the goals of the source material: it's a genre that I'm kind of burnt out on, and it's modeled after a style of role-playing of which I am unfond.

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