Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: MUD, rpg, collaborative, political, character stats, art, combat, incomplete, large map, NPCs, politics, satire, setting, postmodernism, surrealism,
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.
Related reviews: cyoa, coming of age, words, narrative, childhood, varytale, aesthetics, family, non-genre, character stats, Christianity, homeschool, education, spelling
The fundamental subject-matter of literature is difficult loves: problems that matter deeply but are insoluble. By this standard, Bee is the most literary CYOA that I've encountered. A coming-of-age story about impossible parents, limited means and awkward emergence from isolation, it put me a little in mind of I Capture the Castle (which Emily tells me she hasn't read).
Rather than being structured around a strict linear tree like the bulk of stateless CYOA, Varytale encourages modular design more akin to RPG gamebooks or Echo Bazaar style browser-adventure-RPG games. Bee is structured around the passage of the year, with different events becoming available at different seasons; age, the state of your stats, and previous events also determine which options are available. A number of sections can be repeated with variations, but (more so than its antecedent Echo Bazaar) these are things whose repetition makes sense as narrative and as reality: chores, seasonal religious festivals. The fragmentary nature of Varytale stories is very well-suited to the retrospective style, with its assembled incidents of memory.
It should scarcely need repeating by this point, but Emily writes consistently sharp, telling prose. The story would not work without it.
One of the game's strongest points is how successfully it evokes the particular intensity of the aesthetic sense emerging in adolescence, the discovery of a transformative power, burning in isolation, standing out sharply against the world of drab concerns and tired formulas. The most prominent parts of this involve the protagonist mapping out for her own feelings about Christian ritual and the English language, but also in the seasons, in the contemplation of an emotion, in the elusive moments of family happiness. It's a story about learning to appreciate things deeply, and how to negotiate for a better deal, and reconciling the two. It's about the realisation that you're smarter than your parents. Like much of Emily's work, it's about the pathos of limitations, about lofty ambitions that will inevitably be diminished -- you're told from the outset that you will not win Nationals. (Despite the competitive framing, and in line with the Varytale ethos, this is only slightly game-like; character stats are tracked loosely, and while not every node can be found in a single playthrough, there is not really any challenge per se.)
It's also about an interweaving of shame and bristly pride; at its most documentary, Bee becomes something of an account of the culture and experience of homeschooled children. It's neither an attack nor an apology, though it has definite elements of both; it paints a more nuanced picture of homeschooling than is usual from either its advocates or mainstream critics. One obvious effect is that the protagonist has no friends in the normal sense: the listing of known characters makes a distinction between family (too basic to list) and Acquaintances, an uncomfortable and lukewarm category that's confirmed by the text. (Of course, much of this is because the protagonist's intellectual development is far in advance of everything else; it's easy to think of her as being considerably older than she is. For a while I had the vague sense that the story dealt so slightly with sex and romance because she was from a repressed religious family; but once I actually articulated the thought, I realised it didn't hold up.)
(As a technical note, I first played this when play was restricted by Story Points, Varytale's equivalent of the Echo Bazaar candle. Bee is, at present, no longer thus restricted. Generally speaking I loathe the candle system; it's horribly anti-player. But I'll admit that its artificial choke on pacing does affect how one reads, and offset the distinctly CYOA-ish temptation to hurry through the text and to get to options.)
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