Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: horror, paranormal, minigame, urban legend, cryptology, NPCs, random, combat, comedy, science fiction, myth
A feckless loser, likeable but kind of awful, has his life even further ruined by the intrusion of an SF/F trope. He joins up with a group of yet-more-awful guys and an cute girl or two; together they navigate a grody, nocturnal Americana fever-dream, overcome obstacles through randomised combat, and squabble interminably; a extensive range of graphics and atmospheric music rounds the experience out. Scatology, sass and geekery abound. If you've enjoyed previous Robb Sherwin games, then, this is a safe bet.
In Cryptozookeeper the subject is aliens and cryptids; the result is something that feels like The X-Files cross-bred with Pokemon, with an all-slacker cast. A lot of things don't make sense, and the general feeling is of a partial hallucination; wisecracking is juxtaposed with graphic horror, the plot develops tangled corners that you don't need to keep track of, and gameplay alternates between drifting easily along while expostulation happens, and being stuck in a frustrating corner with a skewy puzzle just beyond your grasp. And it's always night. And characters point out, repeatedly, the many aspects of the story that make no sense. It's a very particular kind of surreal.
At Cryptozookeeper's heart is a mini-game in which you create cryptids by combining DNA that you've collected, then battle them in an underground animal-fighting ring, in order to level them up to face a final challenge. The design is such that collecting all the DNA and discovering all the cryptids is optional. Combat is old-schoolish and random, but handled automatically and quickly; your main decisions are about gaining stats. On the other hand, you'll do a very great deal of it, it involves few strategic decisions, and it's not very clear how much is enough; players who dislike grinding may grit their teeth.
Thorough implementation is often talked about as a sine qua non of IF authorship, but it comes at a high cost. Sherwin puts as much effort, care and love into his games as anybody making IF, and does extensive testing; but robust implementation comes fairly low on his list. (Save often.) Among his higher priorities, it seems, is long-arc story. Cryptozookeeper is sometimes buggy or cumbersome, and often sparse and linear -- but it's also large and brim-full of content.
For much of the game you have three or four NPCs in tow, but you can talk to them rarely and on very limited topics. Despite this, they feel more developed than many NPCs with ten times their conversation topics -- Robb writes very well, the images help, and you have time to get to know them. (Too, you're constantly sniping at one another; the silences feel, appropriately, like irate sulking.)
Like most Sherwin games, this is basically about how the world is dark and horrible but even the most abject can be redeemed; it manages the difficult task of making both the darkness and the light seem genuine.
Related reviews: comedy, videogame adaptation, dinosaur, animal protagonist
An IF implementation of a fairly common videogame trope: eat things to get bigger so that you can eat bigger things. Mangiasaur is a world with the same bright, cartoony colours and magical-logic you'd expect in an early-aughts console game. There are a few notes which come across a shade more darkly, but mostly it's pure entertainment: don't expect involved puzzles, deep content or elegant design, but you will get light humour, satisfying gameplay and occasionally lovely notes of setting.
Adapting videogame mechanics to IF poses a number of problems, and one of the biggest is repetition. IF isn't really well-suited to problems of the 'kill 10 rats' type; the paradigm is hand-crafted, individual scenarios. Mangiasaur takes pretty much the path you'd expect; you don't need to eat a dozen critters to level up, and the challenge is more about finding and identifying your next target, or getting at them with light puzzles. A simple map and a low challenge level maintain a brisk pace.
So: fun, charming. Totally inconsequential, but sometimes that's what you need.
Related reviews: bureaucracy, frustration, comedy, satire, politics, spy, politics, food
This aims to follow the tradition of Bureaucracy, The Goon Show or Brazil: a hyperbolic anti-authoritarian satire. It ends up, I think, being more like Austin Powers, Robert Rankin or the weaker efforts of Mel Brooks, without the frenetic pacing that (if anything) makes those works tolerable. You play a spy struggling to complete a (ludicrous) mission despite the institutional obstruction of your own agency. Much of the humour is derived from Dirty Acronyms (your boss is the T.U.R.D.) and the tone is generally at about that level. If that style of comedy works for you, you might enjoy this; if not, stay well back.
Satire's difficult. Satire cannot be done well from a complacent position. Satire fails when it says nothing new, when the author seems untroubled by the material: it involves a lot more than a comic assertion of one's opinions about what's wrong with the world. The Spy Who Ate Lunch takes on a broad swathe of issues -- bureaucratic incompetence, security theatre, jingoism, detention and torture, food regulation -- but doesn't ever seem to progress beyond cheap sniping. (It's possible that the tone shifts in the later game; I didn't get beyond the initial area.)
One of the more obvious targets of The Spy Who Ate Lunch is political correctness. It mostly handles this by embracing over-the-top, nuance-free stereotypes: there's a bitch secretary and an Nazi interrogator, and once you recognise their Type you know everything about them. It's possible to pull off satire through ludicrous, overblown caricatures, but not easy; it presents an almost insurmountable temptation to resort to lazy strawmanning, sneering and irrelevance. The other problem is that off-the-shelf stereotypes aren't inherently very funny. They can be rendered so, but by default they're tired, weak jokes. Julia in Violet is (Spoiler - click to show)promiscuous and obnoxious, but she's treated as an individual rather than an iteration of a stock character; this offers the author a lot more opportunity for fresh jokes, makes the character more interesting, and is harder to interpret as implying attitudes about women in general.
The part where this shifted from being mildly annoying to kind of objectionable, for me, is the torture bit. (Spoiler - click to show)In one corner of the HQ, the ex-Nazi interrogator is torturing a supposed Islamic terrorist who, it quickly emerges, is actually Korean. This isn't treated as horrific or shocking, exactly; it's just another gag. I was put in mind of the weaker half of The Great Dictator, the part wherein Jews evade portly, blundering stormtroopers by bopping them with skillets. Chaplin later said that he could never have made those parts if he'd known about the reality of ghettos and concentration camps.
Given more focus, the inability of the institutionally-minded PC to do anything about this could have made a genuine point, but the opportunity seems wasted; it comes off as just another gag. It's fine, I think, to make this sort of thing the subject of humour; but it's much more important for it to constitute genuine satire rather than the repetition of established tropes. Spy really doesn't seem interested in any kind of coherent stance: the abduction and torture of innocents isn't really presented as a more terrible activity than clamping down on food trucks. It makes me uneasy precisely because it's not all that interested in being uneasy.
These problems are exacerbated by the game's approach to interaction, which mostly takes the old-school attitude that anything that makes interaction more annoying counts as a puzzle. Spy is not a half-assed piece; it's sizeable, bristles with extensions, has been duly tested. Rather, I think, it's aiming to be a frustration comedy. Again, this is a hard thing to do well; to pull it off, you need to give your players the rock-solid assurance that the annoyance will be worth it, and that they'll only be frustrated when they need to be. Spy doesn't offer either assurance. (Admittedly, my tolerance for this is lower than most; Fine-Tuned and Gourmet were well-liked, but I didn't enjoy either much on a first play.)
The annoyance isn't arbitrary: its aim is to simulate the feeling of bureaucracy and security-theatre. The intelligence agency HQ where you start is broken up by keycard-locked doors: you have the card, but you have to swipe it every time you want to go through a door. This is a reasonable simulation: real-life keycards are fiddly and irritating, and having this constant annoyance in the background while you do other busywork tasks gives a good feel of what it's like to work in this place. But this player-unfriendly interaction style extends beyond the things that the bureacracy should directly control, and into things that are just politeness to the player. Even in the legit bureaucracy stuff the instinct for how tightly to turn the screw is off. I ended up abandoning the game after (Spoiler - click to show)having gathered that I couldn't leave the first area without unlocking and reading the manual, going through all the steps to unlock the manual, leaving the area, reading the first entry and discovering that the manual re-locks itself every time you read an entry, and that you can only unlock it in one place.
It's possible that Spy may appeal to players with more old-school expectations than mine, a great deal more patience, less sensitivity to tone, and different tastes in humour. But as I get older, I increasingly find myself considering art in terms of how much respect it has for its audience; by that standard, this does very poorly.
At first glance, this looks like a big pile of crap-IF tropes: a squalid apartment, a detective-type PC, and a narrative voice that lampshades crap-IF tropes and the game's own half-assedness. On closer inspection, the writing turns out to be actually funny a reasonable proportion of the time.
As the titular slob hero, you're tasked with uncovering a busybody conspiracy against Halloween chocolate in a small American town. Sometimes you encourage delinquency and attack fun-hating prigs, but as often you disrupt The Kids instead: the general tone is one of sociopathy born of slacker incompetence. The design approach aims for scale at the expense of detail and smooth play: characters are thrown in and out with wild abandon, a classic adventure-game jump-between-different-areas map is delivered as a high-speed sketch. The gleefully irresponsible action is sort of charming, although it doesn't quite overcome the game's overstretched design.
The main problem with the thing is gameplay, which is at the lower end of speedIF quality. Crucial exits are never mentioned, read-author's-mind abounds, and there's nothing really resembling direction. At times play flows very fast, at others it flounders. There's an in-game walkthrough, however, and not all of the evidence-gathering seems to be strictly necessary.
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