Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: treasure hunt, science fiction, compulsion, holocaust, philosophy, ethics, trophy case, animals
Mammal is a small-to-medium-sized treasure-hunt game with mild puzzles. As the human slave of reptilians, you are tasked with eradicating all traces of mammals from a museum.
(Spoiler - click to show)This is a fairly grim premise, since you're effectively a Sonderkommando. The wider context of the purge is never explicitly stated, but there's ample evidence that it has been a violent and chaotic process. The featureless protagonist shows no signs of emotional reaction, and dutifully goes about a set of simple tasks that are perfectly familiar to an IF player: find and identify the treasures, solve some mild puzzles to secure them, return them to the trophy-case. The PC is wholly subsumed by their role.
There are some obvious homages: the skip as trophy case is a throwback to Ad Verbum, and the reptilians bear no small resemblance to Dr. Sliss of Rogue of the Multiverse. (If there are any direct references to the TMBG song, I wouldn't notice them.) More generic stock IF devices are common, too: a crowbar to pry things with, a wandering cat. This is about the morally numbing effect of familiarity, of how having an excellent practical grasp of how to do something can make it seem less ethically troubling. That this is a mechanically unremarkable game is kind of the point. The puzzles are just fiddly enough to engage your attention and keep it away from the elephant in the room. Ultimately, you incinerate yourself for the lousy last point. (I assume; there's a point or two that I haven't found.)
Mammal is not an ethically deep work; it has a single trick to pull, a single point to make. But it's cleverly handled, and it delivers a mean little moment of realisation. And it's very clearly not about the rather tired point that players will cheerfully do atrocious things if shepherded by gameplay; rather, it takes that as read and takes advantage of it.
(There is one small bug: if you incinerate yourself while holding other mammals, the other mammals are not incinerated.)
Related reviews: ethics, feminism, theatre, CYOA, if comp 2010, persuasive games, institutions, NPCs
One of the better CYOAs to be released in an IF context, this deals with territory that's unusual for IF but standard for theatre: a small group of characters who don't like each other very much but are stuck with one another. There has been a fair amount of discussion in IF circles about the PC as director, steering other characters rather than driving the action directly, but The Play is the first game I've seen in the IF sphere that really does this.
The pitch: you're the struggling director of a wretched play, trying to get your demoralised, infighting actors into some kind of shape in your last rehearsal. The tone isn't as doom-laden and jaded as it initially appears; in spite of the acrimony, it's a comic melodrama at heart. The writing is solid and efficient if not scintillating, and the game in general gives the impression of a high craft standard.
It's very much a set-piece, short and efficient: narrative backbone is provided by the rehearsal, which you're determined to plough through. Most choices are binary, but (with considerable state-tracking) this adds up to a broad range of possibilities. The overt mechanic lies in managing the enthusiasms of all four NPCs, trying to elicit strong performances without annoying anybody so much that they quit.
The framing of gameplay, then, suggests that you should take a balanced approach and rely on moral credential effect. But the hidden mechanics tell a different story: individual decisions have individual effects, managing people is not a zero-sum game, and some viewpoints genuinely are better than others. This conflict between apparent and real best-strategy is a standard technique of persuasive games, but as a persuasive game The Play has some problems. First, its delivery of its main theme -- sexual harassment and institutional resistance to addressing it -- is somewhat uneven: some players miss it entirely and others end up feeling rather bludgeoned. Secondly, it's not interested in persuading anyone that sexual harassment is a genuine probem: it takes this for granted and moves on to the (more difficult) question of what can be done about it, and about how institutional resistance works. Thirdly, its use of slapstick and melodrama don't quite mesh with the serious material; the women are all Strong Women and predictably capable at traditionally-male roles, the sexist villain is straightforwardly villainous, there's a general sense of values being enacted rather than explored.
Persuasive games are always difficult, and I don't want to give the impression that The Play flubs anything terribly; the core of its ethical arc works as designed, I think. Rather, a lot of things are just a bit off, and this adds up. But despite this, it's an entertaining and impressive piece of work.
Related reviews: ethics, theology, polemic, miracles, jesus, christianity, religion, textuality
It's a broad truth in IF that the best works dealing prominently with Christian themes are written by non-Christians. Cana is the exception.
The game is presented (very loosely) as a late-Victorian translation of an apocryphal account of the Jugs of Cana, better-known as the water-into-wine miracle. As an obscure servant in the house of the bridegroom, you're tasked with finding more wine for the party and, eventually, in setting up the miracle.
The main thing the game depicts is not setting or plot or puzzle or individual characters, but a community: a community composed of individuals, many of them basically dissatisfied, most with diverging interests, full of conflicts great and small. Fundamentally an attractive community, full of kind, generous, intelligent people, but one which you are not quite a core member of. This goes a long way towards making it feel alive, rather than a tidy little parable.
Gameplay-wise, it's old-schoolish and not immensely intuitive. There are multiple solutions to certain puzzles, which have an impact on the general story, but interaction is not the central interest of the game. Some lines of inquiry rely on quite specific knowledge of the original text, and others are counterintuitive. There's a substantial hint system. Use it.
The game's core moral dilemma is, intentionally, trivial. (Spoiler - click to show)Joshua (Jesus) asks you to fetch some water; it's emphasized by other characters that you must do exactly as he says. But shortly thereafter, you have a choice: in order to save a child's life you have to disobey the literal commands of Jesus. The triviality is the point: anybody with the most rudimentary ethical sense can see the right answer, that literalism can't be allowed to trump straightforward ethics.
The approach to the rest of the story takes a similar attitude: it can't really be construed as an attempt at a strict historical retelling. Instead, it treats the text, story and history as juicy story elements rather than hard facts, and indeed in many places it's conspicuously ahistorical. Characters appear who are unlikely to have been around before the start of Jesus' ministry -- but then, so is the freaking Ancient Mariner, a guy who seems carefully chosen for maximum historical inconsistency.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I've played an RPG campaign with Chris as the GM, and he took a highly similar approach there: a joyful, loving appropriation and blending of every story in sight, to the point where navigating the game became as much about interpreting, recognising and playing with the references as about in-character decisions. This led to one of the most fun and sustained RPG experiences I've ever had, which inescapably colours my experience of Cana.)
There's a certain kind of literary Christian who seems more invested in the aesthetic potency of Christianity than in its truth or goodness. Borges loved Christianity mostly because it led to Dante, Chaucer and a thousand strange and beautiful theologies. Cana does not quite fit into this model, though it can certainly be read in that mode: miracles and their significance are not really its central interest. (Indeed, Jesus doesn't quite seem to see the point of the miracle, which is fair enough: setting a party up with booze isn't quite the same order of things as healing the sick.)
Of course, all this presupposes that you actually get a decent proportion of the references. Your actual religious beliefs aren't directly pertinent to whether you enjoy Cana or not: more important is a textual interest in the Gospels, and a sense of humour about them.
Painfully earnest and rhetorically self-defeating, Jarod's Journey is the canonical example of How Not To Do It when it comes to IF that aims to make a point about ethics, politics or religion.
Jarod is a Christian pilgrim (or possibly evangelist; it's not very clear) in the late first-century Holy Land. The game's themes have little to do with the concerns of first-century Christians, though, and thinking of it as a historical piece would be a mistake; rather, it's consciously modeled on parables. In each section, Jarod visits a city and observes the ways different people express their faith; he then has to decide which of them is doing it right, or rather which message God wants him to derive from his observations. In each case there is only one right answer.
There are several problems with this. One is that the scenes Jarod observes don't always translate readily into parables; another is that the parables don't translate straightforwardly into morals. Yet another is that choosing between the morals is often arbitrary and unsupported; a lot of the morals don't seem to be in conflict with each other, and in places the texts quoted to explain why a choice was wrong could quite reasonably be taken to mean that it was right. In other words, unless you are already familiar with the author's very specific theological concerns and idiom of interpretation, Jarod's Journey is not just unfair as a game but incoherent as an argument.
The game violates a few of its own expressed maxims; one of the obviously-wrong choices is a Pharisee who prays in a conspicuous, repetitive, hollow, bombastic style that closely resembles the game's own approach to biblical quotes. Its text argues for the primacy of simple faith and prayer, but its mechanics seem to say that it's more important to give the correct answers to questions of doctrine.
It doesn't help that the tone is one of clean-cut, sanctimonious enthusiasm. Although the story makes it clear that he has been raised as a Christian, Jarod seems ingenuously surprised at basic tenets of the faith. The Holy Land seems to have been rather cleaned-up since the life of Christ; there are lots of hard-working tradespeople and a distinct absence of lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors and lunatics. (The most disreputable people are a bunch of nasty-looking street toughs who turn out to be exactly what they look like.)
Games about ethics and religion are very difficult to do well, particularly if they advocate a very specific position. But the most basic design principle for them is that it's never a good idea to give the player a set of choices, then tell them that A is good and B and C are bad; it's boring gameplay and it's unpersuasive rhetoric. Jarod's Journey is worth playing because it demonstrates very clearly why this is.
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