Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: multimedia, PTSD, afghanistan, multiple narrators, politics, war, narrow verb set
maybe make some change is a rare thing: a political game that's powerful without being preachy, a heavily-multimedia piece that doesn't feel gimmicky, a limited-action/brutalised-protagonist piece that feels justified. Dealing with the Maywand District murders, it puts you in the shoes of Adam Winfield, one of the US soldiers convicted of the premeditated killing of unarmed Afghan civilians.
PAX East 2011. At the IF Demo Fair, Aaron Reed is showcasing an early version of maybe make some change, then titled what if im the bad guy. To me, the experience of play feels like an attempt to represent post-traumatic stress disorder. The game is played with headphones: the soundtrack is a garble of radio static, yells and gunfire, through which emerge fragments of speech clips about the Afghan conflict and the War on Terror. In the screen's background, behind the text, clips play from first-person shooters set somewhere in the Middle East. The central text is terse and repetitive, the verb-set narrow; interactivity feels distant, a struggle through a haze of stressful stimuli. As a piece of multimedia IF, it's astounding, leagues in advance of anything comparable; otherwise, it feels more like a theatre-of-cruelty experiential piece than a playable story. A woman stops playing, refusing to enter the commands that she feels the game's demanding of her: Aaron gives her a hug. "That's a totally legitimate response."
maybe make some change is a more meditative creature than what if im the bad guy, less easy to read as designed primarily to shock and brutalise the audience. The voices are chosen more for calm tones, the crackle of radio and gunfire is less jarring (the predominant sound is of an eerie air-raid siren), the video more blurry and ghostlike. The game doesn't try to overwhelm you with multiple stimuli anywhere near as much. The narrators use less racist language. The overall effect is less of a hammer-blow to the face: still disturbing, but allowing more focus on the underlying content.
The game's basic conceit is a cycling Rashomon story: the same vignette is told over and over again by different narrators, military and civilian, before and after the event: sergeants, a pro-war relative, a liberal blogger, an army trainer, your prosecutor. Each retelling takes only a single action before switching to the next; the initial feeling is that this is a one-turn game like Aisle. The same sentences are used in each retelling, but as well as tenses, many of the words shift between narrators -- most significantly, the word used for the Afghan man killed by the platoon, which varies from 'civvie' to 'insurgent' to 'fuckhead'.
The game focuses on the strained and difficult positions that the protagonist faces, about situations and interpretations framed by other people. Most actions are invalid, either denied by the narrators or self-censored by the protagonist. The central thread to the piece is obviously about the conflicting pressures and limited freedom of the protagonist. But there's more to the piece than the weary The Game Is Oppressive, The Player Is A Victim dynamic.
(Spoiler - click to show)The central point of gameplay is to unlock the full suite of available verbs, then apply them to the correct narrators in ways that might conceivably have helped. For me, this successfully threaded the needle between ironic nihilism and demanding perfect-world outcomes.
There's a definite element of disassociation or derealisation about gameplay, a post-desperation feeling of 'okay, I'm fucked anyway, let's try anything'. But it avoids becoming navel-gazing; the game does an excellent job of contrasting the various American-centric fantasy wars with the man in front of you, the ghost of Mullah Adahdad who you must confront again and again from different angles (contrast De Baron). Similarly, for a piece that's about different perspectives, it does a fine job of avoiding pure-subjectivity soup.
The multimedia features are largely lost in the non-browser version; not recommended.
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: atrocity, abuse, childhood, feminism, fictionalised, gender, politics, persuasive games, developing world
The Forgotten Girls is about child sex slavery in the developing world. This is difficult material, and the author seems to be a novice at both writing and IF design. You play a child prostitute who attempts to rescue another and escape slavery.
Narratives about atrocity have a particularly strong relationship to authenticity. First-hand accounts by victims or witnesses are highly potent, even if the narrator is unskilled; second-hand accounts, by people who have spoken with actual witnesses, still have the impact of immediacy, but require somewhat more technical skill. Third-hand accounts, fictionalised, seriously reduce the impact, and a great deal of skill is required to impart the appropriate feeling to the audience. And interactive narratives are generally harder to get right. So I can't really blame the author for too much, here, other than underestimating the difficulty of the task.
Verisimilitude is the biggest weakness of The Forgotten Girls. It's set in a specific culture (India, with Hindu and Sikh surnames) with which the author does not seem to be particularly familiar. That said, the NPCs are not convincing as humans of any culture; their dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and they're conspicuously pawns of a puzzle structure. This makes it difficult to take them seriously as monstrous abusers. While the intention here seems good -- showing abuse victims working actively to empower themselves, rather than passively awaiting rescue -- the effect kind of diminishes the seriousness of the issue. If you can easily manipulate your abusers with adventure-game tricks, the power dynamic is all wrong. (I'm reminded, again, of the slapstick ghetto scene in The Great Dictator, in which Jews outwit beer-gutted, oafish Nazi police with skillets and flower-pots.) Depicting abused women as active agents in their own rescue has its virtues, but depicting victims as more resourceful than abusers makes the entire scenario nonsensical.
The problem's compounded because this world-illogic-for-the-sake-of-puzzles isn't just about NPC behaviour; the physical world works like this as well. A wooden cupboard can be set alight with matches. An ordinary car can smash through a brick wall from a dead start. A girl is able to walk (let alone flee) immediately after a vicious and prolonged beating with an iron rod. This could have been glossed over if the characters were less mechanical, and fixing it wouldn't compensate for the mechanical characters; but it does make the problem worse. Along similar lines, room descriptions are often laid out as ungainly inventory listings, and synonyms and close-but-wrong attempts are rarely implemented; you're never allowed to forget the artifice of your environment. (And from a gameplay perspective, read-author's-mind is a huge problem. There is, at least, a pretty good hints menu.)
It's worth comparing this to another game about real-world atrocity, Gigantomania. While suffering from similar problems (counternarrative gameplay elements; a general feeling of sophomore inauthenticity), Gigantomania made a creditable attempt to represent life under Stalin through modes of interaction, to explain experience through doing, to bring home a point by exploring how a system works. The Forgotten Girls doesn't really do anything like this; it's really just the statement "sex slavery in the developing world exists." That's not a pointless statement, for all that it makes for a less interesting work. But I think there's little point in fictionalising that statement if the fiction has less force than the bare facts.
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.
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