Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
surrealView this member's profile
View this member's reviews by tag: abuse adverbs aesthetics afghanistan aif alice anatomy ancient rome animal protagonist animals anime april fool's art atrocity baseball based on songs bdsm boardgame body parts bondage bureaucracy casual games character portrait character stats childhood children's Christian christianity classics collaborative combat comedy coming of age compulsion conspiracy constrained writing conversation cooking cryptology cyclic cyoa darkness dating sim detective developing world dinosaur discordian dracula dream easy games easy puzzles ectocomp education educational emotion environment epilogue eris ethics experimental fairytale family fan fiction fanfiction fantasy feminism fictionalised flashback flight folktale food frame-story freud frustration gender genre gimmick gods graphics guilt Harry Potter heroic fantasy historical historical fiction history hoax holocaust homeschool horror how not to do it if comp 2010 incomplete institutions intertextuality jesus kink large large map leonora carrington lesbian linear love magic magic system make-believe marriage medicine metaphor minicomp minigame miracles movement MUD multimedia multiple narrators multiple protagonists mystery myth narrative narrative structure narrow verb set noir non-genre nostalgia nouns NPCs old-school oldschool one-trick pony oulipo out-of-comp palindrome paranormal persuasive games philosophy platformer poetry polemic political politics pornographic pornography postmodernism psychology PTSD puzzles quest random religion religious remix rhetoric rhyme roborally romance rpg satire science fantasy science fiction setting sex SF simile simulation simulationist smell smut speedIF spelling sports spring thing Spring Thing 2011 spy steampunk stiffy makane superhero surreal surrealism survival horror teenage textuality theatre theology theory therapy They Might Be Giants time tone tragedy train transposition treasure hunt trial and error trophy case urban legend vampire varytale Victorian videogame adaptation Vorple wacky war wedding weird wordplay words young adult Zorkian
...or see all reviews by this member1-6 of 6
Related reviews: simile, metaphor, magic system, dream, surreal, noir, detective, mystery
Simon Christiansen's work has been characterised by brilliant concepts that are ultimately let down in the execution. The execution has improved considerably (and so have the concepts, really); the overall experience, though, is still a little rough.
The big concept of PataNoir is that similes occupy their own adjacent reality that you can manipulate: change the simile, change the real world. One frequently-employed subset of this involves altering the personalities of people. Elements of one simile can be used to tinker with another, and in some sequences similes are gates that allow you to plunge into entirely separate worlds. There are, then, a number of distinct kinds of manipulation that can be performed with similes, and they're thrown at you pretty much all at once, together with rules about how the system works (similes can be used to modify real-world things, but can't act directly on them: a simile key will not unlock a real door.) When I first played it I had a little trouble taking on everything at once, and stalled out perhaps halfway in.
The simile hook provides a good deal of rather lovely imagery (kicking in good and early), with elements of fantastic journey about it; to film this you'd want Terry Gilliam (or Švankmajer, though it's not quite that dark). There is a hauntingly dark atmosphere to much of it. Not every section is quite as spectacular as it could be: the climactic scene in particular could be richer and darker. But there are many images I took away from this: (Spoiler - click to show)the angel fountain encircled by snake-paths, the sleeping giant, the eyes you swim into like subterranean lakes, the plunge from bottles on a table in a messy apartment into a minaret-studded city. There's much here of the raw stuff of imagination, the pure delight of strange transformations.
Structurally, the game has areas you can travel between, and you will fairly often need to travel back and forth. The game's natural pace is a sort of Anchorhead-like, leisurely poking around at things; but I ended up speeding things up with the walkthrough a good deal, for a couple of reasons. Dream or hallucination is a flow state: it's not something where you get hung up on a fair-but-difficult conundrum for a while and have to work through it logically. The play experience matches up much better with the experience-as-written when you cheat. Simile-logic isn't really consistent enough for a Savoir-Faire simulationist approach, and there's often a whiff of read-author's-mind about the solutions. In the impossible-to-make Platonic ideal of this game, more or less everything you tried would advance the plot somehow. That said, going to the walkthrough really doesn't ruin the experience: it's still hauntingly strange.
Christiansen's biggest limiting factor remains narrative voice. This is exacerbated because of PataNoir's reliance on a genre that makes very strong demands on narrative voice, even when done as a pastiche. Noir needs a tone of slangy self-assurance, murky motives, a grimy, uncomfortable world full of implied sex, violence and desperation. PataNoir feels a bit more in Thin Man territory: there's a noir template, but it's being used in service to something else, it's as much a comedy on noir tropes as anything, and thus it's rendered nonthreatening. The characters are a little too straightforward: the obligatory femme fatale has the mandatory dangerous curves, but these are only significant as a simile: but the PC doesn't feel as though he regards her with either lust or trepidation.
And then there's the ending. (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist, it turns out, has a rare mental-health condition ("Lytton-Chandler syndrome") and, off his meds, has likely fantasised the entire thing. A lot of people felt this was a cop-out; I'm not convinced of this, but I don't think it really matches up with the story as written. The tough, non-flowing puzzle structure isn't suggestive of hallucination, but of solid, graspable, permanent worlds; the contrast between the rich simile-worlds and the flat detective-noir story suggests that they genuinely do occupy separate worlds, rather than being elements of the same hallucination.
So ultimately I came out of this hoping that Christiansen would team up with a more confident wordsmith, or perhaps find something that allows him to develop his own voice rather than trying to replicate an established style.
Dreams are difficult material for a writer; most often, literary dreams are just narrative laziness or cowardice, and resemble actual dreams very little. apple, however, attains a sort of Lynchian semi-coherence -- a faint shadow of the senseless power of actual dreams, but about as good as can be expected in a waking state.
The author was in his teens when he wrote this, and there's a definite adolescent feel to the whole thing: Tarantino-slickness, transgressive (though not porny) sex everywhere, the cool-meta vibe that Hollywood went frantic over in the late 90s and early aughts. It's very much a beast of that era, back when school shootings evoked controversy rather than resignation.
It's not much of a game; the interactivity is slight, more about engagement and focus-changing than about altering the course of events. There are one or two cool use-of-medium tricks in here -- as when the narrative turns into a TV script -- but they come across as throwaway and irrelevant. There are great big textdumps. At the time, to a sceptic, it would have looked like the logical extension of the malign influence of Photopia: short stories trivially dressed up as IF, cheap pressing of the audience's buttons. Formal purists, people who see the game/puzzle aspect of IF as essential, are basically going to hate this.
What's striking about apple is that it does a pretty decent job of representing a sense of the dreamlike: fractured hints of narrative, a looming feeling of inevitability, a lurching unease. It's not perfect at this, it's not even great; but it's good.
Related reviews: oulipo, wordplay, remix, constrained writing, nouns, transposition, surreal, gimmick
Zork N+9 is an Oulipan version of Zork, in which all the nouns of the text have been shifted by nine dictionary places. The result is a pile of beautiful, diverting nonsense.
The first effect of the transposition is that sometimes the modified sentences just happen to have funny parts: "On the tack is an enlongated brown safe, smelling of hot percussionists." Tack, elongated safe, blah blah; but the smell of hot percussionists, that's good stuff. I'm easily entertained by generated text humour and by a fortuitous juicy phrase, so there's plenty of immediate enjoyment to be had here.
Secondly, there's a feeling of formlessness and ambiguity, similar to that of playing The Gostak. Unlike The Gostak, however, you know that the nouns correspond to a more familiar environment, and you probably have a pretty good idea about what that environment is: even if you've never played the original, it's not hard to guess plausible words that are alphabetically close. This constrained the surrealism somewhat; I never pictured a bisexual sorceress chirping in the distributor, even though I appreciated the phrase, because it was clear that it was really a bird. What it has that The Gostak lacks is a sense of a familiar landscape transformed. How this affects you will depend on whether you know Zork intimately, slightly or not at all. I've played a little of the original, a while ago; it's not an important text for me personally, and my memory tends to get it mixed up with Adventure, but I'm aware of how large it looms in the IF consciousness. So on top of my vague recollections about how the game works, the effect of the switched nouns is very dreamlike. I sometimes dream about books that are familiar and important but, on waking, turn out not to exist; this has something of that sense of familiarity-across-a-gulf. For someone who was closely familiar with Zork, able to reliably translate every modified noun, this experience would probably be very different.
The modification is less than complete; many nouns, some of them quite common ('door', 'room', 'score') have been left intact. Some of this may have been intended as a consideration to the player, but if so, it seems like a misjudgment. The Gostak demonstrates that it's possible to navigate an IF world with no familiar points of reference at all; most of the people likely to play this will be able to rely on at least passing familiarity with Zork; and the effect of 'real' nouns is actually pretty jarring. And these would be among the easiest words to figure out. (Sometimes verbs are transposed, too; this seems to happen with words that can also be nouns.)
Nonetheless, this is obvious but bears mention: Zork is already a difficult game and the nonsense makes it more so. The game was not designed with the translation problem in mind. Playing this cold would be considerably more difficult than The Gostak. And here's the real kicker: a standard Zork walkthrough would also, in effect, be a translation. It seems to me that reading this side-by-side with the original text, or a walkthrough's boiled-down version of it, would reduce the whole thing to a cheap party trick, magic that's boring because you can see how it's done.
If it's too troublesome to play, though, the source is still pretty entertaining.
Related reviews: science fiction, science fantasy, surreal, smell, noir, detective
Narrative-centred, vivid, weird SF noir, short and fast-moving. If you enjoy Robb Sherwin games or Deadline Enchanter you're likely to enjoy this.
The idea of a PC with a prodigious sense of smell has been floating around the IF world for an awfully long time. And a detective piece seems like a good fit for a smell game: the PC can see evidence that nobody else can, and you can deliver forensic-science details without having to mess around in a lab. The thing practically writes itself, and Nostrils of Flesh and Clay looks almost nothing like it.
Nostrils is a sort of science-fantasy noir. The SMELL verb is, indeed, more useful than EXAMINE, but it doesn't give concrete information so much as emotions, associations and metaphors. This meshes in heavily with the lurid, punchy prose, which would be at risk of becoming purple if it wasn't so admirably concise. The world is grimy, threatening, nauseous, bordering on the surreal; everything is experienced viscerally. There's heavy use of gesture-worldbuilding; China Mieville or Blade Runner territory. You are not meant to understand everything, and there's a significant gap between player and protagonist.
Once the central plot thread emerges, it's pretty clear that things are not going to end well. The protagonist is a bent cop; her special powers bring her little joy and cause her plenty of suffering. The world does not contain anybody trustworthy or pleasant. The IF feeling of isolation is in full effect. There is, in theory, a payoff you're working towards, but this isn't a character who sees any real hope of things getting better. It doesn't wallow in misery, and the language is too tasty to make the experience particularly grim; but the content's still pretty freakin' dark.
Mechanically, it's a rather simple game, without much in the way of deep interaction or significant choice. Cut-scenes feature heavily. The whole thing has the instincts of a short story, with all the unnecessary elements sheared off; it wants to keep the plot moving. At points it's somewhat more sparsely implemented than might be hoped, but mostly (particularly considering that it credits no testers) it's remarkably smooth to play.
Highly promising; hoping for more.
Drawing heavily on the Alice corpus but not precisely retelling it, Sentencing Mr. Lidell is a guilt-ridden, surreal journey that partially reveals the history of a deeply messed-up family.
Partially is the key bit, here. Most of the story takes place in a state of dream-logic, laden with significance that can't be unpacked. Elements of characters are gestured at rather than explained or directly shown, and little that is suggested is ever really cleared up. Even before the dream-sequence, most things are not expressed directly.
The plot, such as it is: after work at his hat shop, Alastair Lidell meets his wife Catherine and their infant daughter, and they go to visit the funfair. Their relationship is falling apart: Alastair is numb and withdrawn, Catherine hypersensitive. As they argue, the pram rolls into the canal. Alastair dives in after her and enters a dark Wonderland from which he never emerges, an underground train populated by strange versions of his family.
A good number of people viscerally dislike Sentencing; the amount of misery floating around is so high, and the specifics so indefinite, that it's not hard to end up loathing one major character or another, and with them the whole game. At one point of the dream-sequence you have to (Spoiler - click to show)viciously beat a family member in order to advance. If you're sensitive to issues of PC-player complicity, you're likely to have a hard time with this.
It develops a strong feeling of doomed, dreamlike inevitability, but this involves to scanty implementation, linearity and other unfairness to the player; and this, in turn, ends up disrupting the dreamlike flow. One of the strongest examples: there are scenes in which a previously unmentioned character speaks up out of nowhere. This is just how dreams work, but as far as gameplay goes it doesn't inspire confidence in the world. And that confidence would be misplaced: the implementation is pretty ragged. At various points this interrupts the dreamlike flow of the game; it's somewhat too puzzley for the sort of experience that it's trying to deliver. When it does flow smoothly, these problems fall away; but the texture isn't as even as it could be. Its central gimmick -- in which you gather words from the text, then assemble them into a sentence that determines the ending -- falls far short of what it could be, and is incomplete even at its relatively unambitious scale.
At its best, Sentencing Mr. Lidell is poetic, evocative and challenging; at its worst it's noncommittal and incomplete. Whether its emotional impact is a cheap and nasty trick or an artistic accomplishment is going to depend heavily on your individual reaction.
A game of two gimmicks: it takes place largely in total darkness, and the mechanics centre around wordplay. Among its many problems is that players may take quite a while to fully notice either of these.
Like earlier wordplay games (Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head Or Tail Of It, Ad Verbum) Erebus mostly eschews coherent plot and builds itself around word puzzles. The tone is wacky Zorkian, and the writing's main strength lies in mildly amusing silliness. The setting is the main divergence from this: islands in a dark subterranean lake, with an atmosphere not unlike like the game's namesake Hunter, in Darkness. This, combined with the opening sequence, make Erebus feel rather like two games that aren't quite on speaking terms; a Zorkian wordplay game set in a wacky hell, and a moodily surreal game about darkness and silence.
The core gameplay is about constructing short words from letters that you've found. The most annoying thing about Erebus is that using a letter consumes it; a replacement appears where it was originally found, and this entails a great deal of unnecessary trudging around the map. The second most annoying thing is that some of its puzzle solutions, particularly towards the end, feel quite arbitrary; this exacerbates the first problem, because the only real way of working the solution out is to try making lots of different words. Erebus shoots itself in the foot by saddling its fun central mechanic with tedious makework.
1-6 of 6