Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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A heroic fantasy romp, and probably the best such in IF. Good for many hours of fun. One of those situations where I'd like to be able to give four-and-a-half stars.
Treasures is conspicuously non-literary: it does not try to do anything except amuse, but it has high standards for this. It is written in an overblown cod-medieval heroic jargon. Like a Fighting Fantasy book, a Gygax dungeon or Zork, its worldbuilding is a melange of convenience, with SF and fantasy tropes thrown together in a big nonsensical pile. Its dominant tone, though, is one of old-school swords-and-sorcery, all villainous port-cities, cunning young courtesans and ripped barbarians. The protagonist is a straightforward rip-off of Conan.
None of this is taken remotely seriously. Fond, over-the-top lampoons of a schlocky genre, attempts to replicate the so-awful-it's-accidentally-brilliant, can very easily become lazy and tiresome; but ToaSK is saved by quality of writing, by balanced economy of design, and by meticulous implementation -- none of which you'd expect from a heroic-fantasy thing that presents itself as a retrogame.
The game avoids guess-the-verb by limiting the verb set very tightly: USE, for instance, covers essentially all fiddling with objects. Most of the action, then, is about guess-the-object (difficulty: easy to moderate), or fighting monsters of a low enough level for you to defeat. At the lowest difficulty setting, I encountered only one or two monsters who couldn't be defeated when first encountered; at the highest, a bit more care is required but progress is by no means grueling. The pace and difficulty is very well-measured indeed; I played this in a group on a car journey, and while things were never a cakewalk, we never got stuck for long enough for our enthusiasm to flag. It is (I think) possible to make the game unwinnable in a place or two (edit: I'm given to understand that this has been fixed in the most recent version), or to shut off certain important optional content, though mostly it's pretty generous.
Also, although the game sets itself up as a treasure hunt, this is really not the central interest; almost everything that you gank will end up being used for something else, the non-functional treasures will mostly be used to buy time with Vessa the Delicate Doxy, and having an overfull inventory makes you less effective in combat. Most objects are single-use and disappear when used; so your inventory is a to-do list, rather than an inert pile of points scored.
While the prose is very much a lampoon, it displays a strong sense for (not just a snickering love of) the godawful language of pulp fantasy RPGs and their relatives. There's a freakin' reference to Tarkus, for fuck's sake, a strong contender in the Top 10 Most Embarrassing LPs My Dad Owns. And with its profusion of all-caps phrases, there's a definite aroma of DWJ's sardonic Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Ross has a very fine ear for just how far to push this; the thees and thys, for instance, are used only when they genuinely make a sentence funnier, rather than being slathered all over everything in the hope that comedy will result. This is not always infallible: the pirates and the end boss are kind of cringeworthy. But there's a lot more substance here than mere nostalgia disguised with a thin coat of irony.
Much fun is had at the expense of the barbarian's machismo and stupidity, but this is, crucially, of a good-natured sort that includes the player, rather than blaming them for things that aren't within their control; the player's job is to steer the PC through things he doesn't really understand. (The approach of Lost Pig is very similar.) And, indeed, the whole world feels pretty good-natured, which makes the general tone feel somewhat lighter than the material it's drawing on. While in theory the game-world is ruled over by an oppressive tyrant, in practice you can mostly wander about as freely as you please. All the villainous low-lifes of the port-city turn out to be good-hearted and on your side. Your enemies are mostly independent monsters, rather than agents of the Slaver King. So while there are theoretically tortures and slavery going on, the general feel is never very bleak.
The good-natured non-seriousness is also the thing that lets the game get away with lots of women who have plainly walked off the cover of a 70s pulp novel, by way of an adolescent fantasy. There are lots of heaving oiled chests and sex-for-fetch-quests, but these are not really twinned with the animus towards women or blithe sketchiness that makes so much classic fantasy creepy as hell. Like many heroic protagonists, the barbarian isn't all that interested in women, sex aside; but this is portrayed as part of his risible stupidity, rather than a sensible manly attitude that the reader is assumed to share.
There's something about the whole thing of very early Discworld, back when Pratchett wasn't doing much except sniggering at fantasy tropes. Of course, Pratchett fairly quickly moved on to using the setting to reflect real-world things and explore more complex characters; ToaSK never pretends to be remotely interested in that. But there's a moment at the very end, after the kingdom is saved (in an apocalyptic orgy of violence that leaves most of your allies dead), where the writing steps aside a little from the lampoon and the mood finally takes the barbarian seriously. The ending itself is precisely what the genre demands, but the tone is handled to perfection.
Treasures will not change your life, deeply stir your emotions, or grant you insights into the human condition. Its design does not purport to light a way forward to anything. It will probably be befuddling to anyone who didn't, at some stage of their life, enjoy crap heroic fantasy. Accept all that, and it's a highly entertaining game and an impressive piece of craft, which is precisely what it sets out to be.
Related reviews: teenage, young adult, nostalgia, treasure hunt, NPCs, Vorple, graphics, epilogue, romance
Guilded Youth is a short, aggressively compact coming-of-age story, with well-considered, strongly-executed, attractive presentation that contributes a great deal to the content without overwhelming it. You play Tony, an 80s teenager whose world is viewed through the lens of a fantasy-RPG BBS; recruiting various allies from his online world, he leads a series of quixotic real-world raids to plunder treasures from a derelict house. The interest lies not so much in trespass and theft, however, as it does in learning things about the NPCs (though this mostly feels like glances at the surface). Munroe is a capable writer. There's well-chosen music. On the surface, this feels like a polished product; indeed, it's really the product of four different specialists rather than one overworked generalist.
Once you get to grips with it, though, it's not quite there. Gameplay is restricted to a narrow set of verbs and interactions. This makes play easier, but has the side-effect of making Tony's engagement with his world and peers seem very impoverished: going on a great adventure doesn't change the fact that he's an awkward kid. Some games parlay limited verb sets into rich and engaging gameplay: Guilded Youth very much doesn't. Interaction rolls along smoothly enough, but it always feels constrained.
The narrative, too, is clipped, narrow, to-the-point; we see nothing at all about Tony's mundane life, or very much of what matters about alternative world of the BBS. The story offers subplots, suggestions of character arcs, then prunes them away after barely a plot beat. The story has been much-compared to 80s children's adventure movies, particularly The Goonies, but to me it felt more like YA novels of the same approximate era: willing to touch on big, thorny, uncomfortable issues, brave enough to avoid neatly resolving them. There's perhaps something to be said here about the experience of being a teenager, of being in a place where everything is done for a future that's taking its time in arriving; of feeling that everything important, everything fulfilling, has been indefinitely put off; but this explanation has the feeling of an excuse. Rather than a conscious design decision, it's probably the result of the game being written hurriedly as a tech demo for Vorple. Jim Munroe:
"I just kind of dropped it when I was done. Me and Matt considered it a lark, a nostalgic trifle, so much so that we didnít anticipate people would care what happened to the quickly sketched characters."
(Post-comp, an epilogue was added, allowing the player to focus a little more on one of the characters. These sections add a small but important sliver of character development, player choice and much-needed narrative closure; they make the thing feel more like a complete piece, even if they don't entirely fix all its weaknesses.)
Nonetheless, it's a pretty damn good tech demo; the importance of launching a new IF tool with a first-class demo game can't really be understated.
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.)
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