Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell


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1-4 of 4

Zork N plus 9, by Sonny Rae Tempest

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
You Are Likely To Be Eaten by a Guava, May 21, 2012

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.

Which Describes How You're Feeling, by Adam Parrish

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Mad Verbum, April 11, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: wordplay, psychology, therapy, emotion, rhyme

A tiny, unusual little wordplay game, scarcely IF. World-model is irrelevant, and the parser only accepts one type of command. You are given words, and have to supply a rhyme for each word. Your score is how many acceptable rhymes you supply within 60 seconds. The framing is that this is a psychotherapy exercise; you're being asked whether you feel emotional state X, and you respond with, 'no, I'm feeling Y'. Y does not always have to be an emotion, since the game recognises a wide range of rhyming words, some of which aren't even adjectives.

On the one hand, gameplay is simple and easy, so much so that it's tempting to think of this as a toy rather than a game; getting a good score might take a few tries, but mechanically it's not difficult. The game tells you the puzzle's parameters straight off. On the other, the framing creates a weird uneasiness about the exercise. A fair amount has been written about how the psychotherapy premise of Eliza tended to make players take it more seriously. Similarly, WDHYF has something of the tension of a word-association game about it; it's a silly exercise, but there's the sense that you're being judged on it. This is particularly true because the act in question is laying claim to emotions, which is something people generally invest a lot in. Laying claim to an emotion can be a vulnerable act of self-expression, and it's also a commitment of sorts, a reinforcement; we don't look kindly on people who fake emotions, and we don't want to be seen as someone whose emotions change rapidly for no reason ('emotionally unstable' is a euphemism for 'crazy'). Saying 'I am happy' or 'I am sad' costs you something.

But because of the constraints you're usually forced to lay claim to a rapid, little-considered series of random, mismatched, nonsensical emotions. So there's a sense -- slight, but disquieting -- of brainwashing-exercise about this: repetition, illogic, pressure, self-obliteration.

I Palindrome I, by Nick Montfort

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
This Game Review Will Review This Game, March 27, 2012

A bite-sized wordplay piece that should take under five minutes to play. Fictional content is slight, surreal and entirely in service to the wordplay.

Most puzzles have a trick to them, a satisfying moment in which you discover how the thing works and can start to make progress. A really good puzzle still requires some ingenuity after you've worked out the trick. In a bad puzzle, all that's left after discovering the trick is brute-forcing or other kinds of tedious slog. By that standard, this isn't really good, nor is it bad; it swiftly delivers that single gleeful moment, and after that everything else is trivial.

Under, In Erebus, by Brian Rapp

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
What Is It Like To Be A Superbat?, August 2, 2011
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: Zorkian, wordplay, darkness, surreal, wacky

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.

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