Reviews by Jim KaplanView this member's profile
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Related reviews: tom mchenry
Play it if: you want to read a story you can admire, a short, brutal punch of a game that'll stick in your mind for a long time to come.
Don't play it if: you're out of room in your heart for bleak truths.
How sarcastic I must seem, using such grim terms about a game that advertises itself so lightly.
To be honest, it took me about three playthroughs of Horse Master to really grasp what I felt about it. On the one hand it's a tragedy of desperate ambition, but at the same time it's a snigger-inducing parade of the absurd and the grotesque. Half the time I felt like I was being asked to laugh and cry at the same time, so I ended up doing neither and instead just feeling emotionally mangled.
The story is on the surface that of a person rearing and training a horse for a prestigious competition. The immediate twist is that the "horse" in this case is not really a "horse" as we know it, but appears to be some sort of mammoth crustacean grown from a larval stage. Much of the sheer oddness of the game is derived from the contrast between the glowing, admiring terms in which the horses are described and the true details of their appearance, which are left a little vague but sound anything but noble or graceful to the common reader.
Of course the more important twist is that it's not really a fun, quirky horse-raising sim at all. That's just the foot in the door.
Say what you will in its defense, but to the uninitiated it's not so different. To achieve competitive success as a bodybuilder, a person has to exercise, diet, gorge, dehydrate, medicate, and groom themselves obsessively to warp their bodies into extreme forms. They risk and experience poverty, ridicule, and failure in turning themselves into something that is ultimately decorative. They don't perform astounding feats of strength or agility. They pose.
Speaking purely as an outsider, there's something terribly tragic to that sort of lifestyle, or at least to the way it's seen by much of the world. That men and women can invest so much of themselves into an endeavor which is so often thankless.
As odd a decision it might seem to have the horses not be mammalian, I think there was a purpose to it, and that purpose was to emphasize just how un-beautiful this sort of thing can really be. Some types of dog shows maintain frankly arbitrary and ridiculous standards for their competitors. To me, weirdo that I am, breeding creatures for their aesthetic value to humans is something deeply disturbing and abhorrent - but their aesthetic value often inoculates us to the ethical concerns. In Horse Master, we don't have that illusion. The creatures being bred and displayed are not the kinds of things that inspire joy and awe in the minds of My Little Pony fans.
It's a value dissonance of the kind present in the assassination-training scene of howling dogs, though here its purpose is much clearer: to make us reconsider our questionable relationships with the animals who inhabit our lives.
(Spoiler - click to show)I think it's somehow fitting that the ending will always destroy someone in the balance. Either the player loses everything and has no future outside of poverty and obscurity, or the horse dies in an exploitative, orgiastic display. Either the player character is crushed by a world which does not really care about her existence, or the horse is slaughtered by a system and a protagonist who does not really care about its wellbeing. You're a bodybuilder, or you're a dog breeder. The perpetrator or the victim.
It's not very uplifting. But it is compelling in its own way. And it sort of gives you pause for thought, doesn't it?
Related reviews: C. E. J. Pacian
Play it if: you want a short, sweet game with a smoothly-implemented gameplay gimmick.
Don't play it if: you prefer gameplay to be accompanied by a fleshed-out story, because in narrative terms this does feel a bit incomplete.
The most memorable aspect of this game is immediately noticeable: verbs of movement are discarded in favor of an alternative mode of transportation, and EXAMINING a place is what takes you to it. What impresses me more than the coding (not that I'm a wizard, but I can make a couple of guesses at how it was done) is the manipulation of English in order to make the effect seamless.
A common flaw in descriptive writing is the provision of information that confounds the mind's natural means of acquiring that information. For instance, in an oft-quoted sequence from the novel Bronwyn: Silk and Steel, the observing character is implied to be standing some distance from the lady he is observing. But then:
"Her face had the fragrance of a gibbous moon."
The reader is confused on two counts: first, the assertion that the moon has a fragrance (which given that's located in space, is impossible); and second, that the observing character can smell her face - specifically - from more than arm's length. In Silk and Steel, this is just poor writing. In Castle of the Red Prince, though, it's twisted into a means of travel. Essentially, examining locations from a distance will often bridge the spatial gap by simply beginning to provide information that would be unavailable from your original location. Coding aside, it's a fascinating linguistic trick.
(I should mention that this gimmick plays havoc with your ability to appreciate the relative locations of things, but given the small size of this world it's not really a major drawback.)
What's also interesting about this device is that it's left ambiguous to what degree this travel is simply a novel description of normal movement, and to what degree it's a form of sorcery available to the player character. This also leads into a minor disappointment I experienced: the player character has a sort of ambiguity which is suggestive of depth, but that depth is never really exploited. I mean, in theory the PC's dreams are being haunted by this Red Prince, but it's not used for much more than a basic motivator to tell the player what they're doing in the game. The Red Prince's rather blase attitude to your machinations, couple with the contents of a certain book, made me think that the PC was the Red Prince's son, or that the Red Prince had some sort of personal role in the PC's dreams and backstory. None of this appeared to be true, which is a bit of a shame.
The point is not to judge Castle by the arbitrary standards of my personal imaginary alternate universe for this game, but to point out that this game ignited my curiosity in a way it wasn't prepared to engage. In fact, the story itself is not particularly engaging, lacking much in the way of twists. The titular antagonist knows what you're doing from quite early on, but he'll be damned if he expends any energy on trying to actually stop you - and speaking here as a reader rather than a game-player, seeing that sort of thing feels like it's the story itself expressing this attitude to me (though I'm hardly going to go about accusing the author of laziness). Victor Gjisbers's The Baron might have been fairly unremarkable gameplay-wise but it made better use of a similar sort of premise.
On the whole, then, I have to agree with previous comments that this is a better experiment than a game. It's not that it's a bad game, it's just that what actually happens in it is barely enough to fill a two-page short story.
Related reviews: C. E. J. Pacian
Play it if: as with Gun Mute, you want a game short and easy enough to breeze through but quirky and different enough to be memorable.
Don't play it if: you get turned off by dodgy pacing or an absence of any strong sense of story, because while this game has a number of great set-pieces it doesn't really feel like a streamlined, complete narrative.
Elements of Rogue of the Multiverse reminded me of Gun Mute. Non-human NPCs with human-like behaviors. A stoic protagonist of few words. The eschewment of compass directions. Gameplay consisting of repeatedly achieving the same goal, but with subtly differing details. And an environment whose nature is revealed more through small, evocative details than verbal exposition.
While I do prefer Gun Mute to this game, Rogue of the Multiverse still carried a couple of elements that delighted me and made it absolutely worth playing.
First is the main character, the antagonist Dr. Sliss, who subjects the PC to scientific experimentation. Sliss does superficially resemble GLaDOS in that she is a pleasant-speaking female taskmaster, but I find her a good deal funnier and more likable because while GLaDos is pretty obviously malevolent, Sliss is well-meaning but rather ignorant. Her patronizing comments to the PC, such as offers of banana rewards (she has trouble distinguishing between you and a rather hairless chimp), are perfectly balanced to get you liking her against your better nature. And in spite of the potentially lethal conditions to which she subjects you, I was very happy to see the game give the player the option to develop their relationship with her.
Second is what is arguably the central element of gameplay, the resource-gathering exercise. Normally I should find this sort of thing to be tedious: fewer things turn me off to modern RPGs faster than being asked to perform dull, repetitious resource-gathering tasks. But it works a lot better here than it has any right to, partly because it's quite easy and fast-moving (turn-based time will do that for you), and partly because each procedurally-generated world is given just environmental detail to make it a little memorable. You can encounter security robots in industrial complexes and rock-hurling apes in mountain ranges. The description is sparse, as it would have to be, but it a Zork-like way the concise description allows the imagination to fill the gaps.
Third is the vehicle sequence. I loved this scene. It pulled off the kind of urgency and excitement I so enjoyed in Gun Mute - again, we're not talking about real-time events here! (Spoiler - click to show)Sliss's shooting and dialogue during this sequence do a lot both to keep the scene fun and varied and to increase my adoration of her character. It's difficult to describe what made it work for me on a visceral level, but that's just another reason you should check out Rogue for yourself.
I did say that I preferred Gun Mute, of course. This game is a lot less streamlined than Gun Mute: structurally speaking, it's more like two or three games stuck onto one another than a complete experience in and of itself. Finishing Gun Mute gave me the satisfaction of a completed story; in the case of Rogue of the Multiverse, though, it's difficult to know when the story is supposed to end - I identified about two or three different points at which it could plausibly have ended, only for the game to continue so as to depict events which, frankly, didn't really need depicting. This is a short game, but it's not exactly concise; the endgame is dragged out a little unnecessarily. I also can't help but feel that the resource-gathering game offers a lot of room for expansion into a fuller game. Yes, the procedurally-generated environments are part of the point and yes, repeating the missions as they're written here for a long game would get tiresome fairly quickly, but there's definitely more that can be done with the basic idea.
Ultimately, though, none of these issues will by any means preventing you from enjoying yourself here. It's a light, humorous, not-too-long romp in an imaginative sci-fi setting and deserving of a look.
Related reviews: cha holland
This is not a game. But you should play it, because it is a personal essay on identity and in this regard it is well-written and interesting.
Don't play it if you are looking primarily for a game or a story, though I recommend you check it out as some point in any case.
Fogged Up Mirror is interactive fiction more or less the way you have to interact with a browser to visit a web site. There is a recurring image of words being wiped off a mirror, which strikes me as a rather interesting means of tackling something like identity labels; unless actively wiped off, a word written on a mirror will fade but show up again when the mirror is fogged up. Labels persist unless we take conscious action against them.
Nevertheless, this image is used sparsely and Twine is employed here less as a cinematic technique than as a sort of filing system. The reader picks different categories of identity and hears the author's introspection on her self-perception through these categories. Holland delivers her thoughts in honest, straightforward language that makes them accessible. I don't necessarily mean "accessible" in the sense of "will convince bigoted people of the validity of her position"; what I mean is that his thoughts remind me of what I've thought about my own identity. Her words are spoken the way I speak them in my head. The thoughts are not at heart judgmental, though they can express frustration with people. There isn't any attempted ethical justification for choosing these labels or inhabiting these identities; the underlying, intuitive assumption is that the author deserves respect by virtue of being a human being, which is probably the best universal reason to be OK with exploring identity in this way.
"Labels don't matter much, until they really do." That's the opening sentence. In the way that words on a mirror appear when you breathe on them, identities often don't occur to people until they're challenged. I never gave much thought to my sexuality until my social circles became largely composed of non-straight people. I had little sense of my gender until I started to live in a national culture which prized masculinity above most human qualities. As a result I felt a kinship with the author, even though in many ways his personal experiences are different to mine.
I rate Fogged Up Mirror four stars because, low interactivity aside, Twine's use is appropriate here: none of the identities you can choose to explore are given priority of placement over the other, encouraging you to read them and discard them in any order. And the content is not unique in any surface sense, but it engages the reader and is worth your time. Read it not for art or gameplay or story, but for a simple, elemental glimpse into someone else's head.
Related reviews: porpentine
Play it if: you're a fan of Ke$ha and all performers possessed of such unabashed pride in themselves and their identities, and the idea of a glitter-soaked confidence rampage makes your blood fizz.
Don't play it if: you want story, structure, elegance or audacity to support a rather messy near-stream-of-consciousness experience.
howling dogs invites endless speculation. CYBERQUEEN is its own kind of masterpiece. CRYSTAL WARRIOR KE$HA, on the other hand, reads like one of a thousand Tumblr blogposts. Though it plays with words a little, it lacks a distinctive personality. It has weirdness by the bucketload, but doesn't really channel it in an interesting way. CYBERQUEEN was a chainsaw, but it was a chainsaw wielded by a surgeon. This is a firehose of glitter aimed at a paper cup.
I'm starting to get swallowed by questionable analogies here, but my deal here is that the language and the content of CYBERQUEEN come across as fresh. They demand attention and create visceral impressions. By comparison, when CRYSTAL WARRIOR KE$HA presents a vehicle called Vagina Jungle and a choice to drain my boyslave's virile energy to fuel my slutwave mantis transformation, the foremost thought in my head is "this sort of thing has been said seven million times before and it's old already". Perhaps my own lengthy Tumblr experience affects me in that regard, but I think there's more to it than that.
Let me just mention that I have no issues with Ke$ha. I happen to think she's a very talented singer-songwriter, and though her album work tends to disguise this rather well, her music is generally not something I listen to by choice and as such I don't really care enough to offer an opinion. Judging her on her presented persona alone is equally pointless to me.
That being said, the championing of Ke$ha is not done particularly well here, as far as I'm concerned. I got the impression that bits of the writing were references to actual lyrics or quotes, and confirmed it by Googling the first phrase to arouse that suspicion in me: "If you don't like my song, then turn off the radio."
Why did that phrase stick out? Because as a sentiment it comes across as too lazy for an author as smart as Porpentine to have come up with. (Though she did endorse it, so maybe I'm not all that perceptive.)
Yes, I'm aware of the vested interest inherent in being a guy who writes his opinions about things. Nevertheless, a sentiment like "turn off the radio" or "change the channel" strikes me as an admission of defeat. It says I'm only comfortable in a world where everyone compliments me, which is sort of at odds with this game's overriding sense of confidence and assertiveness, of the never-ending battle against the haters. I find it rather ironic that a game which attacks haters with the statement "I pity your attempts to justify your insecurity with analysis. It is false analysis with no substance" would then follow it up with a statement decrying all analysis!
Not every work has to be a masterpiece, and not every work has to be particularly ambitious. This is after all something of a glorified music video. But even with the relatively novel software of Twine this already feels like it offers nothing new or interesting.
Related reviews: adam cadre
Play it if: you have a thing for mindscrew tales and want a short, essentially puzzleless story.
Don't play it if: you're looking for a story that's truly elegant and powerful, because the cool ideas here are not delivered in a very consistent way.
I think I'm noticing a trend with my reaction to Adam Cadre's work. I'm impressed by the technical stuff, the subversive elements blow my mind, and the actual stories leave me cold. The exception is Varicella, whose story I do find quite engaging. But other than that my favorite of his would still have to be 9:05, which numbers among the least technically skilled of his works but is also perhaps the most elegant, with the entire story structure focused on the singular aim of delivering the punchline.
Shrapnel fits fairly neatly into how I think I perceive his work. The ideas are interesting, the subversion of traditional IF devices such as ressurection is excellent, and the story leaves me a bit too confused to describe.
I mean, don't get me wrong, I understand what happened/happens/willen haven been able to have be happening...but it's not really delivered correctly. It's reminiscent of that much-awaited blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. To spare (admittedly unlikely) spoiler pain, I'll just say that a certain amount of backstory is revealed at precisely the wrong time for it to have any emotional impact, and it undermines much of the third act as a result.
The thing is, the last-minute reveal works well when it's a simple thing that crystallizes everything that came before. But there's nothing simple about the explanation for Shrapnel, and the player doesn't even find out through piecemeal investigation. It's just a fairly long-winded, multi-turn exposition-fest...admittedly something to which science fiction can fall prey, but even mediocre science fiction tends to know how to get the tiresome recitation of knowledge out of the way at the beginning of the story.
I don't want to give the impression that I hated Shrapnel; I quite liked it, really, not least for its initial setup and the execution of that core idea (not to mention the very end, which is quite memorable). But it is a bit of a jumble, really, and could have benefited from a bit more tinkering with the structure.
Related reviews: Juhana Leinonen
Play it if: you've sort of failed to see the point of hypertext up until now, for this is an accessible and wonderfully creative use of the medium.
Don't play it if: if you roll your eyes at any poetry that tries to deal directly with the concept of transcendence.
This is the first hypertext game I've played that really made use of the medium in such as a way as to make me feel the medium itself was necessary to the story. This probably says more about my shamefully lacking experience with hypertext than it does about any transformative aspect to this work, but contextual considerations aside Ex Nihilo is more than worthy of praise.
The title is a reference to the Latin phrase creatio ex nihilo, literally "creation from nothing" - a rather slippery philosophical and theological concept about how we came to be. Appropriately enough, the game takes an immediately theological bent with the introduction of the PC as a godlike entity; progress is made less through actions and more through the determination of the entity's moods.
The game - I know it's not the best term for this sort of thing, but I dislike the term "work" and try not to use it - isn't particularly long or detailed. What it has is emergence. A major theme here is symmetry, and it is both explicit in the visual presentation and implicit in that the choices you make are mirrored, though not in any straightforward way - down to the final move of entering a text message and thus actually adding something to the world of the game (which, if you consider the universe of the game to be a closed system, really is an instance of creatio ex nihilo).
The result is that we have here something which feels genuinely responsive, where you really are being asked to participate in something rather than spectate. A lot of interactive fiction pulls this off like a magic trick by getting the player into the head of the protagonist and providing them with moral agency; Ex Nihilo is almost breathtaking in how much more real the creativity feels.
Will Ex Nihilo transform your life? Not really, no. But it's a beautifully elegant, elemental use of the hypertext form, and it feels complete in a way few stories ever do.
Related reviews: porpentine
Play it if: you want a nearly-pure transformation of text into a visceral, cinematic experience.
Don't play it if: you have a weak stomach for just about anything that could reasonably be expected to make a human being queasy.
The first two words in this game are "wet" and "sticky". And if you think the use of sentence fragments as impressionistic descriptors is passť, the rest of Cyberqueen probably won't be to your taste, because what it mainly does - what it does best - is transplant the experience of fragmenting consciousness into writing.
Cyberqueen is a war between intimacy and grotesquery, violation and transformation. The tone and content draw from the erotic and the clinically repellent, switch between them and occasionally combine them. In a certain way it reminds me of the Guillermo del Toro film Pan's Labyrinth, which had the audacity to sew together a wondrous, childlike fantasy and a grim, horrifically real war story. In both cases, the achievement is admirable, though exhausting.
The tale itself reads something like a fusion of System Shock and parts of Ray Bradbury's The City. Interestingly enough the antagonist, while malevolent, is not entirely unsympathetic, though she certainly stretches and probably breaks the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable sympathetic behavior. In certain readings she might be taken to be the protagonist, albeit not the player character.
The nature of this work's structure makes me wonder if it can even be described as interactive fiction, because while you are ostensibly presented with alternative options the game is ultimately an extremely linear experience. You are certainly made to suffer the protagonist's fears, pains and frustrations, but the "interactivity" is illusory. ("Sorry to ruin your power fantasy," gloats the antagonist as she seals your fate.) "Cinematic prose", perhaps.
The story plays with themes of identity, both in an internal sense and in a physical sense; it preys on the communal horror of deformity and dysmorphia. Which is good - it's touching on things of great social relevance. But it doesn't really discuss them, preferring to let them come to fruition in a more emotional than intellectual sense. Forsaking both the pen and the sword, Cyberqueen attacks the human comfort zone by wielding itself like a chainsaw. This would be a flaw under other circumstances, but I get the distinct impression that this was the author's intended direction for the story and as a result I must call it a success.
So why five stars? Firstly, because it deftly exploits the medium in such a way as to charge up the emotional responses we are asked to give to the events of the story; and secondly, because it is a complete and unabashed triumph in terms of what it tries to be: a fleshy, palpitating tale of agonizing transformation that demands your attention.
Related reviews: C. E. J. Pacian
Play it if: you want a game short and easy enough to breeze through but quirky and different enough to be memorable.
Don't play it if: linearity is a major turn-off.
The premise is simple. You're a reticent gunfighter, The Man With No Voice if you will, and your single purpose is to save your loved one. Get from point A to point B. Kill obstacles. Rinse and repeat with feeling.
Gun Mute is probably the most fun I've had with a game this linear. It's something like a cross between Time Crisis and those town-wide shootouts that seem to populate the climaxes of old Westerns. And as with the best action sequences, no two killings are alike thanks to a series of varied if easy puzzles.
Although the game doesn't operate in real time, it maintains a sense of urgency. The need to make use of timing, not only in response to your opponents' actions but to keep your own gun loaded, gives rise to a near-illusion of real-time action. It's an interesting effect, almost reminiscent of watching the still images in a flipbook come to life with motion. Perhaps I'm overplaying it, but I found it notable.
The setting isn't a straightforward Old Western locale so much as a post-civilization anarchy that has reverted to a sort of New Old West. Cyborgs bartend at the local saloon, the railroad transports futuristic battle turrets, and you install GPS software by drinking it. Pacian makes the wise choice not to dwell on the setting, as it isn't the focus of the piece, but lets it color the environment a little and thus keeps it memorable and distinctive while still sticking to the basic forms of the genre.
Overall, this is a fun and different sort of distraction. Hardly morally challenging or thematically deep, but a great deal of fun. I spent less than half an hour getting from beginning to end, and it'll stick with me a whole lot longer.
Related reviews: duncan bowsman
Play it if: a tiny, smartly-written distraction sounds attractive.
Don't play it if: if, well, it doesn't.
I never know quite how to approach ratings for Speed IF games. I think it's generally agreed that the general "quality" standards for the Speed IF process are lower (at least in terms of depth and scope). So a game like this, while very good for the format, is rather light when considered as a game in and of itself. Do I rate it high, putting emphasis on the circumstances under which it was written? Or do I rate the game and not the writer?
In this case, at least, I figure I'll split the difference and give it a 4.
Though it has enough puzzles for Django Reinhardt to count on his left hand, I Was A Teenage Headless Experiment makes its short length count and gives the player that nice "aha" moment the ideal puzzle should produce. Outside of that, there's a nice level of light macabre humor (the number of terrible head-based puns is thankfully kept to a minimum). A comfortable and memorable distraction.
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