Reviews by Jim Kaplan

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Lost Pig, by Admiral Jota

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Pig maybe smart, but Grunk catch pig. So that mean Grunk more smart, June 6, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: admiral jota, humor

Play it if: you want simple, accessible puzzles and a short, sweet family-friendly game that's big on humor and character interaction.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for something long, challenging, or particularly serious.

It's difficult to say something particularly new about a game like this. With its small scope and broad appeal, a lot of the obvious things have been already stated. But I'll go ahead and try to unpick what I like about this game anyway.

The appeal of Lost Pig all about its main character. Grunk is ostensibly the narrator of this tale, so his attitudes towards things colors the player's entire experience. I find Grunk's fairly simplistic descriptions of things interesting because they are reflective of the archetypal IF player's experience. Like Grunk, we put ourselves into a situation where we're confronted with machines and mechanisms we don't really understand, and we're made to figure out how to use them for our purposes. Grunk describes the world with the naivete of a child, and more importantly the naivete of a first-time player. And like the player, Grunk overcomes that naivete with cunning and shrewdness. Sure, he's not great with auxiliary verbs, tenses, or writing, but he does figure out all the steps needed to get the pig back. And with the addition of the gnome, Grunk can even display a fairly deep level of curiosity by learning about advanced principles of chemistry.

So Grunk's traits are those most IF players wish to cultivate in themselves: intelligence (in solving puzzles) and curiosity (in talking with the gnome).

Add to this his sense of humor. I've always held a soft spot in my heart for those throwaway pieces of coding, like Zork's patronising response to jumping for no reason ("Wheee!" "Very good. Now you can go to the second grade"). Little bits that added some personality to the game world and gently steered you away from the game's inability to let you do absolutely everything. Lost Pig almost feels like a game that's composed of that stuff. A lot of the joy in the game comes from having Grunk try stupid or outrageous things just to see his responses. And because the game is so thorough in implementing the things Grunk can try or do, it gets you to sympathize with him even more. Grunk lets the player act out the more childlike side of their sense of humor, because his willingness to try anything mirror's the player's willingness to make him do anything. Take the act of Grunk taking off his pants in front of the gnome. By itself, it's not particularly funny. But the fact that we're complicit in that act does make it funny. While playing this game, I found myself laughing at stuff I haven't been able to laugh at since the fourth grade.

That may not sound like a compliment per se, and I suppose it isn't if you're looking for something a little more literary. But I think the point that this game has constructed a uniquely sympathetic and charming main character stands.

So what about the secondary aspects of the game? Well, there are no obvious holes in the implementation of the setting. The gnome and pig are lovely characters in and of themselves - the pig for his variety of emotions and reactions (including intellectual disdain for Grunk!), and the gnome for the breadth (if not depth) of conversation you can achieve with him. I liked immensely the fact that the gnome is not immediately hostile towards Grunk - I mean, Grunk could realistically eat the guy - nor is he dismissive towards this comparatively dim and uneducated protagonist. Rather, he's willing to talk in basic terms about most any topic Grunk can think of and a few more besides that. For that he becomes a likable character and his relationship with Grunk, small in scope as it is, compelling.

The puzzles are few and simple, but they rely on intuition rather than method (intentionally so, as the maze demonstrates) and so they give you the pleasure of experiencing those little "eureka" moments every puzzle designer strives to cultivate in a player.

If I had something I'd change about this game, it would simply be the length. The core magical mechanism feels productive for more diverse and complex puzzles than what Lost Pig gives us, and even putting that aside I would have loved to have seen a game where the rather simple initial quest gets this young orc embroiled in something a lot bigger. Failing that, I think Grunk is easily a rich enough character for future adventures.

But that quibble aside, Lost Pig really is a gloriously fun and engrossing way to spend an hour or two.


Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
Excellent technical accomplishment and a great sense of fun, June 6, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, humor

Play it if: you want a lengthy and engrossing puzzle-solving experience and a healthy dollop of satirical humor to occupy you for a day or two.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for something that more heavily emphasizes atmosphere or depth of characterization.

Boy, did I like Counterfeit Monkey. It had me grinning like a maniac within five minutes of starting, and that grin never let up. Even when my face got sore after the first few hours.

The most consistent tonal impression I got from Counterfeit Monkey was that of a high-quality Monkey Island game. Surreal plot devices, anachronistic histories, a coastal setting, a light-hearted story with streaks of darkness...it's all there. Oddly enough it also reminds me of The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game in its tone and charm, though I prefer Monkey for its outstanding gameplay and depth of setting. There's even a hint of Planescape: Torment lurking in there somewhere (a detailed setting where belief and opinion have physical power).

In gameplay terms, Monkey combines a feeling of casual puzzle-solving fun with a profound degree of technical effort. In that respect it feels like a sort of leveled-up crossword, which is appropriate because almost all of the puzzles here are navigated through some form of wordplay. I spent a chunk of the first half of the game a little concerned that the gameplay wouldn't significantly change. The letter-removals were great, but they also felt fairly straightforward, more so than what I think I'm used to in the early stages of a longer Emily Short game. But then the story starts to throw in some fun alternative powers, and remains fairly dynamic from there. Mixing it up with some memory exploration and the ongoing plotline, and you have a story which is fairly excellently paced.

It's difficult to overstate how much effort it must have taken (at least form the perspective of a novice like me) to have implemented the wordplay. A lot of my enjoyment came out of trying some more obscure ideas and realizing just how thorough the research was - how delighted I was to find that the author had taken the time to implement a cad, complete with "smouldering gaze"!

Definitely worth your time. Entertaining and impressive.


Banana Apocalypse and the Rocket Pants of Destiny, by Emily Short

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Quirky with some funny moments, June 5, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, humor, speed IF

No one comes up with a work of genius with two hours' worth of coding, but Emily Short still gives us a wacky and offbeat vignette to match the wacky and offbeat prompt. The IF equivalent of a decent two-minute YouTube video: fun, light, harmless.


Slouching Towards Bedlam, by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Could have been so much more, June 5, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: daniel ravipinto, star foster, mystery

Play it if: you want a competently written, not-too-challenging bit of bite-sized IF which dips a toe into steampunk and utopian tropes.

Don't play it if: you prefer your high-concept stories to have a sense of follow-through, your puzzles to feel varied and necessary to the story, or your IF to have broad scope in any meaning of the term.

Slouching Towards Bedlam is a well-written piece of IF, though I hesitate to call it "great". True, there is appropriate descriptive depth and a good feel for the atmosphere of the piece, and there is a good mix of ideas driving the setting and plot - Lovecraftian insanity, burgeoning conspiracies, steampunk technologies and Bentham-style social progressivism.

And yet something about it doesn't click for me. As an aspiring writer of IF I have to be appreciative of any work that does what it does this well. But holding this up next to Anchorhead, which I feel to be a fair comparative exercise as the two are broadly trying to hit the same notes, really just makes me feel that this is a four-star work at best.

Where Bedlam largely fails and Anchorhead largely succeeds is in the tying together of the story's disparate elements. The puzzles in Bedlam are largely superfluous to the story. The "challenges" are just ways of making information that should be fairly accessible a bit inconvenient to reach. For all the backstory about secrets and conspiracies, there is never any sense that someone is trying to prevent you from learning the things you need to learn. I could have just given the rod to James and asked him to go exploring and he'd have accomplished basically the same things.

Anchorhead approaches this in what I consider to be the more correct sense. There are similar puzzles or obstacles requiring simple research, but the difference is that you are meaningfully synthesizing that information into something higher. Going through the birth and death records is an exercise in deductive reasoning as well as information-gathering (whereas two or three documents in Bedlam will telegraph more or less everything important about the backstory). And the sense of fear and oppression is enhanced by the fact that there are people trying to protect the secrets of the town, whether they be the current inhabitants or long-dead members of the Verlac family. The slower pacing allows for a more genuine "putting-the-pieces-together" feel. I didn't care much for Triage, who switches between adding a bit of character to the descriptions and functioning as a magic-wand solution to a couple of the puzzles. It makes sense in a game of this length, but I'd have liked some way for the player to do the legwork by themselves.

The pacing is really the other major issue. Bedlam bumps up against some pretty high stakes and some very esoteric concepts, but it's content to resolve them (sort of) in the narrative equivalent of about a paragraph. I understand that the nature of the threat inherently limits the kind of scope the story can realistically take(Spoiler - click to show) - if the Logos is verbally transmitted, it's practically impossible to create a fair and winnable scenario in a London-based story that occurs over more than a very short period of time. Nevertheless, the climax of the story occurs much too soon for my tastes - and really, the best conspiracy fiction allows the reader to simmer on the edge of plausibility for a decent while before diving right into the weird stuff. The sense of choice in the endgame is not a bad touch, but it lacks meaning when you have little in the way of actual character or moral dimensions with which to grapple.

Ultimately, I think that I wanted out of Bedlam was a little more ambition and willingness to develop its ideas. It comes in a neat little package, but it never stops and takes the time to develop what it has. Big concepts worthy of games in and of themselves are made to play sidekick to a truncated and not outstandingly deep story - in a narrative or gameplay sense - and that disappoints me.


when i was shot by elephants, by no m3rcy

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Can I Truly Emphasize The Word "Troll" Enough?, April 10, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: nom3rcy

Mistakes. We all make them.

As a matter of common courtesy, my original review is at the bottom of this one; but I find I must add to it.

It's been pointed out to me that my tone in writing this review was too hostile, or at the very least too quick to label the author a troll. Now while my impression of the game remains that it was very likely an intentional waste of a potential player's time - and hence characteristic of trolling behavior - I must emphasize that this is a purely personal feeling. In situations like these, one can never objectively determine whether or not someone is a troll, since you can't read the mind of the person in question. You can only make guesses - educated, but subjective - as to what is going on behind the scenes.

So my apologies to the author for an unnecessary accusation without a strong foundation.

Now a word to the author directly.

Please don't think this changes my opinion of the game. The game is, basically, not good. There's one move and there's one joke - the (thin) humor of which is dependent on the game having turned out to be a deliberate and instant anti-climax. Generally speaking, this is the kind of game I'd expect people to write as a sort of prank played on another friend familiar with IF. Which, in and of itself, is fine.

IFDB, however, is not meant to be a dumping-ground for games like this. The people who visit the site regularly, even daily, aren't looking for three-second entertainment. They want interesting and creative games made by people who care about making interesting and creative games.

This game is neither particularly interesting nor particularly creative, but those are forgivable - there's no hard quality standard an entry needs too have to be on this site.

But it's that "care" bit that gets to me. When i was shot by elephants - the length, the joke, the grammar - it all smacks of laziness. It feels like nothing went into making this game. And I do think that on some level you're aware of that.

So please, please: have some concern for the people who want to play games born out of effort, and have some pride in the material you write.

The original review is printed below:

Play it if, once the heat death of the universe has reduced all matter and energy to a fine dust spread out across fathomless reaches of cold, dead space, you have absolutely nothing left to do but torture your disembodied psyche.

Don't play it if: you have more interesting things to do, such as breathing.

There's almost nothing to say. This is a one-move non-game that literally cannot present you with a sentence without mangling its grammar and punctuation. This author is a troll, a bounder, and a cad of the first degree.


Bed Time, by Charlie the Spiffy

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
If Only We Could Give Zero-Star Ratings, April 3, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: charlie the spiffy

Play it if: you enjoy the creeping feeling that you're making the day of whichever guy with too much time on his hands wrote this waste of server space to irritate people.

Don't play it if: you have a smidgen more self-respect than I do.

In all honesty, I don't have the energy to give the author here the benefit of the doubt. The game is brimming with jaw-dropping errors in spelling ("easilly", "proffesor"), punctuation ("the kitchen is to the south" and "there is a bedroom door north" lacking periods), capitalization ("HOUSE"), and grammar ("you find yourself in a house, you don't know where you came from..."). It has horrifying coding problems: refusing to print a room's location when you first enter it, allowing you to pick up things like wardrobes and fridges, specifically mentioning details like blenders and cabinets without implementing them. It has outstanding problems in its logic, such as why you would voluntarily lock yourself out of your bedroom and lock the key to the bedroom in another locked area.

My first thought playing this thing was that the game was written by a ten-year-old. I then revised this to thinking it was written by someone younger, since ten-year-olds generally have a better grasp of language. Then I read the glowing five-star, one-paragraph review the author wrote of his own game, and I realized that someone who literally has nothing better to do was having cheap fun at the expense of anyone curious enough to bite.

Don't do it. Don't make the mistakes I did. Shun Charlie. Shun the game of Charlie. Shun everything, and then shun shunning.


All Roads, by Jon Ingold

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A Jumble of Interesting Ideas, April 3, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: jon ingold

Play it if: you love the mindscrew genre, because this more than qualifies, or you prefer largely puzzle-less, narrative-heavy IF.

Don't play it if: you want to see the gameplay tie in with or match the bizarre narrative satisfactorily; if you prefer not to get involved in stories which tread the line between depth and obscurantism.

It's a shame that I couldn't give All Roads a higher score, because there are a lot of ideas here to like. Unfortunately, they're not organized particularly well, leaving me feeling rather frustrated at the end of the game.

Part of the problem is in implementing the main theme as expressed in the title. As with the old saying, Jon Ingold seems to want all choices and actions to converge on one inescapable ending. Which is fine if properly done. But here, the game is not capable of subtly prodding the player into committing the necessary deeds or providing the logic for this convergence. It has to actively force you, the player, to play out its desires, either through making the protagonist do things for unclear reasons (Spoiler - click to show)such as having to sign the guestbook or take the ring from the desk or making the protagonist carry out certain actions without duly reporting them to the player (Spoiler - click to show)(such as signing the guestbook incorrectly). The most irritating sequence in this regard comes (Spoiler - click to show)during the second visit to the Denizen, where the game loses all interactivity instead of finding some way of convincing the player to repeat his or her actions.

The story as a whole is a little too confusing for my tastes. The withholding of certain details, such as any real response to the "x me" command, felt like the game was trying to force mystery where it shouldn't have existed. In Adam Cadre's 9:05, this worked because the game conditioned the player from turn one not to expect...the thing that they weren't supposed to expect. Here, though, the game is explicitly a mystery, and a really good mystery works not by withholding information, but by withholding the key to how that information fits together.

Basically, it feels like the game needs to blatantly cheat its player to get its story across; and I'll take the cruelty of old Infocom over that feeling any day.

Again, it's a real shame I can't really recommend this game much, because it has a lot of positives: the tight prose, the reasonably well-rendered setting, and some core ideas that could have gone a long way if marshaled correctly. (Spoiler - click to show)I guess I'm just still holding out for a game that can enforce the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle without brute force. Ah well. Better luck next time in the genre.


Glass, by Emily Short

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Light Fun, April 1, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: Emily short, one-room, short

Play it if: you're in the mood for bite-sized IF with a bit of innovation and Emily Short's trademark narrative voice.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for something more ambitious, or if you're easily put off by gameplay that constrains player actions.

This is a curiosity: a non-linear game that feels linear. Emily Short's Glass tells a modified version of the Cinderella story from the point of view of the parrot. The objective is to use your limited speech skills at opportune moments to influence the story.

The one or two twists on the classic tale are interesting enough to make the game worthwhile by themselves, but perhaps the biggest draw (at least in concept) is the ability I influence the flow of things from a bird's-eye-view.

Unfortunately, I played Glass very soon after another conversation-based game, Whom The Telling Changed by Aaron Reed, and it blows Glass out of the water when it comes to the main gameplay mechanic. Choosing what to say and when to say it in that game required paying close attention to the story and constantly trying to interpret it subtextually. In contrast, getting to any of the endings in Glass feels more like an exercise in trial and error, and as such the gameplay is not as satisfying as it could have been.

Nevertheless, Glass is a good five-minute distraction with good writing and some engaging concepts. Now that the game's source code has been made public, it can also serve as an educational exercise by giving aspiring IF writers some insight into the inner workings of conversation- and scene-heavy games.


Three Cows and Two Doors, by NOM3RCY

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Total Gaming Brilliance!, March 31, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)

Play it if: you wish to explore profound metaphysical ideas as interpreted through the fascinating medium of bovine coloration.

Don't play it if: you do not wish to achieve NIRVANA.

What an incredible and psychologically complex game!

The player starts in the first floor of a place called the Grand Tower. The objective is to reach the top of the tower. This is clearly symbolic of the cycles of reincarnation (samsara) as espoused by mainstream Hinduism - as the immortal soul (the player, who can restart the game endlessly and never find an actual solution to the game). The Hindu connection can be conclusively established by the presence of cows in the starting room (though the fact that one of the doors is called Exit might suggest an alternative interpretation along the lines of Jean-Paul Sartre's work).

There are all sorts of details to be interpretively explored here. Why the particular colors of Pink, Green, and Purple? Why is it that examining the Pink and Purple Cows yields the tautology "X Cow is an x cow", while examining the Green Cow produces the statement "You see nothing special about Green Cow"? Or why is the description of Orange Door "The Orange Door is an orange door", while the description of the Exit is "You might be able to exit this way, if, that isn't, the exit wasn't locked". Why the phrase "that isn't"? Surely a game of this caliber couldn't have meant it as a glaring typo easily fixable by even the most basic proofreading process or input of creative effort, but must have some deeper meaning.

But then, who am I to interpret such things?

Perhaps the fact that nothing but three cows and two locked doors are implemented is a sign from the Author, a sign that we must not be troubled with the things of material existence, but must rather look to a higher purpose that exists behind the veneer of a simple interactive fiction game.

Namely, that the whole thing is a brutal waste of your time, the author is likely trolling, and your only path to spiritual liberation - moksha - is to free yourself of the need to play this game at all.


Whom The Telling Changed, by Aaron A. Reed

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Powerful, March 30, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: aaron a. reed, fantasy

Play it if: you wish for a game that explores puzzles of dialogue and discourse, or if you want to hear a powerful, emotionally resonant variation on the tale of Gilgamesh.

Don't play it if: you have trouble with puzzles that depend on intuition rather than pure logic, for it is as often as not by intuition that you progress through the story.

There are two reasons I love this story.

The first is intuition. The "puzzle" of the game, if it can be truly called a puzzle, is one of persuasion: to win the people of your tribe over to your way of thinking by directing the flow of a story. The player does this primarily by interacting with emphasized terms in the telling. Where intuition comes in is that you have no control over precisely what to do with each term; it is on the basis of each word's context in the story that you must decide how to interact.

This means that, to perhaps the greatest degree possible in IF, this is a game about language, a game which emphasizes reading comprehension over puzzle-solving. Not only is this fairly unusual for the genre, it is excellently done - the player can deduce important lessons even from minor details in the telling.

The second is the story itself. The storyteller narrates the first half of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written epic in recorded history and a myth which still resonates with and influences modern literature. The choice of story is perfectly suited to this work, for the Epic is primarily about fear - in particular, fear of death, and fear of the unknown - and the search for immortality, whether through glory or through the love and friendship of others. These are powerful themes that the framing narrative explores, taking place on the eve of tribal war.

Whom the Telling Changed is itself an allegory of the Gilgamesh story, and in adding another fundamental theme - the power of legend and narrative - Aaron A. Reed succeeds in crafting a myth of his own. This is fantasy from an older and darker time, from a world where life was brief and difficult. For many people in those times, the only spiritual and moral comfort to be offered came from the telling and understanding of old stories - as Reed understood when he tapped into that primordial image of a troubled tribe gathered in darkness around a warm campfire.

There are but a few other notes I have on this work. There are one or two glitches to be ironed out - I only ran into one of them, though, which given the game's NPC interactions is a pleasant surprise. Also, while in general I'm no fan of sequels, there is another chapter to the Gilgamesh myth...perhaps there is another story be told.



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