Reviews by Jim Kaplan
fantasyView this member's profile
View this member's reviews by tag: aaron a. reed adam cadre admiral jota alan deniro andrew plotkin atmospheric C. E. J. Pacian callico harrison cha holland charlie the spiffy chris conley cpuguy89 craig dutton dan schmidt daniel ravipinto david welbourn duncan bowsman dylan o'donnell emily short fanfiction fantasy gareth rees graham nelson horror humor ian haberkorn IF whispers jacqueline a. lott joey jones jon ingold Juhana Leinonen lucian p. smith marius muller michael gentry mid-length mystery nom3rcy one-room parody paul lee porpentine poster puzzleless rob noyes ronkimmons s. john ross sam kabo ashwell sci-fi sean barrett short speed IF star foster stephen granade taylor vaughan tom blawgus tom mchenry victor gjisbers yoon ha lee zarf zork
...or see all reviews by this member1-10 of 11 | Next | Show All
Related reviews: one-room, zork, short, parody, fantasy, dylan o'donnell, puzzleless, fanfiction
Play it if: a five-minute joke game playing off Zork cliches sounds like your cup of tea.
Don't play it if: you're hoping for a full-blooded critique of NPCs and minions in old-school IF.
This is a short game, short enough that it would probably take longer to read a review of it than to play it. A one-room, puzzle-less game, A Troll's-Eye View's basic function is to turn a little part of Zork on its head by showing it from the perspective of the embattled guardian troll encountered early in the game.
This is an excellent idea for a game in my opinion. Unfortunately, the execution is undercut by a rather limited implementation of the idea. The writing plays with the timeless Zorkian language, but not in a very complete way: a fair amount of the responses are stock Nelson-era statements which feel anachronistic.
It's one thing to pose a question about identity and agency in games. But you don't really need to make a game to accomplish that, and deciding to make use of IF as a medium for the critique of IF sort of demands more than this game has to offer. Only the barest mention is made of the troll's reasons for being there - not, in fact, much more than the game A Troll's-Eye View parodies. So while it does mirror Zork in certain respects, they aren't really the right ones to produce a critique that is particularly new or memorable.
A more complete attempt would have taken the perspective of a character with more agency, such as the main antagonists, as the gulf between their potential relationships with the protagonist and their actual non-existent relationships are much wider - and therefore a more fruitful source of study.
Related reviews: yoon ha lee, fantasy, atmospheric, mid-length
Play it if: you want a game rich in atmosphere and abstraction.
Don't play it if: you prefer something more like a literal story or intellectual challenge.
This is a very striking first publication. I think most of us would give an arm and a leg to put out something this good on the first try, and Yoon Ha Lee is to be commended on the thought and imagination she's put into this work.
In the basic technical respects, it's not all that remarkable. A short-to-mid-length game which isn't very puzzle-dense. Not much is going on here that's particularly revolutionary to the medium.
What makes it special is the setting and atmosphere. Here, the work comes alive in the imagination, and not just in the vivid, spellbinding language of description.
The Moonlit Tower reminds me the most of Emily Short's Metamorphoses; although the latter is a more puzzle-heavy exercise, the general feel of the two works is rather similar. Yes, there's a distinctive Eastern aesthetic influence (Korean and Mongolian, apparently), but the more overt impression to me is a pervading sense of toying with abstractions.
In Metamorphoses, it's the essence of things: their shapes, their sizes, their substances. In The Moonlit Tower, it's more about symbols: masks, lanterns, seasons. A sense of symmetry pervades the piece, with asymmetry being a puzzle to solve. A porcelain half-mask. A feast of bones just barely out of place. A compass dividing the four seasons. A symphony with a missing player. These otherwise disparate elements congregate to give an inescapable feeling of some greater whole.
The "story" itself is limited mainly to flashback and suggestion. In a way, it's almost a nudge - a small device intended to clarify one or two things, to quietly lay the framework for the final sequence. It's a testament to this story's belief in letting the player's imagination blossom that you can experience a profound sense of completion upon finishing The Moonlit Tower, even if you feel you never really knew the protagonist.
It's difficult to really say much more about this work. It's a bona fide tone poem - almost a more intimate, intricate IF successor to Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra - and as such is something more to be experienced and reveled in than dissected. I strongly recommend it.
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.
Related reviews: graham nelson, fantasy
Play it if: you're new to IF, or if you're in the mood for some light amusement and fairly easy puzzles.
Avoid it if: you prefer a bit more bite in your IF, or you've a hair trigger for cruelty or unfairness, for while not particularly challenging, this game has a soupçon of both.
While more of a showpiece to display some of Inform's capabilities than a true game, Balances is nevertheless an enjoyable enough experience in its own right to recommend it to the novice player.
The game, drawing upon the Enchanter trilogy's magic system, offers several good puzzles - many of which revolve around the player's ability to reverse spell effects. This creates some fun possibilities (Spoiler - click to show)(including the need to die at least once to win). There was an alternative solution to the lottery puzzle, however, which I would have loved to see implemented(Spoiler - click to show) - specifically, reversing the "caskly" spell to turn the first-prize ticket into the last-prize ticket, though that would have required re-tooling of the elephant puzzle.
There are, unfortunately, a couple of puzzles which would qualify as cruel or unfair (Spoiler - click to show)(specifically, the lottery puzzle). Nevertheless, I only had to resort to a walkthrough only once - and given my flair for puzzle-solving, if that isn't a sign of low difficulty, I don't what is.
Ultimately, Balances is a light and loose distraction. It's probably most suited to newcomers to interactive fiction given its small scope and relatively straightforward gameplay. The magic system and its implementation may also give aspiring IF writers some pointers on basic puzzle construction.
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy
Play it if: you have a thing for fairy tales, ancient Greek philosophy, non-linear puzzle-solving, or general weirdness.
Don't play it if: you want truly difficult puzzles or a backstory that completely wins your heart.
Metamorphoses has many of the traits I like the most about Emily Short's best work: a fascination with the past, a fairy-tale atmosphere, and innovative game mechanics - traits which can be found to various extents in works like Galatea, Savoir-Faire, and Bronze.
In this game, it is the mechanics which come to the foreground, with your ability to resize objects as well as change their chemical composition. It's absurdly tempting to lose sight of the game altogether and just spend time looking for different configurations you can achieve with random objects in the setting.
True to form, the puzzles in this story have multiple solutions - courtesy of the above-mentioned game mechanics - and while this substantially reduces the overall difficulty of the game in some ways, it in no way detracts from the fun. In fact, a couple of puzzles may even be harder, since you are forced to consider the uses of not only the normal objects in your inventory, but also the potential objects. In this sense the game is nothing short of mind-expanding in terms of how interactive fiction can model worlds.
The rest of the game, while solid, is more textbook. As you solve puzzles you learn more and more of the protagonist's backstory and understand something of her role in this world. It's good stuff and quite intriguing, but by itself it won't really hook you or haunt you afterwards. Which is fine - a game can't be everything at once - but it does mean that you'll be more likely to find the game itself impressive than the story.
Nevertheless, this is a work that is definitely worth your time: a quirky setting, an interesting story, fun non-linear puzzles, and most of all some fascinating game mechanics.
P.S. Personally, I was curious as to whether or not living objects could be modified. Shame that I couldn't find an animal or something to try it out on...
Related reviews: michael gentry, horror, fantasy
Play it if: you've always wanted to think of interactive fiction as a true literary genre, for this is a terrifying and emotional tale worthy of its Lovecraftian origins.
Don't play it if: you have an allergy to great storytelling and demand complex puzzles instead, for this game undoubtedly focuses on narrative rather than intellectual challenge - not that this is a bad thing.
Wow. I'd heard this was good, but...wow.
Anchorhead simply blew me away, and I'll tell you why:
Because it scared me.
I've read a lot of horror fiction and played a lot of horror-themed video games, but this is the first game to truly frighten me. Gentry's writing is nothing short of astounding in this game, showing top-notch effort and a deft hand in bringing all the necessary elements of a good horror story to life: an atmospheric setting, a dark secret from the past, the confrontation of the unknown...with a dash of some Lovecraft trademarks thrown in for good measure. And finally, of course, the fact that you actually care about what's happening.
Oh yes. I cared a lot more about what was going on in Anchorhead than I did in, say, Adam Cadre's Photopia (which seems to be considered a standard tear-jerker among readers). The stroke of genius employed here is that Gentry creates a chain of cause and effect linking the mundane to the supernatural. In the beginning, the story builds the player's investment in the heroine through vivid descriptions of the unfriendly weather and the unwelcoming environment - we don't want to get into a sewer pipe, or get wet in the rain, or drink that awful cold coffee. We want to meet up with Mike, we want to make a phone call, et cetera. These basic needs form the basis of the more complex and fantastic impulses to investigate and explore, and ultimately the story's climax feels like a moment of genuine crisis, because having walked so thoroughly in the heroine's shoes, you care as much as she does about thwarting the evil that threatens Anchorhead.
It's really kind of beautiful: for the first time in my experience with IF, I found myself wanting to win out of simply wanting Michael and myself to survive our ordeal.
The game is full of excellently-written horror scenes that use IF's cinematic potentials well. (Spoiler - click to show)Particularly well-written scenes include the slaughterhouse sequence - including the possible deaths - the asylum chase, Doctor Rebis's testimony, and various possibly insanity-inducing events like reading the black tome or observing the comet. The descriptive writing is also very good, being not only thoroughly-implemented but also evocatively described.
Also of note are the numerous reading materials the player encounters in the course of the game: diaries, journals, newsletters, courthouse archives and clippings that aren't always vital to complete the game, but which cumulatively form a picture of Anchorhead's horrific past. These give the game a real sense of wonder and discovery as the player uncovers mysteries layer by layer - the kind of curiosity very few games can truly evoke.
Let's discuss some technical details. The game is generally well-coded considering some of the more finicky mechanics Gentry chose to include. Minor flaws include some amusing syntax errors when taking inventory, trying to let go of a certain rope when in the dark, and occasional difficulties with adding keys to the keyring. But these are easily ignored in the face of the game's overwhelming quality. While not the most challenging of games, Anchorhead's puzzles are almost totally free of "guess-the-verb" games (Spoiler - click to show)(the one major exception being releasing Jeffrey - somehow the command "free boy" didn't feel intuitive to me). There's enough challenge here that a decent player need never resort to a walkthrough, but may still want to spend a few days to a week poring over the possibilities.
In a way, it was almost a relief to see a game this large and complex managing to tell its story and pose some good obstacles without having to create too much in the way of extra vocabulary. In spite of the almost sprawling nature of the setting, the economy of important objects and required actions helps maintain the player's sense of perspective, and you're never really in danger of getting lost in the town. (Being able to write a realistic yet intuitively navigable system of streets is no mean feat!)
In sum, Michael S. Gentry writes that Anchorhead "doesn't even live up to my own standards about how a REALLY good game should be designed." If so, his standards must be astronomically high, for in spite of the odd glitch, this is one of the greatest works of IF ever written - one which I would be proud to show a beginner as an example of how IF can aspire to tell stories as moving and creative as those of literature and film. As with Watchmen, Star Wars, and Final Fantasy VI in their time, this is a work which leaps beyond the misconceptions and old assumptions about its original genre and could be truly considered a self-contained work of art.
Related reviews: adam cadre, fantasy
Play it if: you have a thing for IF that treats itself as a linear story rather than a game, for this is by its very conception one of the least interactive entries into the genre; and if you're big on "emotional" stories in your IF.
Don't play it if: if the line between drama and melodrama is just too fine for you, because Photopia is chock-full of whimsy, abrupt tone shifts, and strongly communicated emotion.
There's very little one can meaningfully say about Photopia that hasn't already been said. This has to be one of the least interactive works of IF in existence - the format is actually used more as a way to give cinematic effects to literature. Most of the time you're doing the equivalent of tapping the SPACE key and moving things along.
What takes the place of interactivity is the weight of narrative: the emphasis is firmly on the "fiction" aspect here, presenting a number of interrelated scenarios revolving around a single subject.
While the concept is interestingly done - and as has been said before, has some historically groundbreaking traits - Photopia leaves me a little cold because the writing, the aspect of this work that's supposed to take up the slack from the interactivity, feels decidedly average.
Don't get me wrong: Cadre's writing is fairly decent, and he can evoke images quite well in his description of things. (Spoiler - click to show)The way the car crash is described from the driver's point of view has details that give the experience a bit of visceral punch. The description of the crystalline maze was also evocative. The problem is that the subject of the narrative (Spoiler - click to show)(Alley) seems to have very little in the way of a genuine arc (Spoiler - click to show)besides just growing up, which reduces the subject's depth and makes the story as a whole feel less fulfilling. (Spoiler - click to show)Of course these things happen, and it's tremendously sad when they do, but it is the work of the storyteller to find solace in lending meaning to these kinds of tragedies. That Alley's death is the kind of awful twist that could happen to any of us is true enough, but as far as meaning goes it's rather mundane. There are also several passages where the writing is at risk of becoming overwrought (Spoiler - click to show)with the passage where Jon asks Alley out feeling overwritten, and the treatment of her curiosity and intelligence making her feel a bit like a Mary Sue character. In particular, the fact that the game wanted me to believe Alley's monologue on Freudian psychology to be a sign of genuine intellectual curiosity - when Freud's model was largely shelved a while before this game was written - really stuck out as an example of Alley being written simply as "smart". The view of the subject is also rather one-sided (Spoiler - click to show)Alley is given little in the way of flaws and as a result does come across as "too perfect".
I can understand why this story made certain readers cry, and I'm not calling them idiots for responding that way. It's just that for me personally, this story won't really stick with me on an emotional level due to the above issues. Ultimately, Photopia is better served by being upheld as an innovation on the IF concept than as a profoundly-written story - but it's still worth your time to play through it, as it offers insight into how IF tools can be used to lend cinematic effect to literature and to tinker with narrative structure.
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy
Play it if: you loved everything about old-school IF other than its cruel gameplay and frequently illogical puzzles; if you want to see Emily Short's talents for innovative gameplay in a more traditional framework; if you're a sucker for prose that is both elegant and vividly detailed.
Don't play it if: Come on, just play it.
In almost every sense of the term, Savoir-Faire is a masterpiece, and in my opinion the best of Emily Short's longer games.
The chief technical innovation is the magic system, which allows the protagonist to blend the properties of different objects and create interesting cause-and-effect relationships. This system is not merely for show: the puzzling possibilities of this game mechanic are explored very fully - you need to use this skill to acquire items, reach areas, observe rooms, and more. The gameplay never feels repetitive as each puzzle involves a different use of these skills, and this is one of those games where you want to take a week to give yourself time to stew over all the possibilities. Another less visible but no less wonderful detail is the fluid dynamics (allowing you to have containers with different amounts of water, to pour them on the gruond, to have the resulting puddles evaporate gradually).
If this is an impressive achievement - and make no mistake, the Lavori d'Aracne is implemented in all sorts of interesting ways - what makes it even more brilliant is the quality of writing to hold it up. Because links can only be forged between objects that are similar in meaningful ways (form, function, or appearance), it becomes necessary to examine objects closely to look for possible links. Accordingly, the aristocratic mansion setting is brought to life with amazing levels of detail; you can examine details that are minute almost to the point of absurdity, sometimes discovering some lovely anecdotes (the reason for the family's cups and plates all being metal made me laugh out loud).
These aspects by themselves would be enough to make Savoir-Faire a great game. But added to this is a back-story that becomes something of a fore-story - the tale of the protagonist's origins and the possible fate of his family. You get a glimpse into the kind of conflict fans of Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice would love, involving aristocracy, intrigue, and class identity.
If I had to sum up Savoir-Faire in one image, it would have to be a tapestry. The magic system is intricately linked to the puzzles, and the puzzles' raisons d'être are linked to both the magic system and the backstory. The result is that you have a game with a medium-sized setting (a mansion) but which feels incredibly tight. There's an almost effortless sense of completeness at work here.
This is perhaps the game's ultimate triumph, for if there was anything we tended not to associate with old-school IF, it was writing this strong. Games like Zork may have had interesting settings and great humor, but they tended to be much looser, with puzzles rarely subscribing to some overarching puzzle or story. In this sense Savoir-Faire is the culmination of an entire genre of interactive fiction, recreating the wonder of exploring a mysterious setting while tying it into an intricately interwoven plot and puzzle system.
The one real flaw in the game is almost absurdly minor: there doesn't feel like much of an overall difficulty progression (Spoiler - click to show)(for instance, the solution to the rat-hole problem seems almost absurdly simple in comparison to navigating the maze, or helping Marie escape D'Envers) which is probably due to the fact that the puzzles themselves don't really have to be done in a specific order. But in a story which has an abundance of fascinating puzzles to offer already, and which is admittedly emulating the exploratory style of early IF, this isn't really something to raise much complaint about.
In sum, this is a game pretty much everyone should play. Newcomers to IF might find it a bit much to take in when you throw in the Lavori d'Aracne, but somehow I think they'll be fine with it.
A definite masterpiece.
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy, short
Play the game if: you're a fan of Emily Short's trademark attention to detail and creative command systems, or if you want a short, not-too-challenging puzzler which will nevertheless excite your curiosity.
Don't play the game if: you wished this was comparable in scale to Savoir-Faire, or if you're looking for a story that is emotionally gripping.
Damnatio Memoriae is a flawless game, by which I mean that it hits all the marks it's aiming for. It adapts the magic system from Savoir-Faire into a novel setting and a more constrained story, the premise here being that you have to find a way of effecting a room escape and the destruction of certain objects at the same time.
The difficulty level on this one is quite low, which is understandable given the constrained environment that allows for brute-force solutions; it is, however, tricky to get the most desirable ending on a first attempt, though not impossible. Even without prior knowledge of how linking, reverse linking and enslaving work, it shouldn't take more than a few playthroughs to get the hang of things. A minor flaw here is that the help file is perhaps a tad bit too vague for the newcomer as to the magic system: I hadn't played Savoir-Faire when I first tried this one out, and as a result my initial attempts were perhaps more clumsy than they needed to be. In the event of an updated version or future installments in the series, I'd recommend an inclusion of some basic example scenarios to get across the points - as certain help files will so often do for the basic command system.
The setting is a rather cool mix of ideas - Imperial Roman political intrigue mixed with a crime story mixed with fantasy. The environment was given sufficient detail and verisimilitude that I wouldn't be averse to a future game exploring some side of Agrippa's family history. In some ways, though, that's the great gift and curse of complete short stories: they can stir up such curiosity about the world, rather than making it feel mundane by actually showing it.
Although I can't really fault the story for anything, it gets a four-star rating from me just because, apart from being entertaining and interesting, it won't occupy much of a place in my memory next to more complex or emotionally engaging works, many of which were authored by Ms Short herself. Sometimes perfection and inspiration just aren't the same thing.
(But there are worse things than a perfect game!)
Related reviews: callico harrison, fantasy
Play this game if: you like your IF short and simple, or you want to play through one of the more memorable set-pieces in the genre.
Don't play this game if: you're easily put off by linear and nearly puzzle-free gameplay.
The Act of Misdirection opens with a wonderful scene in which the player must perform a magic act without knowing the choreography beforehand. Fortunately, the protagonist does know, which puts the player in the interesting position of being one step ahead of the audience (as the narrative voice provides clues to the tricks) and one step behind the protagonist. The writing is very strong here, and the game effectively builds the player's sense of entertainment and anticipation as the player does the same thing to the in-game audience. It's thrilling stuff, the kind of set-piece which would make for an excellent Inform tutorial.
The rest of the game pales a little in comparison. This is not to denigrate Harrison's achievements: from a purely technical standpoint there's still a fair amount to appreciate, such as some solid NPC interactions and a setting that has the population density of character and detail just right. But the writing and atmosphere just don't harmonize with these aspects of the game the way they do in the first act (no wordplay intended?).
Beyond the opening scene, the writing is probably the chief attraction. Harrison isn't afraid to use some flowery prose, but more importantly establishes a good couple of narrative voices. (Spoiler - click to show)The contrast between the narrator's voice for the magic act and the rest of the game is a good touch, with the dramatic and confident narration in the beginning emphasizing Meldellevo's power and skill, and the following imagined diatribes from Sally highlighting how insecure a character Sarah really is. This adds somewhat to the Faustian conflict at play. The settings are easy to picture as a result of the good descriptive text, rendering progress that much more comfortable, and some tense moments have genuine punch. (Spoiler - click to show)Consider the excellent use of the single-sentence paragraph at the climax of the magic routine, as well as the "normal" ending's final sentence. There are, however, some rough patches - syntax and word usage errors not due to technical issues. They aren't really numerous enough to destroy your enjoyment of the game or anything, but together with a sense that a premise this creative could have supported a bigger story, they add to the feeling of the whole package as a little unpolished.
This is also one of the more linear stories I've encountered in IF - as the author notes, it's impossible to put the game into an unwinnable state. However, the alternate ending - and yes, there is one - relies on a sufficiently unfair puzzle that getting it is more of an exercise for a second playthrough than a genuine opportunity for the first-time player. It also means that the nearly puzzle-less environment consists largely of "guess the verb" mini-games, though these aren't particularly unfair.
Overall, this is a story with strong promise - and even as a diamond in the rough (emphasizing the "diamond"), it's worth your time. Were Ms Harrison to expand this into a larger narrative - which I would argue, is a worthwhile pursuit - I'd suggest maintaining (where possible) the information asymmetry between player and protagonist, as well as getting one (or maybe one more) friendly eye to proofread and test-play.
1-10 of 11 | Next | Show All