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s. john ross

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Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, by S. John Ross

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
By Huron's all-conquering bowels, a tale fit for a manly-thewed BARBARIAN!, June 19, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: s. john ross

Play it if: you enjoy any or all of the following: a) loving pastiches of the science fiction and fantasy of the 1970s, b) games with a strong and thoroughly-implemented narrative voice, and c) a fun, roller-coaster romp that gleefully abandons the emotional jugular in favor of charming the pants off you - because this is perhaps the pinnacle of "fun-over-meaning" in IF.

Don't play it if: you think parody's passe, you want an intellectual challenge or a complex emotional commitment, or you have absolutely no connection with the loved fantasy and sci-fi institutions of yesteryear (though that shouldn't necessarily get in the way of you playing the game.)

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Internet hides a short, unregarded 1970 publication known to the initiated as The Eye of Argon, authored by Jim Theis.

If you have not read this sacred text, I encourage you to seek it out. It may have been unintentional and to his undying shame, but Jim bequeathed something unique and priceless to the world when he published Argon: a work of fantasy literature so poorly-written - in such a hilarious way - that it is a thing of beauty, deserving its place on the shelf of history alongside such works as English As She Is Spoke and Troll 2.

And most importantly, we now stand in the shadow of its spiritual successor in IF form - Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom.

The main difference, of course, is that ToaSK is a technically-accomplished work designed as a loving homage to the crappier yet more charming corners of our obsession with fantasy and sci-fi. Whereas Argon abuses the English language with a form of incompetence bordering on subconscious genius, ToaSK does so knowingly and with an eye for provoking the longest laughs out of the player.

It may seem odd that I'm giving five stars to a game which is average in numerous respects - competently executed, yes, but average. The player is limited to a spare handful of commands, which streamlines the "guess-the-verb" problem out of existence but doesn't leave much room for complex gameplay. There's almost no plot outside the puzzle-solving - a lot of the game consists of level-grinding, though through puzzles rather than combat (usually). The game is quite thoroughly implemented but also very under-described in certain ways. It's a throwback - intentionally, yes, but under normal circumstances I'd think of this as a pretty decent beginner effort, worth maybe three stars (in the alternate universe where star ratings actually have meaningful worth as a system of evaluation).

So why the five-star rating? Why the soon-to-follow high praise?

One word: voice.

ToaSK cultivates a narrative voice that proves utterly charming and engaging, one which actually complements the half-baked feel of the rest of the game and makes you totally lose sight of any importance you might place on complex puzzles or narrative ambitions. Basically: it's so funny that you don't care.

Humor is a difficult thing to review as it often simply comes down to a question of individual taste. A couple of reviewers have already expressed a dislike for the story on that basis. But it can be comfortably established that the author is applying his chosen comic devices in a consistent fashion. There's method to the madness, and if it's to your liking, then welcome to the house of fun: find the first five points' worth of ToaSK funny and you'll almost certainly have a ball earning the next 495.

The sheer effort put into structuring the game in the service of the comedy is staggering. Extensive lists of responses to various ludicrous or impossible player actions; deliberate homages to the trends and fads of the late seventies; a fantastic range of feelies that includes an entire fictional RPG format; and a couple of behind-the-scenes tricks that'd make your eyes water.

The game's central success lies in the protagonist and our relationship with him. Lost Pig features a dim-witted hero whose lack of intelligence colors the narration, and much of the fun comes from the player using their own intelligence to help him succeed - a process which inadvertently reveals some hidden depths to his character. There's something similar going on here, though with more of a comedic bent. The nameless barbarian who constitutes our PC is exceedingly dull and more or less progresses through life by killing and screwing everything and everyone in his way, and not giving much thought to anything outside that process. He draws influence from a number of sources. There's the sorts of nameless, wordless protagonists who populated fantasy RPGs at the time - Steve Jackson's Fighting Fantasy series, beginning publication only three years after the fictional writing-period for this game, was pretty crammed with those. Robert E. Howard's anti-intellectual (if not perhaps "stupid") Conan is a more obvious influence, living chiefly for the glory of battle and the satisfaction of hedonistic pleasures rather than the dusty accomplishments of book-learning. (Howard also corresponded with the more sci-fi-oriented H.P. Lovecraft and wove strands of a common mythology into his work; ToaSK also flirts with - no, rather messily seduces - certain loved sci-fi tropes.) We are invited to laugh at the nameless hero even as we carry out his quest and experience his victories - and basically, we do:

During many points in your life, the THESKIAN DUFFEL BAG has been your only friend, confidante, and bed-partner. Save your mindless rages for the SLAVER KING, barbarian. Don't hurt the ones you love.

You've tried it before. You never get any of the jokes.

When thy saga is writ and thy story is told and maidens swoon to hear it, the tale-tellers will, in kindness and in mercy, skip the part where the SKY hath distracted thee so.

It's easy to imagine this sort of thing overwhelming the game and getting terribly stale...but oddly enough, it never does. Ross's effort to devise entire lists of randomized responses to the same basic sorts of errors (over twenty different responses to an unrecognized verb) goes a long way to keeping the game's language diverse. It's almost like the game itself is a fleshed-out character, never answering the same question the same way twice. A given joke's format may remain the same, but the joke itself never will - and so the game remains fresh till the end.

I think what ultimately makes the game work is that it's just utterly charming. How could it be otherwise? It's so clearly a labor of love: hours of effort to tune the humor in the narration, to compose the feelies, to write a draft source code document for would-be sequeleers, to construct all the little details and mechanics from the ranking system to the final battle. How can I not love a story which is so clearly an exercise in fun - from an author who had fun writing it so that we could have fun playing it?

For me, at least, Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom is the perfect antidote to the wider Hollywood climate that would have us watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarves reinterpreted as a grim, militaristic low fantasy epic. The absolute peak of fun over substance, the ultimate triumph - and I mean "triumph" in the genuine, positive sense - of good-natured ribbing and entertainment over the cynical and the dour.

Though barkest up the right tree, barbarian. Though barkest up the right tree.

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