Reviews by Ron Newcomb

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Deadline Enchanter, by Alan DeNiro

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
What just happened?, October 20, 2011
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

Seriously, I've made it to the end of the game, and didn't understand a blessed thing other than the parser is supposed to be someone writing a letter to you. I think. The title leads me to believe that the game is in-jokey, that you have to be familiar with particular other works of interactive fiction to even approach this one.

At least the walkthrough is in-game, so you needn't feel guilty about using it. A lot.

It's a testament to the quality of the writing (and that walkthrough) I made it to the end. The game has a definite voice, almost conversational in its informality, which is refreshing. And it doesn't expect you to inspect the setting a great deal.

I just wish I got an ending that made sense.


Alabaster, by John Cater, Rob Dubbin, Eric Eve, Elizabeth Heller, Jayzee, Kazuki Mishima, Sarah Morayati, Mark Musante, Emily Short, Adam Thornton, Ziv Wities

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Nutritious Fare, December 12, 2009
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

Normally I'm a fan of fairy tales and conversational games both. Games like Alabaster are my bread and butter. Alabaster itself incorporates a handful of technical features which are worth exploring by anybody. But I experienced a kind of dissonance between those welcome features and certain aspects of the story, so my five-star rating is subject to personal tastes both for and against.

On the conversation side, the parser seems to encourage inserting more than a simple keyword after ASK ABOUT. Though that is not in fact true -- the "keyword" now comprises multiple words resembling a dependent clause -- the illusion improves the immersiveness of the experience a surprising amount. Moreover, my immersion-breaking "what would the parser understand" analytics have turned off again by the time I finish typing the command. The effect is a little like snowboarding down a tree-infested slope: I'm generally enjoying the ride and playing around with little thought to consequence, but I must periodically make clear and distinct decisions about what route to take to avoid disaster. I believe the reason the brief parser analyses don't mar Alabaster's ride is because I've already returned to the ride before I've finished typing in my response. Bizarre but true.

This doesn't mean I endorse the near-constant need for prefixing ASK HER to my input. I found this distancing. Apparently S&W's maxim of "omit needless words" applies to inputted commands as well. Paradoxically, while I'm aware that I can abbreviate the afore-mentioned dependent clauses a great deal, doing so decreased my enjoyment. Apparently parsers love needless words, and the words the parser does not need -- all those IFs, ISes, and WHATs -- are very important to me, the player, and my sense of immersion. So which words are "needless" greatly depends on whose point of view you're considering, human or computer. (Of course if Alabaster were more action-oriented, I don't know if any of this would still hold true.)

The illustrations work better than I imagined. I'm something of a purist when it comes to inserting multimedia elements into interactive fiction. I prefer the prose handle all jobs. But though the depicted character doesn't match my own idea of Snow White, it still worked for me. More instructively, the procedurally-collated image informed me of emotional tones in the work that interactive text struggles with. My only addition would be to grey-out or fade the image when I use a out-of-world command.

Usage of the THINK command is inspired: an "inventory" of events and plot points so far. But I can't seem to THINK ABOUT any one of them in particular, not even as a memory aid, which is distressing. If taken together, this is the kind of thing that should be automatically included in all works, rather than nitpicky details about whether one is sitting or standing. Likewise the ENDINGS command: since it's saved to an external file, it can reify any take-home value of the story. Alabaster only uses it as a checklist of sorts for completionists, but I feel that there's untapped artistic potential there.

The one thing I found unpalatable is the general what's-going-on tone the story uses. Interactive fiction is opaque enough as-is, and especially so when the work is in any way progressive. The player isn't sure of the commands or the way the game works. The player already asks himself "what's going on" just with the interface, parser issues, and keeping track of everything important -- which usually means everything until he knows enough of the boundaries and intent of the work to guess at what is and isn't worth remembering. How can I choose my own destiny and thwart my opponents if I'm the most clueless person in the room? Alabaster has an agency problem.

Still, it isn't empty calories. Play Alabaster. It's chicken soup for your experimental soul.


The Primrose Path, by Nolan Bonvouloir

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Time-twisters, brain-teasers and eyeball kicks, September 28, 2009
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

Puzzles that use the fantasy tropes of time travel and teleportation are nearly as common as games set in one's apartment, and any game that blends the two is just begging to be painted as a train-wreck of clichés. So I believe it's something of a small miracle that The Primrose Path is both well-written and quite engrossing, despite all these brain-breaking puzzles. We play the role of Matilda, a nevermind-how-old-I-am woman who is woken up at the crack of dawn by her rather frantic next-door neighbor, Leo. Leo's a painter, and seems to have gotten himself shot this morning. He needs Matilda's help to fix a few things in his life, such as its ending. Matilda, like any other sensible woman in her nightie, immediately embarks on an adventure through their duplex.

Primrose is a difficult game. Were it not for the collective mind-bending powers of the members of ClubFloyd, I certainly would never have finished it. Partly this was due to an under-clued bit: it will help to know that Matilda takes a bit of convincing to see or do what she is reluctant to, so player be prepared to argue a little with your own PC. On the other partly, this is due to it being a puzzle-laden work at heart.

Rest assured, there's no Soup Cans in this one. Nor any lazy writing. The locales and props and even world-states lend themselves well to imagery, and the characters, while not exactly three-dimensional in the conventional fiction sense, sustain belief primarily through action: they will move between locations, and will even move to foil the player should they need to.

The author's attention to detail continues through to the end of the work. The final puzzle or puzzles, depending on how you define your boundaries, decide how the story ends. There are at least eight endings that I know of, all of which say that somebody or something has won even if it be the antagonist. This is a refreshingly positive spin on sub-optimal endings and is much appreciated. Add to that that none of the endings felt contrived or tacked on for the sake of merely having them. Programming bugs aside, if you get an ending you don't like, chances are you know you deserved it. Completionists will appreciate the final AMUSING command, which hints at the many easter eggs and subplots tucked into the game's nooks and crannies.

The Primrose Path is a fine example of how a difficult game can be worth several hours of investment. Just bring a friend or twelve.


Stink or Swim, by Renee Choba

0 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A quickie, but underclued, January 29, 2009
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

It's a good thing it has a built-in hint system, else I wouldn't be able to finish it. Focused on one puzzle doing somersaults in your 'ool (notice there is no Stink in it; please keep it that way) the game introduces itself then leaves you bereft. Be sure to examine everything.


Snack Time!, by Hardy the Bulldog and Renee Choba

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
A bite-sized treat, November 24, 2008
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there. All Hardy dreams of is a dog-eat-sandwich world. But alas, his pet human is asleep on the couch again!

Snack Time! is a light-hearted little work where we play as Hardy the Bulldog and his epic, ten-minute, house-spanning quest to get something good to eat. Of course, lacking opposable thumbs makes things a little less straightforward than they should be. And so begin the puzzles, all of which are pretty easy.

No frustrations here save for the tummy grumbling, Snack Time! is a recipe for pure giggles.

(And Dino wins my Best Prop Of 2008 award!)


Violet, by Jeremy Freese

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Nothing motivates a man like a woman's change of status, November 22, 2008
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

The most unique thing about Jeremy Freese's _Violet_ is its wholeness. The author uses an unusual technique of casting the titular NPC as a voice intentionally willed to exist inside the male* protagonist's own head. Not only does his constantly keeping in mind "what would Violet say?" show his feelings for Violet and his current motivation, but the technique allows an in-game character to comment on both action-based gameplay and out-of-world game messages without breaking mimesis. Even the about-the-game portions of the work called up by the CREDITS or ABOUT commands are cast as a letter from an ostensibly real-world Violet to the author's friends, we the player. The pervasive use of this technique lends the work a visceral force usually reserved for true stories.

A secondary effect of the same technique suckers puzzle-adverse players into playing a puzzle-based game to completion. Myself spent over 15 minutes with _Violet_ before realizing it is not, in fact, a conversation-based work. Conversation through NPC commentary is merely a veneer. The initial tasks in the game are so easy they would rightly be called a basic I-F tutorial rather than a puzzle. By the time the player recognizes the true nature of the gameplay, a desire to see how it all ends has taken over. Besides, surely just getting settled enough to begin writing a dissertation couldn't take much longer, could it?

Well as it turns out, our protagonist is unfortunately very good at sabotaging himself, and the lengths to which he must go become increasingly outlandish and embarrassing. It's something of a trick that, even when Violet herself finally comes on stage to laugh a little at us, the author has avoided making the player feel like a buffoon even as he (and we) makes one of the player-character. The player-character isn't properly named, or even solidly gendered, and the work is in second person, all of which invites conflation of the player with the player-character. But it doesn't matter. Perhaps it's because the work itself reinforces the bemused absurdity of it all (such as the scenes outside the window), or perhaps it's because we believe enough in the protagonist's mission by then so that, by hook or by crook, we'll accomplish our goals and worry about our dignity later. However it's done, it's done well.

Narrative techniques for the problems specific to interaction fiction still inhabit a realm of rumor and black magic, passed between individuals who may never meet. Because the novelty of computer games is front-loaded and cooly intellectual, they can be acceptably reviewed unfinished. Because a story reveals its heart near the end, it must light a fire in the player after basic mastery settles in but before repetition does the same. And because so frequently a video game's first on-stage character teaches gameplay throughout, such a character cannot play a significant part in the story precisely because of that world-straddling status -- thus breaking a rule of static fiction about characters introduced early. But Violet, true to her status as a sufficiently awesome girlfriend, does exactly this. Even as her imagined voice ostensibly encourages her boyfriend to complete his task for the warm rewards, she encourages us to complete ours for the same. It is this solution that raises Freese's magic out of the blackness of grues, and into a spectrum a little more colorful.



* Or female, as the player may change, only, the player-character's gender.


A Stop For The Night, by Joe Mason

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Experiment with navigation, July 15, 2008
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

A Stop For The Night won Best Of Landscape in the 2003 IF Art Show. Presented as a small horror exploration, it experiments with alternate navigation methods as a way to heighten tension. The piece uses three methods: relative directions (left and right), door-oriented travel, and direct navigation (such as "KITCHEN").

The first presents the environment as the character sees it, and reinforces the knowledge of exactly where he stands: at a very specific point in space. As a description, it works; I'm made to feel as if I'm just a small person, a mere dot, entering this sinister place. But as a navigation aid, it fails. Like all IF before it, winding one's way through a map using left and right is disorientating, even if the map is a perfect grid. (The cardinal directions are relegated to the outside world of stars and sun.)

The second attempts to preserve a staple of the horror genre -- the moment of uncertainty just as you open a door leading to the unknown. It does that somewhat well, as you are quite focused on the door and any distinguishing characteristics it possesses to glean what might lay beyond. Unfortunately, given the shape and size of the map, this first presents the player with multiple rooms of twisted little doors, all alike. The suspense of such choices are quickly diluted by repetition. Later, after the map is explored, navigation is too focused on the doors rather than the rooms to which they lead.

The game's direct navigation system kicks in to compensate. You may enter the adjacent previously-visited room merely by stating its name. It's an improvement over Bronze as you needn't preface it with GO TO, but it lacks Bronze's ability to skip through multiple rooms at once. This tends to make puzzles more tedious as you flit from room to room searching for that one item that might be useful in that one place.

This particular work's implementation of the three navigation systems isn't perfect; even a fully-explored map needs an occasional Left or Right. But it certainly fulfills its purpose as an experiment. I learned a few things. I can conceive of navigating a new world by constellations whose location in the night sky change by time and season, but know the navigation-as-puzzle limits the remainder of the work to conversation and psychology. Single-word direct navigation allows one to concentrate on the puzzle or task at hand, rather than the minutiae of getting from point B back to A again. And a little disorientation from self-centric navigation among injured and individualized doors can tell a story in itself, but once you discover that the ominous, mystical wooden door with the crescent moon engraving leads not to the spellchamber, but to the privy, it's time then to concentrate on the higher reasons for all the walking around.


Book and Volume, by Nick Montfort

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
I want to like it, but.., July 11, 2008
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

Book and Volume is something of a throwback. The writing will please modern audiences; subtle humor that pokes fun at real-world institutions, stereotypes, and cultural flotsam abound. But the gameplay is something out of Zork. Overlapping timed puzzles are used as a blunt pacing device, on the order of "do your things in a timely manner or start over." Many required actions aren't clued at all, so satisfying those timers is near impossible on the first playthrough or three. And while the geography is a perfect city grid well-presented with the game's subtle humor, most of it is a distraction. The plot seems pretty minimal. Perhaps further into the work things improve, but I have not the patience or prescience to get there. That's a shame, because it is otherwise worth playing.


Moon-Shaped, by Jason Ermer

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Less Disney than the Brothers Grimm, July 10, 2008
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

When thirteen year old Rosalind tires of her mother's angst, she sets off to grandmother's house for good food and better company. But upon arriving, she finds an empty house, a half-twisted quilt, and a full-on mystery. Thus begins her quest through space, memory and a closet full of skeletons.

Moon-Shaped is a typical puzzle-based interactive fiction, save that it favors fuller prose over fuller geography. Puzzles are of moderate difficulty and clued fairly well, and a menu interface offers progressive hints. A wonderful annotated walkthrough is also available separately, though experienced players will likely not need it. The overall result is a work that favors readers over game players and thoroughness over lateral thinking.

Two things kept me from granting Moon-Shaped a full five stars. One, a compass rose and/or a GO TO command would be greatly appreciated by us beginners who disorient easily. But more importantly, I never really felt close to anyone in the work despite the time I spent with it and the spacious in absentia flashbacks. I felt that each such scene was afraid of giving away too much, and the reticency caused me to rely on my knowledge of fantasy instead of the knowledge of the particulars of the work. Consequently, I saw where the work was headed far too soon.

Regardless these idiosyncratic nitpicks, Moon-Shaped is a good work, and I especially recommend it to those who enjoyed Emily Short's Bronze.

(This review is for release 2 of Moon-Shaped.)


The Chasing, by Anssi Räisänen

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Has an ingredient lacking in a lot of IF, July 7, 2008
by Ron Newcomb (Seattle)

Much of IF begins with a problem, and we happen to be the lucky schmo charged with solving it; perhaps that's why much of IF tends to be frustrating, obtuse, or just plain negative in tone. This then is what sets apart "The Chasing". It's a very positive and neighborly work, as if "Ultima: Quest of the Avatar" were set in your local neighborhood, sans monsters and pointy objects. Your white horses escaped your stables last night, and you must wander around the valley looking for them, quizzing your neighbors on their whereabouts. In doing so, you discover your neighbors have little problems of their own, such as treed kites and runaway lawnmowers. But shortly after helping someone out, you discover you are starring in an allegory.

But golly gee Wally, it sure is a pleasant little allegory to be in.

"The Chasing" avoids the preachy tone that virtue-chasing games often have, and still keeps its gameplay varied enough to avoid boredom. NPCs tend to be one-trick ponies, but there's always a friendly one nearby, partly mitigating the loneliness that usually dogs IF. And while the pleasantness of the work sometimes runs pretty close to self-parody, there's something to be said here for balance in the body of IF works; perhaps the work purposefully overcompensates.

There's nothing here that will challenge puzzle-goers, but their children -- and IF beginners -- will only require a list of verbs common to all IF in order to chase down all those slippery, adventurous virtu-- er, horses.



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