Ratings and 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.

Best of Three, by Emily Short
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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.

Gun Mute, by C.E.J. Pacian
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The Knapsack Problem, by Leonard Richardson
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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.

Shelter from the Storm, by Eric Eve
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Aisle, by Sam Barlow
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Pytho's Mask, by Emily Short
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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.

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