LASH -- Local Asynchronous Satellite Hookup

by Paul O'Brian profile

Historical/Science Fiction
2000

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
A near miss of an intriguing target, March 10, 2008

LASH was written by Paul O'Brian, the maker of the popular Earth and Sky trilogy. This work demonstrates that he is capable of creating an original premise just as easily as he can put together a story around conventional superhero tropes.

This piece has been difficult to review. The code is solid. The writing is good. The gameplay is smooth. The hook hooks. The dramatic arc is clear. LASH has every reason to succeed. And yet, I'm giving it only two stars. [edit: I revised this to three stars, since it is good, just not great.]

Like Duncan Stevens, I felt the premise of LASH had something significant to deliver. Like Duncan Stevens, I felt it didn't quite reach me in the way that the author probably intended. While I find the piece interesting, most of my interest involves trying to understand what went wrong in the execution of what is clearly a compelling vision.

Functionally, I think it boils down to two issues. The first is time, and the second is the essential mechanics of player/PC interaction.

Regarding time, LASH is simply too short to build up the tension that is required to deliver the message well. Though the work was not entered into the IF Comp, it would have been well-suited to that venue owing to its short playtime and multiple endings. While this has been a winning formula many times for Comp winners, this structure shows its essential weakness when taken outside of that artificial environment.

Regarding player/PC interaction, it is hopefully not too much of a spoiler to state that the story's conclusion depends on a successful division of the player from the PC in the player's mind. It seemed to me that this division occurs somewhat abruptly and artificially, a perception that is very probably related to the short playing time.

There may also be a problem at the broader thematic level. Though I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I can't see how to get around that this time while still being clear, so please don't read the following until after you've played: (Spoiler - click to show)The main problem may be that LASH's story depends on achieving an identity between the historical slaves of America and the fictional slave machines in the game universe. This is both conceptually and ethically challenging in light of the fact that the machines are, by definition, purpose-built tools, and the conceptual gap between "tool" and "slave" is naturally much wider than that between "person" and "slave" -- especially in an era where nothing like the artifically-intelligent PC exists in the real world. Building a bridge across that gap is a hefty undertaking, and further complicated as described below.

While I am sympathetic to the idea that no sentient should be held captive, the crux of this story revolves around making the player realize that he or she has, in some small way, adopted the mental habits of a slave master while dealing with the PC. There is significant interference here as a result of the default player/PC relationship in interactive fiction, which is to some degree dependent on forgetting that you, as the player, are not the PC. The key difference between player and PC is the "realness" of their existence in their respective worlds (actual vs. fictional).

This dynamic is very different from what I would expect between slave master and slave, where the owner and slave by definition inhabit the same world, and the key difference is the "realness" of the slave's status as a free and equal human being. Mr. O'Brian may have done better by trying to achieve the player/slave master identity directly instead of indirectly through the analogy of "Player is to PC as 'owner' is to slave."


Overall, this work clearly had the potential for greatness but ended up falling short. Its finalist (but not winner) status for every major XYZZY award in 2000 shows that this is a pretty common perception. I do recommend that authors examine this work as a study in how to implement well on a functional level, and also as a thought challenge -- to explore how one might successfully achieve what Mr. O'Brian set out to do.