Posted 24 November 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
Back from a Thanksgiving vacation, and I wanted to post some reviews of the games I played. Not too many--but I wanted to add these to the mix. I hope that they fit into the whole "be kind to each other, be tough on the games" mentality that seems to be the norm here.
All Roads by Jon Ingold
The first game I played. What a doozy, huh? Quite an achievement--kind of a cross between the movie Memento and an Italianate The Emperor and the Assassin. I had a few quibbles that prevented me from calling this a masterpiece--the plot near the end was somewhat confusing and less crystalline than I wanted, with a wild swirl of characters. I also would have liked more historical details, more precise ones, from the Venetian history books (where were the lions of St. Mark? Maybe I just missed ‘em. Did I miss them?). But the recursiveness of the storyline was deft and sure-handed. The prose was smart and clean, and I was really taken by the vortex of the story near the end. All Roads took chances, and didn't dumb down the plot threads, and I responded in turn.
Schroedinger's Cat by James Willson
Not my cup of cat. Although I appreciated the cleverness, I don't know. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not really the audience for this kind of brain teaser, but I have to play em as they lay (or something like that). Here's a more articulate beef I have with the game--I do like funky physics. Yet at no point did the game engage with my (to use a semi-cliche) "sense of wonder" with the whole nature of the paradoxes themselves, particularly that of the title conceit in the game. There wasn't any joy in goofing around--in part because the prose was completely bare bones (descriptions of the cats were 4 or 5 words). Again, I understand that the game wasn't meant to be Photopia; if it _was_ trying to accomplish something with more verbose, yet bad prose, I probably would have liked the game even less. In the end, I wanted a Feynman-esque physics problem. Instead, I got a case of mental, yet strangely civil, engineering. A game of shoveling around junk.
Bane of the Builders by Bogdan Baliuc
Kind of a poor man's So Far written as a Heinlenian juvenille. As, um, IF. Although there wasn't anything particularly wrong with it (though see below), this didn't have me doing backflips. Most of the stuff from an SFnal standpoint bordered on cliche--the professor in trouble!!!, the ultimate evil thingy!!!... Maybe I wasn't the audience for this or alternately I was too hard on this, because I worked through a lot of these cliches in my own writing, and remember how I was patiently but insistently told by mentors--no, that's been done before.
A parser blooper:
No, you can't set that.
>set blaster to stun
You adjust the blaster power level to "stun".
Nothing major with that actually, and to be fair the puzzles were pretty clever (though often contextless), and I did root for this game, wanted to like it more. I wish I could have.
Grayscale Daniel T. Freas
Hey, I'm glad my MFA was put to good use. I figured out what the whole jar on pedestal was about right away, and asked the woman about [insert name of writer here] before I should have. OK, so this somewhat circumvented the game, but I don't care. I'm glad all that tuition wasn't a waste...
Very smooth and polished and well done and all that. The game had depth, and texture, and even though the context was entirely arbitrary, I had a lot of fun with it. Was a little bit rushed to finish it in the 2 hour timespan, but overall this was thoroughy engrossing, nearly error-free, and evocative.
End was a tad flippiant and underwhelming. Somewhat snarky error messages. Otherwise--I reckon this to be one of the more enjoyable games of the Comp.
Tried to do a lot that Grayscale accomplished, but could not. Can this be a subgenre of IF--Archetypal IF? (Wandering around an allegorical space, rare NPC interaction, objects that are super-symbolic in some fashion, with either an apocalyptic or low key plot. I realize when I say this that I might be sounding like, 'I thought of this subgenre of IF that one could call a "Cave Crawl" Bear with me). Granted, I think by definition IF is archetypal (or archeiconic--hey I made up a word), but these two games struck me as being different ends of the same thread. One end of the thread, then, was 'pretty darned good,' and the other was 'not quite as pretty darned good.' How's that for hard hitting criticism.
This isn't a spoiler since it's the very first interaction option--but if you put in something cool such as a tatoo generator, and I'm able to put a number 13 tattoo on my face, for the love of God, have it mean something. Don't let it fall into the "just learning Inform and thought I'd see what I could rassle up!" category. Integrate it into a plot of some kind, in any way. The plot was arbitrary for the most part, and as a character I had little motivation to embark on the quest.
There were hints of promise here. Just not any cohesive ones. I'm hoping the next author's game is a giant step forward.
Kallisti James A. Mitchlehill
I'm sure this game will offend some people, but I found the ending sufficiently--horrifically redeeming? Undercutting the disturbing PC actions?--to like this more near the end than I did at the beginning.
The conversations were a bit clunky. The writing was pretty sharp, if a bit...Germanic. Dare I say Teutonic? Not enough of the Kafkan. All in all I was pleasantly albeit slightly surprised by this one, considering its unbelievably humble beginnings.
Quite a lurvley Comp game--the directives are clear, the writing doesn't have "issues," the puzzles are easy but not stupid. This would make a great game for young adults! (Not that adults can't have fun with it too). Of course, it's not groundbreaking, and there was one particularly bad guess the verb puzzle that left my head scratching (all the more so because you couldn't leave the area to do something else). But in that solid, solid Good category.
Vicious Cycles by Simon Mark
Interesting. The recursiveness suggested in the title was indeed ingenious. If I'm not giving too much away here--when, in most games, figuring out a crucial piece of information, dying, and then restarting with knowledge of that info is considered a _rupture_ of mimesis, in this game it enhances the realistic nature in the game. So, kudos to that alone.
In some ways, this game had similarities to All Roads, but I think I liked Roads slightly more; in Roads I wasn't exactly sure what I was doing, but I always knew why, in Cycles it was the opposite--what I was directed to do was perfectly clear, but the motivation wasn't. And I guess I'm a why more than what kind of guy. If that made sense.
Still, this is a must play from the Comp.
Could have been even more, but a nice romp. A few arbitrary yet funny lines, a few sacreligious funny lines. I did want this to be longer (as if I'm one to talk).
Nearly incomprehensible, for reasons described by others.
This is more of a transcription of dread rather than a review. This game bothered me. I kept getting killed; somehow, even with the walkthrough! I never made it past the second scene. Similarly, the long ABOUT screens put me off; it made me feel as if I was reading an onscreen manual for Photoshop. The prose and setting struck me as Lazy Medieval disguised as Alert and Cognizant Medieval. Maybe my inner ear has become calcified to medievalism in general--there didn't seem to be subtext to the text. It takes something like Mary Gentle's Book of Ash--something a little edgier--to jumpstart those juices of mine.
I was not going to give this a score, calling it unrated. Then I noticed something inside of myself--why was I fully prepared to be "gentle" with this game, while feeling no qualms whatsoever with giving Newcomer a big ol' 1? Because I "knew" that there was probably more, that the game is more skillfully programmed? But, I asked myself, what did it matter if the end result is the same? This is something I wrestled with. In the end, I forced my gentleness to be irrelevant for my score, which, if it has any objectivity whatsoever, has to reflect for me the pleasures--of whatever sort--that the game allowed me to partake in. This is a self-observation more than anything hard and fast about the game itself, which in the end probably just wasn't my cup of, er, horse.
Best of Three
I wanted to like this one more a lot more than I did. It's not that I disliked it. But Emily Short has raised the bar for IF in general--let alone in her own body of work. The writing, while lucid and peppered with some very lively metaphors here and there, was a bit...precious. Like it was self-conscious of the quirky situation. I don't know, that's not explaining it very well, but although the writing provided a crystalline surface, it didn't suck me in.
Still, this was enjoyable. Perhaps the title is a hint to give it another try, to coax something new out of the conversations? That seems fair to me.
This article copyright © 2001, Alan DeNiro