Adam's reviews (2/6): the A list

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Adam Cadre

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Nov 15, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/15/99
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FOR A CHANGE

The first time I played this game I saw that it was going to require
some effort, so I set it aside. Coming back to it later, I tooled
around for about fifteen minutes, during which it became clear to me
that while the author certainly seemed to know what he was doing and
that the game was a innovative and well-designed effort, it really
wasn't my thing at all. I decided to give it a three, and moved on.

The time came to write up my C list, and when I got to FOR A CHANGE, I
began with something like, "This game has some nice qualities, but all
in all, I disliked it because... um... er... hmm." I still had an hour
and forty minutes left of reviewing time, so I popped open a DOS window
and went poking around in the game world to refresh my memory as to why
I thought it sucked.

This time, I was endlessly fascinated.

FOR A CHANGE sings with an ee cummings-like lyricism (with an ee
cummings-unlike adherence to standard punctuation and capitalization.)
As with BLISS, much of the pleasure of the game comes from reading the
descriptions and puzzling out what they translate to in a more mundane
sense. But unlike BLISS, even in the mundane sense, the world isn't
very mundane; like Larry Marder's BEANWORLD, this is a place with its
own peculiar ecology, its own physics (or should that be 'physicks'?),
and the language resonates with this fact to produce a universe that
seems to have been built out of quarks with an unguessable spin.

Also, like BLISS, FOR A CHANGE is the perfect size for the comp: plenty
to see and do, but nice and cozy -- paradoxically, I feel freer within
a small game world, because not having to keep track of a sprawling map
liberates valuable mental real estate for things like coming up with
various things to try. This, in turn, lent me much more patience for
the puzzles than I would otherwise have, though it certainly helped
that the puzzles were new and interesting rather than the same tired
locked doors and malfunctioning toasters. (One specific puzzle gripe:
much as I liked the puzzles with the lie opener and lie establisher,
I felt the game really lost something by not making them dual-purpose:
the guidebook hints that they can change the elevation of the landscape,
and having them successfully do so for an early puzzle would have made
for a beautiful bit of misdirection as well as a cool puzzle in its own
right.)

Another interesting aspect of this game is the way that it oozes
confidence: it somehow manages to convey that yes, this is all
deliberate, that every bit of the strange (and it's wonderful to see
strangeness not coupled with eerieness) world in which you find
yourself strolling about has been thought through and placed just so --
that this is a world created by a competent god and not sneezed from
the nostril of a celestial llama. There are some seams here and there
-- all of Graham's messages should have been replaced, for the
occasional "that's plainly inedible" does break the mood -- but still,
by the time I was about halfway through, it became pretty clear that
I'd initially ranked this game about seven points too low.

Score: TEN.

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BLISS

As the above review suggests, before my last-minute change of heart, my
top choice had been BLISS. Unlike FOR A CHANGE, this game does have
some fairly noticeable bugs -- one of my first moves was to look under
the bed, and I was told that "Under the bed you see ." -- but in many
ways, they are quite similar. The game gives away its twist early on --
or at least, I figured out the gimmick the first time reality frayed a
bit -- but this turns out to have been a very good decision on the
author's part: in addition to signalling that this game isn't *really*
a D&D hack-n-slash crapfest (I had my 1 cued up the moment I saw the
word "orc"), it tips the player off to the fact that much of the
pleasure of the game to come will consist of digesting the descriptions
and trying to discern what's *actually* going on after filtering out
the PC's psychosis. As Hitchcock observed, surprise is nice, but it
only lasts for a moment; sustaining the fun for a longer period
generally means tipping one's hand early.

It helps that the game is a perfect size -- long enough not to be over
before it begins, but short enough that my interest didn't wane. The
writing is quite good -- the prose doesn't thrill, necessarily, but I
vastly prefer good solid writing like that in BLISS to smugly florid
linguistic wankery. And even within the bounds of the deliberately
cliched game world, there are some nice moments: I especially liked the
bear ("Look a bear!"), which gave me a vibe not unlike the "Mr. Jenkins"
diner scene in GRIM FANDANGO. Then came the kitchen scene, which some
have called overdone... the touch may not be exactly delicate, to be
sure, but if anything, the content of the scene is too mild to justify
the PC's psychosis. In any event, whatever qualms one might have about
the climax, the denouement is first-rate.

All along, I'd been wary about giving this game a ten -- a few too many
bugs, a few too many spelling errors, a few too many shortfalls of
implementation (HIT DOOR WITH CUP works, but not THROW CUP AT DOOR?) --
but it is, while far from perfect, definitely a worthy effort.

Score: a low NINE.

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KING ARTHUR'S NIGHT OUT

This may seem like an odd choice for such a high ranking, but it
succeeded in doing something no other game this year did: it made me
laugh out loud. Five times, in fact.

Much of the humor derives from the fact that the author has taken a
game that could've been set just about anywhere -- more than anything,
it reminded me of a Lockhorns strip -- and cast King Arthur in the
central role. This leads to the expectation that all sort of elements
of the Arthurian cycle are going to pop up... and they never do.
Excalibur becomes nothing more than a yardstick to poke around under
the bed with. That's *hilarious*. It's exactly the sort of comedy
underlying the #2 entry in the Top Ten Things Abraham Lincoln Would Say
If He Were Alive Today: "Eeeagh! Iron bird!" Because, you see, he
wouldn't recognize an airplane, being from the 19th century and all...
"But why Abraham Lincoln?" you cry. "Of all the things we know about
Lincoln, you make a joke about his unfamiliarity with the airplane?
You could've picked anyone! Why Lincoln? Why??" Man, I'm laughing
again just typing this.

Then we come to the language used in the game. This could very easily
have been written as an overly-clever Douglas Adams pastiche, but that
would've spelled instant doom for this project. Instead, the author
chooses a tone not at all unlike the comedy of Norm Macdonald, and it's
a perfect fit. (Macdonald, for those unfamiliar with his work,
specializes in punch lines that are boorishly blunt enough to stun one
into laughter, yet somehow delivered in such a way so that, unlike with
Don Rickles, you don't want to punch him in the face. "Magic Johnson
has received a $900,000 retainer to write a book on how not to get AIDS.
Chapter 1: Don't Have Sex With Me.")

But there's such a fine line between stupid and clever -- what makes
Rickles's brand of humor the former and Macdonald's (and, here,
Vuorinen's) the latter? This is an especially tricky issue where
gender politics are concerned: the response to >X QUEEN ("Guinevere is
the most beautiful woman in the land. You are lucky to have her as your
wife. But she can be a real bitch sometimes.") is a potentially
dangerous one. I think that in the end it comes down to the with/at
distinction. Comedy in the Rickles mode encourages the audience to
laugh at the person being mocked. But here's a sample of a Norm
Macdonald joke I find screamingly funny:

"In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a man allowed his eight-year-old daughter
to take the wheel of his car, and an accident ensued that damaged
seven other cars and injured six people. Which once again proves my
theory: women can't drive."

"Women can't drive" is, of course, a staple of The Lockhorns and its
ilk, and is pretty offensive. But is that the point of the joke? Of
course not. The reason for the crash is that the driver was eight
years old, not that she was female. The "theory" is, therefore,
obviously wrong, and therefore funny. We're not laughing with the
misogynist and at the girl; we're laughing *at* the misogynist. In the
same way, Vuorinen makes it clear that his King Arthur is meant to be a
lout, without overplaying his hand by making him a belching idiot: it's
the little touches, like Arthur looking forward to a pleasant spell of
urination after a night at the bar, that make the game work.

And the game does work: I didn't notice any obvious bugs, and thought
the size and level of difficulty were just about perfect. Were this an
entry in last year's comp, I would've ranked it a touch below the
similarly slight and funny but superior DOWNTOWN TOKYO; given how buggy
most Comp99 entries were, though, and how this was the only game all
year that made me laugh, I found myself feeling very charitable when it
came time to slap a number on it.

Score: a low NINE.

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CHICKS DIG JERKS

Um.

So, does anyone disagree that this game contains the best writing of
any game in the comp? Oh, you do? Hrm. Well, I think you're wrong.
See, I'm not talking about the oh-so-very-hip ranting patter, or the
universe of next year's slang, but rather about the frequent turns of
phrase that make you say, "Yes! See, this is why language was invented."
I'm talking about strings of words that are: (a) new, never before seen
by either myself or Ezra Pound; (b) interesting, containing words one
wouldn't expect to see together, yet which somehow match; and (c)
evocative, creating a very precise mental image. Phrases like:

* "bathed in a honeycomb" Bathing in honey is vaguely interesting as
an image, but it brings to mind a marquise in the court of Louis XVI
reading "Tales of Ribaldry"; bathing in a huge-ass honeycomb, on the
other hand, is both fresher and more specific, beautiful in its own
way yet bizarre enough to avoid becoming saccharine.

* "chunks of desperate bride" "Bride" is a fairly charged word, and
"desperate" is on the powerful side in its own right -- putting the
two together is a nice afternoon's work, but sticking "chunks of" in
front makes for an impressive coup de grace. And it even teaches
some valuable life lessons: nothing jams up blender blades like
pieces of Lisa.

* "enough bad habits to poorly clothe every single nun on the continent"
Without "poorly", this is lame. With it, it's freakin' hilarious.

And yeah, as that last entry indicates, this is clearly someone who has
the goods. Discipline can be learned; much harder to learn is precisely
why "yellowjackets" is the only word that will work in a certain spot
and "bees" or "hornets" just will not do.

Sherwin also has his comedic chops down pat. The early line about the
sneezing, the late line about getting out of bed in the morning...
these are just a couple lines I'm finding randomly flipping through the
TXD dump. There's one on every screen. Did I laugh, as with King
Arthur? Nah. It's a different kind of comedy. The King Arthur brand
I laugh at, then forget; this is the sort that makes me sort of pause
and nod and think, "Hmm -- that's *really* funny. Have to remember that
one."

Moving outward, what about the game beyond sentence level? Here things
aren't quite as strong. The instincts are good: combining disparate
elements is usually a reasonably reliable formula for success.
Graverobbers have been done; singles bars have been done; but
graverobbers at singles bars? That's a new one (and a fricking *great*
one.) I didn't even mind the left turn between the bar scene and the
cemetery scene. But things do fall apart a bit after the bar scene
draws to a close; the cutscene is just ridiculously overlong, and the
sequence that follows is sort of a train wreck -- but hey, at least that
implies the existence of a speeding train, rather than a Ford Aspire
sputtering up a hill. And it is nice that so much of the game is
character-based rather than centered around fixing air conditioners and
such. The fact that the characters come off as characters rather than
switch statements is an especially nice bonus.

That said -- you can have all the talent in the world, and you're still
not going to turn out anything more than promising slush unless you
buckle down and acquire the discipline referred to earlier. I would
have loved to give this game a ten, but the sad fact is that it's
buggier than a corpse left out in a swamp for three days. I understand
the time constraints of the comp, but still, weird time-loop bugs and
unfinishable climaxes are just not the sort of things that even a
forgiving reviewer can completely overlook. In the end, the author
ends up looking like a playground hoops legend: you can dazzle with
your talent and jazzy crossover and whatnot, but you've got to put in a
whole different kind of work to make the pros.

A footnote: this is one of *two* Comp99 games set in Fort Collins,
Colorado. New York or Los Angeles or London I could understand as the
settings for multiple games -- hell, even Seattle I could see -- but
*Fort Collins*??

Score: EIGHT.

-----
Adam Cadre, Sammamish, WA
http://adamcadre.ac

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