Reviews

IFComp 2016 – Interactive Fiction Reviews

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The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation runs a yearly competition for interactive fiction called IFComp. Though it’s been flourishing for many years, I hadn’t heard about it before this year, and too late to be able to plan and execute a worthy submission. Still, nothing’s preventing me from browsing the 50-odd submissions and looking for something to catch my eye. As a novice to IF I’ve only had hands-on experience with a very few platforms for writing or playing it. IFComp, though, exposes a whole array of techniques and manipulations that I wasn’t previously familiar with. Needless to say, this affected my play experience significantly.

Eight characters, a number, and a happy ending – K.G. Orphanides

This was the first entry I played. Eight characters is a parser game, where commands can be entered in the text box or through navigation links. Some of the commands are helpfully explained in the in-universe manuals. Some are fairly intuitive, once you catch the trick of it – another effect of my being a novice player. I fussed for a long time over trying to open a simple chest before I learned to adjust to the game’s expectations.

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Podcast Review: Sawbones

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Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine

Medical history can be fascinating, depressing and hilarious in more or less equal measure. A few of my smarter teachers have touched on it here and there, and it always helps to contextualize the material. It also puts things in perspective, when you’re learning about historical beliefs that represented the best medical thought of the time, alongside the best modern understanding of certain scientific mysteries. Makes you feel like maybe we know as little about the human brain as our antecedents did about germ theory. Someday, future podcasters will laugh at us.

Laugh, and be horrified. “Sawbones” is essentially a humorous podcast, as the subtitle says, “a marital tour of misguided medicine”. A doctor and a sidekick ask hard-hitting questions about garlic and butts. Given the rich history of the medical profession, they could conceivably keep producing weekly episodes indefinitely. So far their subjects have ranged from sleep disorders to deadly viruses, not to mention a lot of things that are no longer considered ill-health at all (left-handedness) to things that are straight up fiction (hysteria).

I love Sawbones because it keeps my commutes lively, and helpfully has a large back archive so that I’m never stranded without something to giggle about on the bus. I love it even more because almost every episode gives me a new story idea. As they say, fact is usually stranger than fiction. Nothing I could come up with independently is going to beat the 1918 flu pandemic, the discovery of vitamin C, or the history of sleepwalking.

“Sawbones” is a Maximum Fun podcast hosted by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and Justin McElroy.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

Stay Crazy by Erica Satifka

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“Look, I know I’m crazy. I know that. You don’t have any reason to believe what I’m about to tell you[.]”

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Disclosure: I received an ARC of Stay Crazy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The most important thing to note about Stay Crazy, of course, is that the protagonist is insane. Well, yes, of course. It says right in the blurb that she was discharged from a mental hospital. And yet, she is also at the center of a vast conspiracy. It would have been so easy to make this the story of someone who only appears to be insane, when they are in fact the only ones who see the truth. Most often when I see spec fic stories involving characters confined in mental wards or the like, the story is one of false imprisonment, and draws a sharp line between the POV character and all those other people, the real crazies.

Em is as real-crazy as they come. Despite her unflattering descriptions of her fellow patients, she explicitly sets herself among them, the other psychotics. The book is written in a very subjective and often claustrophobic first person narration, dragging the reader deep into Em’s periodic bouts of hallucination. It’s difficult to immediately determine, during each episode, whether is is delusional or merely trans-dimensional. The silver insects crawling over her boyfriend’s plate at the restaurant, the swallowing brown smoke at the bowling alley, even the TV psychologist’s hidden messages. Which of these are conspiracy, and which are artifacts of the mind?

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A Very Serious Meditation on the Sexual Commodification of Drones

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Cover to The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells.

The Cloud Roads is the first installment of Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura series, a vivid and imaginative secondary world fantasy populated by a wealth of strange and fascinating creatures. Primary attention is given to the Raksura, a species of reptilian shapeshifters with a curious insectile social structure. This book is driven by worldbuilding, and as such, it must introduce a point-of-view that can ease the reader into the rich vitality of the setting, one piece at a time. Moon’s backstory as it is given is far from original, but as a vagabond traveler orphaned at a young age, he serves the book’s needs perfectly.

A well-rounded review requires revealing to the reader some things that the protagonist himself is initially ignorant of. Moon begins the story as a solitary being, camouflaged among strangers and unable to answer even the simplest questions about what he is or where he came from. The only others of his kind who he knew are long-dead. He does know a few things about himself, some of which he reveals to the readers, and others which he holds back. But the first turn of the plot is stated in the very beginning of chapter one, before doubling back to expose the transition in full.

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Adventures with Mermaids

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Web cover art for The Daring Mermaid Expedition.

I’ve been obsessed with mermaids since I first watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid when I was six years old. Reportedly, after the movie I menaced my father with complex natural science questions like ‘what do mermaids eat?’ Fairy tales never really stopped having an appeal for me, even as a teenager when I grew frustrated with their simplistic and formulaic nature. It’s a good thing, too, because studying fairy tales taught me more about writing than almost anything else. To this very day, there are some words that, if I see them on a book cover, will spark an immediate interest: “dragon”, for example. Or “mermaid”.

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Ambivalence and Found Family (a Rat Queens Review)

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One of the delightful things that happened at Olamot Con 2016 is that I happened upon a copy of the first Rat Queens TPB at one of the stands. The name rang a bell, so I flipped through it and eventually surrendered to temptation and took it home with me. This title has been vaguely on my radar for a while, but the scarcity of comic book stores and my general disengagement with the medium produced an obstacle of availability. What am I gonna say, there is so much entertainment media out there, you have to work hard to catch and keep readers’ attention.

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Our intrepid heroines (Rat Queens #1).

Conventions, however, exist to circumvent the barriers that make mass media vastly more available for consumption than more niche markets, and I took full advantage of this fact. I bought the first two TPBs, covering Rat Queens #1-#10, and a full story arc with a satisfying conclusion. Frankly, that’s already more than most comics can boast.

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Quick Hits: Games and Visual Novels

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The Blind Griffin, a prohibition-era fantasy visual novel.

Masques and Murder is a dark historical revenge fantasy taking place in Renaissance Italy. The historical setting lends the game a richness of language, combining with the art and music to give the game its particular aesthetic. The plot is as grisly as requisite. You play a young woman whose family was murdered in a power-grab, where the combined goal of the game is to extract vengeance, as well as escape the prospect of marriage to one of your family’s murderers. The game’s atmosphere is meticulously put together.

The game’s central mechanic is stat-building, which allows the heroine to get closer to her prey. The stats, like everything else in the game, are determined by the setting. The range of skills is interesting in that it encompasses the expected combat skills like fencing and shooting, not to mention seduction skills, but also some unexpected ones, like theology. Browbeating a man into complete intellectual surrender by interrogating him on the nature of the afterlife is one of the most satisfying victories I’ve ever gotten in a game.

The writing is very conscious of the position of the heroine in society, and consequently the game has an optional filter that abbreviates some of the longer chains of slurs into a brief description. Still, the game is as violent as one would expect from a revenge simulator. Ultimately it’s for fans of the genre, as it were. I can only play it when I am in a particular mood.

Find it on itch.io.

The Blind Griffin is a lovely visual novel set in prohibition-era San Francisco, a humorous fantasy romance lightly sprinkled with plot. In this game, it’s very difficult to tell how the choices you made lead to the outcome you receive, which is especially daunting given that some of the endings are pretty bad. The three romance options are all cute and entertaining in their own right, although the lack of any female romances makes me sad. Short and sweet, and free to download with an optional suggested price. Frothy speakeasy romance fantasy. Noted for having a Chinese protagonist and a perfectly delightful (supporting) trans lady character.

Find it on itch.io.

Wanted: Dragon is a perfectly delightful romp about an exiled princess who wants to take back the kingdom from her sister, and needs to recruit (read: seduce) a dragon to do so. Fortunately for all of us, we soon find out that this princess is the absolute worst and was exiled for very good reasons. Not gonna lie, that’s definitely the main appeal of the game. The heroine is absolutely appalling, which makes her infinitely entertaining. 10/10 would scheme and connive again.

Find it on renpy.org or on Google Play.

Magical Otoge Ciel is a routine fantasy adventure about a feisty princess running away from her over-protective father. Liberal hints to some dire secret that justifies keeping the princess locked up all her life. Two apparent love interests, both of them with a bodyguard complex, and at least one with a childhood friend complex. Plus one additional male character who may be a stealth third romance. Unless someone can tell me that the game radically changes later on, I gotta say this is a color-by-numbers RPG romance fantasy. Maybe worth the time to play the free demo, if bodyguard romances and spirited princesses are your thing.

Find it on itch.io.

Cute Demon Crashers will require its own post, I think.