Posted 9 January 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
LASH is a curious beast: part treasure hunt, part Asimov-style robot story, part historical melodrama. Not everyone will like it; it stretches itself in so many directions that it's easy to be dissatisfied with shortfalls in some of them. It should also be noted that it contains explicit scenes of brutality (potentially including attempted rape), as well as frequent casual use of the "n" word (justified by historical accuracy). But I found that I enjoyed it overall, and it's definitely a significant work that charts some new ground for the medium.
It's set in the future, some time after the Second American Civil War has turned North America into a dangerous radioactive wasteland. The player's mission is to recover artifacts from the former home of a pair of prominent researchers who died during the war. The site was also once a cotton plantation, and is rumored to hide a fortune in gold, which the player is "discouraged" from looking for, as "any such fortune would surely have been found by now."
One thing that seems to have been largely ignored in previous reviews is that it's a very self-referential work. The fiction mirrors the player-protagonist relationship quite deliberately and exactly. The built-in docs explain how your typed commands are interpreted by a semi-organic artificially-intelligent robot (called a MULE) at the salvage site - it's kind of like the old Scott Adams "I will be your puppet" spiel, but more elaborate. Even meta-verbs like "undo" and "restore" are explained as "Ingaki time-folding technology". During gameplay, as well, various IF peculiarities are commented on by the MULE:
This must have been Master Matthew's crib when he was a baby.
[I am not sure how I know this -- the knowledge is simply present in my brain. I have observed that this occurs quite regularly in my current altered mental state.]
The effect is a kind of disconnectedness. Even as the environment draws you in, the MULE repeatedly pushes you out. This is, it turns out, crucial to the point of the game.
Gameplay follows a three-part structure. The beginning is pure adventure game, complete with gratuitous puzzles (including a combination lock). Nothing too hard, and most of it is optional in any case. The midgame begins when you find a historical simulation device capable of placing a human (or MULE) mind into the persona of Lisa, one of the slaves that lived on the plantation in the 19th century. The two sections use the same geography, but there's a sharp contrast in style. The one is dry, mechanical, set amidst ruins in a dead land, and concerned with accumulating objects. The other is full of life, driven by character and story.
Both parts are evocative and explorable, but the historical scene is undoubtedly the heart of the game, with its rich detail and multi-levelled story (the story of the MULE placed on top of the story of the slave). The characters are all willing to discuss pretty much any reasonable topic including abstractions such as "freedom", and their responses sometimes change as the story progresses. Even so, Lisa's story seems facile when taken at face value. Through the sadistic, Simon Legree-like slave driver and pointed examples of cruelty and injustice, it seems to be taking a stance against slavery. Now, this was once a controversial issue - indeed, the player is given an opportunity to overhear a heated argument about it. But today, it's only marginally more controversial than, say, the question of whether or not murder is wrong. As such, the game has been criticized for belaboring a point needlessly.
Still, I wonder to what extent we're meant to take this scene at face value. Information in the game makes it clear that it's a historical simulation rather than actual time travel, that the sim's creator (also named Lisa) had to make things up when records were scarce, and that the simulation itself works by stimulating a controlled dream state in the participant. To what extent does the dreamer influence the dream? One moment is particularly telling:
My master removes my hands from the hook, and unties them. He casts the rope into the fire disgustedly, and says "Nigger, pick up the gown."
"Nigger, wear the gown," he commands me.
Note the use of IF-style "comma" notation, and remember that, within the fiction of the game, the MULE is operated by IF-style commands. I found it unsettling to be sneakily implicated as oppressor like this.
The historical scene can go in a number of different directions, depending on the player's actions, but once it's over, the endgame returns you to the frame-tale of the treasure hunt. It's kind of anticlimactic, especially if you've gotten into Lisa's story, trying to help her escape her vile conditions, and you're suddenly forced to remember that, even within the context of the game, none of what you did in the sim was real. But your experiences in the sim do affect the endgame in subtle ways, such as changes in room and object descriptions reflecting the MULE's new knowledge of the site, and, more significantly, changes in the character of the MULE itself.
This is a game that rewards replay, partly due to the open-endedness of both sections of the game. This is perhaps also one of its failings: the player is easily left lacking a sense of completion. But then, by the end, you'll probably find yourself thinking that maximizing your collection of loot is the least important thing you could be worrying about. And that's the true artistry of the game.
This article copyright © 2001, Carl Muckenhoupt