Posted 30 March 2000 to rec.games.int-fiction
There's a terrific moment in Agatha Christie's "The A.B.C. Murders", where Hercule Poirot gathers all the people implicated in the series of apparently alphabetical murders, and delivers a lengthy diatribe on how the truth would be arrived at. Essentially, what he's doing is repeating the same thing over and over, but no one cottons on to it - they're too busy nodding their heads and saying "Yes, Mr. Detective, you must be right" - only the clear-eyed Megan Barnard points out, rather coldly, that all he's doing is repeating himself. Poirot, of course, was doing this with a purpose: one of his fundamental axioms is to get people talking, because they betray themselves by tiny slips. On the other hand, Paul O'Brian's LASH - which has already been elevated, at least by one reviewer, to the level of AMFV and Spider & Web - seems to try the same trick, in its epistolary narratives, but to no obvious purpose. What originally seems to be the main point of the game - unravelling what happened to the late Percy couple during the "Second American Civil War" is abandoned, abruptly, in favour of - in this reviewer's opinion - a much worse idea.
As LASH opens, you're commanding a robot, the MULE, on a salvage mission to recover artifacts and other items of interest from the aforementioned couple's home in - guess what - the South of America. As far as this goes, the gameplay is engaging though hardly innovative; if I wanted a treasure hunt, I wouldn't waste 360KB on it, would I? Obviously, there was more to the game, and the discovery of a diary - ironically, using LOOK UNDER, which several reviewers of my game told me was archaic (I guess I'm dealing with an "It's deliberate! It's a deconstruction of the traditional treasure hunt!" here), made me think that this was going to be a flashback game 0 as you make new discoveries around the mansion and solve new puzzles, the story unfolds in a manner akin to Babel. With this in mind, I solved a handful of puzzles - including a _terribly mechanical, tedious and sleep-inducing_ bit of by-play with bellows - but wasn't rewarded much more. The diary entries told me very little about the "Second Civil Wa" apart from generic war cliches: Evil White Fascists, a Corrupt Armed Force, Blacks Who Weren't ALL Good, a beleaguered Black President, et seq. The diary entries were dreadfully turgid, affecting the same Poirot style I mentioned above - never has Eric Morris' Journal been closer to my heart than when I was playing that game. But on solving what was apparently the crucial puzzle, I found that flashbacking wasn't the point, either.
And this is where LASH loses it, loses its chance to the Babel or Delusions succession and becomes an uncomfortable mix of soapbox rhetoric and illogical science-fiction. Apparently, Lisa, one of the Percys, was working on some sort of mentalic device, and when activated (I'm surprised it survived the nukes when almost nothing else did..) your robot enters the skin of a young, innocent, black slave girl, helpless before a cruel and corrupt Master whose name, subtly enough, is Nicholas Duke (Deep Topical Reference #1 - if you're tasteless, insert favourite Ku Klux Klan joke here). Apparently, you've been meddling where you shouldn't, and Nicholas rewards you for this with a fairly generic bout of whipping, salting and Bible-thumping. After a lengthy atrocity story that was probably meant to be heart-wrenching but which I found merely gut-constricting, you discover: A. that Nicholas Duke is actually your father (Deep Topical Reference #2 - if you're a jerk, insert favourite Thomas Jefferson/Bill Clinton joke here) and B. that what this game means by 'offensive language' is words like 'nigger' and 'penis'. In 2000? Gimme a break. You have several ways to exit this part of the story - suicide, killing the evil Nicholas, escape on the Underground Railroad, etc. All this Reader's Digest scenario needs is a couple of good guys, and they exist in the form of your Momma and Duke's "nice, but a bit of a wuss" son, Matthew. After exiting this scene, it's back to treasure-hunting. Or is it? Your robot, apparently, has been so deeply impressed by this that it starts demanding its freedom. And the _real_ ending of the game (at last) depends on whether you set it free or behave like a robot-bashing, morally corrupt, Nicholas Duke-style bastard.
I don't for a minute question the author's sincerity; I'm glad an IFer has come out with such a strong anti-racism message. But the waters are muddied by the untidy 'robot=nigger slave', 'human=white master' identity, which - quite honestly - doesn't compute. When I type C:\>COPY HALOT.ZIP a: at my DOS 7.00 prompt, I'm not saying "NIGGER, CLEAN MY SHOES". Does a Telnet program want to be free? Do the robotic arms in a Ford plant want maternity leave? Can any artificial intelligence, however cleverly programmed, react in such a manner? Considering the number of spectacular failures of aspirants to the Turing test, I don't think so: machines, even "intelligent" ones, would be built in with safeguards to give them perspective, such as Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. But this author, apparently, has missed the point of Asimov's works, and not only presents a Lawless robot, but quotes Asimov horribly out of context early on in the game. (The relevant passage is illustrative of the prejudice that Elijah Baley, n Earthman, has against robots, which are widely accepted on other planets, for the record.) Besides this blurry logic, the slavery piece is poorly handled. See, I'm not for a minute trying to be a cynic or an apologist. As a medical man in a developing country, I see plently of tragedies that push LASH's tale notches down: bonded labour, protein-energy malnutrition, spousal abuse and burning - even racism, if you have to ask. All these are tragedies; the trouble with the Reader's Digest approach to them is that it trivialises them and desensitizes us to them, making us say "So what?". LASH, unfortunately, suffers from this syndrome. Contrast this with Worlds Apart, where the imbroglio between the rigid Lashiaran and the breakaways Kitara and Lyesh is much more realistically and skilfully presented. And, finally, if you're going to use 360KB to make a game, why not present both sides of the tale, or at least make it more fun? Other works of IF have simple messages: Trinity's is anti-nuclear, Shades of Gray' is the age-old concept of adherence to unfair law .vs. adherence to a higher law. But these games had depth, complexity, and playabilitty, and didn't preesent everything in bald black and white.
Summing up, LASH is a sincere attempt, but it fails. Not marginally, but by a large margin; sunk by a combination of soapbox preaching, bad design and gameplay decisions and screwy logic, I can only wonder what might have been. My score for LASH: 5 out of 10.
This article copyright © 2000, Quentin D. Thompson