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[DEMI-REVIEW] Shrapnel

by Emily Short

Posted 14 February 2000 to

Adam Cadre has a genius for coming up with clever ways of restricting the player's behavior, not only in absolute range of actions, but also in pacing. As a result, the plot hangs together and behaves like a story -- even when it's about things coming apart.

The restart trick is flashy; also exactly right, though less blatant, is the functionality of SPEAK. On ifMUD a few weeks ago Adam mentioned that he was designing an NPC-interaction system to work this way, and at the time I thought, "Hmm, that's interesting, but it seems like it would be awfully annoying." Of course, in this context, it works -- the rightness of it may not be fully clear until the end of the story, but I like games in which the way you are forced to play itself reflects what's going on in the story world. In that respect I was reminded of Spider and Web.

With all that, I'm not sure what to make of the content of Shrapnel. For all the pyrotechnical power that comes from putting good programming at the service of strong writing, it left me a bit cold. I'm not referring simply to the SF plot, which is avowedly silly. (Too many raif posts about Jigsaw and Tampering With History, perhaps?) I mean the physical and sexual abuse, the moral squalor with the undercurrent of dark humor. Varicella employs the same material, and though I enjoyed the effect more; I still felt that there was a gap in the portrayal of the characters.

It's not that I'm afraid of Dark I-F. On the contrary, I think it could be quite interesting. But I find -- and this is purely a personal reaction -- that victimizing an NPC does not necessarily garner him or her my sympathy. Nor, for that matter, does it provide character depth. On the B5 spinoff series Crusade (which now seems to have gone to its watery grave) it seemed that each character in turn turned out to be motivated by the traumatic loss of a lover sometime in the past. Adam's style is more disturbing and less gooey than Straczinsky's, but I can't help feeling, after Varicella, that something similar is going on: he likes the stark chiaroscuro that comes from having a horrific backstory, perhaps. But when there is *no one* that I find appealing as a person, the rest of the story doesn't have quite the effect on me that perhaps it is supposed to have. Playing this game reminded me of lifting a rock to see the bugs under it: icky, fascinating, and basically futile.

Of course, that may have been the point. It's a very short game, and most of the impact comes from the way it takes your expectations and slams them, headfirst and repeatedly, against a brick wall.

This article copyright © 2000, Emily Short

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