Yesterday’s Salad Reviews Yahtzee

March 10, 2008

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ys-title-16.jpgNow, for those intrepid enough to have made it past the headline, you may be wondering why you should read yet another Zero Punctuation-inspired bit of videogame journalism.  After all, there are already so many turgid fan-boy pieces on YouTube from which to choose, that it’s a wonder that Yahtzee hasn’t simply taken his own life out of disgust.  So, I offer you this distinction: as the title less-than-subtly implied, this is not simply a review of a Yahtzee game, this is a review of Yahtzee, the person.

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While such reviews are, of course, generally under the purview of a select few, through his perennial efforts to make free games and reviews for us to ungratefully snap up like fat children groping at a platter of McVitie’s, Yahtzee has in a sense put a giant target on his back. To wit, it would be wrong not to do such a review.

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Chris Jones

First, a short history lesson. Yahtzee hails from England, a quaint country in the North Eastern Atlantic, that in its more benevolent moments, managed to create a world-spanning empire for the sake of spreading received pronunciation.  Without delving too far back, Yahtzee first made his name developing games in Adventure Gaming Studio.  AGS is a free utility for making games in the style of the classic Sierra and LucasArts adventures, developed by Chris Jones, a 67 year-old bricklayer from Gloucester.

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ys-title-45.jpgYahtzee was a pioneer of AGS, and through his early efforts, he helped to demonstrate engine’s potential, started a number of wacky traditions, and introduced a community to his somewhat idiosyncratic brand of humor.  Unfortunately, signs of Yahtzee’s future misanthropy were already afoot.  Flush with success and a dash of enfant terrible, Yahtzee struck off on his own, vowing that he would move on to bigger and better things, free of the insufferable goodwill of the AGS community.

Thankfully, for we of the cheese-it consuming public, Yahtzee was far from done with making adventure games.  And as corollary, here our review begins in earnest.

ys-title-50.jpgYahtzee’s 5 Days a Stranger is one of the classic titles of AGS, featuring a gentleman thief named Trilby trying to break his way out of a haunted mansion and deal with the mildly paranoid reactions of the other people trapped inside the house.  As it turns out, said house became haunted when the owner, Mr. Defoe, locked his deformed child John in a dungeon beneath the stairs, mortally wounded him, and then was subsequently murdered along with his other son by John, who then expired.  Oh, and there’s a creepy little idol that may or may not have been causing all of this.

ys-title-60a.jpgThe puzzles might not have been anything to call home about, and the supporting characters were paper thin, but through his manipulation of classic horror movie leitmotifs, Yahtzee managed to do something tremendous in the offing: he managed to weave together a tight story such that playing a computer game with teensy pixilated characters became quite… scary.  The ending also managed to take a surprising emotional turn, as Trilby and the other survivors found out the terribly disturbing history behind the Defoe Mansion and exorcised John Defoe’s ghost.

ys-title-35.jpgYahtzee followed this up with 7 Days a Skeptic, which takes the dread-laden experience of 5 Days a Stranger into outer space.  In the game, you play Doctor Jonathan Summerset, resident psychiatrist on the charmingly-monikered scout-ship Mephistopheles.  Things begin to go amiss when the ship picks up a derelict cargo container covered in a warning from Trilby, who we learn, has since become a member of a government agency devoted to combating paranormal threats.  Rather than following Trilby’s reasonable warning, someone on the ship finds it perfectly reasonable to hold onto the container, which contains both the slasher get-up from 5 Days a Stranger, and the creepy little idol responsible for the whole mess.  While the game lays on the homages to Event Horizon and the Ridley Scott Alien movie rather thickly, in all, the move to space a clever conceit, and the game demonstrates some admirable progress in the quality of the puzzles, and also, the interactions between the characters actually begin to take on some three-dimensionality.

spooks.jpgUnfortunately, the game suffers from quite a bit of required backtracking.  Even though you might think that a scout-ship with only six crew members might be somewhat manageable to get around (this number is soon reduced considerably), the ship happens to be the size of a rather oversized football field.  While spelunking through the ship, being chased by a welding-mask clad specter of evil might sound kind of frightening and exciting, by the umpteenth time you’ve scuttled down the Jeffries tube, searching madly for that obscure inventory item that eludes you, you can’t help but feel a latent bit of Stockholm syndrome coming on for the eight foot-tall nightmare who must feel equally frustrated with trying to find you.

Similarly monotonous is the gore.  While the first sight of the red, red kroovy against the sterile grays of the spaceship is quite disturbing, in no time you’re picking out stray bits of your fellow redshirts from everywhere up to and including the food dispenser (aww… no… not torso for lunch again!), so every further bit of sanguinity feels like it ought to have the robots from Mystery Science Theater giving color commentary in the lower right hand corner of the screen.

Not to be outdone by himself, Yahtzee released Trilby’s Notes, which returned the series to the relative present, and promised to fill us in on Trilby’s curious transition from gentleman thief to well-dressed paranormal investigator.  Finding that the remaining survivors of the tragedy at the Defoe Mansion have, in fact, not survived after all, Trilby sets off to find the mysterious idol with the aid of a cumbersome text parser.

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If this sounds like strong premise for a game, it’s because it is. Trilby is kind of the genius stroke of the franchise, and many players craved a chance to finally delve into the character’s psyche and background. In essence, it was a prime opportunity for Yahtzee to prove once and for all that he learned how to wind a good yarn of a story. Seeing as Trilby is in many ways a charming synecdoche of all things British, the idea that he was secretly haunted by a mystical artifact from the British Empire’s slightly less charming days of colonialism seemed like a poignant metaphor for the notion that empire haunts soul of the occupier more than the occupied.

Cleverly, Yahtzee chose to take this opportunity to ditch Trilby for much of the game. Instead, he provides the player an exhaustive history of a reject god from the Cthulu Pantheon named Ch’zo (pronounced Ch’zo, Ki-zo, or for all I care, Kazoo). In fact, given that there is no in game speech, and that Roland Barthes long ago declared the death of the author as an authority on their own work, I hereby declare Kazoo to be the official pronunciation.

So, it seems that many ages ago Kazoo, the dark elemental god of pain, suffering, and quicktime events, turned a druid who had displeased him into a demonic tree.  Subsequent attempts to chop down said tree, make a table out of said tree, a harpsichord, several Ikea bedroom sets, and a crudely hewn idol all resulted in the untimely and painful deaths of those around it, making it the nastiest haunting of a deciduous tree since that naughty tree at the beginning of Evil Dead.  Add in to the mix the fact that the Earthly servant of Kazoo is an evil eight foot tall mime, and you’ve got Trilby facing off against the scariest set of apparitions this side of Marcel Marceau.

ys-title-32.jpgThis is not to say that the game is terrible by any means.  While the revealed backstory is meandering and disappointing, the way in which Yahtzee presents it demonstrates quite a bit of verve and cinematic flair.  While it might be hard to take some of the plot seriously, there is no question that the execution of many of the flashbacks is a major accomplishment for horror on the small screen. Similarly, Trilby’s haunting visions of death and destruction (which are in fact part of a public service campaign to warn gamers about the ills of caffeinated beverages) are genuinely frightening, though none are quite so frightening as the scene where you have to beat the living shit out of this pleasant girl who fancies Trilby because you’re worried that she will eat your soul (am I the only one disturbed by this?).

With a rapidly growing fan-base in thrall, Yahtzee released 6 Days a Sacrifice, the ultimate chapter in the now unfortunately titled “Kazoo mythos.”  At first glance, the game bears no resemblance or connection to the previous titles, as you play as Theo DeCabe, a chartered accountant, no, sorry, a weak-willed surveyor for the city council. Sent to investigate the headquarters of a local cult to make sure that their construction is up to code, Theo is tossed down an elevator shaft, causing him to suffer some traumatic, yet, surmountable injuries, and forcing him to miss his subsequent meeting at the bureau of information retrieval. Nursed back to health by a mysterious doctor, and a page-six celebrity journalist, Theo finds himself a prisoner in the cult’s underground lab, which is administered by a clone army of evil Trilby’s.

That’s right, you heard me correctly, a clone army of evil Trilby’s.  Yes, far more frightening than any demon unleashed by Kazoo is the thought of Yahtzee laughing maniacally behind his computer, taking a character who he spent years introducing to adventure gaming fans everywhere, and thinking of all of the myriad and exotic ways that he can kill him over and over again (“What was that flying weapon in Krull? Ah, let’s show Trilby getting eviscerated with a glaive…”). Well, that and the gag-inducing sex scene, which is made all the worse for it’s Lifetime-channel-grade hints of sensuality.  Of course, after Theo sleeps with the gossip columnist, she goes batshit, and as logic surely dictates, must be dispatched.

ys-title-37.jpgThe rest of the story indulges in a tortuous bit of time travel, which admirably rewards players by tying up many of the loose ends from the other games.  Unfortunately, most of this exposition is accomplished by the actions of a mysterious man in red, who fails to give an explanation for his actions, or at least, one that is intelligible to mortals.  Of course, in the hopes of completely spoiling the plot, the man in red turns out to be the protagonist from the second game. This leads to a remarkable scene in which the man in red talks his younger self into becoming the man in red.  Oh, that and the milquetoast building inspector ends up becoming the ultimate personification of evil in the universe.  But you saw that coming from the outset, didn’t you, you clever devil, you.

ys-title-1000.jpgNow, for all of this slogging on Yahtzee’s Kazoo games, the following disclaimer must be added: despite the fact that they are at times cryptic and at other times infuriating, all of them are quite a bit of fun to play, and for that matter, they remain totally and completely free. Not only that, but Yahtzee went ahead and listened to the cries of fan-boys everywhere, releasing The Art of Theft, a remarkably easy to play, hard to master, game that features some of the best pc platforming since Conrad Hart rotoscoped his way across the galaxy.  It even has a bonus game that is only available to the lion-eating elite of gameplayers, such to better separate the real men from the chaff. What’s more is that it’s chock full of the sweet, sweet Trilby that the fan-boys have demanded since 5 Days a Stranger.

Finally, Yahtzee’s Zero Punctuation reviews need no introduction, seeing as they’ve become so popular that YouTube is already chock full of imitators, kind of like the one you’re reading right now.  While some might be ready to label Yahtzee a mean bastard for his lack of political correctness, his alternating bouts of homophobia and homophilia, and his ready profanity, they’d be absolutely right.  But for all of the lexical abuse to which he’s subjected gamers and the games they play, the man’s got ready wit and a keen eye for his subject matter.  So in the final balance, when you’re faced with dropping your last fifty dollars on a game, and can no longer count on so-called “respectable” game journalists to give you the straight story (*cough* Gamespot *cough*), he’s exactly the asshole you need.

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So, there you have it, Yahtzee’s official score as a human being. Oh, and if you were reading to the end in the hope of seeing a review of Adventures in the  Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment, I’m afraid you’re bound to be disappointed.

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