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Eyeing the LASH
Review by: James Mitchelhill
Game: LASH
By: Paul O'Brian

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The word 'robot', as is known by many SF fans, is derived from the Czech word 'robota', meaning 'forced labor' and was first used in the play R.U.R. by the playwright Capek. LASH, by Paul O'Brian concerns a robot named the MULE (Multiple Use Land Explorer), and its involvement in a guided salvage operation on the lands of a former cotton plantation in what once was Georgia.

Upon opening LASH, we're presented with the options to CONNECT or receive HELP. This is one game where the HELP is essential reading. This is because the HELP is not for the game itself, but for the robot that we are controlling. We also get essential back-story in this section, everything you would expect if you were in control of a remote salvage operation.

At this point, LASH looks like a superior treasure-hunt. Not a cave crawl, but an after-apocalypse, burnt Earth crawl. That game might be interesting, but it's not LASH. Or at least, not after the first half-hour or so. After that point, LASH becomes a much more complex game, the IF Literature fans get even more interested and those who wanted a new Adventure kick their computer in dismay.

If LASH has a greatest flaw, then it is this initial misleading. This is also its greatest strength, despite the possibly that the initial premise will be enough to persuade literature-seekers that LASH is a puzzler. Regardless, this is a very literate game. Half SF, half Family Saga, and half fable; which makes LASH a game and a half, which is accurate. There's a lot crammed into its z8 frame.

LASH's best quality, though, is the writing. O'Brian's descriptions are evocative and suspenseful. Most impressive are the small details that the MULE reports: Unsettling sounds in the distance; the strength of the wind, the scratches on the wall; little hints at what has happened. The plantation the robot visits is a place that has been, not one that is. The only criticism I can make is that the background documents seem like they could have used a little more work -- the tone seems slightly off. However, in the game proper, the writing is among the best in interactive fiction.

Fortunately, the coding lives up to the writing's promise. Although the initial public release had a few bugs -- unsurprising given the scope of the game -- I could only find bugs by actively seeking them. Given the impressive record of maintenance, I'm sure that any bugs reported will be fixed when the author has time.

With its lack of any difficult puzzles, and the optional nature of most (I played through it without a walkthrough, a rare experience for me), LASH is an excellent introductory work, although not for children, due to the themes and language the game is concerned with. The warning in the HELP section should be taken seriously, even though it's fictional presentation could obscure its real purpose.

Although LASH is not a game that will suit everybody, it does deserve to be played. It is deep, and multiple play-throughs are rewarding. LASH can be an extremely enjoyable and insightful experience. This is, quite simply, a must-play game.

It also deserves a closer look. If you haven't played LASH yet, do so before reading further: Spoilers will abound.

SPOILERS

LASH is a very complex game. Structurally, it is divided into three sections, the framing story surrounding the dream of slavery. It also deals with three eras. The MULE is resident to the time after the second American civil war, and directly experiences the time before the first American civil war. The player also reads of the time before the second civil war via Dr. Lisa Percy's diary. LASH also concerns itself with many themes -- slavery, war and race are all readily apparent. Slavery is given primary attention, and this is perhaps a mistake -- much criticism has been levelled at the game for its simplification of the issue. "Slavery is bad," the game says, to which the player replies "I know."

Hence, in this review, I won't focus on the slavery issue. What seems more important in the game, is the treatment of people; no-one in the game is what they seem.

Let me justify that statement: Master Nicholas is revealed as Linda's father and (consequently) his son, Matthew, as Linda's half-brother. Momma, the wholly domestic slave, is revealed to have connections to the underground railroad. Luke, Linda's purported father, who attempted to murder Master Nicholas, was doing so out of anger at the rape of Momma. Most interesting are the enforced character changes. Linda must escape or be killed for the MULE to leave the simulation. The Mule itself, is revealed to have the capability of sentience. Every character -- potentially even the PC -- develops during LASH.

One consequence of this development, is that there's a lot going on, and the player can easily miss all the subtlety occurring around them. Another problem is that a player might never get all this information. Some of it relies on asking the right questions of Matthew with a limited number of moves. Other information is only received if Nicholas attempts to rape Linda -- she can die before this point, or he can sell her down the river. Of course, the incompleteness of information leads to a high replayability value, as do the multiple endings available. This is a balance between story and game, and a consequence of the medium of IF.

Also of interest is the race issue. As Linda is mixed-race, the MULE is part machine, part human. Obvious comparisons can be drawn. Until we find out that Nicholas is Linda's father we assume she is wholly black and, until the MULE enters the simulation, we treat it as completely inhuman. The appearances of both Linda and the MULE remain unchanged after we learn of their true natures. This can be taken as commentary about how people are treated based on what we can see, and although that's hardly a new idea, here we have an active and deep relationship with the two oppressed protagonists. This is something that could not have been achieved with static fiction.

We also have Dr. Percy's journal, which tells us that the second civil war was fought over racial issues. The journal itself is a clever tool to prevent the player from entering the simulation without first having learned this. O'Brian has made this information required reading before we go back to the days of slavery. The player must know that everything that was fought for in those days, by Matthew and his Harvard friends, was futile. Everyone dies anyway, a few generations on.

As an aside, the journal is interesting in the way it reveals the Percys' race. We're not informed that they are black until we're half-way through Lisa's diary. I suspect that, up until this point, a lot of players (myself included) had assumed that they were white. That doesn't make us racists (although assuming that a criminal was black would), but it does give rise to the question on a personal level -- if we make those assumptions, what other assumptions do we make that we haven't yet realized?

Another facet of the game is how it explores the relationship between player and protagonist. The MULE interface is used to justify the limited ways in which an IF player can control the protagonist of a story. Various IF conventions are incorporated into the game itself via careful design of the MULE technology. Moreover, the story itself mimics classic IF -- the treasure-hunt is the original text adventure plot. Even the nameless adventurer is recreated here: You are the hero.

It's this link to the past that highlights how far IF has come since those not-so-distant origins. LASH is evolved IF on equal footing with print literature, able to stand amongst the written works of the world and not be found wanting. As I said earlier, LASH is a must-play game. In the future, if IF is studied in colleges then LASH is the kind of historically significant work that I hope will be on thier required playing lists. Paul O'Brian has taken IF a step forward towards those days.

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