Being an overview of my favorites and general impressions, now that I’ve played all the games I intend to play this year. (That includes all the TADS, Inform, and ADRIFT games. I tried to fire up the Alan game, but it refused to run under Spatterlight, and Zoom doesn’t do Alan at all. Edited to add: I did eventually get Alan to work — my copy of Spatterlight was older than I thought, so I needed to download the latest.)
There are no spoilers, except inasmuch as knowing which games I liked is itself a spoiler for the comp as a whole.
I found this a pleasingly diverse year, overall: the entries were trying for many different effects, and there were real successes in each of several categories. We didn’t have too great a preponderance of either the serious or the silly (previous comps have sometimes tilted one way or the other). Genres were diverse: SF, fantasy, slice-of-life, thriller, mystery, horror, romance, elegy, satire, and something I can only equate to an awareness-raising public service announcement (though that sounds condescending, and I thought the idea was actually quite an interesting one, if imperfectly executed).
I would say that we did have more really lame games than we got last year. I won’t call out the culprits here by name, but there were annoyingly many games that weren’t tested at all, broke in the middle, or were meant as a joke to start with. On the other hand, last year was relatively free of that kind of garbage, so possibly I had gotten complacent.
But however annoying the bad stuff may be to the judges at the time, what really makes a comp year memorable later is the quality and diversity of the good games it contained, and on that score we didn’t do too badly. Some years even some of my favorite games I can only recommend with caveats — “this is fun, BUT…”. This year, I have no apologies about any of my top five. Here’s my list of the cream of the crop:
Everybody Dies. A short story with good writing, easy but effective puzzles, and quality illustrations. Speaking of those illustrations, I found them to be a fantastic solution to the question of how to present subjective material in the context of IF: these weren’t a mere add-on or embellishment but an absolutely essential part of the story. This was, by a nose, my favorite game of the comp. But it had strong competition.
Nightfall. Large and ambitious, and effectively creepy, Nightfall manages to hit a sweet spot between player freedom and narrative direction. This is (in my opinion) even-better work from an already good author, and I mostly wish I had experienced it over longer than two hours. But I don’t feel that it violated the spirit of the two-hour rule, either: it’s just that it’s a game that would have rewarded replay, and leisurely replay at that.
While there’s no one specific innovation to point to (the way I suspect we’ll be coming back to talk about the illustrations in Everybody Dies, or the narrative voice in Violet), Nightfall’s overall construction will probably repay some study.
Violet. Polished and bursting with personality; though in form it’s a one-room puzzle game, in content it’s a romance with a memorable NPC. Other games have played with divisions between the parser and viewpoint character, or the player and the protagonist, but most often they’ve used those divisions to subvert expectations or produce unexpected surprises. Violet goes another direction, by making the whole content of the game into an effective conversation with the narrator, on the subject of your relationship and its prospects. It’s a fabulous idea and it worked very well.
Buried in Shoes. Short, poetic in effect, and it brought tears to my eyes at the end, though possibly not for the reasons the author intended. Nonetheless, I found it moving and memorable. This is probably a more subjective reaction than most — I see from other reviews that some people really liked it and others really didn’t — though I will say that I think people who have criticized it on the grounds of the story being too short/linear/whatever have missed the intention of the design. To my mind, this works as a series of juxtaposed images and ideas rather than as narrative; and I thought it did a fair job of telegraphing that that was how the player was supposed to approach it. Then again, I had the advantage of recognizing the author as the same person who wrote the interactive poem Somewhere. I didn’t think Somewhere nearly as good as Buried in Shoes, but it did indicate that the author is interested in the possibilities of interactive poetry.
(Side point: the game wasn’t at all what I expected. “Buried in Shoes” made me think concrete overshoes –> Mafia hit. It’s not about that.)
Piracy 2.0. All the ambition here was puzzle- and implementation-ambition, rather than story/art-ambition, but there’s plenty of room for that too. Piracy 2.0 is very well designed and it kept me on the edge of my seat. The ship-attacked-in-space genre has seen many entries, but almost all of them put me to sleep. This one succeeds where others failed because of the quality of its world-building and the way that world-building ties into the puzzles: you don’t find out much about the larger world, but your ship’s operations are worked out in a lot of detail, and that gives the player room for an assortment of different puzzle-solving approaches that all feel solid and sensible. The best pure-game experience of the competition.
In addition to those, there were several more games that I thought boded well for their authors, though in some way or other they fell short of this list.
Afflicted was structurally clever: like Nightfall and Piracy, it works effectively with a broad design in which there are many routes to the end of the story, and puzzle actions are tightly integrated with the world-/story-logic. It’s encouraging to see this kind of solid design popping up in multiple games, and I think it bodes well for the maturing of the medium.
Cry Wolf is an ambitious story in need of polish. I don’t what the rankings will come out to be at the end of the comp; but I hope, whatever they are, that the author is not discouraged by the results. She has some promising ideas and a willingness to take on unusual themes, and I hope she works some more on her craft and writes again.
Similarly, Opening Night could stand improvement, but it showed ambition about what kind of story the author wanted to tell, and I hope we see more from him.
Snack Time is charming and fun. It was too small, in size and vision, to make it into my favorites, but it’s entertaining.
Recess at Last showed quality of construction, and some of the elements of it were probably not trivial to code. I hope to see the author return with a game of greater scope.
There were also games this competition that I really hope will see a rerelease, after additional testing and perhaps design reworking. I know that’s often a difficult thing to motivate oneself to do, after the comp is over and when it feels like no one will play a rerelease. The Ananachronist and Magic both had neat core puzzle concepts that they didn’t take full advantage of, and that’s really a pity. For whatever it’s worth (possibly nothing), if either of these authors care to revise and rerelease their games, I’ll be happy to review the second version.
So there was lots of good stuff. Possibly it doesn’t get said enough: I am grateful to the numerous authors who worked hard on their entries and gave the rest of us the opportunity to play and enjoy.
About the bad stuff: I don’t want to play any more unfinished or un-beta-tested games. From now on, I’m not going to. If I start a game and I can’t find an ABOUT or a CREDITS or an INFO or a HELP or suchlike that lists the names of the folks that tested it, I’m quitting. With one exception, every game I rated 4 or below on this comp would have been eliminated by that simple rule.
As I see it, this will considerably reduce the amount of time I spend playing comp games while considerably increasing the amount of enjoyment I derive from that time. Win/win. It’s a win for you too, because I won’t write so many reviews that are essentially the same review, namely “ARRRRGH.”