And here is the bit where, traditionally, I post my best-of-comp recommendations, as well as some thoughts about the field overall. To avoid spoiling, actual content goes after the break.
Recommended without reservation:
Their Angelical Understanding: poetic hypertext story, augmented with sound and typographical effects, about a person who has suffered a terrible emotional wound. Well worth looking at both for the powerful imagery and for its expressive invention.
Coloratura: polished, high-quality science fiction parser game. The protagonist is unique, and its unusual abilities make for novel puzzles that are very well integrated into the story world. Gameplay includes emotional manipulation of the characters around you.
Solarium: Chilling hypertext story about the Cold War, alchemy, and the world’s end. It defies casual explanation, but the writing is excellent and the use of medium extremely deft.
Recommended provisionally (has strengths, but either has off-setting weaknesses or may be of more limited appeal due to genre):
Final Girl: A StoryNexus game in the teen stalker horror genre. It’s hard to win the first place, so there’s strong replayability and a variety of puzzles, though implemented in a non-parser-y way.
Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life: An old-school parser-based puzzle game with an archaeology-adventure theme and lots of death traps. It doesn’t break new narrative ground particularly, but if you have a taste for this type of thing, it’s well-hinted and fun, and has some memorable moments.
Robin and Orchid: a charming puzzle game wrapped together with a story about kids growing up in a particular church. Technical strengths include a really excellent adaptive walkthrough system and some sweet object implementation, but I also just liked it for capturing a particular type of setting that usually doesn’t appear in IF.
Ollie Ollie Oxen Free: big, NPC-rich parser-based puzzle game about a heroic teacher in a war-damaged school. Good concept, but some repetitive bits arising from the implementation.
And now, some thoughts about the big trends and discussion points here.
Twine is evolving fast, in terms of craft and technical capability. Solarium and Their Angelical Understanding are a great place to see this showcased, with links demonstrating more and more interesting functionality, but even some Twine pieces that I didn’t rate as high overall do some cool stuff with their typography, CSS presentation, use of images and links, etc. There are also discernible trends in how to handle puzzles and hidden information in Twine. It’s fascinating watching this vocabulary develop.
At IndieCade a conversation with Michael Mateas reminded me that I would be better equipped to comment on all of this if I finally shelled out for some Eastgate hypertext classics so that I could also comment on Twine link use in comparison with some of the techniques in those older pieces — not because Twine users are mostly consciously drawing on that tradition, but because even if they’re not, it might be a fertile place for comparison and close analysis.
Interactivity: What Is It?
I kept running into reviews that said things like “this piece was non-interactive” when that was very clearly not the case, and what the reviewer meant was something more like one of the following:
- I don’t feel that my choices are changing the outcome of this story
- I am not being offered many options at each point where input is solicited
- I can’t anticipate in advance, or else don’t understand after the fact, what difference my choices make; therefore I have a weakened sense of agency
- I am not able to shape the personality or motives of the protagonist
- I am not given a challenge to solve
- This is not a parser-based game
I’ll come back to the last of those later, but I think it’s worth saying something about the others, because I feel like there’s actually been a bit of a breakdown in the use of terminology that used to be standard for discussing these ideas within the IF community. That is to say, I feel like five or ten years ago we had a common critical vocabulary robust enough to talk about what is going on in low-agency, linear, or hypertext games, but that the community has shifted enough not to be using that vocabulary now that there are lots of such games to talk about.
A piece can be interactive fiction if it does not have a branching narrative; indeed, the majority of classic old-school IF only has one winning narrative path, and some even lack losing endings. In the late 90s, multiple winning endings were considered rare and surprising enough to be worth special note in a game’s review, and there is still a multiple endings tag on IFDB.
A piece can be interactive fiction even if there are few options available at each node. The fewer different things the player is allowed to do, the less freedom he has; but this is not the same as agency, the ability to cause outcomes to occur. This is an old article — 2003 — but it goes into some useful detail about these distinctions. Neither freedom nor agency is in fact required for a work to be interactive fiction, but they are distinct axes.
Indeed, a piece can be interactive fiction even if it only allows for one significant kind of action at a time: it is then referred to as linear. A CYOA game that often offers only one forward link is perhaps more blatant about its linear structure than a parser IF game in which you can flounder with the parser a while before typing the one command that will move the story forward, but the branch structure is identical in both cases. This does not mean that the work in question is not using the player’s participation for some aesthetic purpose: pacing, making the player feel complicit in the progress of the drama, or something else. This can at times be extremely effective and meaningful (as I believe it is in the example linked above).
A piece can be interactive fiction even if that character is so constrained by circumstance or personality as not to be able to make significant changes to their situation; and indeed a lot of the 1998-2002 experimental canon is about exploring this exact point.
A piece can be interactive fiction even if the player’s interaction with the fiction never affects what is happening at the level of story at all, and is only concerned with the way in which the player experiences that fiction: the order of presentation, or the exploration of objects. A number of IF Art Show pieces are essentially exploratory, for instance, as is Ian Finley’s Exhibition.
A piece can be interactive fiction even if it poses no challenges to the player. Within the IF community, puzzleless parser IF has been discussed since the mid-90s and many successful examples have been known since at least 1998. Hypertext narratives produced at the same time but in different communities might also be considered examples of this.
I spend so much time on this question because “this is not interactive” is frequently used in reviews as a normative statement intended to dismiss the work in question. It leads the reviewer away from asking questions such as “what was the author trying to accomplish here? does it appear to succeed?” that might be more illuminating.
Of course people have tastes and may still find themselves preferring a particular type of interactive narrative over others. I suspect a major factor in the success of Choice of Games is that it consistently delivers a very particular type of story, one in which the protagonist’s personality and traits are highly malleable and this malleability affects later outcomes. Nonetheless, I think that as soon as we move away from “this is not interactive (and therefore, implicitly, has no place in an interactive fiction competition and need not be discussed further)”, we get to more critically valuable kinds of discussion.
Two pieces were about raising awareness about an issue: Autumn’s Daughter about the abuse of women in Pakistan, Impostor Syndrome about systemic racial and gender prejudice in the tech world. Their Angelical Understanding, but also in various ways Dad vs Unicorn, Vulse, and Saving John all are to some degree about exploring emotional trauma or expressing a state of deep trouble.
Writing about this kind of work is challenging, especially, as I found several times here, when I both sympathized with the motives of the author and thought that, as a point of craft, the work could have been made stronger. I don’t want my remarks about the craft to be taken as an attempt to gate-keep the medium, exclude people who wish to be heard, etc. On the contrary, I would like us to be actively sending the message that this is a context in which such writing can be taken seriously and listened to. On the other hand I do also think that authorial intention alone is not the only thing one is responding to in conversation, and so it may be useful to have some of those craft discussions; at least, maybe useful for some authors.
A common thread in discussion around this has been the issue of characterization when a character is intended to represent the participant in an oppressive system: the gender-conformity-enforcing father in Dad vs Unicorn, the bride and parents in Autumn’s Daughter, the main character in Impostor Syndrome. There’s a tendency in some of this work to paint characters as all good or all bad in order to emphasize the direness of the bad thing that’s going on; here several forum commenters debate whether it’s reasonable to grant any positive qualities to the father in Autumn’s Daughter.
My own feeling about this is that, yes, it is reasonable. To treat even the villains as multidimensional people would make these stories stronger not only as art, but as representations of oppressive systems in the real world, and even as motivators to action. Where injustice is systemic, there are usually a number of pressures from different directions on both the people being treated unjustly and the people who are enforcing the unjust treatment. While that doesn’t excuse the injustice, talking about all aspects of the problem openly and truthfully makes for a more effective exploration of the real problem. And I don’t think it reduces the emotional impact, either: where characters feel true and real and lifelike and multi-dimensional, everything they do is more compelling to the reader. I would, I think, have been hit much harder by a version of Dad vs Unicorn in which Dad wasn’t a stupid, selfish boor, but had some redeeming qualities, some genuine love for his son, which was then complicated by his ideas about gender performance.
Besides this, if we want systemic injustices to change, we need many people (and I include myself) to learn how they have been participating in destructive situations, and to change their behavior. Well-meaning but inattentive or uneducated people can participate in perpetuating terrible systems. That doesn’t mean that they’re not responsible for what they’ve done, but it also doesn’t mean that they’re straightforwardly evil. Also, jerks can be the victims of injustice, and that injustice is still unjust, even if it’s directed at people we don’t like personally; and we still have a responsibility to try to disrupt the unjust system regardless. Painting the situation in a pure black-and-white, villains-and-victims way makes it much harder for people to recognize themselves in the scenario, or to entertain the possibility that they need further enlightenment and change.
There were 35 games and only 15 of them were traditional parser games, which has led to a lot of discussion in some parts of the IF community. How do we compare these two (or more) styles of game meaningfully? Does this mean the parser is going away? Is CYOA eating our lunch?
Of these questions, I have the least sympathy or concern about the “how do we compare?” issue. It’s possible to judge a game on its own merits, in terms of how well it accomplishes what it’s trying to accomplish, without saying “this piece is only 70% as technically challenging to code as that one, therefore it gets only 70% of the score”. Previous comps, even with only parser-based IF in the running, have included such a wide variation in length and complexity that it has always been necessary to judge games along multiple axes, for their content and ambition as well as their skill in execution. So I think the comparison worry is chiefly of interest to people who try for very traditional, faux-objective scoring methods like “I am going to allot 2 points to each game that doesn’t have any unimplemented nouns”. I don’t find those kinds of scoring approaches at all useful myself, and am not sorry if their vacuity is exposed by the increased variety and richness of IF Comp entries.
“Is the parser going away?” is a little trickier. One thing to notice is that the count of 35 games is a pretty healthy one for an IF Comp, so it partly be that the influx of CYOA entries just means there’s a lot more content than there would have been otherwise. I think it’s a good thing — an excellent thing — that we are seeing more creation systems and more types of games in the comp, and that people are participating who are not die-hards who’ve been around since they joined the Usenet groups in 1993.
But it’s also true that parser content is also, separately, decreased. What to make of this? Statistical anomaly? Sign of the end times?
There’s a small way in which the rise of Twine et al might be affecting parser game levels that I would actually consider a good thing. Namely: I don’t think there’s a merit in the parser in and of itself, unless it’s in service of a game concept that is genuinely suited to a parser. There are some game concepts that do need to be presented that way. But I think historically we also saw quite a few game concepts shoe-horned into Inform or TADS that were really better adapted to some other mechanism, if only there had been a suitably rich suite of tools and a community disposed to take that content as seriously as they took parser IF. The Space Under the Window is essentially hypertext. I bet the surreal End Means Escape would have made a better link-based game than it made a parser game. I’m sure there are a number of other things in the history of the IF Comp that were made as parser pieces by default, but that would have been more at home in another system. So, as there are now more systems, I think it’s better for those games to be made in the system best suited to them, rather than laboriously turned out as parser stuff.
I’m not yet really worried that the supply of new parser games is totally drying up. If what we’ve lost is a few un-beta-tested 5-minute troll games, then frankly I can endure that loss. (Edited to add: apparently Playfic has exceeded 1000 games on site. Even accepting that a large number of these are probably tiny and unfinished, that suggests that the interest in writing parser IF hasn’t completely evaporated.)
I am concerned about preserving the cumulative discoveries of the IF community, the ideas and the experiments that made it such an interesting place to be in the late 90s and early 2000s. As the community broadens and diversifies — which are good things — I’d nonetheless like us not to lose the design vocabulary we learned then. A great deal of it is still useful.