IF Comp 2014 Roundup

ifcompI have now reviewed all the comp games I am going to review, which is to say, all of them except a Windows-only work I am not able to play. Most recent years I’ve done an end-of-comp roundup (2013, 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007) in which I talk about standout games, as well as some trends I noticed arising from the competition.

What follows will not spoil any games, but will list some favorites and give some general thematic information.

Top Tier:

These games were my favorites of the comp and also in a curious way fit together, touching on a broader set of themes about art vs commodity, community, and individual self-expression that feels particularly relevant right now:

lovealiveWith Those We Love Alive, a Porpentine game with music by Brenda Neotenomie, about love and systemic cruelty. It also has a unique reflective-choice mechanic that asks players to draw on their own skin. If you already played and liked this, you should try Porpentine’s other work, especially Their Angelical Understanding. And perhaps this ruleset for Avery McDaldno’s life-concurrent RPG Brave Sparrow.

??????????????????????????????Creatures Such as We, a ChoiceScript story about love, games, and the nature of art. Well-paced and richly written. It’s partly about the question of who owns the plot in an interactive story, and the position of an artwork between its creator and its recipient. If you’re interested in the ideas presented in this game, you should probably also have a look at Save the Date! (Paper Dino); you might also be interested in this Mattie Brice article Death of the Player, which is about writing games first and foremost as an act of speech.

KrypteiaKrypteia, an illustrated Twine adventure about lycanthropy, queerness, community. It’s good in its own right and also very interesting to read alongside several of the other games in the comp. With its dual-layer narrative, it sits well alongside Raik (see below); with its interest in community ethos and monstrosity, it makes a good point of comparison for With Those We Love Alive.


I thought highly of all of these. Because they cater to very different tastes, they may not appeal to everyone, but the blurb will probably give you a decent sense of whether you’ll like them:

Jacqueline, Jungle Queen! and Hunger Daemon are both light comedy IF with puzzles. Jacqueline is pretty accessible and Hunger Daemon slightly harder and longer, and the better implemented of the two. I could see Hunger Daemon possibly winning; it just misses being in the top tier for me because those games had greater emotional resonance and I found myself thinking about them afterwards more, but for implementation quality and entertainment value, it has a lot to offer. If you already played and enjoyed Jacqueline, you might also like Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life; if you liked Hunger Daemon, you might like Taco Fiction or Beet the Devil.

Fifteen Minutes is challenging puzzle IF with a light wrapper of story. If you played and liked this, you might also be interested in All Things Devours and Möbius.

Raik, a Twine piece about mental health and anxiety disorders, which makes really interesting use of the concept of translation between parallel texts. If you are interested in IF about mental health, I also recommend a look at Anhedonia, and here is Richard Goodness talking about several other mental-health related games including Actual Sunlight, Depression Quest, and Letters to Babylon. (And in an adjacent medium: Ellen Forney’s amazing graphic novel Marbles and Hyperbole and a Half’s Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two.)

Venus Meets Venus, a story of lesbian cis and trans romance. This was hard to play through for emotional reasons, but it was also convincingly truthful about human relationships, which is a quality I highly value. If you liked this, you might also be interested in Positive Space (Merritt Kopas; raw NSFW discussion of transwomen’s sexuality) and Even Cowgirls Bleed (Christine Love, more metaphorical and emotional but a powerful use of medium in a short space).

Most potential to be awesome in a rerelease:

Transparent, a story of exploring a haunted mansion. The design has already loosened a bit (e.g. with a more generous inventory limit) since the version I played for review. I think it could use some additional design work to make sure that the player encounters the most interesting aspects of the game, but there’s a lot of potential and the author seems eager to keep improving.

Overall trends this year:

Testers. This is the first year since I instituted the no-beta-testers, no-review rule that I haven’t had to invoke it. Every single parser game that I could play on my computer listed at least one tester who was not the author, and I encountered comparatively few game-breaking bugs. There’s a tendency to wax nostalgic about past competitions, but the worst entries of past years could be unfinished, unplayable, time-wasting, and even intentionally trolling the judges to a degree that we rarely see in recent years.

Better blurbs. There was a trend towards more cover art and more interesting descriptions in the blurb area. This makes for a more fun play experience: I enjoy games more when I can schedule them when I’m in the right mood for a particular experience, and a good blurb helps build anticipation. Having covers and blurbs also makes the comp look more polished and better curated for outside observers.

In-depth criticism. There’s been good writing about comp content this year. Particular favorites so far: Jenni Polodna’s call for honesty and compassion in her critique of One Night Stand, which reads as off-handed and comedic but gets at something really important about writing; Sam Kabo Ashwell on the monstrous in Krypteia; Liz England’s discussion of pacing and aesthetics in Zest.

Variety. The content of this comp was all over the map, and I loved that. We had so many more different looks and feels for games than we’ve ever had before: parser games in several formats, yes, but also Twine with many different front ends, ChoiceScript, Dedalus, and some interesting hand-rolled web stuff, including Alethicorp’s website-as-game. I posted far more screenshots this year than I’ve done in past years.

While there’s lots of interesting experimentation going on, the majority of this experimentation is happening outside the parser space at the moment. My favorite parser games this comp were solid and entertaining applications of parsercraft, but they did not make me think “whoa, I haven’t seen that before.” Is this a problem? I don’t know; I suppose it depends on what your goals were. I tend to think both solid craftwork and fresh ideas are needed to keep a medium healthy. But I hasten to add that this comp is not the only venue for parser games this year. There was some good stuff in ShuffleComp, for instance; Hadean Lands is about to come out; then there’s Ryan Veeder’s just-released Dial C for Cupcakes which pulls a couple of cute tricks with narrative voice.

Exposition issues. Jesse Stavro’s Doorway and (to a lesser degree) Tea Ceremony required the player to spend a while at the beginning of the game looking up various topics in books; I think this struck me especially because of the IntroComp game Cuckold’s Egg that did the same thing. Book consultation isn’t a terrible mechanic, but it’s a pretty static way to start a game. When the game wants the player to start by reading a series of world-building encyclopedia articles, it puts me in mind of those fantasy novels in which, before you’re allowed to start in on the present-day action, you have to wade through a fifty-page prologue about how the god F’lorf warred at the dawn of time with the Demon Lady of the Fanged Lotus, and all the cults, magical artifacts, noble family trees, and sinister geographical features that resulted from this battle. Much better to fill in all of this information as needed when it actually comes up in the main story — or if it really is needed at the outset, to find some way to dramatize the key points in the present.

(To be clear, I really really like that the author has done this worldbuilding and that these details exist. I just want them presented differently.)

Related to this (and already the subject of a rant) were the several games that did some variant on the amnesiac-protagonist-in-ill-defined-setting opening, which feels like an attempt to avoid handling exposition at all.

There’s lots of extant craft to look at here for ideas: IF is great for environmental storytelling, viewpoint-rich narration that explains things from context, and events that trigger recollection. Check out, for instance, the opening of Varicella, which establishes protagonist personality, setting, goals, and key NPCs, within the space of a prologue and the responses to INVENTORY and X ME.

Commodity vs artwork; community and identity. Several of my top games this year in some way touched on the question of whether a game should be a commodity or an artwork; under what circumstances it’s possible to create new work; whether it should be produced to meet the desires of the creator, or of the viewer, or some communal standard; whether the purpose of the work is to forward the state of the art, or to satisfy a consumer, or to communicate something between the creator and the consumer, or even to help create or reinforce communal norms.

Those same issues have been playing out in the discussion about the Comp and the whole IF community as well: whether we choose to define ourselves as creators and/or readers and/or consumers of particular types of work, or whether there is some other definition of what we do and who we are that we would prefer to embrace. (Or set of definitions. In practice communities rarely have a single clear mission statement.)

I wrote the beginning of a long thing here about community and art and commodity, and the conflict of artists’ desires to grow and produce new kinds of things and express themselves (and/or to support themselves financially), versus players’ desire (at least some of the time) to have a steady, free, high quality supply of a game product that they enjoy. Even that is oversimplifying a lot, because a lot of players do want to experience novelties and experiments, and some authors want to make nostalgia pieces, and some players are willing to pay for what they get, and so on. It’s complicated! But I’m not sure the long meandering about it was helpful, even so.

So how about this resource list instead:

Ways of Being Involved in the IF Community and Supporting IF Creation:

You can still play, vote, and review for the IF Comp through mid-November. (I believe it might even still be permitted to donate prizes right up to the end, though you’d have to speak with the organizer about that directly.)

Here are some IF creators you can support via Patreon, Kickstarter, and similar services. (Some of them also do other things with their Patreons; read individual profiles for more information.)

Porpentine (Twine games)
Caelyn Sandel (Twine and other games)
Adri Kliger (primarily parser games)
Merritt Kopas (Twine games and game curation)
Anna Anthropy (Twine games as well as criticism and various other small pieces)
Jimmy Maher (comprehensive IF history posts on his blog Digital Antiquarian)
Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe’s Ice-Bound Kickstarter (experimental, augmented reality stuff)
Andrew Plotkin’s itch.io page: to donate, start one of the games, then scroll to the bottom where there is a “support this game” button.

There are also commercial IF houses — I’ve got a list of links in the sidebar of my main page — and buying, reviewing, and promoting those games also helps support the market. Choice of Games has a Steam curation page, for instance.

If you’re blogging IF reviews and critique — or for that matter anything of general community interest — here is Planet-IF: if you invite them to syndicate you, it will raise your community visibility. If you don’t have your own blog but you’d like to chip in the occasional longform review, Storycade is looking for contributors.

Another option is to give feedback on IFDB. Here are some recently released games on IFDB that don’t have any reviews on the site. If you want to support authors by volunteering to beta-test their games, this area of the interactive fiction forum often lists testing requests.

If you’d like to discuss IF craft and play experiences with others, the IF Discussion Club meets online. There are also a number of location-specific live IF meetups. Links to many more of those can be found in the sidebar, but I’m involved with the Oxford/London group, and PR-IF is extremely active in the Boston area. You might also enjoy the gathering of IF authors and players at the Wordplay festival in Toronto in November.

If you wish there were more parser games: you can make some! I know, that’s a very simple answer, but it’s worth putting on the table even so. All the usual tools are still around.

Otherwise: there’s been some discussion around a Parser Competition for I think early 2015, so promoting, testing, or judging for that might be one approach. Other approaches might be to commission particular authors, if they’re open to being commissioned; to put together specific prizes in this area; to volunteer coding help/support for authors who are not up to doing a full project themselves. (Though it’s worth bearing in mind that parser IF takes a long time to do well, so the commission strategy might prove very expensive.)

The other big issue here, at least for me, is making parser games more attractive and accessible. Making Vorple and Glulx play together, getting to the point where a parser game can look as sexy on the web as some of the more elegant Twine games, would be a big deal. Making the parsing aspect more newbie-friendly as well — that’s something I’ve been experimenting with for years without being satisfied with the result, and I am discouraged. But if there’s a breakthrough in this area I might revisit the point. One of the big disincentives for me to making more parser games, at least in the classic style, is the sense that the audience is necessarily limited. That’s not just a matter of better outreach: I’ve watched novices trying to play even very gentle, supportive parser IF and it is so freaking painful, I just want to apologize to them all the time.

Blue sky: I keep fantasizing about an IF label whose function would be to identify quality IF, provide finishing services such as editing, cover art and feelie creation, and graphic design as needed, and function as a quality seal on stuff. Ideally, it would also pay the author. The aim here would be to take nearly-great games to the point where they’re maximally polished and competitive, and encourage authors who have pretty good games to put in the extra work to improve them, while helping players find the good stuff. inky path looked like it was doing some of those things, but it’s now closed up again, possibly because this is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. So I don’t know whether it’s practical, but it’s a thing I think about frequently.

9 thoughts on “IF Comp 2014 Roundup”

  1. Thanks for this great roundup, Emily.

    And: Yes! The IFComp accepts prize donations for 2014 right up until voting closes on November 15. The current prize list (as well as more information about how prizes work) is on http://www.ifcomp.org/about/prizes, and I encourage anyone who wishes to add more prizes to the pool to contact me via the links found on that page.

  2. Thank you for your reviews (and all your contributions to this art). I regret I haven’t had as much time this year to participate, but I’ve been most impressed with those six or seven I have played. “Those we love alive” was an amazing experience. “Zest” defied my expectations in a positive way. “Jaqueline, Jungle Queen” was simple, campy fun with a primitive, yet functional parser. It could have been a popular Infocom game. I was just disappointed it didn’t have more graphic art, like the blurb drawing. “Fifteen Minutes” put me off early with a fatal bug during my first play, but I was impressed by the overall puzzle design, and your review encouraged me to go back and give it a second chance. I haven’t played “Hunger Daemon” long enough to vote on it yet, but just long enough to know that it is a quality piece I want to finish when I have more time.

  3. Funny, I was just commenting to a friend about the parser IF thing today. Reading your comments about the newbie-friendliness of parser IF (or lack thereof), I’m reminded of similar sentiments about the newbie-friendliness/viewer-friendliness of the competitive scene in a particular video game I also play. In both cases my personal experience didn’t involve any particular difficulties (at least, not in terms of technical problems or interest), so seeing the the general situation evaluated otherwise was surprising and puzzling.

    But it’s not all just me being an oddball upstart! I’ve successfully introduced a couple of young kids to parser IF before — tweensish at the time, adolescents now — to the point where one of them reached out to me afterward for more recommendations and resources, and even began to delve a little into IF history out of her own curiosity.

    Something I enjoy/appreciate/am in awe of about classic parser IF is that it combines so many skills, often in the hands of a single creator — game design, writing (both broad narrative-construction and the technical details of wordsmithing), puzzlecraft, coding ingenuity, etc. It’s certainly a bit intimidating to consider creating for, which might well be part of the reason there’s less of it now that there are more straightforward tools/media for literal interactive fiction. But the tantalization of writing parser IF is always in the back of my mind in a way that writing in more hypertext-fiction-y media isn’t, even when the only stories sparking my thoughts are ones better expressed by traditional linear writing.

  4. Sorry to hear you are discouraged about newbies to parser IF. I’m not sure whether you meant playing or writing. I had great success introducing my son to IF by playing it with him. He loved Lost Pig, and I was sad there were not more kid-friendly games of that quality to play with him. Some day we will tackle Trinity if I can figure out how to play those lost treasures of Infocom once more.

    We tried our hands at writing our own, too, but there comes a point where I say, “I don’t know how to do that” and I don’t have time to learn, either. I wish I did have more time to devote to it; I’ve had a little game rattling around in my head for years now. I have some thoughts (or I used to, the details might be too fuzzy now to be helpful) about what kinds of things would be helpful to me. I’d be glad to share if you are interested.

    1. I meant more “I have a hard time justifying writing more parser games given that they tend to be inaccessible to at least 90% of potential new players.” But if you have thoughts about what would be helpful, by all means mention them (the intfiction.org/forum may get you more of a discussion and more people listening than commenting on an old post on my blog, though).

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