It might seem a little late in the calendar year to do a half-year roundup of interactive fiction, but in fact the end of September is typically the turning point of the year: after summer is over but just before the release of the annual IF Comp games.
First, a general Don’t Miss category. This is personal and doubtless incomplete, but:
Best of. On IFDB, stalwart reviewer MathBrush has a list of 2015’s best IF releases so far. It’s a very good list, with a variety of parser and choice-based IF to look at. I might also add Caelyn Sandel’s Bloom series, Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie’s Neon Haze, and Vajra Chandrasekera’s Snake Game.
Other standouts for me have been Her Story (my review, followup thoughts), Lifeline, Sunset, Below, and Arcadia. Some of these I enjoyed, some I thought were interesting, and some seemed likely to have a strong impact on future work (and I’ve unpacked some of that later in this post). They’re all worth knowing about.
And this is a little outside the standard IF fold, but I enjoyed the FMV graphical adventure Contradiction a lot more than I expected to.
An undercelebrated resource in walkthroughs: David Welbourn has been building a steady supply of high-quality parser IF walkthroughs, supported by his Patreon. When I say “high-quality”, I mean that they’re divided into sections for easier use, provide maps and commentary, and frequently include discussion of how you’re meant to figure out a particular puzzle. Often David will go out of his way to document interesting side aspects of the game in question. These walkthroughs make games accessible that might have been too hard to get through or demanded too big a time commitment before, and they provide a useful resource for people writing up games later (whether in an academic context or not). It’s often fun to read through after you’ve finished a game and find out what you missed.
Here are his walkthroughs for a few games that I remember enjoying but thought were a bit overlooked by the community at large (sometimes because they were challenging): Muggle Studies, Adventurer’s Consumer Guide, Katana. Or perhaps you’ll like Firebird, which did make a bit of a splash in 1998 when it came out, but doesn’t get a lot of discussion now. And style points for providing a walkthrough of Everything We Do Is Games.
Digital Antiquarian. Jimmy Maher’s blog about the history of interactive fiction (and related games) through the 1980s is consistently compelling. He approaches the work from many angles — the history of the companies and individuals writing the software, the state of the industry, the themes and design of the games themselves. Superb. I occasionally call out links in my link roundups each month, but every post is worth reading.
Sub-Q Magazine. I am so excited about this that I go around annoyingly telling people about it at the drop of a hat — which is also why I’ve used a screenshot of Sub-Q’s current lineup at the top of this post. Sub-Q is an online magazine for interactive fiction. It pays authors, which gets into another 2015 trend that I’ll talk about in a minute, but what excites me even more is the editorial discipline and mission of the site. The first two months of Sub-Q have featured well-chosen reprints, new work from established and rising IF authors, and interactive pieces solicited from speculative fiction authors who haven’t previously worked in IF. Moreover, that work comes from all over the world and represents a variety of cultural perspectives. The currently running story is a wonderfully vivid piece of Nigerian fantasy. This doesn’t happen by accident, but only as a result of dedicated editorial work.
New works come out with cover art and blurbs. The site runs author interviews and tool coverage as well, in between stories. It is great, seriously, filling an important unfilled space in this field. As recently as my 2014 retrospective post, people were speculating about whether something like this would even be possible. I will be really really sad if it winds up having to shut down due to lack of subscription. If I were an eccentric IF-loving billionaire, one of my first moves would be to make sure Sub-Q was fully funded.
After the fold, more thoughts on specific trends and developments.
New models of IF, or the growth of old ones.
Series IF. This year so far has seen Feu de Joie (Twine, Alan DeNiro), Bloom (Twine, Caelyn Sandel), and 18 Rooms to Home (Inform, Carolyn VanEseltine), all coming out as episodes. There have been a few past essays into series IF before, but it has been a relatively rare thing until recently. And typically “series IF” in the past has meant “two or three parts released gradually over the course of years, each relatively standalone” — not “serialized with a new chunk of story monthly”. The relative ease of finishing a Twine game may be largely responsible for this — though 18 Rooms to Home is parser work, so that’s not the whole explanation. Patreon may also be involved.
Dynamic fiction, or “dynfic”. This is the term Caelyn has been using to describe Bloom, but it could reasonably apply to a lot of other work as well: interactive fiction that is very linear but uses its interactivity to communicate some essential experience to the player.
Dynfic often relies on UI effects to communicate subjective experience, and that’s something else we’ve been seeing a lot more of recently. The idea, and a few isolated examples, have been around for a long time — here’s Mordechai Buckman talking about related ideas at GDC 2013. But we’re now getting a lot more of it — in large part thanks to Twine and other tools that allow for heavy UI modification. Caelyn’s previous work Cis Gaze has changes in typography to communicate intrusive thoughts. The Urge puts up urgent links to suggest the protagonist’s impulse to kill.
Database IF. Sam Barlow’s Her Story has made an enormous splash in the indie games scene with a narrative you can explore by typing keywords. There’s a lot else going on in this game, from the full-motion video aspects to the question of how (and whether) it’s portraying mental illness. But I will be very surprised if we don’t wind up seeing more IF that turns on piecing together a story from database keywords (and unsurprised if authors find this is not as easy as it might look — I have the sense Sam put a lot of time into writing and balancing the content in Her Story before shooting).
I think this actually goes with the database IF concept above — and it’s making me speculate about other possibilities in this space. What about anecdote-length portions of fiction combined with visualization tools that allowed the player to dynamically revisualize the structure of the text, based on a wide range of different criteria?
Lifeline-model IF. I marked Lifeline, above, as one of this year’s things-not-to-miss in this space, and that’s as much for its likely impact as for the story itself. Lifeline has you directing a protagonist who is not yourself; all the content takes the form of dialogue, and there are real-time delays when the protagonist is busy. None of the individual things the game does are new, really, but the combination works well and the game has been very successful. So inevitably there are imitators — which is not a bad thing! a good structure is worth exploring further. I’m in the middle of playing Lifeline 2 for review right now, in fact.
The Return of FMV. This is outside the range of what some people would consider interactive fiction, but it certainly falls into the general interactive storytelling category: I’m seeing more work that includes live-action video as part of a serious storytelling project, as well as the return of some old work, remastered for iOS. Not all of this is great — some is actively bad — but I am seeing and hearing more about interactive film than I did a few years back.
Procedural generation. People are doing some cool experiments with blending procedurally generated text into their interactive fiction: the procedurally generated poetry in House of Many Doors, the dialogue in Interruption Junction. Keep an eye open for Mike Cook’s ProcJam coming in November: an opportunity to write some procedurally generated games, with helpful resources and talks provided at the beginning of the jam. It’s not IF-only but IF is welcome and supported there.
Multiplayer IF (if less than I had hoped by now). There’s been some speculation and discussion around multiplayer IF, and I wrote the multiplayer Aspel for Spring Thing using Seltani. Seltani’s going to be showed at Indiecade, which is very cool. I was hoping to have done a couple more experiments in this space by now. I still think it is interesting space to explore.
Wait, which community? This is kind of a weird thing even to attempt to write up, because the IF diaspora means that the conversation is now happening in many many different places at once: on intfiction.org and its breakaway board intfic.com, on Twitter, on the Twinery forum, on the forums for Choice of Games and Failbetter Games, on ifMUD and the blogs aggregated by Planet-IF, and probably also a load of other places I’m not even aware of. (If you have a blog that you’d like more IF fans to read, getting it aggregated on Planet-IF remains a great way to go. Now, right before IF Comp, is a good time to do that, too.)
So the things I note here are at best a discussion of what I’ve noticed, which is by no means comprehensive.
More open developer blogging. The Choice of Games forums have people swapping WIPs for comment; elsewhere in the IF world, more people seem to be comfortable writing about their in-progress experiments. A stand-out in that line is Carolyn VanEseltine’s blog, which is chock full of what-to-do and what-not-to-do-that-I-learned-the-hard-way tips. Carolyn uses a range of tools, including Twine, Inform, and ChoiceScript, and some of her advice is about project management or general game design instead. I especially endorse the message of Recognizing Fun Through Elevator Pitches.
Postmortems. Lately it’s become more common on intfiction for authors to write up a post or article about their work — sometimes a classic making-of article, sometimes something closer to an author’s statement. I’m in favor of this, both because it’s useful to collect craft information and because an author’s note often provides the hook that I was otherwise missing. Speaking of which:
Discoverability challenges. In general, non-commercial interactive fiction is often under-advertised, released with the most minimal of notes. Someone will publish a game on Philome.la or post a link on IFDB and say basically nothing else about it. Or they’ll put a note on the intfiction forum announcing a release, but with very little information.
That’s completely fine if you want to do a low-key stealth release of something that you didn’t invest much time in, or you’ve written a personal piece you want to mostly share with friends, or for some other reason you’re not really ready for a lot of spotlight. But if you want a lot of people to play your game, please please do something more than this. Run teasers for your game; write blurbs about it; talk about it multiple times in multiple places. Tell people why they might be interested in your game. This is vital.
I really liked Chandler Groover’s Hunting Unicorn, but I only realized it existed when the author posted a somewhat sad making-of piece about his intentions and how it hadn’t gotten much play.
One of the ways to help with this if you are not an author is to point people towards the stuff that you’ve stumbled upon and liked — by writing an IFDB review, by blogging or tweeting about it, etc. And I rather like this IFDB poll, which invites authors to suggest their most-recommended of their own work. I’ve discovered some neat things there.
Funding and commercial visibility models.
itch.io self-publishing. There’s a lot of IF on itch.io on a pay-what-you-want or at small cost. Much of Anna Anthropy’s work can be found there, as can various pieces by Squinky. This is a way of selling work that has a very low barrier to entry, allows purchasers to pay over the odds if they want to give extra support to the author, and pairs well with Patreon: creators can build content for their patrons and deliver it to them for free, then put the same games on itch.io for further distribution and (hopefully) income. Speaking of which:
Patreon. As last year, a number of IF authors — and commenters on IF — use Patreon to support their endeavors. (Here are the ones I know about and currently support.) Because Patreon is a good funding model for small, regular releases rather than large projects, this may be partly responsible for the increase in serialized IF mentioned earlier.
Kickstarted IF. IF has been turning up on Kickstarter for a while now, with Hadean Lands as a major contender. 2015 has seen a various smaller Kickstarter IF projects that made or look likely to make their goals, including The Frankenstein Wars from Cubus Games, A House of Many Doors from PixelTrickery, [Top Secret] by James Long. The Century Beast is not conventional IF, but its form of storytelling through physical objects intrigued me a lot.
Commissioned IF. Both Sub-Q Magazine and the Interactive Fiction Fund now buy a certain number of IF games per month. I’ve already talked about why Sub-Q is great, but IFF is doing good work too (here’s a post I did at the beginning of June about the games they’d funded so far). Games created for IFF go to IFF’s patrons for free, but the author may then go on to distribute them in other ways. And, of course, Choice of Games continues strong publishing commissioned long-form ChoiceScript IF.
As a subset of that, there’s also grant-funded public service IF. This may sound like it’s going to be preachy or dull, but in practice the results can be really interesting — sometimes demonstrating real artistic merit as well as serving some social aim. From this year or late last year, Hana Feels, Choice: Texas, The Spare Set all come to mind on this front; and there’s also Dissonance, an educational CBC piece about the lives of modernist composers.
SFWA-qualifying markets. Choice of Games is now an SFWA-qualifying market, which means that if you publish a piece of speculative fiction through them, you have one of the publications needed to qualify for membership in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Sub-Q Magazine has mentioned hoping to become such a market as well. And Strange Horizons already is an SFWA-qualifying market that is notionally open to hypertext stories, though I’m not sure I’ve seen any there. (But some one of you could change that…)
Why does this matter? For one thing, it makes CoG (and maybe Sub-Q as well) career-building paths for people who are also interested in conventional publishing and authorship, and it builds bridges between IF and genre markets.
IF on Steam and various app stores. Choice of Games has done especially well at getting a number of their titles on Steam, but they’re not the only company bringing interactive fiction and text games there. If you want to keep your eye on this, CoG runs a Steam curation page which includes other Steam IF as well as their own content.
Edited to add, per the comments section: this year also saw the recovery of Wander, a 1974 release that has a fair claim to being a text adventure even before Crowther and Woods’ Adventure. (In addition to that link, you may also be interested in this documentation on how Wander was restored to playable condition, and indeed the rest of that blog contains some other interesting discoveries.)