The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)
If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.
This is a little different from usual because I saw these games in beta: Sub Rosa and Laid Off From the Synesthesia Factory. So I’m not voting them scores, naturally, and the standard bias disclaimers apply.
Laid Off From the Synesthesia Factory does two things that really struck me.
One: it aggressively overturns the typical pacing of a parser game. It refuses to be a game full of default responses and “you can’t see that here” nullifications. It insists on moving forward, supplying new information at each turn. There is a stream of story here; your role as a player is perhaps to direct that stream into a new channel, at the most. In that way it very distantly resembles Conversations We Have In My Head, though both the interface and the content are wholly different.
Yet Laid Off is also not using most of the techniques I mention in my post on fast-paced parser games. Most of those involve a rapid stream of in-world action, NPCs moving around and events happening fast. Laid Off is instead continuously narrated, even though not that much new is happening at the time. And this entirely sets on its head a lot of our expectations about how narration should work in a parser game, creating a forward trajectory of story no matter what. (See also some discussion about how time works in different IF formats here.) We talk sometimes about choice-based games that have parser-style world models; it’s rarer to think of or talk about a parser game that has a narrative, nodal model like a choice game. And maybe even that isn’t quite the right way to describe this piece; but it’s as close as I can come without seeing the code.
Two: the narrative voice. Insightful, funny, deeply bitter. Here is a person who knows that the world is stacked against her for all sorts of stupid reasons. Her attitude about this is far sharper than what one finds in the average my-crappy-apartment game, though.
Whether the final version gives the player enough material to understand the story fully, or enough sense of control to be satisfying, I don’t know for certain. After the beta it is hard to see the finished version with an unbiased perspective, and it’s especially hard to come to it from a position of ignorance. But I thought it was striking in either case, and I’m interested in the formal experiment it’s making.
Sub Rosa is in some senses a very traditional puzzle game, complete with codes and locked doors and research puzzles and other similar goodies; then there’s a stealth layer about removing the evidence of your passage through the game world after you’ve been. I’ve seen that idea in one or two places before, but generally not executed very well. The stealth puzzles in Sub Rosa were actually some of the easiest in the game, for me — but their solutions were also rather fun. That meant that I worked hard to get through the bulk of the exploration, and then made a fast, enjoyable sweep at the endgame.
Though the puzzles may be built on (fairly) standard lines, the fiction layer posits a world that is nothing like ours. It is different socially, it has different philosophies, it has different physics and different botany and different geology. And the more one pulls at these strands, the more the carpet of expectation unravels. Who says the world is spherical? Or that the protagonist is human?
The philosophical playfulness of the piece reminded me a bit of the first Joey Jones collaboration I played, Chinese Room. I particularly liked a certain kitchen appliance that seems to correlate to a kitchen appliance in our world, but which in practice is wholly, utterly different.
The puzzles gradually ramp up how much you’re supposed to understand about this other world. At first the references to certain heretical sects and social groups feel like color (and rather startling color at that). Later, more and more details come together, and you need to demonstrate a little more active comprehension of what these groups might be up to. Finally, there’s a rated-success endgame where you get different outcomes depending on how completely you accomplished certain tasks, and the semi-failures make an interesting read.