IGF Narrative noms are out!

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 1.34.17 PM

The list of IGF nominees can be found here. That includes the games nominated in the narrative category, for which I was one of the jury members. I’m excited about this, and I also know that this is the point at which some people are sad, either that they didn’t place or that the IGF isn’t doing everything everyone would like from it.

I’m not sure this is possible to solve, and I do think the IGF is worth doing anyway. However, I also know that just telling people “oh, hey, if you weren’t nominated, that’s not necessarily a judgment on you!” isn’t as comforting as it could be.

Hence, this year I’m going to try to be as transparent as reasonably possible about my own judging process. (I have cleared this with the organization.) We are discouraged from discussing other people’s votes and reasoning: it should be pretty obvious why that is, I think, but in any case these conversations need to happen in confidence. I absolutely do not speak for the whole of the jury in what follows, and other people had other views. But I’m allowed to talk about my thinking.

So first, some general criteria. The things I am most looking for when participating in the IGF Narrative jury are:

Mechanics and story that work well together. Historically, I have tended to look for narrative award games to be making good use of the play between story and mechanics. I especially love it if a game manages to surprise me with a new way of telling its story via its rules or procedurally generated experience — Papers, Please was wonderfully coherent in this respect. But this isn’t the Nuovo Award, so the mechanic-story combination doesn’t have to be innovative, just effective.

I tend to be looking for more in this area than I might be in an all-IF competition. I’ve loved some IF games with very minimal agency and very simple mechanics, and I’ve seen even elements like pauses and click-to-advance choices used to good effect in telling a compelling story. But as a rule, those are less likely to be the kinds of things I think would be useful to showcase at IGF. This is more a question of curating for a particular audience than it is any kind of formalist judgment about What Is A Game.

Various structural considerations (“is this well paced? is there enough of a narrative arc?”) generally fall under this category as well, since they’re often dictated by mechanics.

Observant storytelling. It counts for a lot for me when the characters, settings, and systems are true and well observed in some aspect. Am I being shown something that goes beyond standard tropes? The observation can be about anything from how economic structures work to personal experiences with sexuality or religion, but I want to come away with something that feels real.

A well-researched setting like the luxury bachelor flat in Sunset would count towards observant storytelling; so would plausible dialogue, as found in The Writer Will Do Something.

This might not seem immediately obvious, but when a game includes significant amounts of prose, the quality of that prose often has a lot to do with the quality of the observations made therein.

Substance. Is there enough of a story there to be worth acknowledging in this way? Is the story complete? Is the story a major feature of the game? What about the content of the story?

It’s really, really hard for me to justify voting for a demo or chapter one in the narrative category: to my mind, a story with a bad ending is significantly defective, whereas a game can demonstrate (say) good audio within the first few minutes. I’m willing to put in time to achieve this, and in some cases I’ve gone to YouTube and wikia to fill in alternate outcomes or get me to content I was missing, but if there’s no way for me to see the ending at all, it’s harder for me to justify a vote. That is especially true if the story is about Mysterious Events As Yet Unexplained: lots of stories do set-up well, but that doesn’t guarantee a good followthrough.

Also, it’s harder for me to justify a nomination for ultra-short pieces in this category: if I do vote for something extremely short, it needs to be really solid in every respect and have something significant to say.

And I also tend to consider how big a component the story is of the total game experience. Sometimes games get recommended to the narrative jury because they’re excellent games in general and also happen to have peppy supporting writing. That’s great, and I’m glad to see good writing in any game – but when there are other pieces that invest more heavily in their story, I tend to prefer the latter.

Finally, what is it the author is trying to tell us? Is it a joke, is it a philosophical insight, is it a personal experience or a political statement or a collection of character sketches? All of those things have their place, so there’s not really one right answer there, and I’ve voted for things that would qualify in all of those categories at some time or another. However, if I can’t find a point to the exercise, or if that point seems extremely trivial or cliché, I’m less likely to want to vote for the game.

*

There are admittedly a few X-factors that come into tie-breaking. One has to do with the diversity of the slate I’m voting for overall – if I’m deciding between one game that is very like one I’m already voting for, and another game that is quite different, the quite different one is going to have a slight edge. This is one of those cases where the decision-making process involves concerns that are beyond the control of, and completely unpredictable by, individual authors. I generally use this consideration mainly as a tie-breaker, so that I’m not picking game X in place of game Y that I thought was better but too uniform with the rest of the list.

The other is the Jurist Subjectivity issue. If I enjoyed one game better than another, that is allowed to be a tie-breaker, if otherwise the games both meet a roughly equal subset of my criteria.

*

I want to take a moment to point out that, on the above criteria, “excellence in narrative” does not necessarily mean (though it could mean) good prose style, or a plausible story, or any other single qualifier. The category is hotly competed, but different games made it into my top six on very different bases.

If you’d like to know more specifics, here are my reviews for most of the games that got nominations or honorable mentions:

Nominees

The Beginner’s Guide (Everything Unlimited Ltd.)
Black Closet (Hanako Games)
That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games) (not released yet; discussion forthcoming when it is) (ETA: remarks now available here)
Her Story (Sam Barlow)
The Magic Circle (Question)

I haven’t reviewed UNDERTALE (Toby Fox), and don’t expect to do so. I respect the scale of the accomplishment. But whenever I fire this up (and I’ve given it multiple tries on various occasions, both before and during the jury period), I get along poorly with the actual gameplay. NB: I am not saying that it is bad, just that it is a struggle for me personally. This is why we have juries of more than one person. I spent a fair bit of time with UNDERTALE YouTube videos and wiki articles, but it is unlikely that I will play the majority of this game unaided.

Honorable Mentions

Orion Trail (Schell Games) (coverage forthcoming) (ETA: it’s here)
Cibele (Star Maid Games)
Contradiction (Tim Follin / Baggy Cat Ltd)
The Writer Will Do Something (Tom Bissell and Matthew S. Burns)

I am not doing a full post on Oxenfree (Night School Studio). I liked what I saw of it, but unfortunately I ran into technical difficulties early in gameplay that we weren’t able to resolve, so I only saw the first half hour or so. I look forward to trying a later version, though. It’s a visually beautiful piece of work. It interleaves character dialogue and exploration in a very fluid, natural way, so that you can be walking around and talking to your compatriots in a way that feels good. It even does a little light platforming in a way I consider narratively interesting – you are jumping and scrambling around an environment of hills and cliffs, because you’re a teenager exploring an island. It’s not even a little bit difficult, but it is textural, contributing to ambiance and characterization just as sitting in an armchair listening to an LP does in Sunset. In general I feel that my lifetime 2D platforming needs have already been met. In Oxenfree I not only enjoyed the running and jumping but actually felt like they were part of the story. Well done there.

And I also seriously considered voting for:

Read Only Memories (MidBoss) (review remarks forthcoming; available on Steam) (ETA: review here)
Sunset (Tale of Tales)

Then there’s Wheels of Aurelia. So many people I respect love this game, and I am so bad at it! I get anxious about driving my car while tracking the conversation, and the conversation itself comes out feeling disjointed. With me at the wheel, it has yet to produce the kind of experience I could quite vote for. But you should check what Meg Jayanth has to say about it.

*

So maybe at this point you’re thinking that my criteria are way off from yours, or that you disagree with my reads of specific games. But now at least you know that.

Obviously, transparency doesn’t resolve other issues here.

How do we realistically do discovery in a field like this? Is the process well designed to help surface unknown greats? I’m not sure it is, but I’m also not sure whether there’s a better solution given the other things IGF is also doing. At some point in the chain one is pretty much forced to rely on someone else’s opinions and recommendations – there were 774 entries this year. No one could have played them all. So a combination of prior experience and votes from the first round judges have to inform what the jury will prioritize playing, restricted platforms are likely to get fewer eyes in the first round, and so on. It is not perfect. It is still, I think, worth doing, which is why I’ve given such a lot of my December holiday to this project the last few years.

But it is not, and cannot be, as consistent as having every single game evaluated by one person, or by a small group of people with a tightly coordinated set of criteria. For that, I think, you need editors reading open submissions. (In the IF arena, see Sub-Q Magazine.)

How do we deal with gatekeeping? If we’re willing to say that the IGF can’t be all things to all people, then how do we accommodate the people not thus included? If the Seumas McNally Grand Prize is handing out big money (by indie standards especially) but that money is categorically inaccessible to some types of work or some types of creators, then that is worth at least thinking about. That’s not to say that we all have a moral obligation to support everything all the time (that would be vacuous). But we should consider whether there are some kinds of work that isn’t IGF-compatible, but that we still want to support, and think about what we can do for those.

I feel like this is an on-going, never-to-be-totally-resolved challenge also, because as soon as you come up with a way to recognize X, there will be a Y that is in some fashion valuable but that doesn’t fall into the same category.

This may sound counterintuitive, but I actually think a greater number of more exclusive competitions and prizes would also be useful, if the exclusivity is correctly defined: more ways to slice up the existing selection of games, more ways to surface excellence of different types, so that the stuff that is currently really popular doesn’t dominate all the awards. Within the IGF, the Nuovo and Student Awards do some of this, though they still don’t necessarily act as a prize for Best Game You Have Not Already Heard Of.

This also seems like a good time to mention Lost Levels as a place where you could speak and be at GDC even if your game isn’t on the showroom floor.

Finally, if you happen to be really interested in competition kremlinology through the example of interactive fiction competitions, I also have a post from last year that incorporates information from the organizers of dozens of competitions for parser and Twine IF, visual novels, and gamebooks. None of these are remotely on the scale of the IGF, either in number of entries nor in size of rewards; but that may make them the more relevant for people who are considering ways to honor and encourage niches of the indie game world that are currently unseen.

*

In any case, I also want to say that I enjoyed this process: the narrative jury played some excellent work, and had some great discussions about it. The games selected are all well worth a look, and so are a lot of games that we couldn’t or didn’t select. It’s worth bearing both of those things in mind.

14 thoughts on “IGF Narrative noms are out!

  1. Interesting. Thanks Emily. So. And I don’t want to be controversial here :) But I’m playing some of the games you’ve mentioned above. From a ‘narrative excellence’ perspective, they don’t seem to hold a candle to some of the both parser and choice/link based games I’ve played over the last year that don’t necessarily have images or sound. I’m thinking games like Hadean Lands, Creatures Such as We. Midnight Swordfight. Scarlet Sails. Birdland. Cape….and many others…The games you mentioned are good, don’t get me wrong. But it feels like IF is distinctly under-represented in the Narrative Excellence category. I, for example (and this is an enormously subjective opinion) find Summit a better narrative experience than many of the above.

    Is the lack of graphics/sound a distinct dividing line? Or does a game need a certain amount of commercial weight / name / cachet behind it in order to be considered?

    • The first hurdle is entry. Hadean Lands was entered last year; to the best of my knowledge, none of the others have been submitted. So one really simple answer to “why isn’t this included?” is “that wasn’t among our options.” Relatively little IF-community output is ever entered, and the text-based entries I listed above are mostly from outside the extant community.

      But you’re possibly also asking whether it’s worthwhile for authors of all-text IF to enter the IGF, and/or how to get attention for the narrative excellence of all-text IF.

      There we get into murkier water, and I have to be careful not to say things that reveal privileged information, either about internal jury deliberations or about where various games ranked in first round judging. So I’ll stick to two personal perspectives on this:

      1. My own personal views on some things you named. Some of these would run up against the “great piece, but probably not for this audience” issue for me, because of their mechanical simplicity. I can completely see counterarguments to my criterion here — for instance, that it’s a good idea to expose IGF audiences to content that is outside their normal range and that they might initially not be inclined to take seriously. But I think this has to be balanced a bit with a knowledge of where the existing community is.

      And this question of mismatched goals isn’t just about the IGF community; it’s also about the IF community. I personally think the mechanics/story blend issue is really important, even if there are good IF games that do lots of story and only a tiny amount of mechanics. If I have one gripe about where overall IF community trends are right now, it’s that mechanics are underplayed. I don’t mean specifically that there aren’t enough puzzles, and I don’t mean that no one is doing anything mechanically interesting, but the capacity of a well-wrought system to produce a particular emotional experience or narrative discovery? Less is being done in that zone right now.

      In the case of Hadean Lands specifically: I love it to bits, don’t get me wrong, and it does some genius design tricks. And you can’t say it doesn’t have systemic mechanics! But it does those things mostly in service of its puzzle challenges. It’s pretty story-light for interactive fiction. There’s a lot of setting and a lot of prose, but minimal characters, plot, or protagonist development (other than maybe in very abstract terms). And that is presented over perhaps 20+ hours of playtime. Also, don’t ask me to tell you exactly what happens at the end. I have theories, but that’s all I will ever have.

      So. It’s conceivable you and I are also looking for different things here. I think there are some beats that the nominated games achieve through their mechanics that would be hard to hit in other ways. That Dragon, Cancer and The Magic Circle used setting and gameplay in a way that gave me a visceral or emotional experience relevant to the story being told.

      2. What advice I would hypothetically give to someone who wanted to enter textual IF in the IGF, while not assuming that I would necessarily be the one who wound up judging their work:

      Gauge size and accessibility thoughtfully. A lot of IF community work is either over in five minutes or takes dedicated effort over some time to start to develop its story significantly. Something that is multiple hours long but delivers narrative punch early is probably going to have a better time attracting first-round judges who aren’t already acquainted with the field.

      Parser IF is probably going to be a tough sell; lots of people aren’t used to playing it, and it takes a certain comfort level to be able to start appreciating it and stop focusing on the interface specifically.

      Sound and graphics are not mandatory; as I said, TWWDS is straight Twine without much elaboration. However, visible polish probably helps establish credibility. Most parser IF games would fall flat on this. Browser-based choice games are more variable. Things like Device 6 and Lifeline demonstrate how a polished UI can make a huge difference to curbside appeal even without VO or standard illustrations.

      Along the same lines, if all you’ve got is prose, make the prose good. I know I said that prose quality wasn’t my sole criterion here, but if that’s the main thing you’re doing, I think it matters more.

      No, it will never hurt for people already to have heard of you. Yes, I realize that this is a Catch-22, that the best way to get people to talk about you is to make sure they have heard of you before, so you first need some other people to talk about you… No, I don’t have a solution to that, or I’d probably switch careers to marketing.

  2. Brian Bucklew didn’t enter of the lack of unknown greats problem (his tweet: “AND THE ACCOLADES FOR THINGS THAT GOT THE MOST ACCOLADES THIS YEAR GO TO…”) even though I think Sproggiwood would have a fair shot at the art category. I would also think Caves of Qud would be good for the narrative category, but I doubt enough of the judges are experienced enough with roguelikes to even play, plus there’s the problem of when narratives are purely procedural combination how do they get judged against one with pre-written parts? Would Parrigues: The Game even be thought of as narrative?

    • I can’t speak to Sproggiwood at all, and for that matter I haven’t played Caves of Qud either. I would say that procedural combination if it works well would not be disqualifying, in my view. I know we come from different places on this, but I consider procedurally authored narrative still to be authored narrative. I also don’t feel that the judging is so much about determining the qualities of the creator as the qualities of the result.

      • I know we come from different places on this, but I consider procedurally authored narrative still to be authored narrative.

        I don’t disagree here. Remember I’m the guy who released a work last week where the text was made almost entirely with random generators. If I had more time I wouldn’t have minded procedural generating text on the fly, but I doubted people were going to play more than once so it wasn’t worth it.

        But what would the judges think? I’m not sure “the system is sufficiently complicated that you’ll get emergent stories of a sort” would necessarily sell in that category. That’s my question, really.

      • “The system is sufficiently complicated that you’ll get emergent stories of a sort” does sound a bit weak for the category, to my mind; but I can only speak for myself, here. Black Closet has randomly shuffled case files, but they’re not emergent and the story wouldn’t be nearly as strong if there weren’t also a strong hand-authored arc.

  3. Pingback: 18th Independent Games Festival Award Nominations Out Now | @MezBreezeDesign

  4. Pingback: Interactive Film | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  5. Pingback: Mailbag: Studying IF and Narrative | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s