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:
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.
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:
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.