IF Comp 2016 Roundup

Most of my IF Comp reactions have turned up at at Rock Paper Shotgun, or will do so soon; a few others have appeared in essay form on this site.

I didn’t cover all fifty-eight games. However, I did play at least some of every game, and I have some thoughts and recommendations about the comp as a whole, as well as a players’ guide to some of the common tropes and interest points.

There are no real spoilers below, but if you want to avoid any knowledge about the games before playing them, you may want to skip this discussion until later.

My Personal Favorites

Most years by this point in the competition I feel pretty confident I know what’s going to win, and have a sense of the likely top five or so beyond that. This year, that feels much more ambiguous. There’s such a variety of content this time around that it feels especially difficult to work out what the likely winners are. But here were some pieces that I personally liked:

cactusblueCactus Blue Motel. I’ve liked several of Dalmady’s past games for their sense of wonder and magic overlaid on the workaday world. Tangaroa Deep improved on those qualities with interesting visual styling and a greater sense of suspense. Cactus Blue Motel keeps all of those strengths and adds deeper characters, more nuanced interpersonal stakes, better pacing, and more of a narrative arc. I kept thinking back to this game over the course of the competition, and it’s probably the piece I’ve recommended most often to other people. Its neon-fantasy imagery stuck with me.

Detectiveland. I love Robin Johnson’s interface ingenuity here. This was a lighter and sillier piece than some of my other favorites and it didn’t haunt me as much, but I got a lot of pleasure out of playing it and enjoyed the polish level. It’s not really attempting deep characterization, but it fits in well with Johnson’s other tropey, light-puzzle comedy: see also Draculaland and The Xylophoniad. I hope we see further work using this engine.

Take. Great prose style, strong interaction arc. It’s not the easiest piece to grasp, but once I felt like I had a handle on it, it really resonated for me. I’ve written a bunch more about why.

bear_dadIf there’s a runner up in the category “painful social observations wrapped in fiction and metaphor,” it is Screw You, Bear Dad, for depicting how parental love is complicated by a surrounding culture of bigotry and prejudice. More thoughts about that are forthcoming, but don’t let the barrage of puns and large-mammal antics fool you; there’s a core of real, non-silly feeling in this piece, and it featured one of my favorite reflective choices of the Comp.

Stone Harbor. I played this the very first day of the comp and enjoyed the characters and the sympathetic portrayal of inanimate objects. It stuck with me as a favorite throughout. The really attractive layout doesn’t hurt either.

Fair. Just as I think Cactus Blue Motel is my favorite of Dalmady’s work to date, Fair is probably my favorite from Ondricek. Like a lot of his previous pieces, it offers procedural complexity, multiple endings, and freedom to define one’s own goals. It’s also well-scoped and clued for the competition.

Then there’s the thematic focus, captured in the title: this is both about a science fair, and a meditation on fairness in general. How do we assess things, and which criteria are right to use? The quality of a project? The motives of its maker? The community impact of a work? The ultimate outcome if a given piece succeeds or fails? The more time I spent with the game exploring its different possible outcomes, the more different ways the game justified or undercut the idea of supporting particular fair winners.

500 Apocalypses and 16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds are also really competent and cool at doing the things that they are doing.

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Gameplay styles

Restricted parser games have been making headway lately, and the trend continued here. Take and Mirror and Queen use the technique for telling a story where the player drives topic and focus. I’ve written about Take elsewhere. Mirror and Queen feels more static — one scene instead of three, no forward motion of the plot, just a literal and figurative reflection. Still, the room for player free-association is interesting.

Inside the Facility uses restricted parser for a streamlined, focused puzzle game. And How to Win at Rock Paper Scissors is not quite a restricted-parser game — a range of different verbs work — but in practice the necessary verb set is well-constrained and the puzzle system quite focused.

We also saw quite a few choice-based games that offer more of a world model than straight hypertext, in a range of ways. Puzzly Twine games put in a strong appearance: games that offer enough of a core gameplay cycle, or space-and-inventory model, that the player can anticipate, plan, and solve puzzles. This Comp brings us several fine examples with 16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds, Cactus Blue Motel, The Shoe Dept., and Tentaculon.

Texture had a good showing for such a relatively new platform, with both The Queen’s Menagerie and Black Rock City. I know not everyone is keen on dragging verbs as an interaction mechanic, but I like it: that added moment of decision about how to connect actions with underlying text makes me feel engaged in a way that hypertext does not always deliver.

And as mentioned above, Robin Johnson built on the success of his previous choice-based world model system with Detectiveland. The game has locations and a complex inventory, but allows the player to interact entirely through a button-based interface.

On the classic parser front, Hill Ridge Lost and FoundPogomon Go!, Color the Truth, Darkiss 2, and Fair are inventive, well-tested, fully-fleshed pieces. I also enjoyed the setting and premise of Steam and Sacrilege, though I struggled with interaction and gave up before finishing; I think a version with more QA could be terrific. Night House was pleasingly atmospheric as far as I played, though the website timed me out unexpectedly and I wasn’t able to complete it as a result.

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Self-presentation

The cover art and blurbs were pretty sweet this year; likewise, there were a lot of games where the author had really put some thought into how to make gameplay look and sound good. I ran into more music and sound effects, more interesting typography and illustration.

From a totally selfish perspective, this is great: when I’m writing IF coverage for Rock Paper Shotgun or other venues, it’s a help to be able to show some material with curb appeal, and have some variety in the screenshots and covers.

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Quality considerations

I did feel that a few of the parser pieces were attempting cool things but didn’t have the testing love that would have made them really shine. I’m wondering whether this is an area where the community has become less good at providing the necessary support than it used to be in years past. Alternatively, maybe it’s that we have adopted some useful practices, such as competitions with a built-in beta phase for authors to beta-test each other’s work before release, but those practices haven’t trickled into IF Comp itself. I’m not sure about solutions to this one, but I have heard from a few authors that they wanted to beta-test and had a hard time attracting enough testers, and that’s unfortunate. (Even though I understand what a challenge it is to make time for this sort of thing!)

Second point: this year brought quite a few pieces with substantial amounts of prose, significant chunks of dialogue, and complex plots. The average level of writing ambition has, I think, gone up over the years. I found comparatively few pieces undercut by poor spelling, bad grammar, its/it’s errors, and other similar problems that were the bane of IF Comp years ago.

The translation quality on the translated Italian IF was also improved over last year, in my opinion. (And I’m pleased that the Comp’s new openness to translations has continued to produce new submissions that give us a window into other IF cultures and traditions.) This is all very good!

The flip side is that I’m seeing more of what I consider intermediate-level writing problems: action-packed plots enacted by dry characters who speak on-the-nose dialogue; themes developed entirely by having NPCs discuss them at length, rather than through action or change; pieces that massively front-load exposition and ask the player to read a heap of backstory documents or manuals in order to get rolling. “NPCs discuss at length” is not necessarily inherently terrible, but keeping it interesting requires artistry, and it’s often easier if the story puts some stakes on those themes and connects them with action.

The good news (possibly) is that these are challenges that aren’t unique to interactive fiction, and the world contains a large supply of conventional writing advice that might be useful here.

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Tropes and Genres

Recent years have seen IF Comp content that covers a lot of different genres, styles, and intentions, and that continued in 2016. Not much by way of (non-doomed) romance, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit more historical (I’m always a sucker for historical IF), but there was quite a lot going on. Toolsets and presentation styles were similarly diverse, with some really nice applications of sound, illustration, custom styling, and more.

If you like…

Superheroes: Take Over the World is a short, branchy superhero/supervillain story of the goofy/light variety. Not Another Hero is a ChoiceScript piece from a much more serious perspective, one that pursues the question of prejudice against and containment of superpowered people from the perspective of a normal human.

Science fiction: A Time of Tungsten has one protagonist exploring an alien planet while other characters observe and comment. Aether Apeiron takes place in a world where space travel is possible but a good deal of ancient Greek culture carries over. (I got stuck before the end of this one, so it’s possible I haven’t understood the premise as deeply as intended.) Quest for the Traitor Saint involves contact with another culture. Eight Characters, a Number, and a Happy Ending is a story of spacefaring and interplanetary politics.

Moonland arguably belongs as science fiction as well, though it may take a little time to establish exactly what is going on and why.

Science fiction/speculative societies: Yes, my mother is… concerns a future society with some different identity movements; most of the play consists of conversations about various aspects of this society. 500 Apocalypses is a collection of vignettes (many of them sad) from many imagined worlds.

Science fiction/god games: The Little Lifeform that Could is a Spore-esque story where you start from a single-celled organism and work your way up to space-faring. Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT has you manipulating the evolution of an entirely other culture.

Science fiction/adventure: The God Device imagines an object that can make others believe the user is divine, but the bones of the plot are about exploration, fighting, and combat than about the science fictional content per se.

Science fiction/horrorTentaculon is a bit — perhaps more than a bit — reminiscent of Samantha Vick’s The Axolotl Project, complete with not-entirely-wise mad science and a partially locked research facility to explore.

Fantasy/D&D: Skull Embroidery is a combat-and-looting scenario with wizards and giant bugs to battle with. I died several times. Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat does comedy names and faux-medieval combat. You are standing in a cave… is a cave exploration that owes a lot to past IF, while Labyrinth of Loci is a dungeon crawl piece in Unity, with art and music. (It’s not the first IF Comp game in Unity, but there haven’t been a huge number of others.)

Fantasy/myth or fairy tale: Mirror and Queen is a kind of reflective retelling of (part of) Snow White; To the Wolves and The Queen’s Menagerie both take place in what feels like a fairy tale kind of universe. Ariadne in Aeaea is based on Greek mythology and Minoan religion, with a comic twist and a fair amount of swearing.

I’m not sure I could swear to what level of reality is in play in Snake’s Game, but it possibly belongs in this category as well.

Fantasy/Americana: Cactus Blue Motel takes the tropes of southwestern US roadtrip and joins them to a fantasy dreamland. Hill Ridge Lost and Found is set on a not-quite-real-world farm.

Steampunk: Stuff and Nonsense is set in Victorian steampunk Australia; Steam and Sacrilege pits you against the Automated Hotel.

Horror: Night House wakes you up at home, but with your family gone, and a distinctly sinister impression about the house. Sigil Reader (Field) allows you to explore what went wrong in a police station designed to protect against supernatural threats. Evermore is an Edgar Allen Poe medley piece.

Horror/vampires: 16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds, Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire.

Horror/zombiesThe Skyscraper and the Scar or Zigamus: Zombies at Vigamus. (Just being able to pronounce the title of that game is evidence that you are not a zombie yet.)

Mystery: Stone Harbor tells the story of a psychic brought in on a police investigation; Detectiveland riffs on classic noir, but is mostly comedic in intention; Color the Truth is an investigation involving four possible suspects that lets you revisit different viewpoints.

TravelBlack Rock City generates small vignettes of visiting Burning Man. Some passages are a bit surreal, in a way that has led some reviewers to suggest this is meant as fantasy; I read it more as describing the surprising art and altered mind-states one might encounter at the festival. Ventilator, rather less seriously, puts the player in an excruciatingly hot hotel room near the Rio Grande and allows you to find a number of ways to die.

Satire: The Shoe Dept riffs on retail life and corporate behavior, with a touch of horror as well. TAKE is about hot takes and dating mores. Pogomon Go! riffs on a certain popular game and also on what life is like inside a tech company. Theatre People takes on life back-stage. Fair riffs on US politics and popular science knowledge through a story about judging a small-town school science fair. Manlandia is a gender-flipped version of Herland.

Memoir/real world relationshipsAll I Do Is Dream captures the crushing apathy of depression; Ash describes the death of a parent. The Mouse tells a story of an abusive living situation. This is My First Memory of Heartbreak, Which I Can’t Quite Piece Back Together tells the story of a relationship that goes awry for complicated reasons. Letters concerns a friendship with a person who has since died of cancer. Rite of Passage is about middle-school age bullying and social nastiness, some of it very unpleasant indeed.

Riot is about working as a police officer at a really difficult time, though it feels more drawn from imagination (to me) than many of the other stories in this category.

Cinnamon Tea tells three loosely linked stories, one of them a holocaust tale.

Poetry: Fallen 落葉 Leaves is an interactive procedural poetry generator; I’ve written a bunch more about how it works, and the author has also come back with some further clarifications.

Surreal: Slicker City is set in a place that resembles no known reality. Toiletworld is an unserious entry entirely about poorly implemented toilets. SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD is also pretty strange, at least at the literal level.

How to Win at Rock Paper Scissors is a tidily implemented puzzle game in which the gestures of Rock Paper Scissors invoke supernatural powers. Inside the Facility also sets its puzzle in a stripped-down world.

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Other standout interaction styles

If you want to really sink your teeth into a crosswordy challenge and spend a couple of hours taking notes alongside your gameplay, Inside the Facility is the one for you. All you can do is move in the cardinal directions or wait, but the DiBianca found an impressive assortment of ways to make use of those simple possibilities. There’s not a huge amount going on at a narrative level, but the setting has just enough personality to provide color to what is mostly a sprawling multipart logic and sequence puzzle. I didn’t manage to solve all 130 rooms in the 2 hours of competition judging time, but I did get well past the minimum 65 required to claim a basic win — and I had a good time doing it. I think some of the later puzzles are not just more difficult but less fair than the early ones, but your mileage may vary.

If you want something trance-like where you sit back, zone a little bit, listen to the music, and participate in a leisurely way, try Moonland. It does a lot with timed text, and sometimes you can’t take any action until the next link becomes available; but I found that if I relaxed and let myself primarily experience the music and related emotional spaces, I found it much more effective. There is a story here, but a lot of what it has to offer is mood.

If you like a readerly experience with a focus on prose, theme, or narrative presentation: 500 Apocalypses offers hundreds of thematically cross-linked vignettes, reminiscent of literary hypertext as much as conventional IF. The Queen’s Menagerie is very focused on the word-by-word experiment, while Fallen Leaves generates dynamic poetry around the reader’s contribution. (Your possible contribution here is in fact very limited, so far as I can tell, but that is perhaps also part of the point.)

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Other Reviews

Lots of people have written lots of reviews this year, which is terrific and fun to follow. A full spreadsheet of reviews and games can be found here, but I especially recommend

Jenni Polodna on Toiletworld

Cat Manning’s review of SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD, which contains the word beardungsroman

Lynnea Glasser’s Twitch stream.