Traditionally I try to do some kind of year-in-review post about trends in IF for the year. There’s always the risk that I’ll be leaving out a lot when I do this. That’s especially true this year, when I’ve had an especially demanding work and travel schedule, and haven’t played nearly all the games I should have played.
But with apologies for many omissions, here are a couple of items I noticed.
There’s a small genre emerging of games with a barebones front end, highly systemic choices and often a fair amount of randomness, culminating in bunch of different possible outcomes. The amount of story proper varies quite a bit.
This is distinct from, e.g., the genre of Choice of Games, because CoG uses stats heavily but each actual choice is specific to that narrative moment. This stats-y genre, by contrast, tends to present systematic options as well: explore more? refuel? go on to another planet?
The best of these appeal to me because they highlight the narrative consequence of procedural systems, often rigorously supplying a wide range of outcomes. Even when randomization means the player has only moderate control over how the story comes out (and thus perhaps not a load of agency), there is a very tight fit between story and mechanic. I happen to enjoy that as an aesthetic effect.
Seedship (John Ayliff) is possibly my favorite of these, offering loads of possible outcomes for the protagonist’s colonization efforts.
This year also saw the IF Comp entries The Unofficial Sea-Monkey Simulation (a melancholy reflection on life in a dysfunctional home where the only thing you can affect is your sea monkeys’ care and feeding) and Transient Skies (another space exploration game, this one interspersed with bits of character-defining flashback). Neither of these is as tightly designed a system as Seedship — I couldn’t work out how to get all the endings in Sea-Monkey Simulation, and sometimes the results felt not just random but arbitrary — but when they were at their best, they gave a little of the same effect.
Along similar lines, Insignificant Little Vermin is an attempt to render stats-based combat in procedural text. Again, there are design issues that meant (for me) this didn’t work as well as it might have done — in particular, it was hard for me to tell when making a combat choice what the tactical implications would be. (Contrast Kerkerkruip, one of the few parser IF combat games that I find successful in that arena.) But Insignificant Little Vermin is a serious attempt to do complex state and then render it precisely in text for the player.
And one might also consider the parser piece Enlightened Master a relative of this genre — a game about pinball, where an NPC comments on your plays. (Perhaps a bit of a call back to Textfire Golf here.)
These approaches offer an alternative to puzzles as a way of gating and delivering interactive fiction. Not that puzzle games don’t continue to exist, as seen in…
Story-Light Puzzle Games
This is not a novelty of 2017, but at this point, several authors have established themselves as creators of brain-teasers with light or no story elements. Andrew Schultz has done a number of these, often but not always focused on wordplay of some form. Arthur DiBianca has produced several as well. In each case, there may be a bit of narrative framework, but the story connection is much lighter than in a lot of traditional parser IF. This year brought us new entries from each.
Several 2017 games played with the UI possibilities of hypertext, offering new ways of laying out the text, presenting hierarchies of choices, or making significant use of their multimedia features.
Will Not Let Me Go (Stephen Granade) is a compelling use of hypertext to capture the cognitive pauses, confusion, and narrative patching of a man with dementia. At one point, the player is also offered the opportunity to navigate a physical space that does not stay consistent as one might expect. While many of these techniques are familiar from older Twine work, Granade applies them in support of a very specific mental experience, to powerful effect. (I wrote about this more for Rock Paper Shotgun.)
Mama Possum (Kevin Snow et al) places a Twine-style experience within the cockpit of a giant mech. Sometimes the player can interact with text, sometimes with the mech’s controls — a front end that hints at the difference between interiority and exteriority, mental and physical action.
After the Giant’s War (Emily McCosh) is a Sub-Q piece supported with music effects and artwork. The soundtrack is a key feature of this piece, without which it really wouldn’t feel the same. Not Quite a Sunset (Kyle Rowan) goes even further: this is “a hypertext opera”, and it’s not kidding about the operatic aspects. (I wrote about this more earlier this year.)
10pm (litrouke) meanwhile allows the player to compose choices out of a palette of elements — though executed in Twine, this feels like it owes something to the design space of Texture.
Games I Haven’t Finished Yet But I Suspect They’re Awesome
Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy). This is an episodic work, now complete. I really enjoyed the first chapter.
Crocodracula (Ryan Veeder). Veeder’s particular combination of humor and IF inventiveness rarely disappoints.
Things You Probably Already Heard Me Talk About
Bob Bates’ Thaumistry is a new work of commercial parser IF, a rarity in these days.
Reigns: Her Majesty combines the Tinder UI concept of the original Reigns with snappy new writing from Leigh Alexander.
Things I’m Looking Forward To In 2018
Chin Kee Yong submitted to Spring Thing a richly-set parser IF fantasy game called The Weight of a Soul, which I hope will be finished.
Kevin Snow is finishing Southern Monsters, which looks to be amazing.
Finally, for your playing convenience, here’s an IFDB search for 2017 games with at least three ratings with highest scoring pieces first.