A Top 20 List of IF

Every four years, Victor Gijsbers puts together a list of the top 50 IF games of all time. To vote for this, one sends Victor a list of the 20 best games; those games that fall on the most “best” lists wind up on the Top 50 list. (You can participate, or see the spreadsheet that contains the current state of play, at the intfiction forum.)

I find this interesting, and also extremely hard to vote for, because I can think of many more than twenty games that have a reasonable claim to be “best” in some regard. So I have to pick some additional criteria in order to filter the thing down.

This year, I’ve deliberately skewed my list towards the criterion of maturity: games that represent what IF has become as a medium, that benefit from thought and careful play, and that communicate something about the human condition that is truthful, important, and hard to convey.

This is not the same thing as recency, but in the nature of things it does mean that the list skews a bit towards games that have come out in the past decade, and often towards works by authors who had already worked in the medium for a long time.

The list therefore omits a lot of games that I find delightful for their playfulness and polish: Lost Pig, Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, Secret Agent Cinder, Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!, Magical Makeover, Midnight. Swordfight, several games by CEJ Pacian, and quite a lot of Ryan Veeder’s catalog.

It leaves out works that do a single thing perfectly — the telescopic narration of Lime Ergot, the linguistic mindbending of The Gostak, the jewel-beauty of The Moonlit Tower, the unfolding horror of My Father’s Long, Long Legs or the puzzle discipline of Suveh Nux. It skips others that impress through their extraordinary ambition and scope, from Tin Star or Blue Lacuna to 1893, Delusions and First Things First. It omits anything where I found myself writing too much extenuating text, any games I thought were great in one respect but got seriously in their own way in some other regard.

The list also skips many canonical works that helped define IF for the community: Zork, Deadline, Curses, Anchorhead, Spider and Web, Photopia, Shade, Rameses, Slouching Towards Bedlam. Even Jigsaw, which wrestles seriously with the weight and meaning of history, is also hampered by too-difficult puzzles and by limiting tropes of text adventures as they existed at the time. Influential and original, many of these games established what was possible in interactive fiction, and many of them are still very entertaining to play; others feel a little faded, documents of a different culture, as awkward to watch as a 90s sitcom. But if you want a list of this kind of canon, IFDB will supply several. I didn’t set out to omit anything because it was canonical, but I found that the criteria I set for this particular list tended to land on other nominees.

Several pieces, from Bloom to Shadow in the Cathedral, I left off the list because the narrative is not yet concluded. (I have hopes Bloom will be completed; I think we’re unlikely ever to get the end of the story of Shadow.)

Also not shown: works that meant a lot to me on a personal level for some reason, but that might not bear that same freight for someone else: Necrotic Drift, with its gut-punch ending about personal responsibility; Plundered Hearts, whose plottiness and NPC focus gave me the first ideas towards the type of IF I would one day want to write.

At the same time, there’s a lot of subjectivity here, and I did leave out some works, like Cape, or The Life (and Deaths) of Dr M, where excellent interaction design and writing served to explore some very significant theme, but where I just couldn’t quite agree with the conclusions; or the excellent Mama Possum, which is poignant and observant but didn’t leave me turning over the significance as much in my own mind, afterward.

Games that I contributed to myself, from Fallen London and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine to Cragne Manor, are also omitted, though I think the trend of anthology fiction with multiple authorial voices is an intensely interesting one and I should definitely write more about that. Later. Not in this list.

So. The list:

With Those We Love Alive, Porpentine, 2014. Porpentine’s work is consistently surprising and challenging, as well as often mechanically inventive. This piece demands a great deal and offers an experience of surprising intimacy: it asks the player to write on their own skin, and to contemplate the ways that societies encourage us to participate in their violence. (A second strong contender is the keynote game Porpentine created for the V&A this year, and which I MC’d; as this was a live event with a playing audience, though, very few people got to experience that performance and it’s impossible to recommend. I can however offer this tweet thread about how it went.)

80 Days, Meg Jayanth, inkle, 2014. On the surface, polished, accessible, and charming; in content, an anthology of stories that speak to the sheer variety of human experience, and the fact that the white British male Fogg does not have an authoritative understanding of the world.

Make It Good, Jon Ingold, 2009. This is perhaps the greatest game of NPC manipulation I have ever played: an intensely, ludicrously difficult parser puzzle game in which you must make an intricate plan of deception and misdirection in order to get the other characters spontaneously to act as you wish. It is an even more delicate clockwork than Deadline or Varicella, and the result is a kind of player agency over the minds of others that is both morally frightening and essentially unique.

Reigns: Her Majesty, Leigh Alexander, 2017. A follow-up to the fun but largely light-hearted original Reigns, Her Majesty combines mechanical effects and razor writing to convey a complicated, female relation to power, in which social expectations and personal relationships constantly need management and balance. Especially with its ending framing, the piece doesn’t read as a simple polemic, though; instead it is quietly, effectively observant, and never entirely comfortable. (Bonus, non-interactive recommendation: Leigh’s The Future We Wanted, a short story about gender and robots.)

Hadean Lands, Andrew Plotkin, 2014. (I also wrote this up for IF Only, my erstwhile Rock Paper Shotgun column.) A transcendent masterwork of puzzle design. There are relatively few puzzlefests on this list, because I often find such games are enjoyable but have less to say to me in the long term, and thus fail the “truth” criterion I’m otherwise looking for on this list. But Hadean Lands explores its puzzle system to the absolute maximum, and in the process becomes a meditation on intellectual mastery and the forms of joy that arise from it.

Birdland, Brendan Patrick Hennessy, 2015. As a piece of YA interactive fiction, this might seem a non-obvious choice for this list. But its character portrayals are extremely fine, and on the level of narrative design, Birdland uses a stat-based approach to personality in a disciplined and thoughtful way, avoiding a lot of the ambiguities that can arise in this type of model. Makes something very difficult look easy.

Invisible Parties, Sam Kabo Ashwell, 2014. Slightly janky in its first release, Invisible Parties was later polished up into one of my favorite games. The setting writing is some of the most evocative in IF, calling up not only landscapes but entire worldviews and modes of thinking. The verbs reflect this as well: Invisible Parties is a splendid demonstration of how parser IF can change up its verbset and its possibility space. And it’s also a love story about being drawn to, and compatible with, the abilities of another person; attracted not by a face or even a mind, but by character-in-action.

18 Cadence, Aaron Reed, 2013. Aaron’s catalog of interactive work is very extensive, and this is probably not the obvious work to choose; others might go for Blue Lacuna or Ice-Bound Concordance or Hollywood Visionary. I myself considered instead choosing Maybe Make Some Change, a game I found extremely challenging to play in an open exhibition space and which therefore left me with one of my most intense IF experiences ever. But 18 Cadence, perhaps surprisingly, is the game I came back to most often in both play and thought, because of the way it offers up a set of signs and a spatial tool for making meaning, and then leaves the interpretation in the hands of the players, to share with one another. Players have pulled out of this game: anti-war propaganda, vignettes on the changing roles of women, sound poems, lists of dates, dirty jokes… The spareness of the presentation suggests that the effect might be simple, but it absolutely is not; not every collection of signs offers such polysemy, and 18 Cadence demonstrates how corpus curation can itself be an intense authorial act, while its understated text generation gives the player immense expressive freedom to glue fragments together. What comes out of the experience is a sense of how many different causes, personal and accidental and cultural, underlie any event; and how much of life is about assembling story to put around these incidents.

Human Errors, Katherine Morayati, 2018. Dark, dense, and funny, Human Errors tells, through the mechanic of a customer service interface, a story about capitalism and oppressive systems and the tiny apertures through which we can try to risk connecting with other people. It is inventive in both form and content, and fits an astonishing amount into a very tight word count.

The Reprover, François Coulon, 2008. One of two pieces I added to IFDB for the sake of this poll. At the time it was released, the Reprover (or Le Reprobateur, in French) felt decidedly outside the realm of what we then called interactive fiction, since it pieces together audio and video elements into a linked montage. Now, some years later, the piece has not changed but our definition of IF has. As I wrote more recently for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Reprover is a thematically organized series of anecdotes on the theme of self-control and social permission/constraint. It’s sometimes bizarre and often quite funny.

Bogeyman, Elizabeth Smyth, 2018. Through spare music and art, visceral writing, and extremely effective deployment of complicity, Bogeyman speaks to abuse and gas-lighting — and the disquieting desire to be approved by one’s abuser.

Everybody Dies, Jim Munroe, 2008. A somewhat surreal short story in which it would be hard, at certain key points, to say exactly what was going on. But it works, through a judicious mix of text and illustration, in looking at the interrelated nature of human lives.

Solarium, Anya Johanna DeNiro, 2013. Solarium is a beautifully written and haunting fantasy about how the desire for mastery — and terror of the enemy — lead people to do terrible things. It tells its story with tropes of alchemy and religion, but also through the history of the Cold War. The most terrifying parts are the ones it did not invent.

Horse Master, Tom McHenry, 2013. Lures the player into thinking they can win the game of capitalist dystopia; proves that this is soundly not possible. It is horrible in the best way.

Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw, 2016. A very detailed, lyrical, strange, and often joyous depiction of mania, which bends the affordances of textual IF in all sorts of interesting directions in order to communicate what it is like to be a bit removed from consensus reality. It is, I gather, autobiographical to a significant degree, and interactive autobiography puts another complication into the existing triangle of identities, in a way I still haven’t fully sorted out.

Will Not Let Me Go, Stephen Granade, 2017. The story of a man with dementia, and about the loss of familiarity, love, and self. It is… not precisely cheerful, but meditative; portrays characters prone to both kindness and rage, generosity and prejudice, without oversimplifying them; and, without mawkishness, lands on the idea that love and human connection are of eternal value even if bounded by time.

Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World, Jedediah Berry, 2015. A lyrically beautiful Twine about life that persists after apocalypse and about the construction of meaning from the shattered remains of what came before.

Endless, Nameless, Adam Cadre, 2012. This is Cadre’s last released piece of IF, and its relatively quiet reception probably had quite a bit to do with why he didn’t write more. It is partly a commentary on the history of interactive fiction, and its development from the realms of fiddly object puzzles into the area of human nature. As the author’s comments on my review suggest, it may be best understood as an interactive intellectual memoir of sorts; and as memoir I think it works better than as pure fiction.

Mentula Macanus, Adam Thornton, 2011. Here’s a game that’s hard to recommend to anyone as a first dip into interactive fiction: a lengthy, pornographic parser puzzle game that features a glowing blue cock and whose jokes rely on a working knowledge of TS Eliot, Petronius, and Curses. But it is also at the same time a study of the components that make up human existence, and a sort of argument for the integration (and thus integrity) of body and mind.

*

That’s 19. I’ve left one spot, reserved, for a game I really need to replay, because I suspect it belongs on this list and that I didn’t read it in nearly enough depth when I encountered it in a past competition. I want to see if I can get to it before the list collection closes.

Edited to add: I have now done so. My final entry on the list is SPY INTRIGUE, furkle, 2015. Perhaps the closest thing in IF to late 20th century/early 21st century literary fiction. It is a piece that needs some time and attention to read, but ultimately rewards that commitment at every level from the individual sentences to the overall messaging; and which, among other things, suggests that empathy learned intentionally as a skill is not morally inferior to the kind that comes naturally.

6 thoughts on “A Top 20 List of IF

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks for July 15th from 11:34 to 14:51 : Extenuating Circumstances

  2. Pingback: The Twentieth Entry: SPY INTRIGUE (furkle) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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