Mailbag: Recommendation requests

I’ve glued together two rather different requests for recommendations here, one about queer representation in IF and the other about classic parser-style work from recent years.

I’m okay with doing this occasionally, but for what it’s worth, IFDB is better than you might think at letting you answer this kind of question for yourself. You can set up polls or search people’s pre-existing curated lists, or use IFDB’s tagging system. I’ve recommended a few related search approaches here as well.

Do you have personally favorite narrative-gaming works among those in which the player character is identifiably queer? (Either incidentally or as part of The Point of the work.)  I imagine you get secondary-research type questions like this with some frequency, but if you have any brief thoughts I would be grateful for thoughts for things in that (very broad) category to especially check out.

These are differently fit for different contexts, but my personal favorite interactive stories of queer protagonists would probably be these:

Birdland by Brendan Patrick Hennessy. Charming lesbian goes to summer camp story. Several of BPH’s games are about queer teenagers (see also Known Unknowns, which gets slightly more seriously into how-this-relationship-can-go-wrong territory, with characters who aren’t out yet or haven’t yet figured out their own sexuality).

With Those We Love Alive, Porpentine. Kind of the other end of the spectrum as far as accessibility. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one for kids, and it might need unpacking of its trans themes even for some adult audiences. A lot of Porpentine’s other works would qualify here.

SPY INTRIGUE by furkle. This is definitely not for kids either.

But in picking my favorites here, I have a very large set of works to choose from, since queer-protagonist interactive fiction is pretty abundant.

Several pieces explicitly look at some aspect of queer experience as the main point of the story. Among the ones I’ve found most striking are Coming Out Story by Nicky Case; Bloom and Cis Gaze by Caelyn Sandel; and Tentacles Growing Everywhere by Dietrich Squinkifer. I’m also interested in, but haven’t yet had time to play, A Bathroom Myth by Anya Johanna DeNiro.

There are also several brands and serieses that explicitly permit the player to self-define a character’s gender expression or sexual attraction. Here I’d include Fallen London and all the games in its universe including Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, as well as the Choice of Games brand. Fallen London and many of the CoG games allow non-binary gender protagonists as well as same-gender relationships, and in some cases allow the protagonist to negotiate poly relationships. The Failbetter blog includes a discussion by Hannah Flynn of how they approached gender in their work.

There are other games in which the protagonist is of fixed gender but can opt into relationships with other characters of various genders in the course of play, without explicitly making that part of protagonist identity. 80 Days includes at least one same-sex romance encounter I know of, and there may be more I didn’t see.

An IFDB search for the tag “queer” will turn up further options. Meanwhile, Queerly Represent Me offers some resources on this general topic and on sensitivity reads.

I’m a fan of old-style text adventures. Is anything like those still being produced?

Yes indeed. It’s not entirely clear what time frame we should consider for “still” here, but I’ll arbitrarily band to the past five or six years, with a couple suggestions that go further back if they might have gone overlooked at the time. And as for “old-style,” I’m pairing with some Infocom games but also some canonical early hobbyist IF.

The Enchanter series in general: for comedy-fantasy, try Oppositely Opal (Buster Hudson, 2015) or Illuminismo Iniziato (Michael J. Coyne, 2018). A little further afield from Enchanter but still in the general vein of light-hearted puzzle game with fantasy approach to reality, consider Thaumistry (Bob Bates, 2017). The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson, 2017) is also highly acclaimed, though I personally haven’t played it.

Zork III and Spellbreaker for their challenging set-piece puzzles: Try Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer, 2015). It allows you to get the world model into surprising states, and the solutions often left me with a pleasing sense of having really gotten away with something. And if you really want parser puzzles with a minimum of fiction, try Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey, 2018) as well as pretty much the entire oeuvre of Arthur DiBianca, who excels at this style.

Deadline: Make It Good is my favorite answer to Deadline, but that itself is now a decade old. More recently, if you were interested in comparing people’s stories and trying to extract a consistent meaning, you might like Color the Truth (mathbrush, 2016).

Infidel: try Arthur DiBianca’s archaeology puzzler Temple of Shorgil (2018). Or, if you want something a bit more Indiana Jones, there’s Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life (Truthcraze, 2013).

Plundered Hearts: If you liked it for its romance theme, I have to reach back a few years to the work of Kathleen Fischer. But if you liked Plundered Hearts for its self-conscious pulpy use genre, its forward-moving plot, and the opportunities to cause wild reactions in the various NPCs you encounter, I recommend the heist game Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J.J. Guest, 2018), or the alien-invasion adventure Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell, 2015).

Planetfall: I don’t have any recommendations that will give you a Floyd replacement, precisely, but in the “abandoned SF station with puzzles to solve” zone, here’s Richard Otter’s Word of the Day (2017) or Steph Cherrywell’s Chlorophyll (2015).

Hollywood Hijinx: this is one I didn’t get all the way through myself, but Diddlebucker! (J. Michael, 2018) very explicitly casts itself as an Infocom nostalgia piece, and the reviewers appear to have found it a solid puzzle game.

Suspended: Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 (Victor Gijsbers, 2018). Well, maybe. I haven’t actually played Suspended. But both of these games involve control of a distant robot that provides your senses.

Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It: Andrew Schultz‘s games do wordplay surrealism in pretty much every configuration you can imagine.

Trinity: A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey, 2017), a math-themed, historically-informed puzzle-fest. It has a happier meta-arc than Trinity, but the puzzles are generally excellent.

Frenetic Five series: The Owl Consults series consists of two games by different authors, but both involving teams of superheroes whose skills can variously be activated to get through the game.

So Far: Sub Rosa (Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy, 2015) presents an excellent selection of puzzles set in an environment that doesn’t physically resemble our own very much at all.

Tapestry: Map (Ade McT, 2015) is my favorite recent-ish parser puzzle game that reflects on key turning points in the protagonist’s life, and what it would mean if they’d gone differently.

Anchorhead: the obvious recommendation here has to be the multi-author tribute game Cragne Manor (everyone under the sun, 2018).

The Act of Misdirection: Three Card Trick (Chandler Groover, 2016).

Bonus suggestions: I didn’t get nearly all the way through Worldsmith (Ade McTavish, 2016), but it’s huge. If you’re looking for something epic and ambitious, maybe that’s worth a try. Also, at 2014, Hunger Daemon falls just outside the category but it’s solid, funny stuff.

If you search for tag:parser published:2015-, you can find IFDB’s list of titles that might also fall into this category.

Finally, I’d also say that there is a whole genre of parser games written in the past five years or so that retain a lot of the parser’s advantages but work on making the experience more accessible to new users. Since they’re not really “old-style”, I haven’t listed them here, but I discuss the phenomenon in this Rock Paper Shotgun column.

A Top 20 List of IF

In which I list some nominees for Victor Gijsbers’ Top 50 IF list. And, because I’m me, I explain why those and not others. A lot.

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:

Continue reading “A Top 20 List of IF”

Short, Friendly Parser Puzzle Games

From time to time I post lists of games that do particular things. This time the criteria are: the game is a relatively short, not overwhelmingly difficult parser piece, which should be playable in a couple of hours (and often less); it has definite puzzles, a game-like arc, and a win state; and it’s old enough, new enough, or under-discussed enough that you might not have already heard of it.

I almost put Oppositely Opal in here, as that is just the kind of game I’m talking about, but its healthy batch of XYZZY nominations mean you probably know about it already.

RaRLargeReference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics. This is a fairly new Ryan Veeder game, and it reveals its Veederishness first by using a title that fakes you out into thinking you are about to download someone’s thesis. It is, in fact, an entertaining short puzzle game about being an early human, someone who doesn’t yet understand the concepts of language and symbol. It is not just a game with a protagonist who knows less than the player; it is actually exploring how we understand what see when we see it, and models the transformation of the protagonist’s understanding. If you like the idea of cave man communication as game, you might also want to check out The Edifice.

seeksorrowStarry Seeksorrow (Caleb Wilson). From last year’s ShuffleComp. The protagonist is a magical doll that comes to life when necessary to protect the main character: this is gentle fantasy with a few hints of something darker behind the scenes.

Ka (Dan Efran). An escape game themed around the Egyptian afterlife, in which you have to perform rituals in order to make progress as a soul. It’s solemn and dreamy, and sometimes a bit reminiscent of Zarf’s work: a landscape full of partially metaphorical objects, an absence of other people or the pressure of time.

fragileshells.pngFragile Shells (Stephen Granade). Escape from a damaged orbiting space station. Granade is a physicist who has worked extensively with NASA and on communicating scientific concepts to a general audience; Fragile Shells presents a realistic, near-future setting, in contrast with a lot of space games. Speaking of which:

Piracy 2.0 (Sean Huxter). Your spaceship is attacked by pirates; can you get out and save yourself? This one is particularly rich in alternate solutions and story outcomes, and is longer than most of the others on this page, while still being roughly the length for IF Comp. I really enjoyed it at the time, but it hasn’t been discussed as much afterwards as I might have expected, especially given the rich array of possible outcomes the story provides.

Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life (Truthcraze). As the name implies, this is an Indiana Jones-style adventure with a couple of unexpected puzzles. The comp version had a few tricky moments, but I generally enjoyed it.

beetmongerIf you like the archaeology angle but don’t want to spend the whole game on that, The Beetmonger’s Journal (Scott Starkey) has an archaeological frame story and some fun experimentation with narrative and viewpoint.

Sparkle (Juhana Leinonen) offers mystical, transformative magic puzzles, from the original ShuffleComp. The internal logic of those puzzles is a bit silly, but the game clues them well enough to make it all work.


Looking for something longer? Here’s a list of substantial, high-quality, but underplayed large parser games.

Readerly Experiments in Narrative Form

Sometimes people write to me asking for suggested lists of interactive fiction that fit particular criteria. When that happens, I like to publish the results to my blog rather than just answer by email — both in order to establish a resource for other people in the future, and in case commenters here have additional thoughts that might be useful.

Yesterday I was on a panel that included Richard Beard. He is an author of novels (including the OuLiPian Damascus, which constrained itself to use no words not in a specific issue of the Times) and nonfiction, as well as a contributor to PAPERCUT, an enhanced ebook app. Today he wrote to me for suggested IF — perhaps prompted by my vehement assertion during the panel that there’s lots of interactive fiction that is not simply an enhancement of a pre-existing static text:

I’m particularly interested in any experience that is excitingly different from reading a book, but still recognisable as reading (rather than, say, wordy gaming). This would seem to mean experiments with narrative, with new ways of enfolding form and content and new ways of enlivening conventional storytelling techniques.

“Recognisable as reading rather than wordy gaming” seems to me to exclude parser-based works, since those require typed input: probably not a “reading” activity. Otherwise I would include last year’s Map and Midnight. Swordfight., both of which are certainly experimenting with allowing a plot to be radically reshaped (but within a predictable system) by the reader’s actions. I’d also mention Analogue: A Hate Story for its compelling use of a database narrative structure; Lime Ergot for evoking the reader’s curiosity and telling its story through telescoping descriptions; What Fuwa Bansaku Found for its reweaving of translated Japanese poetry into a new story. Alethicorp‘s storytelling via a faux corporate website probably also includes too many non-reading actions.

The request suggests that the writer might not be looking for something like 80 Days, which — though very much an experiment in narrative and remixable vignettes — bears enough game markers in terms of scores and goals that it might be off-putting to a readerly audience. Anything from StoryNexus is probably off the table, thanks to the card metaphor and overt mechanics. The emphasis on reading would also seem to exclude interactive film, interactive audio, and interactive comics.

Even the Choice of Games catalog — though almost purely textual — might seem too game-like, given that there are success and failure possibilities and some stats-tracking is expected if you want to get the best outcome. (Otherwise, as a first taste of CoG for someone interested in readerly merits, my picks would be The City’s Thirst for general prose quality and imagery, and Slammed! for its investment in its character arcs.)

And given the desire to actually try the works in question, I unfortunately also cannot suggest anything from the Versu project, since those apps are now unavailable.

So now that I’ve eliminated many many honorable mentions:

Continue reading “Readerly Experiments in Narrative Form”

Interactive Film


The bump in FMV games in 2015 sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole investigating interactive film, and games with a large component of filmed content; and here is a bit of a round-up of what I found.


Her Story, an interactive database game, about which I’ve written several times. It makes strong use of its exploration mechanic and has been positively received in a lot of places, though there have also been some vocal objections to what might be a misleading portrayal of mental illness.

The Last Hours of Laura K is another game (after a fashion) about exploring database footage. In this case, you have many, many hours of footage of Laura K during the last hours of her life, collected from cell phones and surveillance cameras and other sources – the sort of tapestry you might imagine law enforcement being able to pull together either now or in the very near future. There’s too much here to watch straight through, though, so you can also access different snippets associated with times when Laura was sending or receiving social media messages, since you also have access to her media accounts. I don’t feel I’ve yet solved anything, but it’s a curious and voyeuristic experience that captures some of the same exploratory play.

Contradiction, a murder mystery adventure, covered on Offworld and reviewed here (and an honorable mention for narrative in the IGF). Despite some moments of frustration, I generally liked the acting, the strong sense of pace, and the design, which stuck to the contradiction-spotting mechanic with just a few light lock and key/evidence-finding puzzles.

Continue reading “Interactive Film”

IF for the Lengthening Nights: Beautiful Dreamer (S. Woodson); Witches and Wardrobes (Anna Anthropy); Winter Storm Draco (Ryan Veeder)

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Late fall hasn’t always been the greatest time for me. Like a lot of people, I’m responsive to the amount of sun in my life; on top of that, when I was a junior academic, that was the point at which real panic set in about finding a job for the next year.

A couple of those years I was living in the midwest, too, as a really unprepared coast-native. My colleagues in Minnesota took pity on me and gave me a down jacket to wear, a hand-me-down from one of their wives, because I had somehow not grasped that it was going to start snowing and keep snowing and not stop with the snow for the next four or five months. The jacket was enormous and teal. I looked like an 80s-themed reskin of the Michelin Man. As the winter went on, I also needed gloves and silk long johns and a ski mask because, with wind chill, it would get to twenty below sometimes on the way to work. I didn’t have a car. Getting groceries was a problem. I wasn’t sure how much I should be running the heater because, having just moved into this apartment, I didn’t know how efficient the system was and I was afraid of getting slapped with a huge bill I wouldn’t be able to pay.

Now this was all hard to navigate, because things that make me sad include: being thousands of miles from my family, friends, and significant other; being uncertain about my job future; getting very little sunlight; being cold a lot; being hungry a lot; falling down on the ice and bruising myself (at least once per trip). Oh, and I had a fun medical emergency at one point, too.

That was the year I started taking a survivalist approach to mental health. One of the stupid things about sadness is that it gets harder to remember how to make yourself less sad. I gathered my anti-sadness devices and I put them in one cabinet in the kitchen: chocolate, favorite books and candles to light and gifts from friends and things that made me happy to look at. I made anti-sadness playlists. I had a perfume, essence of blood orange, that I’d wear for protection when things were particularly bad. (“For protection”: I’m not ascribing magical powers to it, but even just finding the desire to protect yourself can be important, depending on your state of mind.)

On the front of the emergency anti-sadness cabinet, I taped a postcard from a French town where I’d spent a week with my partner. I didn’t quite go so far as to write “Hey, dumbass, if you are sad, >OPEN CABINET” — but that was the meaning of the card, an inescapable in-plain-sight reminder in case I was too sad-stupid to remember on my own.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of introducing a couple of games that touch on some of those feelings and that (at least for me) are ultimately comforting.

Continue reading “IF for the Lengthening Nights: Beautiful Dreamer (S. Woodson); Witches and Wardrobes (Anna Anthropy); Winter Storm Draco (Ryan Veeder)”