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”

Mailbag: Multimedia in Spanish Text Parser IF

Hi Emily,

I thought you might be able to shed some light on this question:

Text parser IF tends to rely heavily on the text for narrative, and uses little by way of multimedia.  Until you get to Spanish parser IF… here, multimedia is much more common. Spanish-language games often incorporate video, pictures, or sound effects.  Is there a reason behind this (possibly due to Spanish-language games using different engines better suited to multimedia?).  Or is there another reason?  Can Inform and similar platforms support these elements as well?

[Ed note: at the request of the asker, the original question has been re-written from a longer, less anonymous format.]

Several points here. One: for a lot of English-speaking IF fans, the defining IF of the commercial age came from Infocom in the early to mid 1980s, and almost all of their work was without illustration. There were a handful of late exceptions, but they were generally not considered Infocom’s best work.

arthur-the-quest-for-excalibur_3.png
Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur (Infocom / Bob Bates, 1989)

In Spain, by contrast, the golden age of commercial IF came just a few years later, on different hardware. Adventuras AD was publishing illustrated interactive fiction and setting expectations somewhat differently for hobbyist fans to follow. So most likely there was a certain amount of founder effect at work, in terms of what interactive fiction fans wanted to build.

Perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps coincidentally, Spanish language IF games have been written with an overlapping set of tools to Inform. Superglus for instance is a tool that compiles to the Glulx virtual machine, but uses a different, non-Inform parser.

And, in fact, the French and Italian IF communities have also traditionally done more with multimedia parser games than the Anglophone community — I’ve put a few links about this below as well.

Can Inform and similar platforms support these elements as well?

Yes, they can, though historically it was quite a bit of effort to get them set up. That’s less true now.

Continue reading “Mailbag: Multimedia in Spanish Text Parser IF”

Mailbag: Getting Beta-Testers for Parser IF

I know you’re busy, and hopefully you didn’t delete this as spam ;-)

I’m writing my first interactive fiction game. Although it’s not finished, I’m already looking ahead to finding beta testers – beyond the few friends I have who once way back when played the original Infocom games.

I imagine it takes time to establish the relationships necessary to get people to the point they’re actually willing to take a look. Do you have any advice?

An aside: I’m a computer programmer and using Inform 7. It’s a nice system, and I get it. But I am not familiar with the culture of IF users. (For example, the authors of the Inform manual mention how disabling the UNDO function when the story ends is anathema to many players.) Also, just understanding how to make beta-testers’ jobs easier in general would be nice.

A first step would be to hang out a bit at the intfiction forum or possibly euphoria (I haven’t been to the latter for a while, so I don’t know how active it is, but it’s more of a chat space). Introduce yourself, participate in a few conversations.

It sometimes helps to offer to beta-test for other people, for two reasons: one, it builds those social connections, and two, it familiarizes you with how other people typically do this. If you’re planning to enter a competition, sometimes there are threads in the weeks before the competition deadline where authors are offering to swap beta-testing, and that can also be a useful way to pick up help.

Alternatively, if you live near Baltimore, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, or London, there is a live meetup that meets pretty regularly near you, and those can be a great place to cultivate connections more quickly. My link roundups twice a month list all the events I know of that are coming up in the near future, but you may already have seen these.

As for expectations and norms: it’s a good idea to read some reviews of recently released games, especially ones that might be similar to yours; they may help you work out what people are expecting and what goes over well or badly. You don’t have to take this as gospel, of course, and sometimes you just really want to do something with your work that isn’t in the expected range. That’s fine. But it can be helpful to know what people are looking for so that you’re not too surprised. One way to look for that information is to check out IFDB and find games in your genre/style and see what people wrote about those. You could also read through reviews from the latest IF Comp to get more of a cross-section view.

Suggestions for Testing is a fairly old article of mine, but as it’s about parser IF, a lot of the recommendations still hold. It talks about what testers might expect to do, and what authors might expect from testers.

Preparing a Game for Testing is about figuring out where your game is likely to present problems so that you can look at those yourself before you ship it off.

Cragne Manor

cragneCragne Manor is now available!

Considering the number of authors on this game, it feels possible that every person who is interested in parser-based interactive fiction is already part of this project. But I know there are a few exceptions, so for those who aren’t already familiar:

Cragne Manor was organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna as a 20-years-later tribute to Michael Gentry’s classic 1998 Lovecraftian horror game Anchorhead. They put out an open call to the IF community for authors to write one room each — without being able to see each other’s work — and they themselves would stitch the results together.

I think it’s fair to say this succeeded more thoroughly than they anticipated. More than 80 authors created rooms for Cragne Manor — some of them small, atmospheric rooms like mine; others packed with story or constituting ingenious set-piece puzzles; still others brief and elegant vignettes. There are some individual author contributions in Cragne that would make respectable IF Comp entries in their own right. Not only that, but Ryan and Jenni did an epic amount of work, with great ingenuity, to come up with a puzzle structure that would make all of those disparate pieces contribute to a functional, enjoyable gameplay flow.

I haven’t finished it — a reflection partly of my supply of free time, but also the fact that this game is huge. But I can tell you already that if you like parser IF, you want to play this. It’s sometimes scary, sometimes disgusting, sometimes funny, sometimes weird, and sometimes all of those at once — but I’ll let you find the horse for yourself. And somehow all that surreal adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts.

Thanks, Ryan and Jenni. This was really, really fun.

World Models Rendered in Text

Last month I wrote a bit about text generation and generated narratives overall. This month, I’ve been looking more at parser games — games that typically are distinguished by (among other things) having an expressive (if not very discoverable) mode of input along with a complex world model.

My own first parser IF projects were very interested in that complexity. I liked the sensation of control that came from manipulating a detailed imaginary world, and the richness of describing it. And part of the promise of a complex world model (though not always realized in practice) was the idea that it might let players come up with their own solutions to problems, solutions that weren’t explicitly anticipated by the author.

It might seem like these are two extremes of the IF world: parser games are sometimes seen as niche and old-school, so much so that when I ran June’s London IF Meetup focused on Inform, we had some participants asking if I would start the session by introducing what parser IF is.

Meanwhile, generative text is sometimes not interactive at all. It is used for explorations that may seem high-concept, or else like they’re mostly of technical interest, in that they push on the boundaries of current text-related technology. (See also Andrew Plotkin’s project using machine learning to generate imaginary IF titles. Yes, as an intfiction poster suggested, that’s something you could also do with an older Markov implementation, but that particular exercise was an exercise in applying tech to this goal.)

There’s a tighter alignment between these types of project than might initially appear. Bruno Dias writes about using generative prose over on Sub-Q magazine. And Liza Daly has written about what a world model can do to make generated prose better, more coherent or more compelling.

Continue reading “World Models Rendered in Text”

Recent Parser Treats

At the most recent IF Meetup, I prefaced the discussion by talking about recently released parser games, and we played a bit of A Beauty Cold and Austere as a group. A couple of the games I mentioned then, I haven’t actually written up here. So in the spirit of June being (sort of) Parser Month:

*

quickfire
Quickfire (Sean M. Shore) was a contestant in the New Year Minicomp this year. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he won the IF Comp in 2014 with his comedy-lovecraftian puzzle game Hunger Daemon, and came second place in Spring Thing 2011 with Bonehead, a parser game about baseball.

The premise this time is that you’re a contestant on Top Chef and have 20 minutes to prepare latkes — a timed puzzle where you do have a basic recipe, but it’s still possible to get the details and timing wrong. The scenario is straightforward enough that you can replay if things don’t go quite right the first time — it took me four passes to get the outcome I wanted out of the game.

And there’s a lot to appreciate about the implementation. The game notices a lot of possible details if you miss a step or swap out a suboptimal ingredient or don’t quite nail your cooking times. And I found myself engaging the cooking part of my brain (“hey, I could start heating this skillet up while I’m still mixing things to go in it”). One of the most persuasive cooking puzzles I’ve seen in parser IF.

Continue reading “Recent Parser Treats”