IF of 2018

A few of my favorite games from this past year:

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 12.03.06 PMReigns: Her Majesty was a terrific commercial release from Nerial and written by Leigh Alexander. A sequel to the previous Reigns, it used its design to comment on the history of gender and power. It is also extremely funny, with some wonderfully zingy individual sentences.

Also stylish and gorgeous to look at — and entertainingly on the border between graphic adventure and text-based narrative — was Ben Wander’s noir-lite A Case of Distrust.

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Katherine Morayati’s Human Errors made fantastic use of a customer service-style interface to talk about how technology and corporate life divides us from each other. Brief, sharp, and inventive in how it uses its interactive interface.

Bogeyman by Elizabeth Smyth is a sort-of-horror story about an abusive caretaker relationship that I found consistently uncomfortable — as it was intended to be. Work in this genre often leans into being disgusting or creepy in a way that lacks human depth, but this piece made the personal relationships central to its horror, and that made it exceptionally effective.

Dead Man’s Fiesta (Ed Sibley) is a story about the process of grieving, and about the ways we try to manage our feelings, though they may not really be susceptible to management. That’s a topic that IF has taken on before, in various ways, but Ed’s take worked better for me than most: it has sparks of humor and surprising observation about the other characters in the story, rather than being simply maudlin retrospective, and I found it effective.

Illuminismo Iniziato (Mike Coyne) won Spring Thing 2018 with a classic comic fantasy text adventure.

And if you like the flavor of that, you may also enjoy Mike Spivey’s Junior Arithmancer, a set of math puzzles embedded in text adventure form with fantasy spellcasting. It’s a less-narrative sibling to Spivey’s A Beauty Cold and Austere from last year.

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Alias ‘The Magpie’ is an entertaining heist puzzle game set in an environment that parodies Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, with a hint of Pink Panther; and features some very charming feelies as well. Constructing a farce that will play smoothly in a parser puzzle game is no easy feat. I played this with a group, which is always a different experience from playing solo, but we glided through the puzzles pretty smoothly and were confronted with one absurd twist after another. Two notes: the setting and plot include a comedy depiction of mental illness — a sympathetic one, and so ludicrous that it would be hard to take seriously, but still something to be conscious of. And the game also depicts but doesn’t really inspect an aristocratic experience of colonizing a bunch of countries in the name of the British Empire.

As a bonus, here were two games that I really loved from 2017, but didn’t play and review until 2018: Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy) and A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey). The former is a funny, moving, yet non-twee young adult story about growing up and learning enough of your truth to tell it to other people, executed in Twine with terrific illustrations. The latter is a text adventure full of puzzles exploring the nature of mathematics.

Mid-December Link Assortment

The Oxford/London IF Meetup does not meet in December, due to everyone being busy this time of year.

January 5 is the next event from the SF Bay IF Meetup:

SF Bay Area Interactive Fiction Group

San Francisco, CA
328 Members

You are playing an unusual form of interactive entertainment. A COMPUTER is here, displaying mostly text. In accordance with tradition, the text is written in the SECOND PERSO…

Check out this Meetup Group →


February 8-9 there will be a two-day conference Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games. The conference is being organized by The Centre for Research in Digital Storymaking at London South Bank University and cohosted by the Oxford and London IF Meetup.

The first day, Friday, February 8, will take place at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A is also currently running the exhibition Videogames: Design/Play until February 24.  I will be chairing Friday’s event and giving the introduction, and the evening will feature a keynote game by Porpentine, and the exhibition.

Saturday, February 9‘s event will shift to London South Bank University, featuring panels on gender, identity, indies and industry.  Hannah Wood will give the keynote and a drinks reception will follow.  For more information about the conference, please click here.


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Mailbag: AI Research on Dialogue and Story Generation (Part 3)

This is a continuation of an earlier mailbag answer about AI research that touches on dialogue and story generation. As before, I’m picking a few points of interest, summarizing highlights, and then linking through to the detailed research.

This one is about a couple of areas of natural language processing and generation, as well as sentiment understanding, relevant to how we might realize stories and dialogue with particular surface features and characteristics.

Transferring text style

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Style transfer is familiar in image manipulation, and there are loads of consumer-facing applications and websites that let you make style changes to your own photographs. Textual style transfer is a more challenging problem. How might you express the same information, but in different wording, representing a different authorial manner? Alter the sentiment of the text to make it more positive or negative? Translate complex language to something more basic, or vice versa? Capture the distinctive prose characteristics of a well-known author or a specific era? Indeed, looked at the right way, translation from one human language into another can be regarded as a form of style transfer.

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IF Comp Post-Mortems

Now that some time has elapsed since 2018 IF Comp has closed, a number of authors have followed up with post-mortems (and in some cases, there have also been a few game updates based on player feedback).

This is a tradition that has grown up over the past couple of years, and one that I really like: these posts in aggregate represent a pretty broad picture of the thinking around IF design and development at the moment, and one often hears from authors who don’t otherwise blog about their craft.

IF Comp saw a high number of entries, and there’s a lot to look at in the post–mortems.  In fact, there’s more than I personally could track, but with the help of my new blog assistant (“Mort”), we’ve done a little curation on posts to call out some interesting content and sort them by subject covered.

Just as a reminder, these all link to posts that are riddled with spoilers, so consider this your warning on that score.

Presentation & User Experience These post-mortems shed particular light on questions regarding user interface, design, and what the game would be like for the player.

Instruction Set (Jared Jackson). Jared wrote his entry with Scratch, which is fairly extraordinary given how very much Scratch is not a language designed for text presentation. The post-mortem explains a bit about why he took that approach, and what he learned from coming into IF Comp from a non-traditional direction using a different set of tools.

Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death (Arno von Borries). This piece invested heavily in presenting something that looked like a medieval manuscript, but that raised challenges and some players complained about readability. The post-mortem looks at the implementation challenges and trade-offs between readability and historical accuracy.

showimage.pngBogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth) “The nature of those weekly life-or-death decisions remains at the core of the game. It’s the only choice you really get to make: good vs “good”; conscience vs authority; defiance vs submission; integrity vs survival. Almost every major choice is designed around that conflict.”

The 2018 runner-up Bogeyman has a wonderfully detailed post-mortem that delves into concept, design, character, and the Bogeyman himself.  In the end, though, these elements were created in service to the choices in front of the player/character, as Elizabeth Smyth produced a game straightforward in its design, but emotionally resonant for those who experienced it.

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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.

Counterfeit Monkey (Release 8)

Cover.pngCounterfeit Monkey is now being maintained as an open source, community project, with Petter Sjölund spearheading the effort. Thanks to Petter and the rest of the team, it has just had its latest update with Release 8, available here.  This version fixes various bugs discovered since the last release, which came out about a year ago.  Thanks to Damien Neil, Dan Brown, Ian Kelly, Lauren Brazier, and Michael Gundlach for reporting bugs!  And special thanks to Dannii Willis and Andrew Plotkin.

There’s a link to the complete change log for those who are curious, but a quick summary is below.

Among the most important changes:

  • Fixes a hang that would occur on some interpreters when resizing the game window or clicking on the compass rose while being asked to reply yes or no.
  • Fixes a bug where the game would use the achievements from the save file rather than the external monkeyac file after restoring, This meant that a save game from a different session, such as from another interpreter or computer, would award you the achievements from that session. Achievements are now properly reloaded from the monkeyac file after a restore.
  • Works around a bug where the player could get stuck after showing the pass to the secretary.
  • No longer awards achievements upon dying that were meant to be awarded when finishing the game.
  • Makes all player input case-insensitive.
  • Fixes a bug where restoring a save game from an interpreter without support for graphics would break the map display on an interpreter which supports graphics.
  • Adds a massive pug.


Counterfeit Monkey is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license.