The Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) started in 1995, and for its first ten years, I was a very active participant. I entered the comp 4 different times (1996, 2001, 2002, 2004) and wrote hundreds of reviews. I reviewed pretty much every game submitted to the comp from 1996-2004, with a few scattered exceptions (stuff I’d tested, languages I don’t speak, troll games, etc.)

Then, for the next 10 years, I didn’t vote in the comp at all. Not coincidentally, my son Dante was born in 2005. Once that happened, the time I used to set aside for IF got drastically curtailed, and I pretty much slipped into frozen caveman state. I’ve dipped my toe in a few times, writing reviews of various comp games that were nominated for various XYZZY Awards, but for the most part I’ve remained quite disconnected from the IFComp at large.

As Dante gets older, though, he becomes more independent and my time opens up again. So this year I decided to take a shot at reviewing some IFComp games. However, I discovered rather quickly that the IFComp of today is drastically different from the one I left behind in 2005.

I followed my usual comp reviewing method, which is to let some program dial up a random order and play through the games it selects. My time is still a lot more limited than it used to be, so out of 53 games, I ended up playing 9. Of those 9, the composition was thus:

By way of contrast, of the 33 games I reviewed in 2004, 2 were homebrew and the rest were parser-driven. None were CYOA. The 2015 comp, in my experience, has a completely different quality than the 1995-2004 comps had. The definition of “interactive fiction” has opened wide, wide enough to admit even so-called games whose idea of interactivity is basically “click here to turn the page.”

Logo for the 2015 IF Comp

Now, at this point I should make a couple of things clear. First, I understand that non-parser IF games participated in the first 10 years of the comp. A CYOA game called Desert Heat comes to mind, which at the time seemed like a surprising experiment. Those comps had their share of minimally interactive games too, most of which were roundly panned. There was Ian Finley’s Life On Beal Street, whose interactivity was pretty much “Would you like to read the next paragraph? (Y/N)”. There was Harry Hardjono’s Human Resources Stories, a fake job-interview quiz from somebody who was clearly really angry at employers. There was the infamous (to me) A Moment Of Hope, which pretty much totally ignored whatever you’d type in many scenes, just steamrolling on with whatever story it wanted to tell. Heck, even Photopia, one of the most acclaimed comp games of all time, drew its share of criticism for a perceived lack of interactivity.

So yeah, I get that 1995-2004 wasn’t some kind of perfect golden age where every game was a great IF experience (though I hasten to say that Photopia is a really, really great IF experience). Anyway, trust me when I say that I remember the bad times. The second thing I should make clear is that I enjoy CYOA well enough for what it is. It’s a neat little narrative trick. I had a good time with CYOA books as a kid, and can still have a ball with a well-written CYOA work. But stacked up against full-blown parser games which offer a constant sense of openness and possibility, multiple-choice is just pretty boring by comparison. I find myself so indifferent about the choices presented that I just roll a die to pick one, so that I can get on to the next bit of story.

So I reacted with dismay at the suddenly flipped proportions of the comp’s 2015 games, at least as presented to me in random order. Where in 2000 “Desert Heat” was an odd curiosity, here it was the parser game that was the outlier! I felt like I’d come to a film festival, but that in most of the theaters, I’d instead be handed a coffee table book. I mean, coffee table books are cool. Some of them are spectacular! But for me they’re not as much fun as movies, and it’s a bit of a disappointment to get one instead of a movie.

I rated the comp games the way I always do: based on how much I enjoyed the experience. And the fact is, I don’t enjoy CYOA games as much as parser games, so even the ones I liked a lot could only get an 8 or so. Also, unlike parser games, CYOA games are extremely difficult to transcript while they’re happening, which really drains my ability and inclination to review them. So I won’t review them, but I will provide the list of responses I wrote while playing. CYOA and lists, a match made in heaven! (Fair warning that those lists may contain spoilers — I wasn’t trying to be careful about that.)

Here then, for whatever they may be worth, my “reviews” of 9 2015 IFComp games:

I THINK THE WAVES ARE WATCHING ME by Bob McCabe

I downloaded this Windows executable, and despite my trepidation about running .exe files from unknown people on my machine, I ran it, hoping that the IFComp gods had ruled out any viruses. I got a DOS-looking window, with some DOS-looking text:

I Think The Waves Are Watching Me.
By Bob McCabe.

Build: 106

(G)etting Started.
(P)lay the Game.
(S)ecrets I've unlocked.
(C)redits/Thanks.

Then I typed “g”. Then “G”. Then “P”. Nothing happened, any of these times. I typed “Play the game”. I typed “Help”. I typed “Helloooooooooo?”. Each time, after hitting enter, my words disappeared, with no other effect. Then I closed the window.

I guess this isn’t really a review, but it does explain why I gave the game a 1.

Rating: 1.0

SWITCHEROO by Mark C. Marino & family

  • Engaging, appealing, well-implemented. Smooth and beautiful.
  • Surprisingly a combat card game is an alternative to the story?
  • Some weirdness: “Born a slave on a plantation, Jazmine became a hero when she escaped through the Underground Railroad to a Midwestern whistle-stop town. Later, she was railroaded into selling her story to a motion picture company who fast-tracked the film into theaters. Ironically, she would become an R&B legend best known for her performances on a popular dance show with a train theme.” So she lived how long?
  • Funny: “Shazbot! You use the Electric Slidekick!” Lots of great humor — take-off on Percy Jackson with dentistry substituted. “Lightning teeth”.
  • Interesting — not sure how the math is working, but the card game feels like it’s a bit slanted to prevent the player from losing.
  • Once the story begins, much of the interactivity starts to consist of “show the next part”
  • Whoa – wheelchair boy into able girl.
  • Scale of girly fictional types – Hermione, Dorothy, Little Prince
  • Possibly adopted by “Mr. and Mrs. Sheephead.” Upon clicking mention of California Sheephead: “Ah, I’m glad you were curious. The California Sheephead is a salt water fish, found off the coast of California. It has the unusual property of all the fish being born female and then, given certain circumstances, like when she gets sick of all the long lines at bathrooms, changing into a male.”
  • Mostly writing is smooth. Found first error after about 15 mins: “They were amazed at how much Denise could eat at the burger place after their just a short adventure.”
  • Doll in wheelchair. Moving. “The only word he could think of was: home”.
  • Ending choice, also moving.
  • I wish there was a way to “undo”

Rating: 7.7

NOWHERE NEAR SINGLE by kaleidofish

  • “Because the only way to show you’re serious about someone is to only be with them,” Sarai says sarcastically. [Hmmm.]
  • You’d rather be homeless than have awkwardness in your relationship? You must live somewhere warm. And safe.
  • “Hey, Jerri…” Sarai starts. “Since you don’t have a bed, you can sleep on my side of the bed. I’ll take the couch.” [I thought I had my own room. Wish there was scrollback on this. Oh hey, the back button. That’ll work. So yeah, “Her apartment has two bedrooms. You have yours to yourself.” I have a bedroom but no bed? And Sarai is offering to put me in bed with Nayeli? That is awkward.]
  • It must have taken some stamina to make up 100 fake pop girl star names.
  • From kiss on the forehead to Jerri saying “Yeah. I keep thinking that any day now they’ll finalize what image they want to have, but I think there’s been some setbacks.” Feels like a page is missing.
  • “You heat up leftovers from the fridge and go to your room. Yeah, the one with the wooden floor and no furniture.” [That explanation would have been helpful earlier.]
  • “Tonight’s aout you and me, and no one else.” [Typo]
  • “A large screen television sits on top of dark mohagony drawers.” [Another. Writing is pretty spot-on, but not flawless.]
  • Oh, nice effect on revising the words of advice to gay youth.
  • It never seems to occur to camgirl to just get a regular job.

Rating: 7.4

ONAAR by Robert DeFord

I have to admit, at this point I was pretty excited just to not be picking from a menu for my interactivity. That context probably improved my reaction to Onaar over how I might have rated it in a previous comp. However, it’s also true that Onaar is pretty fun at the beginning. The story starts fast-paced, with the PC needing to escape impending danger. A few commands and a custcene later, and you’re into a whole different environment. From there it’s the usual challenge of exploring the landscape and figuring out the plot. Sadly for me, these fun activities were accompanied by a couple of less fun activities: managing a hunger timer and a decreasing health timer. The latter of these was caused by a poison bite, but it was also less bothersome, as the antidote can be found and the timer stopped. The hunger thing, on the other hand, is a peeve of mine in IF games unless it’s serving some very interesting purpose. No such purpose is to be found in Onaar — it’s just the usual inconvenience which doesn’t engage the mind or enrich the story. Oh well, at least there’s no sleep timer.

I would soon discover that the mechanical aspects of the game are by far its dominant theme, well ahead of anything like story or puzzles. My first clue was in the PC’s self-narration:

As you stand on the sand dripping wet, you remember Father Marrow’s advice to become an apprentice alchemist. “Well Father,” you say under your breath. “It looks like I’m not off to a good start, but I can at least make it a little side quest to report those marauders to the authorities when I get to someplace civilized.”

“I can at least make it a little side quest?” Does the PC know he’s in a game? As it turns out, yes, but not in any kind of interrogative postmodern way — rather just a casual consciousness, as if this is how everyone naturally approaches reality. In Onaar, it really is how everybody approaches reality, as a passing traveler revealed when giving advice:

“Say, you don’t look so good. I’ll bet you have at least one malady. You really ought to be checking your stats more often. Those maladies will kill you if you don’t treat them in time.”

“You really ought to be checking your stats more often?” I found this very jarring, and rather unusual. Generally in IF, the mathy aspects of the simulation are pushed well under the surface, revealed only in the tone and urgency of messages, e.g. “You’re starting to feel faint from hunger.” Onaar is much closer to a CRPG experience in which various numerical stats (health, strength, mana, etc.) are right up front for the player to watch. This is fine too, but even in a typical RPG session (be it mediated by computers or people), there is an observed separation between what the players perceive and what the characters perceive. While all the stats, saving throws, and so forth are available to the player’s knowledge, from the character’s point of view it’s more or less “did I succeed at what I just tried?” Only in the land of parody would another character say something like, “Well, thanks to your Charisma stat of 17, you’ve convinced me of your point of view!” Or for that matter, “You really ought to be checking your stats more often.” Yet Onaar is completely straight-faced.

This kind of naked machinery is on display throughout the game. Various numerical stats are listed after objects, tasks list what stats are needed to perform them, and so forth. It’s weird, but I got used to it. Once the dramatic beginning was over, I found myself with a steep learning curve, figuring out all the intricate rules of this very intricate gameworld. That slowed the narrative pace down considerably, but eventually I got on track with what turned out to be a tutorial for the game’s primary mechanic of alchemy. That mechanic itself turns out to be quite involved, with requirements to gather ingredients from far and wide, take them through a number of magical steps, etc. The procedural quality of this ended up generating some drama in my playthrough as I was dealing with a (different, second) poison timer and only barely managed to synthesize the cure before my health ran out. For the most part, though, all these fiddly rules just made me tired. It’s obvious that an incredible amount of detail and care has gone into this game, and in fact it is an ideal game for somebody who really enjoys putting together complicated recipes from a detailed list of ingredients. The scales are weighted away from lateral thinking and emotional engagement, and towards grinding repetitive tasks. I’m not so much that kind of player, but I didn’t mind stepping into that mindset for a couple of hours, if for no other reason than even this CRPG routine still felt like so much richer an interactive experience than CYOA multiple choice. Of course, after those two hours I was nowhere close to finishing the game, and I doubt I’ll go back to it, but I appreciated being there as a reminder of how the comp used to feel.

Rating: 8.1

KANE COUNTY by Michael Sterling and Tina Orisney

  • “You tap on the break and hold the wheel straight.” – not an auspicious beginning
  • “Choose a class” – again, exposed game machinery
  • ARGH, back button restarts the game. Very reviewer unfriendly.
  • “On the other hand, if climb on top of a nearby hill” – then Tonto see you!
  • Some things strangely don’t lead to choices: ” There are three ways to get up it: follow a gravel wash, trace a well-worn track along an old, torn-down barb-wire fence, or go up directly and push through some junipers and shrubs.” but the only link is “Continue”. Oh, I see, the choice comes a bit later.
  • “You open the bottle and drink.” Why is this called interactive, again?
  • “but you might find some other use for it later on. Gain a Boat Part.” Oh, and uh, spoiler alert.
  • “This might be a good time to use one of your food items…” Not that I’m going to give you the option to do so.
  • “Look at the other area or chose a site.” 1, misspelling, and 2, this is one link that is presenting as two options.
  • “Make a fire – requires a digging tool” – why offer me an option you know I can’t pick?
  • CYOAs like this feel so arbitrary — you’re more or less choosing blind each time. And there’s no “undo”.

Rating: 4.9

LAID OFF FROM THE SYNESTHESIA FACTORY by Katherine Morayati

I was relieved and encouraged when I saw Katherine Morayati’s name. I had played some of Broken Legs and enjoyed it. So I kicked open that Glulx interpreter ready for some true text adventuring at last. Then I read the help info, because that’s how I roll, and saw this “About The Author” blurb:

Katherine Morayati is a music writer by day and by night and an interactive fiction person the rest of the time. She is the editor-in-chief of SPAG and the author of Broken Legs, which took second place in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition. This is nothing like that.

Slightly ominous, but I’m sure she just means it’s a totally different tone or genre or something. After all, she says clearly elsewhere in that help info, “Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory is a work of parser interactive fiction.”

Except, after trying to “play” it, I figured out that no, it isn’t, either, and in fact the biggest difference between this and Broken Legs is that Broken Legs is an IF game, whereas this is more akin to a text generating machine that can sometimes be prodded to respond to various keywords, but is also quite happy to do its own thing no matter what you type. In fact, on my first playthrough, the PC ended up by a lake and I tried to type “swim”, except my fat fingers typed “seim” instead. Despite my nonsensical input, the game went ahead telling the story: “I decide he isn’t coming and head back to my car. With every mile marker I resolve to turn back, or turn off and find the nearest bar, or turn off and crash…”, so on and so forth, THE END. Seriously, “*** The End ***”. “Seim” was the final command of the game, causing it to spit out a bunch of final-ish text and stop. Next prompt I got was the old “Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT or UNDO the last command?” Undo, obviously. Except that the game replied: “The use of ‘undo’ is forbidden in this game.” Well then, I riposted, perhaps if you wish to disable “undo” in your game you ought not prompt me to type it in? Except, you know, far less calm and polite.

So, just as I was set up by the overall CYOA-ness of this comp to enjoy Onaar more than I might have, I was set up to be much more frustrated by Laid Off than I might have otherwise been. After that first, disastrous playthrough, I wrapped my head around the fact that this game is much more The Space Under The Window than Spider And Web. I tried again, this time just typing keywords and letting the game take me where it wanted. I enjoyed the experience a lot more that second time. The writing and overall concept of this game is a bit impenetrable, on purpose I think, but it still pulls off some lovely turns of phrase, articulating complex concepts: “What you are: A trim, functional paragon of a woman in lifelong battle with a disheveled unraveled omnidirectional grab of a girl.”; “What Brian is: deflatingly human when you’re with him, horribly beguiling when you’re not.” I’m grateful to have played it — I just wish it had been the spice to a better meal.

Rating: 6.3

TAGHAIRM by Chandler Groover

  • “Turn the page” style interactivity
  • Creepy. Creepy may not be a very tough emotional note to hit.
  • Oh ugh animal abuse.
  • Hm, timing matters. Throws off my randomizer. But then again my participation was pretty detached after the beginning.
  • All in all, pretty horrible. Felt like I was in a Milgram experiment.

Rating: 1.7

THE WAR OF THE WILLOWS by Adam Bredenberg

Running Python 3.4, I get a title card, 4 ominous seeming verses, and then this:

Traceback (most recent call last):
File "C:\Users\Paul\Dropbox\IF\IFComp2015\willows\PLAY.py", line 26, in
story.start()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 1525, in start
game = intro()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 82, in intro
raw_input()
NameError: name 'raw_input' is not defined

Oh well.

Rating: 1.0

THE MAN WHO KILLED TIME by Claudia Doppioslash

  • Oh dear. Another unpromising beginning, this time even before the game starts: “Notes: – English is not my first language. – While I was writing it, I realised its nature is more that of a non-branching story, but I wanted to have an entry at IFComp and I could use the feedback anyway, so here it is.”
  • A bit hard to read. Also “Responsability” – you don’t have to be a native english speaker to use spellcheck.
  • This is a tough slog.
  • This is 100% “turn the page” interactivity so far, 10 minutes in.
  • “on the whole it looked like it might be an appropriately assistantely time to show up.” Hoo boy.
  • OMG, a choice! A yes/no choice, but that’s as good as it gets so far.
  • “In fact he had a, not unfounded, feeling that he already was in this over his ears. Or at least a future self of his was.” I wonder if this actually makes some kind of coherent sense to someone somewhere.
  • Parts of this are compelling. The English plus the intricacy of the theme make it hard for me to hang on, and the interactivity is pretty much the same as a book. But as a story, with a good editor, I might enjoy it.
  • “He didn’t want to realise he was alone, to risk relinquish the mode of being under scrutiny. Because if he did, then he nothing would stop him from doing that. He must not let his eye wanted to the cabinet. Yet as he the thought first entered him, it kept growing in his mind, as it usually did and does.” …Annnnd you lost me again.
  • One of the few choices turns into a non-choice.
  • Whuh? Ends altoghether when it feels like it’s about to step out of the prologue.

Rating: 2.9

Now, in fairness, it turns out that the random selector may have done me wrong. Looking at the results, it appears that none of the games I played landed in the top 25% of the final standings. And in fact, only Nowhere Near Single and Onaar were in the top 20 games. Moreover, the top 3 games (and 7 of the top 10) were parser-driven, so it’s not as though IFComp has fully turned into CYOAComp. For that matter, perhaps some of those highly placing CYOA games could have given me a much different impression of how immersive and enjoyable that medium can be.

Until next year, though, I’m probably going to seek out the parser games, and leave the rest be. It’s possible that being an IFComp judge is better left to people with enough time for IF that they don’t mind spending much of it frustrated. That used to be me, but it isn’t anymore.

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5 responses »

  1. dougorleans says:

    Ooh, I’ve been wanting to see what some of the dormant old-guard IF reviewers think about recent comp games! Thanks for writing these up. I’m definitely curious to see what you think of the better games that you didn’t play, if you ever get around to playing them.

    Yeah, you got really boned by the shuffle! Impressive (but sad) that you got the bottom two games in your first 9. Also, I think some of the bugs you ran into were fixed during the comp, but I think the one-big-zip-file did not get updated, only the individual downloads/links.

    Given your review, I’m surprised you rated Onaar as high as 8.1, even considering the context. Also I thought you were one of those people who (like me) penalizes a game if it’s not finishable in 2 hours? (I gave it a 4, though it had lots else working against it besides just being way too big for IFComp.)

    My first impressions of SynFac were much like yours, but after reading some spoilers I realized there was a lot more agency available than it had seemed. I went back and played it a few more times and found it much more interesting (and more like a traditional parser game, or at least a branching-narrative-keyword game, as opposed to just a “story generator” as the blurb asserts). I think this would have benefited with having a walkthrough available, but I can also see why playing from a walkthrough might detract from the experience. Anyway, I expect the promised post-comp release to be more accessible.

    My feelings about choice/hyperlink games in general are pretty similar to yours, though my mind has been opened as I encounter more examples that push the envelope (and even just playing more non-envelope-pushing games has gotten me more used to the conventions and styles of the subgenre). I agree that the typical Twine or Choicescript game is a fundamentally different kind of experience than the typical Glulx game, but I’m coming to realize that it’s more often about the traditions of those communities rather than things inherent to the user interface. In this comp, I thought TOMBs of Reschette, Arcane Intern (Unpaid), To Burn In Memory, and In the Friend Zone were good examples of hypertext games that felt more akin to traditional parser games than is typical; conversely, Map and Midnight. Swordfight. both were clearly influenced by choice/branching games, and even Brain Guzzlers made good use of dialogue-trees-as-cut-scenes to advance the action without risking the player getting slowed down by the parser. You might also find this IFDB poll useful: http://ifdb.tads.org/poll?id=hvn6xgnkcg44wlk “The game(s) that changed your mind about Twine”.

    • paulobrian says:

      Hey Doug, thanks for this thoughtful reply! “Boned By The Shuffle” really needs to be the name of some band, album, or trivia team. 🙂 Going to try quoting some of your message here and replying to it, but haven’t used the WP commenting mechanism enough so it may look weird.

      I’m definitely curious to see what you think of the better games that you didn’t play, if you ever get around to playing them.
      Ironically, “Brain Guzzlers From Beyond” was #10 on my list. So I bet I will play it at some point, but perhaps not super soon. Next on my eventual docket is Vespers, since Adam Cadre invited me to participate in a future Radio K episode about it.

      Given your review, I’m surprised you rated Onaar as high as 8.1, even considering the context.
      In a way, so am I. One thing I did differently this year was to play/rate the games well before I wrote reviews. In the past, I would always play a game, review it, and then set my final rating for it, because in those reviews I kind of explain the experience to myself. However, this year I wanted to get to more games and I knew my time would be limited before the deadline, so I delayed the reviews (obviously, since I posted them in January.) So my general happiness at actually playing (what felt to me like) a “real” IF game, plus the fact that I hadn’t carefully enumerated pros & cons on it, gave Onaar a boost. That general happiness also pushed the two-hour thing back in my mind — at that point I was happy to spend two hours with it since I wasn’t randomly making choices from a list.

      I agree that the typical Twine or Choicescript game is a fundamentally different kind of experience than the typical Glulx game, but I’m coming to realize that it’s more often about the traditions of those communities rather than things inherent to the user interface.
      That is a really interesting point. I like the idea of playing some of those games that you list, and the ones in the poll, as ways of getting over my CYOA bias. Thanks for providing that information!

  2. […] a bit on the IF Comp game Summit. Meanwhile, veteran IF Comp reviewer Paul O’Brian has thoughts on the ones he played in […]

  3. Felicity Banks says:

    Absolutely fascinating review, thank you.

    I am your opposite, as near as I can tell. I only really discovered IF a year ago, but since then I’ve written about half a million words of IF (including “Scarlet Sails” which I’m editing for a post-comp release at the moment) and have gotten two jobs out of it. IF very quickly became my world, writing-wise. And I feel precisely as you do about CYOA vs parser…. except opposite.

    Out of goodwill, I attempted many parser games within the comp, although with great trepidation. Mostly, I was frustrated and annoyed and infuriated (often to tears), and I ultimately concluded that I won’t be deliberately playing parser IF unless I have a VERY good reason. Yet “Synesthesia Factory” still gives me shivers to think about (in a good way). So I will probably dive in again, just because of that.

    But I absolutely agree that CYOA and parser are utterly different. And yet here we are together in our IF Venn Diagram, constantly challenging one another.

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