Today marks the opening of the twenty-fifth annual Interactive Fiction Competition, a contest for amateur-created games and stories primarily based around interacting with text. In this post I’ll talk about what interactive fiction is, introduce IF Comp and my own entry for this year, and tell you how you can vote and participate.
The IFcomp website defines it as “videogames whose player interactions center on text.” Broadly speaking, it can be split into a couple of main types:
Parser-based IF involves typing instructions at a prompt in order to move around an environment and manipulate objects. You’re most likely to be familiar with it through the works of InfoCom and games such as Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As a commercial genre, these games mostly existed only during the late seventies to very early nineties – the vast majority of the market dropped them like a brick the instant better technology allowed it.
Creating and playing parser-based games is a niche hobby now. Learning how to play them is a skill, and when made poorly (and they are often made poorly) they can be disastrously broken like nothing else. But when they’re good, they’re magical. Parser games excel at allowing the player to explore a detailed physical space. They usually contain puzzles, and are the antecedents of graphic point-and-click puzzle games like Day of the Tentacle and the Monkey Island series.
Choice-based IF involves reading passages and selecting from a number of choices about how to proceed. At their most basic level, choice-based games resemble Choose Your Own Adventure books, and are often shortened to ‘CYOA’. However, many choice-based games also include some state-tracking, so that a branching and rejoining narrative in which the player’s past choices affect future options is created.
Choice-based games are generally more accessible both to players and creators, especially over the last decade with the introduction of the Twine programming language. While purely text-based games are still a very small part of the modern games industry, choice-based text game companies (such as Choice of Games) do exist, and many modern story game genres have their roots in this form – visual novels, Telltale’s post-Walking Dead output, and so on.
The Interactive Fiction Competition is a yearly competition in which players play and rate the entries. Anyone who’s not a participant can vote. The judging period runs from October 1 to November 15, and judges must rate at least five of the games for their votes to count. (There are generally much more than that – sixty to eighty in recent years – and you emphatically are not required or expected to play them all.) I’d like to invite everyone here to check out the contest, poke around the entries and play whichever games interest you. If this year’s is anything like the last few batches, there should be something for everyone.
My own entry this year is Zozzled:
Hotsy-totsy! It’s 1928 and you’re madcap flapper Hazel Greene, tottering around the city’s finest hotel with a gullet full of giggle juice…until a gaggle of ghosts shows up to spoil the fun by turning every drop in the place into lousy, undrinkable WATER. Explore the beautiful Poseidon Grand Hotel, meet Barnaby Mooch the Magnificent Pooch, and get splifficated on a snootful of ectoplasm in this paranormal puzzle comedy.
(If you’re interested in playing more of my games, the full list can be found here! The most recent ones pre-Zozzled, from 2015, were award winners in their respective competitions.)
My Favorite IF Works
These aren’t the all-time greatest hits or the most historically important or anything. Just some that I really like and want to recommend.
Birdland by Brendan Patrick Hennessy. This is one of the largest and most polished Twine games ever made, plus it has both queer kids and aliens, so it’s like it was made for me. It has a very Life is Strange kind of vibe. Just about PERFECT. It won a bunch of awards and it deserves them.
Broken Legs by Sarah Morayati. A parser game in which you play someone at an audition trying to sabotage her competition. The writing is excellent, the protagonist is wonderfully awful, and the world is very well put together and responsive. The puzzles are…really impenetrably hard, which detracts quite a bit, but it’s worth trying just to explore the world as far as you can.
Midnight, Swordfight by Chandler Groover. A simple but wonderfully clever idea – you start the game in a sword duel, but you’re killed instantly. Then you enter the main environment of the game, where you move through a decadent party in both space and time, arranging things so that the duel goes differently. There are a ton of different endings to find, all in a Baron-Munchausen-like environment of wigs, frilly clothes, and bizarre tall-tale adventures.
The Mary Jane of Tomorrow by Emily Short. Emily is a well-known and talented IF author and scholar, so when I got the chance to pick a prize for Brain Guzzlers From Beyond!, I just had to choose the one she’d put up, which was an original work set in the game’s world. I expected just a story, but she actually made an entire game! It involves programming a complicated robot to have different kinds of personality. I loved it. (It probably makes more sense if you play Brain Guzzlers first.)
Oppositely Opal by Buster Hudson. You play a witch trying to put together a potion. It’s set in a single room, but there are so many things to do in the room. Many of the puzzles require figuring out complicated processes step-by-step, making them both more complex and tricky and more solvable, and there are some clever twists as you figure out how your spells actually work.
What about you? Have you played IF before? What are your favorite games? And what do you think of this year’s entries? (Those games, once again, are here … and if they’re not, then they will be soon!)