IFComp impressions

IFComp is closed to votes. The games are still playable on the site and will remain so, and the results will be announced at 4pm EST (2100 GMT) tomorrow.

It has been so much fun to participate in IFComp again. Everybody’s game made some people smile, and I hope and trust that most authors entered to share their creativity and take part in an important IF community event, rather than out of wanting to beat other people. Prefacing cliches with “It’s a cliche but” is a cliche, but it’s a cliche but we all win.

These are my brief impressions of other people’s IFComp games. REVIEWING IS HARD: I don’t have full reviews, I haven’t played as many games as I’d like, I haven’t written up every game I played or liked, and I haven’t said as much as I’d like to about most of the games I did write up.

Spoilers are rot13‘d and coloured pink.

Cactus Blue Motel by Astrid Dalmady
Brilliant look and styling, and a good story. The writing was atmospheric and interesting. I did get stuck for a little while in the middle; I thought I’d explored everywhere but I hadn’t (having some of the location entrances differentiated only by room numbers might have been a thing here.)

I’d assumed at first that my goal was to escape from the motel, so it was a little jarring when I realised I was supposed to want to stay, or at least the protagonist wanted to. Then shortly after I’d shrugged and decided to play as if I want to stay, she decided she wanted to leave.

I didn’t get the chance to Have A Talk with Lex before I got to my ending, but I assume that possibility is in there somewhere. I certainly enjoyed myself enough to try for another ending once I’ve had a chance to forget some things.

Fair by Hanon Ondricek
This is funny, and busy, and highly replayable. All of the NPCs are entertaining and the small scope and timespan really work to its advantage.

The Game of Worlds Tournament by Ade
First impressions, the graphics in the web version are beautiful, and it’s an innovative idea.

I’m still getting used to the game itself – like many players, I didn’t quite clock the existence of the rulebook until I’d been playing a while – but it certainly makes me want to learn the tactics.

There’s something really nice about the layers of abstraction and stories-within-stories here – it’s an IF game, about going to a tournament, to play a card game, that itself tells a story about war.

I’d pay money for a printed Game of Worlds set.

Inside the Facility by Arthur DiBianca
My favourite so far. It’s an unashamed puzzle with a reduced parser – the only commands it accepts are NORTH, EAST, SOUTH, WEST, WAIT, LOOK and STATUS, with actions like picking things up and giving them to NPCs triggered automatically. This is surprisingly effective, and the game contains a variety of puzzles of different types. There was one that I solved by accident (tvivat gur ynopbng gb gur znvyebbz pyrex) and a couple where I resorted to the walkthrough (Tebire gur tneqrare, naq gur purzvpny zvkvat ng gur raq) but neither of those felt unfair in retrospect.

I was initially put off by the request to print off a map to fill in as you go, but found it added to the fun, like solving a crossword, and there are certainly puzzles that would have been both harder and less enjoyable without it.

The author knows how to use brevity of writing to good effect – with such a large map, longer descriptions would have made the game more tiring. But they managed to squeeze every drop of clarity and characterisation out of the one-sentence descriptions: I even ungrq Gunqqrhf, naq jnf qryvtugrq gb frr uvz fghoovat uvf gbr nsgre tvivat uvz gur zvfsbeghangbe.

Mirror and Queen by Chandler Groover
Loved this one. It’s another game with an extremely reduced verbset – reduced to zero – but it has a HUGE number of nouns. I think I got a default response maybe twice, and it’s well enough handled that I’m not even certain they were default responses. This is the way to do a puzzleless game without sacrificing the player’s sense of agency. The excellent, slightly disconcerting prose and the horror-adjacent theme were all very Chandler Groover. Anyone who’s a fan of his other works will enjoy this, and probably has already.

Night House by Bitter Karella
Somehow, this is the first time I’ve played a Quest game, and I have to begin by saying how impressed I am with the Quest platform. It’s smooth, lets you click links or type into a parser, and I found it more comfortable to use than any of the web-based Inform/TADS interpreters. I later found out that it has a tendency for it to time out, though, which is a dealbreaker.

As to the game itself: this is a horror story with a child protagonist set in the ’80s or ’90s, so it immediately put me in mind of “Stranger Things”. The atmosphere is created skilfully, making the right nostalgic feeling from the childish perspective and the presence of Ataris, trapperkeepers and so on. For me, the puzzle involving gnxvat onggrevrf sebz lbhe cneragf’ frk gbl broke it a bit – apart from general squeamishness, it relied on me having knowledge that the player character didn’t.

It suffers a lot from underimplementation: many items mentioned in the room descriptions give an “I can’t see that” response. Worse, many objects are referred to by nouns *in their description* that aren’t supported by the parser, such as the “Betamax cassette” which you have to refer to as TAPE. Reasonable verbs are also unsupported – PULL CURTAIN works but OPEN CURTAIN doesn’t. The description of the flashlight says it doesn’t work, even after you put the batteries in it.

After I explored most of the house, it abruptly stopped responding to commands and I gave up. I’ll have another go later, when the author has hopefully had time to fix some bugs.

Screw You, Bear Dad! by Xalavier Nelson Jr
This is a fairly linear Twine story about a bear infiltrating a secret arms facility for… some reason. There are flashbacks to the bear’s childhood and abusive father, which I found tough going, and flash-sidewayses to a simultaneous scene involving some of the people working in the facility. I would have liked to know more about the bear himself and exactly what he’s doing there.

The Skull Embroidery by Jeron Paraiso
It’s great to see so many of the games experimenting with interfaces and world models in this comp. This one is an implementation of a CRPG, with stats, levels and combat, using a text interface written in Ruby, with input by way of one- or two-key choices. It felt like something between a roguelike and a parser game. I was compelled by the story, even though it’s little more than an old-fashioned forest-and-cave crawl, but found the interface a bit repetitive and clunky, especially in combat, where the well-written descriptions are undermined by the fact that after a short time you’re just scanning for the numbers. The author has hinted that they’re going to redo this as a browser game with link-driven controls and separate windows, and I look forward to playing that incarnation.

Toiletworld by Chet Rocketfrak
Okay, I played this one for about one minute, approaching it as a joke or troll entry after reading other people’s reviews. And I have to say, approaching it from that direction, this made me laugh out loud:

>X TOILET
You can’t see any such thing.

That’s worth at least a 2 in my book.

IFComp IFComp IFComp IFComp IFComp!

The 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition – its 22nd year – opens on 1 October. There will then be a six-week judging period closing on 15 November, and the winners announced shortly after that.

The last time I entered in the IFComp was ten years ago, with Aunts and Butlers. The competition has changed since then, both in terms of its official rules and, from what I can gather, some of the community’s attitudes around it.

For the first time, the rather unusual “gag rule”, which forbade authors from talking about their games, has been lifted. Some people are worried this will make it a self-promotion competition, but I think the rule change is a good thing. When I entered Aunts and Butlers I wasn’t even supposed to tell my friends I’d made a game. It was also a very unusual rule for a competition, which put off outsiders and has sometimes led to some unfortunate misunderstandings. I also believe it reinforced, or even celebrated, the insularity of the IF community. And it made even less sense for web-based games (which included almost no IF at the time.)

So I can tell you that I am indeed entering the competition, with another choice/parser hybrid game using an improved version of the Draculaland engine, called Detectiveland. This is a comic puzzler in the hardboiled detective/noir genre, in which you play a struggling private investigator trying to make a living and fight crime in Prohibition-era New Losago.

detectiveland

I’m not allowed to canvass for votes, and that’s not what I’m doing: visit the competition; there’ll be 50+ other games too. Play them, judge them [if you have time to play at least five] – review them, if that’s your thing – and give high scores to the ones you enjoy.

Another rule change, which has been in effect for a few years now, is that authors are allowed to update our games during the judging period, with an understanding that this is intended for bugfixes rather than new content. This I could really, really have done with in the case of Aunts and Butlers – at the last minute I made a change to the interface that, unknown to me, made the game effectively unplayable in the Safari browser. That, plus the even poorer reputation of ‘homebrew’ systems at the time (which meant most Safari users didn’t bother trying another browser), probably cost me several places in the ranking, even though I found out about the bug and knew how to fix it before almost anybody had actually played the game. It’s not (all) about my bitterness, but I see this change as unequivocally a good thing, including for the judges and players, who get to play better games.

(It’s been surprisingly contentious – I’ve seen some people saying it’s unfair and they’ll never enter the comp again – but the kind of competition that you can win because of other people’s bad luck isn’t the kind I want to compete in. It’d be like winning at chess because your opponent’s mobile phone rings.)

Outside of changes to the actual rules: I’ve heard that, what with the Twine revolution and explosion of new choice-based systems in the last several years, ‘homebrew’ games are a little less looked down on these days. That’s good too. The meaning of IF has broadened, and its following has broadened with it.

Honestly, I’ve written this because it’s the day before IFComp opens and I just wanted a way to pass the time. If you’ve entered, good luck! If you’re judging, be fair! If you’re an organiser, THANKS. And if you’re playing, I hope you enjoy it!