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The 18th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition

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Andromeda Apocalypse
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Body Bargain
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Castle Adventure
castle_adventure01.png
Escape from Summerland
escape_from_summerland01.png
Fish Bowl
fish_bowl01.png
Irvine Quik & the Search for the Fish of Traglea
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J'Dal
jdal01.png
Spiral
spiral01.png
Sunday Afternoon
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The Island
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The Test is Now READY
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by Mr Creosote (2012-10-02)

This space is used to provide an overview of the games I played in the Interactive Fiction Competition 2012. If you want to learn more about the competition in general, I recommend last year's article as a starting point. Of the 28 games entered, I did not play each one. Most players have got their own preferences and rules to decide what to play and what not. Mine were simple this year:

- There has to be a way to play the game through open source means.

- The game must not run in a web browser or otherwise require network connectivity.

So, without further ado, let's switch to the randomised list of games presented to me by the competition website.

The Games

Sunday Afternoon

Played, finished & reviewed

The Test is Now READY

Played, finished & reviewed

Murphy's Law

Played it, crashed when I left the bank (judging from the amount of points, this was shortly before the end). The game is about a protagonist who needs to make one final payment to his bank to be finally out of debt. All imaginable things go wrong. Which is pretty much what you would expect, given the title. You get a paper cut (a deadly menace, apparently), the mailbox is destroyed by a car, a cockroach blocks your way to the garage, the car won't start, robbers turn up in the bank. These situations sometimes fall more in the realm of absurdity, but the solutions do not. While this means that the solutions are logical (which is good), they are not terribly exciting. Implementation-wise, the game focuses completely on the solution to the given problems. Interactions out of the box, even the most basic ones, are not implemented.

This game is as basic as it gets. There is not enough in it to give it a full review.

Kicker

Same thing I said about the Baseball game last year: I know nothing about this sport. The accompanying README text states that there will be no way to "win" or "lose" this game in the traditional sense. That's fine, last year's It was quite entertaining in the same way. However, if you have a game like this, better make the implementation as extensive as that game. The game has some funny one-liners, but I just cannot find the point of it. Or even the first step towards it. I'm giving up.

The Island

Played, finished & reviewed

Fish Bowl

Played, finished & reviewed

J'dal

Played, finished & reviewed

Transit

Browser-based

Eurydice

Played, but not finished. This is what I call a moping game. A close female friend of the protagonist has died (seems to have been suicide) and now the world is baaaaad. This is the sort of game which a sizable fraction of IF Competition judges will love, because it uses many big words and employs a flowery language to appear 'literary'. Personally, I was just bored out of my wits. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this one, but I found it overdone and pretentious.

Body Bargain

Played & finished & reviewed

The Lift

Browser-based

Signos

MS-Windows-only system

Last Minute

Browser-based

Guilded Youth

Browser-based

Andromeda Apocalypse

Played & finished & reviewed

Shuffling Around

Every year, there is at least one 'wordplay' game in the competition. I'm not overly fond of this genre. This particular one does not even seem to make any excuses for simply making no sense plot-wise – it's just one stupid situation after another and one stupid text dump after another. Neither that nor the game mechanics (which the game doesn't even care to explain) impressed me, so I quickly quit. I will not rate the game, because I have seen too little of it.

Lunar Base 1

Not bad, plays solidly (apart from two objects which cannot be found in any description, but which are only mentioned in a conversation and which are essential to get the 'best' ending) and has some nice pulp science fiction elements. It does not give its own plot enough time to develop so that it could have any real impact, though. You arrive on the moon, immediately, the other astronaut is taken over by some evil, possibly alien force… and the conspiracy endings remain rather sketchy. Again, it's a fairly safe recommendation, but don't expect anything groundbreaking.

Spiral

Played, finished & reviewed

Living Will

Browser-based

The Sealed Room

This is a training game written only to learn its language. What's worse, it's not interactive: You will be told what to do at any time. If talking to a unicorn and a dragon about a given list of subjects none of which will produce anything profound sounds like fun to you, this is your game.

Changes

Not finished; I'm playing a rabbit and there is a fox running around in the forest. I can run away from it and it will lose my track, but its random appearances mean that what I've been working on will be disrupted. One (presumed) puzzle involves leading another animal halfway across this forest. Trying six times, I ran across the fox every single time and I had to start over luring the other animal from its original location. This is annoying! The paper-thin implementation (e.g. KILL FISH will be rejected, but GET FISH will print out a text about me killing the fish) does not help. A limited-ability protagonist is always welcome and as far as I got, I think I saw the groundwork for some good puzzles, but as it is, I can't consider this game playable. I would really like to play an updated version, though!

Castle Adventure

Played, finished & reviewed

Irvine Quik & the Search for the Fish of Traglea

Played, finished & reviewed

A Killer Headache

This one tries to be some sort of "deconstruction of the zombie myth" (new-style zombies yearning for brains), but Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, it is not. Plagued by rampant religiousness and annoying gameplay features, this one is better forgotten. Pity, because some puzzles were actually good.

howling dogs

Browser-based

Escape From Summerland

Played, finished & reviewed

Valkyrie

Browser-based

In a Manor of Speaking

This is a another wordplay (and bad pun) game, reminiscent of last year's PataNoir in the way of taking things literally (e.g. when a tourist asks you to take his picture, he's actually handing you a picture), but without the heavy pretentious air about it. Manor rather goes into a direction which could be considered dadaism. The puzzles are firmly grounded in the same logic; for example, you have an inventory item called "a piece of your mind" which you obviously have to "give" to someone in the appropriate situation. Again, compared to PataNoir, its use of these mechanics is much more varied and therefore more interesting. Don't let the fact that this game did not receive a full review fool you: I unreservedly recommend this game!

Game Recommendations

The two games I recommend without any reservation are Escape from Summerland and In a Manor of Speaking. Both are thoroughly entertaining and very authentic (see below). Both games have their very own inner logic and interesting game mechanics and neither takes itself too seriously.

Body Bargain and Spiral, I can recommend with caution. The former is not very well implemented in the way that it expects some actions in the later game which are impossible to come up with. The latter, too, has got a technically muddled endgame and it sometimes does go over the top with its symbolism. If you want to real old-school experience, I recommend Irvine Quik or, if you want to go back as far as Scott Adams, Castle Adventure.

Out of the winners (arbitrarily defined as the top five), my pick would probably be Changes. Although I did not finish the game, it was very clear that this game had a lot of potential and the design was sound in almost all the aspects which will be listed further below. I caught the game on a bad day and got frustrated, but looking at the rest of the top five which honestly ranges from average to incredibly boring, Changes clearly stands out as a game to give a second chance.

Overall Observations

To get the obvious, but not particularly interesting thing out of the way first: The number of so-called web-based games has increased significantly compared to… well, forever. Whether this will be a lasting trend, we will only know in a year or two. Remember my complaints about 'Smarter Parser' last year? Well, no game like that to be found anymore – it turned out to be a short fad.

The Big Belly of Mediocrity

Talking about games conceptually worth playing, this was a very solid, but also fairly unexciting competition. This is a trend which has been noticeable for several years now, so it's worth discussing in more detail. The IF Competition used to be a place crammed with really horrible games, broken beyond repair on the technical level or even intentionally bad. There are hardly any games like that anymore: Even most of the games which place in the last third are usually sound and solid on a technical level. So far, that's undeniably good. However, it also seems to go along with an effect which is not so great, but which is rarely (if ever) mentioned, making it kind of a dirty secret of the competition: The really excellent games become similarly rare.

Certainly, there are many small reasons for this development. I'd like to speculate on one which might not be that obvious, but which everyone can influence to a degree. The competition is decided by public voting. To vote, you have to register on the competition website, but that's it. The competition has been steadily losing judges. While it was still common for a competition winner of even 2008 or 2009 to receive 100 votes, this year's winner received this title with a mere 66 votes. Last year's winner also had only 73 votes.

There is a group of people who will always give their vote. These are the die-hard genre fans, the inner circle of the text game community. Many of these people you will meet at the intfiction forum. As far as preferences go, this is a rather homogeneous group. This is only natural; people's views tend to converge when they discuss regularly. On the other hand, people with fundamentally different views will usually give up on taking part in such discussions as they will perceive it as pointless.

While the size of this insider group remains more or less static, the amount of – let's say – only semi affiliated judges decreases. That obviously gives more relative weight to the first group. That being also the group which presumably plays a lot more games of this type than anyone else. So these are the people who know exactly what they like and who are also very impatient when it comes to basic implementation weaknesses. It's understandable; if you've seen the same mistake countless times, you do become grumpy.

Spotting technical problems is easy. It usually just takes a little bit of poking and you'll find something quickly enough. It's the nature of amateur games. Thin-skinned people will often give up at the first bump and conclude the whole game is not worth playing. From the immediate perspective, this makes perfect sense: These people want to save themselves further frustration which they have had enough of.

However, it might as well be a very short-sighted way of acting. Consider what is being taught to the game author's there: If you want to place well, above everything else, you have to ensure that there are no actual or perceived roadblocks in your game. Whether you also have very positive things later in the game will not matter anymore, because many people won't see it and others will not care anymore, because they have already made up their minds. This is most obvious with technical expertise, but it also goes for the narrative tone, the themes and other contents; it all becomes secondary.

What this means for authors is not to take any chances. Stick to formulae which have been tried and proven successful. Whatever you do, don't offend or annoy anyone! In particular, try to please the people who you know will vote anyway and of those, try to impress the ones whose public reviews during the judging period are considered influential in particular. Their verdict will count double as it will also heavily influence other people's votes.

How do you avoid problems with these central characters? Make your game mechanics as simple as possible. Complexity only yields errors. This is why we see so many barely interactive games. Such games don't have any technical bugs and they don't run into the typical issues of non-linear storytelling. Absence of negative aspects seems to have become the ultimate benchmark. Which produces what we've seen in recent years: Lots of solid, but very simple and ultimately forgettable games. Creativity and, even more importantly, courage has been beaten out of the participating authors.

How to Make a Memorable Game

As formulaic as winning such a slightly incestuous competition might seem, I doubt it is actually the way to stay remembered over the years. This site obviously tries to show a perspective beyond the six weeks of this competition itself. This, however, is – I am deeply convinced – where the formula of just being non-offensive fails. After a night of socialising with many new people at a party, whom will you remember? The pleasant, quiet and polite guy/girl or those people which had something about them which set them apart from the crowd? It's the same with games; if there is absolutely nothing special, the experience of interacting with them can be nice while it lasts, but two months later, you will have a hard time remembering its details.

This is where elements which will prevent a good placement in the competition will suddenly help. Even seemingly negative aspects of a game, such as a game mechanic which annoyed some players, can turn into positive traits in this respect. Some such 'annoyances' are that only in the short period of the running competition when players feel obliged to play and finish as many games as possible. Take any even remotely time-consuming gameplay feature, for example.

My advice is definitely not to go back to the idea of making intentionally bad games. People are usually very good at spotting this. Though, what I encourage authors to ask themselves is the question of what sets their games apart from the crowd. This does not mean that it has to be ultra-revolutionary in every respect. It can be one special feature, one special moment, one special theme or one special character. It has to be something which surprises players. There is nothing more dangerous to the longevity of your game than satisfied players which are satisfied in a sedate way! Only by getting them out of their settled, warm, fuzzy complacency, you will actually receive more permanent residence in their minds. Though, at the risk of not doing too well in the competition itself – which is really a perversion of the goals of the competition in a way.

How to Score Well on This Site

You will have noticed that the ratings on this site mostly don't reflect the placement in the competition. Nobody here makes any claims at objectivity. But what are the subjective criteria to score well here? 'Here', of course, only referring to reviews made by me personally. Every reviewer is free to chose similar or completely different criteria.

Be Interactive

Although it seems to be generally accepted by many people in the inner circle, I will not look particularly well on games which offer little interaction. You don't have to force so-called puzzles into your story if you believe they don't fit. If I get the feeling, though, that you simply force me into a railroaded direction, I will become cranky. Let me tinker with my surroundings freely and don't permanently nag me to do something which you want me to do next permanently (unless the game situation really requires it). And just to be on the safe side: Iterating through all conversation options of which I have to choose all anyway eventually does not count as interactivity, for example! What does count, though, is making the game world believable in the way that there are things to do which are not strictly needed in order to win. The latter being the old problem of games being implemented purely by a positive specification (the solution path) while ignoring the negative (non-solution related) activities which the players will spend more than 90% of their time with.

Tell Your Story Interactively

This is obviously related to the previous point, but don't think I will be satisfied if you have interactive scenes alternating with non-interactive textdumps responsible to drive the story along! Yes, flashbacks (as a prominent example) can work in text adventures, but they should be used as sparingly as possible. Telling a story in text adventures successfully requires different techniques than static fiction. The art here is to provide information to your player in much more subtle, indirect ways, for example through the environment.

Show, Don't Tell

That is valid for any kind of storytelling. Don't tell me how I am (or the protagonist is) feeling. Make me feel it instead! This problem is particularly severe in the very dominant genre of moping games. Look, I'm sorry your wife/girlfriend/parents/kids/siblings/cat died, but death is a part of life and nobody without a personal connection will care. You think that is heartlessly brutal? That's the only way life can work on this planet where people die every day. When you're writing a game about a personal loss or affliction, you are playing it for an audience of strangers. They will not feel what you're telling them even if they can understand what you're saying on a purely cognitive level. Freedom, entered in the 2008 IF Competition and also reviewed on this site is widely considered as a failure, but in my opinion, it comes closer than most such games. The methods to show the protagonist's problems are the right ones, it just did not take the extra effort to make an unafflicted outsider to feel it on the emotional level, too. Much worse than that, this year's The Test is Now Ready literally tells the player "You suddenly feel happy" in one scene and it seems the game expects the player to buy that. Another negative example is Eurydice which was not brave enough to trust its ability to show: If the death of this girl left such an emptiness in the protagonist's life, don't drone on about it endlessly. Just show me things, like the empty room she used to live in. I'm not stupid – I get it!

Don't Waste My Time

It's almost comical how often this is quoted, but here it goes: Brevity is the soul of wit. If you seriously believe you need to write more than ten lines of continuous text ever in your game, you're probably already doing something wrong. Don't be too brief, either, of course. I prefer something in the middle, but given the choice, I'd rather have a game which is too brief in its descriptions than one which is too wordy.

Know Your Scale

The size of your game, that is. The story you want to tell, the jokes you want to make, the thrills you want to provide have to fit into the corset your game provides so that they appear at the right pace. This goes both ways: Make your game neither too long, not too short. What is too short or too long depending on the scale of your ideas, of course. Murphy's Law is a major positive example this year: It's a simple idea and appropriately, the game is short. It does not overstay its welcome. Dragging out the same idea over a longer game would have been painful; the way it is, my impression was predominantly positive. Irvine Quik, on the other hand, did not play out its potential. It had way too many ideas floating around in its short size which did not quite fit which made it appear worse than it could have been.

Know Your Limits

It's not just the size of a game, but also its narrative techniques. Don't muck with tested ways of storytelling just for the sake of it. This might seem like a contradiction to the section about memorability, but we have to distinguish between two groups of games here. Let me use an analogy: When Alfred Hitchcock killed off his sympathetic protagonist in Psycho after the first act of the film, it was a breach of the rules which was unheard of. He did it on purpose, because he wanted to achieve something: to stir the audience, to shock them with the totally unexpected. He got away with it, because he was a master storyteller. Anyone who has the skills of Hitchcock can do pretty much whatever they want to and still make it work. That will result in those products, no matter whether it's films, books or games, which will be remembered for decades to come. Ask yourself whether you truly believe to be on such a skill level and even then, whether the unusual storytelling technique you've been considering to apply serves a purpose in your game. If the answer to both questions is yes, then you better be prepared to receive critique at an appropriately high level of expectations, too.

Teach Your Players

By that, I don't mean you should include boring tutorials. A good game communicates its tone and the style of playing which it expects from its players subconsciously, but clearly. If it starts out with a lot of guidance and hand-holding, for example, I will expect it to continue like this gameplay-wise. You can change gradually, but this has to happen really slowly, then. See J'Dal for a prime example of where this did not work at all.

Be Authentic

This is probably the most important, but also the most fuzzy point. It is my distinct impression, though, that there is an ugly tendency towards pretentiousness in text adventures these days. Everything somehow has to receive some forced meaning, communicated in appropriately magniloquent 'prose'. If you actually have something profound and meaningful to say in your game, I will be delighted to find it in there! Even then, don't try to make every single word meaningful. Let a cigar just be a cigar sometimes. If, on the other hand, you simply have a humorous piece, a pulp science fiction story or a fantasy plot, that's just fine with me as well. No hand-wringing or excuses – be proud of what your game is, even if it is widely considered a 'lesser' genre!

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