The Interactive Fiction Competition, the year’s biggest event for interactive fiction opens its doors today. This means lots of new IF releases, and – almost as fun, to my mind – it means lots of writing about IF.
This year there are a record-breaking 55 entries – well more than one for every day of the voting period. I usually aim to review every game, but I don’t always manage it, and I’m going to be in the middle of moving house for almost the entire voting period. I reserve the right to go into conniptions and/or abandon the effort. And obviously I won’t be playing games for platforms that I don’t have access to.
…also, no lie, I think I’ve done something unfortunate to my writin’ hand.
I post scores. For an explanation of what those scores signify, see here. I angst about posting scores, but I think that on balance they’re still pretty useful, because often I’ll have lots of things to say about one fairly narrow aspect of a game, and relatively little to say about the rest of it – which might mean that I spend five paragraphs talking about something that failed interestingly, then briefly mention that everything else was pretty solid. The score hopefully works as a balance to that.
Also: my scores are provisional! I usually smooth a bit at the end to get a more even differentiation (largely on the ‘if this gets a 6, by god that should’ principle). And occasionally I realise that I like a game a lot more on reflection. Or a lot less.
Comments are moderated. Be polite. Also don’t be freaked out if they take a little time before they show up.
Comp authors: if you want to discuss anything over email, hit me up at email@example.com. I’m more than happy to chat about your game, or my interpretation of your game, or your next game, or other people’s games, or game design, or whatever – though if your goal is to argue me into liking your game more, you will be disappointed. (I’m happy to correct any unambiguous factual errors, also.)
I will not be playing, reviewing or scoring any games which feature zombies or things which basically function as zombies, for reasons.
Anyway. On to the covers and blurbs! First of all: writing blurbs is horrible, agonising stuff. It’s my least favourite part of writing a game. There is no shame if you suck at it. Also art is hard and I am pretty amazed at how many of you are doing so well at it.
Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! Light-hearted goofiness is such a popular mode with weak authors that I usually expect it to suck unless there are very clear signs that the author is seriously capable, so it makes sense to go a little longer on the blurb than normal just to demonstrate some prose chops. And, yes, comic artist knows art: the image gives an excellent idea about tone. Plus that is one excellent gloopy Watterson alien, and there’s a nice unified colour palette.
Kane County. I am much in favour of Southern Utah wilderness, and I’m a sucker for wilderness survival stories. That’s some capable art, too – I’m not entirely sold on the spacing of the title, but that’s some highly effective use of textures, and the landscape has a strong leading-the-eye effect, drawing you into a sense of journey.
The blurb’s delivery isn’t as assured – ‘a severe storm crashes your Jeep’ sounds off somehow, as though the Jeep was flying.
Crossroads. Ooh, that’s some really pretty art. Strong sense of atmosphere. Effective text, too, placed in the line of the path without making too big a deal about it, with the fading-away lines mirroring the ghostly branches. (Once again: cover art where the eye is drawn on a journey, suggesting the viewer’s participation in the piece, is a really good fit for IF.) It does look very much like an album cover, probably by some neopagan band who may or may not be any good at music but who definitely look good in panda eyeshadow and vintage lace.
Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory: I can’t help feeling that the combination of art and title feels way more like a debut album than a game. This is a cover that’s making a point: the skin’s texture and body’s shape fade into the background beneath the strong purple, detailed texture, heavy shadows and elaborate folds of the garment. Clothes overwhelming the wearer.
The blurb doesn’t really need to be any longer than the first sentence, but it doesn’t feel overlong. Also, I am in favour of things akin to Couture.
Midnight. Swordfight. Aww yes. If you’re going to be vague about your content, this is how to do it: juicy hints, punchy delivery, no waffling.
That’s some nice art, too (although it puts me immediately in mind of Achewood). This is going to be a farce, clearly, and it’s probably going to be about dueling, but it wants to go light on the specifics and that’s OK; it’s given me enough. If I’m going to quibble, I’d say that the quality of the banners is a bit too jarring compared to the muted yellow-brown palette of the underlying image.
Pilgrimage. Strong, simple design. Moral: I am easily wooed by effective use of textures. The blurb leaves plenty of questions open while hitting some good strong hooks.
Switcheroo. The Mrs Wobbles series has always had strong illustration, although this doesn’t particularly feel like a cover. The blurb errs on the side of overspecification a tiny bit, but given the handling of Mrs Wobbles to date I am very interested to see how it handles a children’s story about gender.
Alas, this constitutes further evidence that ‘storygames’ is well on its way to becoming as hopelessly nebulous a label as ‘interactive fiction.’
Taghairm. Yeah, Chandler Groover knows some prettiness. If you’re going to have a cover that’s just a title, this is how you play it. Delicious Goreyesque font. Once again, this doesn’t really say much – even less than Swordfight – but it’s about horrible spells and cruelty, which is something. Anyway. I am willing to forgive a great deal for this cover.
A Figure Met in a Shaded Wood. The cover feels very much like the cheaply-produced cover of an academic book; I can just see this getting assigned for a Medieval Literature class. That’s cool, I’d probably be interested in whatever that book was about, but elegant it ain’t. The blurb’s delivery is a little stilted: ‘Clarence’ and ‘Tuscary’ seem a bit too silly as puns for the tone, and the folk-tale is over-explained until it feels bland. But there are hints of something pretty interesting here.
Arcane Intern (Unpaid). The mystic-wossnames art is pretty nice. But the text’s kind of boring, and this sounds worryingly as though it might be a My Stupid Office Job game, complete with coffee and photocopier. Chances of being Max Gladstone under a pseudonym: non-zero.
Birdland. Succinct summary, if not exciting: sounds like a Radio Times blurb, but Angsty Teens Plus Paranormal is potentially good territory. The cover is a bit boring, but it has some understated effective layout. It feels like… OK, now I’m thinking of a late 90s/early aughts young-adult novel that wants you to be really excited about how edgy it is.
Cape. The cover also looks like the cover of a paperback that’s really selling itself on being edgy. Bruno Dias has carved out his bolshy territory by this point, so I assume it is going to be about how Batman is not just a total jerk but also a tool of the kyriarchy.
Capsule II – The 11th Sandman. The title’s kind of a mess, and putting “calm” and “pause” in quotes is irritating. Also, this takes an awful lot of time fussing over a pretty basic premise: you’re the one person who wakes up from cryosleep in Abandoned Spaceship. Still: nice colour palette, decent composition, the title font’s striking, I can totally see this as a book cover.
Darkiss – Chapter 1: the Awakening. Well, that’s a big ugly mess of run-on subtitling. And the portmanteau of ‘dark kiss’ is… kind of precious. Also, I can’t read ‘dead twice’ without breaking into ‘hey I’ve died twice.‘ Regardless: so vampires. I am okay with that.
The cover is just a tiny bit cheesy, but it’s executed with glossy movie-poster confidence. Full points for not hamming it up. It’s ridiculously over-the-top but I kind of dig it.
Duel. The blurb is sort of intriguing, but not really that much. The art, too, doesn’t give enough away. Monsters, for sure. I am going to diverge from my love of textures and say that the craquelure doesn’t really add a whole lot.
Emily is Away. This is pushing hard on 90s-kid nostalgia – ‘Remember a time when…?’ and I am generally sceptical about this, mostly because I’ve been putting up with dreadful 80s-kid nostalgia for entirely too long and I don’t want to enable the same kind of problem. For the thing it’s trying to do, the cover is a pretty good rendition; but that thing just isn’t very visually exciting.
Ether. The art is a bit of a shrug – here, have a stock photo. The blurb is very specific, although I’m unconvinced about the mechanic it’s describing: full three-dimensional movement is one of those mechanics that’s generally written off as ‘seems cool, probably a fun challenge to implement, wretched to actually use.’ I’ll keep an open mind, but I’m not expecting great things.
Final Exam. I should have expected that we’d still be getting a lot of intelligence-services games. But a game about qualifying to be a spy: that’s well-trodden ground. We know what we’re in for, here.
The art feels kind of… hrm. ‘Self-published novel’ is the sense I get. I’m not sure what the pixelation means, exactly – the pixely text in particular suggests retro sensibilities, which is a bit out of place if this is a Snowden-era game. And all that lush, inviting green isn’t quite what I’d expect of a modern, gritty infosec game – this feels more like the pleasant manses of a 60s spy show. I dunno. I’m not entirely sure what vibe I’m meant to be getting here.
Forever Meow. It’s a game about a cat. It has a cat photo as a cover; it is a good enough cat photo. There is zero indication about why I’d want to play this game about a cat.
Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box. ‘Bethlinda’ is a bit over the top, no? And ‘would really like to play with you’ is creepy. The art’s childish-cute, but perhaps that’s also meant to be creepy?
Grimm’s Godfather. All of this is fine, but really boring. We’re going to be retelling the Grimms; that’s enough to have some idea about what to expect, but it’s not exactly enticing.
I Think The Waves Are Watching Me: So we’re doing Battle Royale procedurally generated, hunh? That could be really awesome or really, really shambolic.
Life on Mars: Fine, boring. The art layout kind of puts me in mind of the official maps of US National Park Service sites. (Also I tested this, so I already know what its deal is.)
Koustrea’s Contentment. The art’s pretty but the cropping feels really awkward. The blurb is short and admirably to-the-point, but falters as prose: it runs on in an ungainly manner and ends on a clumsy anticlimax, and ‘paradisial’ is really not an elegant word.
Map. The classic-SF cover is a pretty keen design, evoking that era of SF when publishers really wanted to frame SF as a cutting-edge, ideas-driven literary form. But something‘s missing from it – I’m not sure what, precisely. Texture? Maybe texture. Maybe I only love textures now.
Also, content warnings are useless if they’re this vague:
[Note – this story contains mature themes and scenes that some might find difficult or distressing.]
That description could be applied to so many things! Literally anything is potentially difficult or distressing to someone, and ‘mature’ is a quality that different authors may construe very differently. And the blurb isn’t much better. It’s going to be a time-manipulation game of some sort. That’s all we’re going to get.
Nowhere Near Single. Feels a bit MS-Painty. The female-symbols don’t feel like natural parts of the lettering. Normally I’d expect this to be a game which tediously explains what polyamory is, but based on kaleidofish’s track record I’d expect it to be better than that; at the very least, to have well-realised characters. Except that the ‘public pop star persona’ part makes me think that this is going to be a wish-fulfilmenty piece.
Scarlet Sails. This feels like a very Choice of Games-y pitch. Tropey pirates are kind of boring, but at least this knows what it is and is excited to tell everyone about it. The art, again, is a bit half-assed – like, basically the author image-searched a pirate flag and then painted it red – but it tells you what you need to know.
Sub Rosa. OK, so this is a history piece – probably alt-history – about intrigue, priests, and stealthy thefts. Neat. The art isn’t quite as good as the blurb: the ghostly blue rose is pretty, but the text’s a bit boring, and I’m not sure that the landscape-format feels right.
Summit. This is a pretty straightforward pitch. It’s not very exciting, but it tells you exactly what to expect: an atmospheric wander game. The cover art doesn’t work awfully well at this size: it’s clearly meant to evoke classical Chinese landscape painting, but I’m not sure what the detail’s meant to represent – I think it’s an abstract metropolis? Probably?
The Baker of Shireton. ‘Shireton’ is one of those fantasy-England names that rings totally tone-deaf to actual English people. I guess that this is the idea – the art style does a good job of suggesting a cod-fantasy 90s CRPG or adventure game, the sort of thing that would have terrible naming – but it’s still kiiind of like nails down a chalkboard. Nice rich colour palette in an appropriate faux-leather tone, but I’m not sure about that ungainly black template around the bread icon. Or what that red thing is. Do I like making sandwiches with a single, asymmetrically-placed cherry tomato? Is my bread so renowned that the King attaches his royal seal directly to every slice?
The Insect Massacre. The blurb is too brief to really grab my interest. The cover: OK, this is going to be horror. There’s an over-the-top death-metal font and some kind of squicky caterpillar thing in the background, which suggests gross-out or body horror and also that this thing may take itself a little too seriously.
The Man Who Killed Time. Games about time (time is everywhere! time, time!) evidently make for extra-stumbly blurbs. (If you’re making a time-manipulation game, try not to do jokes about how time-travel makes it hard to find the right grammatical tense.) The art’s a bit confusing; the composition’s decent, but I’m focusing more on the pencil-sketchy execution than the content, and I can’t really figure out what’s meant to be going on.
The Sueño. Nice art, although the cropping feels a little bit off. The Spanglish makes me itch a little. The final sentence – What you’ll learn, however, is that much more will be revealed on The Sueño – is awkward and sort of redundant. “What you’ll learn, however, is… stuff you’ll find out.” Argh! Don’t put in a sentence that tells me nothing!
The War of the Willows. Strong, atmospheric art choice, although – nrgh, what is up with everyone’s cropping this comp? The blurb is just a tiiiny bit poetically overwrought – this prose style could turn out well, but I ain’t sold on it yet. Would be lying if I didn’t say I was a tiny bit intrigued.
Fully 50% of this blurb is filler: you don’t need to repeat the title or tell us that this is a comp entry! The other half is pretty promising: I anticipate Calvino-y shenanigans. Almost qualifies as Good.
Unbeknown. Alan DeNiro has many strengths, but giving people a clear idea of what his games are about is not one of them.
Untold Riches. The art is just sort of… there. It’s fine. The font suggests an age-of-sail map, the photograph suggests interesting-to-explore tropical island chains, the layout is OK. It’s not broken, it’s just pretty boring. Meanwhile, the blurb delivers the critical information – this is a game about treasure-hunting – but could have done so in half the space to better effect and without losing anything crucial.
The Speaker. Gosh but this is some 90s-feeling art. If we could just scatter some amusingly-themed Ecstasy tablets onto the keyboard it would be perfect.
Anyway, this is a game seems to be about being a social media manager, which has to be one of those jobs that is impossible to adequately satire. My local PD’s social media manager found a way to turn a day with two officer-involved shootings into an excuse to tweet kittens.
5 Minutes to Burn Something! Recalls titles of the You Have To Burn The Rope ilk. Toast is boring, and this cover accurately expresses the boring nature of toast. I don’t have much sense of what the blurb means, unless it’s that the PC is kind of feckless.
Cat Scratch. Sounds like a tech demo, and it pretty much declares ‘we’re just converting print books to e-reader format.’ High chance of this being a complete category error.
Gotomomi. No cover art. “A place of vague fantasies and manifest realities, of intangible dreams and articulate nightmares” is… vexingly vague. Dreams in fiction are, by default, fucking terrible. Give me some reason to believe that your work is an exception. Also, I don’t entirely trust that it’s using ‘in contrast to’ correctly.
GROWBOTICS: “A new generation in construction and creativity is finally here!” I strongly suspect that it isn’t. This might be serious or it might be parody; the set of three icons and silly portmanteau title feel just like the websites of a million identikit Disruptive Startups.
In The Friend Zone. Too on the nose, and leads me to expect that it’ll be a tedious one-trick pony. It might be an awful-dude one-trick pony, or a hiiilarious-satire-of-awful-dudes one-trick pony, but I’m not holding out much hope for anything else.
Much Love, BJP. This gives the impression ‘well, I made this game for context X, so I may as well bung it in the comp too.’ The subtitle is particularly awkward: Examining Gender and War through Interactive Fiction might make sense in an academic context, but in the Comp, it’s all superfluous apart from ‘gender and war.’
Onaar. The cover features some potentially interesting objects, but at this resolution all the detail gets lost and they’re just confusing. And that cyan Gothic font is a really ugly mismatch.
The blurb is OK, I guess. Alchemy is fine, and this is a game about alchemy. I’m not sure how to reconcile ‘dynamic, open-ended game world’ and ‘this is a story about leveling up until you can defeat the evil wizard.’
Paradise. This promises so much, and offers so few specifics, that my natural reaction is scepticism. ‘In which you can be anything and anyone’ probably translates as ‘really underdefined PCs.’ I’m really not very clear about what this thing is at all.
Pit of the Condemned. No art. I’m… hrm. This feels fantasy-ish, and ‘you are scheduled to be executed’ is about as novel a fantasy open as ‘you are in prison for no clearly articulated reason’ and ‘you are a carefree youth (OR ARE YOU) living with your kindly uncle (OR IS HE) in Idyllic Rural Village.’ And criminals condemned to face the Awful Monster is another cobwebby trope. All this is fine – but the presentation here is as though these ideas are exciting all on their own.
Questor’s Quest. Self-consciously wacky heroic-fantasy with self-consciously wacky title. Also, zombies. The last two sentences of the blurb could have been dropped without losing much: this is the kind of thing that you should put in end-notes. Don’t say ‘I’m doing cool new things! Probably!’ Say what the cool thing is if you’re leading with it; otherwise, just let me find out about it.
The art style is really a pretty good match for a dodgy 80s fantasy CYOA – I can totally imagine that on an interior page. But again, argh, cropping. It’s almost right, except for the end of that sword. Argh.
Recorded. Boooooring. Threatens to be an amnesiac-in-a-featureless-land story.
Seeking Ataraxia. ‘We made a Depression Quest-alike!’ ‘…and?’ ‘No, that’s it. That is our entire premise.’
Second Story. Oy, this cover is bad – crowded composition, clip-arty feel confirmed by confused lighting (the cyclist is lit from the top-right, the building from the top-left), boring font. The blurb is OK as far as story goes, but it doesn’t indicate much about how it’s likely to play.
SPY INTRIGUE. Comedy all-caps get tiresome fast.
The King and the Crown. Falls into the over-explaining trap. Once I’ve read through the blurb, I feel as though I’ve already played your game, was bored by it and now you’re apologising for it. Also, nobody is going to be excited that your game contains an excerpt from your novel in progress. Trust me on this.
The Problems Compound. Andrew Schultz looooves him some ugly-ass stick-figures. Andrew Schultz does him, and I pretty much know by this point that this means a set of concerns radically different from mine. I do immoderately like the title, though, probably because I initially read ‘compound’ as the noun rather than the verb.
TOMBS of Reschette. Zany pastiche of dungeon-crawling! Self-consciously awful MS Paint art!