IT’S COMP TIME. The Interactive Fiction Competition is the biggest IF event of the year. A huge variety of interactive fiction is released for the Comp, from weird experiments to finely-crafted standards, from accounts of harrowing trauma to doofy comedy. Its a big weird cornucopia, the fruits of a community that’s historically not really been big enough to split up into subgenres.
I’m going to be reviewing as many games as possible (non-IF people: sorry), but there are a lot of games this year: 58, the highest ever. (2000 and 2015, the comp’s next-largest years, had 53 entries apiece). Slight tangent, but this seems like a good place to mention it: this is the first year that authors will be allowed to discuss games in public, and so I wrote a thing about handling this gracefully. As is my usual habit, I’m going to be posting scores alongside reviews, and I’ve written a thing explaining roughly what that means. Finally, this blog is going into summary-reposting mode, so hopefully giant reams of spoilers shouldn’t be showing up on Planet-IF.
Anyway, this glut of games means that it’s more important than ever to stand out. The initial presentation of a game – title, cover-art, blurb – goes a long way in setting up the player’s expectations before they ever open it, and getting players into a receptive state of mind is a pretty huge deal. And if they’re turned off by your blurb, they’re liable to extend less patience to your game, which makes overcoming that first impression harder.
Figuring out how to present your game is hard; blurbs are probably the hardest writing you’ll do for the game. I loathe blurb-writing. (Oddly, I don’t think most authors put their blurbs and cover art through the same testing process as the actual game.)
In general, a blurb has a few important things to do. It has to provoke interest and enthusiasm, which means that you need to give your audience enough information that they have something to be enthusiastic about. You also probably want to avoid telling too much of the story in advance – but on the whole, comp blurbs are more likely to share too little than too much. I think this is probably because talking about your own work is intimidating, and it’s easy to fall back on mystery.
Cover art doesn’t have the same burden on it. Good cover art can be evocative rather than illustrative, since IF is a basically textual medium; book covers rather than videogame boxes. It helps if cover art avoids looking half-assed – a better-made cover that the author cares about the game enough to invest work on its presentation.
And titles – oh, god. Titling is a delightful activity until you have to do it for real. I love titling hypothetical works, and other people’s children. But I’ve written two games, ever, whose titles I’m genuinely satisfied with, and they’re both speed-IFs. Titling is adjacent to poetry. Titles should roll off the tongue, and be suggestive but not on-the-nose. It’s sure as hell useful if they’re unique enough to show up prominently in a websearch, but you still want something short enough to be punchy. Anyway, my point is that this is hard stuff, and it is only tangentially related to the actual craft of making games, and all these impressions may be for the birds. (Also, if I’ve missed any, apologies. There are a ton of games this year.)
(In case it was unclear, these capsule reviews are written without actually playing the games; they’re the perspective of someone who’s considering which games to play, so the extent to which they reflect the actual games is all red flags.)
These do the job required of them: they make the game look good, and make me more enthusiastic about playing it.
16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds. The cover art is verging on the boring, but it’s legible and has a solid colour scheme, which counts for a lot. The blurb snappily establishes the situation and the stakes, even if as a premise it’s not incredibly novel. This is a presentation that says solid competence: I’m not expecting prose pyrotechnics or high-concept innovation, but that’s fine.
500 Apocalypses. The cover is very minimal, but it’s effective. It’s the sort of cover I’d expect to see on a mid-C20th paperback that wanted to announce itself as SF But Serious. The blurb suggests Tlon-ish shenanigans, which is intriguing. Also, I want to find out if there are actually 500 apocalypses or if 490 of them are just empty rooms or something.
Ash. I was going to put this into the Okay category, just because none of it’s super-exciting, but actually it’s all pretty solid. If you’re going to do a one-word title you’d damn well better pick a strong word, and Ash – personal bias aside – is one fuck of a good word. It’s god a solid colour palette and layout, and the blurb is to-the-point.
Black Rock City. This art represents a cheap method of making a cover – find a highly striking photo, crop appropriately and leave it as-is – but it’s a method that works. (This is probably a minority opinion, but I don’t think there’s a strong need to include the game’s title on a cover. Better this than ugly, badly-placed text, at any rate.) The blurb’s informative if not hugely grabby. Solid title.
Detectiveland. This is an eye-catching cover – there are a lot of relatively simple covers, so this stands out. It’s got a lot of detail – it’s not shown off to best effect at this resolution, for sure – but those strong colours and solid bands of text keep it relatively clear. The montage of pulp covers does start to feel kind of pop-art, and puts me in mind of Bill Bryson books – so to some extent I’m expecting a story that’s about detective pulp rather than being detective pulp. The blurb pretty solidly corrects that possibility, though: this is probably more pastiche than anything. IF isn’t exactly lacking for detective stories, but this is off to a decent start.
Mirror and Queen. Chandler Groover has some graphics chops. That font screams early Disney fairytale, and it contrasts just enough with the background to really pop, and it’s clear that the ornate mirror is an ornate mirror, and everything’s positioned just perfectly. The title and cover-art do most of the heavy lifting of telling us what the story’s about, which means that it’s OK for the blurb to be very brief.
SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD! The art here is really solid, although I think it’s not best-suited for display at this size; it’d feel right at home on the cover of a good-sized picture book. The blurb is less enticing – a little zaniness, a little My Themes Let Me Show You Them – but overall this gives a good impression.
Stone Harbor. Simple, strong visuals: doesn’t show all that much, but what’s there is evocative, and it’s got really good composition and confident use of texture and colour. A fair number of games this year are using that sort of Firewatchy WPA-poster palette, and this one does an extra good job of it. The blurb sets up a situation, implies something about where it’s going.
The Queen’s Menagerie. Yeah, seriously, Chandler Groover should just make all cover art for all IF ever. Solid colour scheme, imagery that’s evocative without seeming over-literal, really strong text, that bar passing over the monster’s eye to avoid making it more of a focus than it ought to be. Ah, and wait, is this a paired piece? I feel like this is a reasonable inference if you enter two games into the same comp and put ‘Queen’ in the title of both.
This is My Memory of First Heartbreak, Which I Can’t Quite Piece Back Together. An attractive, evocative image, although for me the left-hand side is slightly too washed-out and indistinct. The title is basically a blurb in its own right, so the blurb itself has a lot less pressure on it.
To The Wolves. This is one of the covers that really seems at its best at this resolution – everything really pops out, there’s confident use of colour and composition, detail is confined to places where it won’t confuse things. (Exception: the blue-fire hand looks a bit weird until you zoom in on it, which is more of a problem given how close it is to the focal point.) The blurb’s to-the-point and gets to the hook right away. The title’s a standard method – a fragment of a stock phrase that makes you think about the omitted parts – and it’s effective.
Better than nothing. Or at least no worse.
Ariadne in Aeaea. On the one hand, woo myth-inspired stories located in very specific period of proto-classical history! On the other, the Minoans are one of those civilisations that people love to project their shaky socio-historical theories onto, so some slight trepidation here.
Anyway, I’m not quite sure what the four-colour variants of the priestess statuette are meant to be about, other than being convenient for a square layout.
Cactus Blue Motel. The cover’s almost good. I can absolutely see this design on the cover of a non-self-published novel, and I can’t quite figure out why it’s not working for me. It feels a bit better if I put my finger over the author’s name and imagine it’s just black, sort of.
The main thing about the blurb is that it immediately puts Hotel California in my head, and that is a cruel fate to inflict on anyone. Does a decent job of establishing itself as grody roadside Americana, a strong aesthetic that hasn’t been excessively tapped in IF.
Cinnamon Tea. This is an I-did-this-in-ten-minutes-in-MS-Paint kind of cover, but it’s not without taste – it has a pleasing colour scheme and a strong simple composition. Still, I looked at this about ten times before realising that it was meant to be a teacup seen from above and not an eyeball in some kind of spherical growth medium. The blurb gives me hope that this game is about concocting herbal teas in order to precisely refine magical effects, and although this is almost certainly incorrect, good job for giving me hope, game.
Color the Truth. (I did some testing work on this game.) The art’s not all that exciting, but everything in it is legible and it fits in with the game’s theme: this is a pretty good example of how you can make a pretty solid cover without any super-fancy art skills. The blurb, too, is straightforward: you’re going to get a Rashomon mystery.
Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire – Chapter 2: Journey to Hell. Yeah, OK, the title is a horrible mess of subtitling. And the visual riff on the previous chapter’s cover imagery is a bit too much: the sun-over-the-sea kind of looks like an extra lip, and if you look at the real lips they seem comically wide apart, and it’s not clear if the sun is meant to be eclipsed or what, and the traces of fang on the top lip either get lost, or make the top lip look like a stealth bomber flying away from the sun and over the ocean. It’s still capably put-together, but this feels like a good design spoiled by overcomplication.
Eight characters, a number, and a happy ending. An awkward title. The sun-lensflaring-at-edge-of-planetary-cresent image is an Extremely Standard image, but it does accurately suggest ‘this is SF with spaceships.’ The blurb clarifies that this is going to be military SF with an amnesiac protagonist, which on the one hand is useful to know, but on the other hand, amnesia.
Evermore. The art is almost good – this is clearly someone who has some ability at both drawing and graphic design – but it ends up feeling busy and crowded.The subtitle and question-marks get lost, the text breaks Poe up, and also the raven mades him look as if he’s wearing a silly hat. The blurb tends to confirm this impression of goofiness, and probably of having way too much stuff squeezed in also.
Fair. This is cover art that says ‘I didn’t have a lot of time to make this and I don’t trust myself to pull off something complicated or pretty, so I’ll just go with some big clean text.’ This is a decent impulse in that situation – it doesn’t make your game look good, but it avoids making things worse. The blurb makes things sound very ordinary; but this is Hanon Ondricek, so I expect things to get weird.
Fallen Leaves. I have a certain degree of trepidation about this one, because ‘ghazal-sonnet’ has to mean couplets at the very least, and I have played far too many games which decided to render themselves as poetry without actully being good at poetry. Doing poetry straight is ridiculously hard, and if this says anything, it’s that it takes itself pretty seriously. So, high stakes.
Hill Ridge Lost & Found. Man, this is really the year for Covers With Illegible Calligraphy Fonts. The photograph at the heart of the cover is rather lovely, and it’s framed in a way that’d be fine for a wall print or a DeviantArt piece or whatnot, but it doesn’t work all that well at the actual size of display here; it takes up all the space and makes the photo too small to read well. The blurb isn’t bad; it gives you an opening, hints at offscreen badness. Not super-grabby, but it’s not failing too hard.
How To Win at Rock Paper Scissors. The cover is strong, simple, clean design, but… OK, rock-paper-scissors is a basically boring subject, so if you’re going to sell as story about it you really need to make it seem not-boring somehow, and this… is fine, but it doesn’t do anything to make me eager to play.
Labyrinth of Loci. ‘Loci’ is a weird word to use here. It just means ‘places’ – positions or areas – and non-metaphorical labyrinths are spatial by nature, so this is sort of like saying ‘Pants of Cloth’ or ‘Road of Travel’. The art is a cool image, but it doesn’t work all that well as cover art: at this scale the detail, particularly the foreground figure, gets lost. I can see this working in a much bigger format – it’s just the right shape for the inside of a fold-open LP cover – but in this context, no.
The blurb feels more like a mission statement than a blurb, really; not that it’s bad to get your artistic goals out on the table, but here it begins to give the impression that the story mostly matters as a theoretical exercise, which is not enticing. On the other hand, MEMORY PALACES. How are memory palaces not a standard IF thing already, people?
Manlandia. Immediate thought: didn’t Ethan of Athos already cover this? And this seems pretty clearly a Politics Game of the kind which could very easily end up espousing garbage or be edgelording dressed up as satire or who the fuck knows what. The art’s striking and well-framed; the text on it is OK. Also, the rhetorical device at the end of the blurb – ‘The result is… but the result is also…’ feels pretty awkward.
Not Another Hero. The cover’s pretty meh. But stuff that casts a critical eye over the superhero genre as a way of talking about policing is right up my alley.
Pogoman GO! (I tested this.) It’s a big pixely Nyan Cat over a big pixely Pokéball. This is going to be a pop-culture gag game.
Quest for the Traitor Saint. For some reason, this gave me the impression that it was fanfic of something, and I got fairly confused before figuring out that ‘The Saints of Horses’ (probably?) just refers to the author’s own ongoing universe. I’m mixed on the art: it’s got pretty strong composition, but on the other hand it feels really knocked-off. Anyway, there’s a suggestion of a pretty thoroughly-realised weird-SFF world here, so I’m somewhat interested, although ‘the author is really heavily committed to this world’ can be a double-edged sword.
Riot. The art here is reminiscent of Bruno Dias’ Cape from last year’s comp – huge four-letter word dominating a cityscape, in aggressive oranges and reds – but it’s got less visual interest. The execution’s fine, the gradients and smoke and font and composition are all perfectly OK, it just feels a bit generic. It’s not adding all that much to the title.
Rite of Passage. It’s extremely boring to name your game after the trope it most closely embodies. Also, if you literally self-describe your game as ‘exciting’ in the blurb, this immediately makes it 17% less exciting. The cover suggests a childhood-summers-in-nature kind of setting, but the whole thing seems vague.
Sigil Reader (Field). As a concept this cover is fine, but the execution feels very much as though it took five minutes in Photoshop – and, OK, lots of ID cards look ugly, but this doesn’t feel right. The blurb’s good, though: it’s got a hook, it lets us know what the PC’s immediate problem is.
Slicker City. As blurbs go, this takes a pass. Andrew Schultz, you do you.
Steam and Sacrilege. The art here is good right up to the point where you notice the title; it’s too indistinct, as though the artist realised that they had perfectly good composition without the text and was uncomfortable about ruining it. Also, using Copperplate makes it look like you’re not trying. That said, it manages to fit a great many steampunk cliches into one image, so you’re not left with any doubt about the genre. The blurb makes the situation quite a bit more specific, but it felt as though it could have been condensed somwhat.
Stuff and Nonsense. On looking closely, the model is brandishing a steampunky gun; but the gun doesn’t look all that gun-like, and it’s made less obvious by the angle and lighting. It’s also confused a bit because the pose feels a little forced: it’s a very static shot, all that detailed fabric and jawline and exact focus, but it’s also the sort of pose which you wouldn’t naturally hold for more than a split second, particularly if that was an actual heavy-ass gun rather than a prop. More importantly, the model crowds the frame – her elbow pushes outside it, her head barely fits in, crushing the text into the corners. Getting the image as big as possible is an understandable motive for something this detail-oriented, but it makes it less effective as a cover.
The blurb – OK, Felicity Banks’ thing is steampunk revolutionary Australia, this is not a shocker. The blurb sets up a dramatic confrontation – good – but the delivery’s a bit stiff.
Take. OK, this cover is 100% my fault. The author was talking about not having a cover yet; I jokingly suggested emoji; she went with it. (I also tested this.) Anyway, I recuse myself.
Take Over The World. So at first glance I really wasn’t into this – the art style’s scrappy without being all that expressive, the colour palette suggests that this is meant for children but I’m not confident about that, I’m not really sure whether the woman’s meant to be wearing a Star Trek uniform, snarky-cartoon-supervillain doesn’t grab me – but on balane, I think this is about a par.
The Little Lifeform That Could. This is an atmospheric, nicely laid-out, strongly-coloured cover, but the text could stand to be clearer; the embossing or bordering or whatever it is is starting to obscure rather than pick out the letters, and it’s not the clearest font in the first place. The blurb… well, OK, I’ve heard the author casually describe this as Text Spore enough that all I really get from the blurb is ‘yes, this is Text Spore’, so my perspective is contaminated.
The Mouse. This feels exactly like a 90s young-adult novel about Yoof-Relevant Issues. Y’know, with kids from messed-up situations who swear and fuck in order to establish the book’s bona fides, and the moral is that you shouldn’t do heroin.
The Skyscraper and the Scar. It’s really hard to do a piece about skyscrapers and people falling from skyscrapers without making people think ‘is this a 9/11 thing?’ And it doesn’t look as if this is meant to be, but having that question hover around is distracting. The art’s pretty solid, although the text on the left gets lost a little bit against the cross-hatched windows, and it perhaps feels more like a splash page in a comic than a cover per se? I’m sort of curious about this but also I don’t really have an idea of what happens, as opposed to Theme and Setting.
Yes, my mother is… This is a very indie-film-feeling cover. It feels a bit… bare-bones, but it’s got a handle on colours, it makes that not-particularly-easy font legible, and it’s suggestive. So, as ‘I found a photo and slapped some text on it’ covers go, this isn’t bad at all. The blurb gives you a pretty decent idea of what to expect, and of the tone of the thing.
These make me less eager to play the game.
A Time of Tungsten. Tungsten is not an evocative material. The cover, a dull red circle on a slightly darker dull red background, put me most in mind of loss of vision; but whatever it is it’s pretty ambiguous and not visually striking. The blurb gives you some idea of the situation, but it’s aiming for drama and coming out awkward. The closing ‘But, she did live’ feels particularly disjointed.
Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. When two Greek roots just don’t satisfy the cravings any more, authors can sink into unmanageable, shameless subtitling.
Look: the absolute last thing I want to see in an SF piece is your intention to spin it out over a vast series of twenty books. If that’s what you as the author are excited about, cool, but don’t try to sell me on it. Sell me on the story you’ve got now. My main association here is with series where the entire first volume is really just setup, and the author’s scope is so vast that they struggle to make the plot get anywhere, and the next three volumes are narrative treading-water with the author constantly trying to reassure you that once we get all of this sorted out it’s going to get really cool.
The cover’s in the same vein as 500 Apocalpyses, which is fine.
All I Do Is Dream. The title’s OK, but that’s about it. The trumpet and hands are framed well, but the background’s visually confusing – it took me a double-take before I decided that those were windows, rather than a swimming-pool – and it’s full of lines which are almost square but not quite, which would be OK except that the text is level and cuts across them. And the text is thin-lined calligraphy font against a dirty greyish background, and it’s simple black and too small, so it ends up as an illegible smudge.
Further, the blurb basically pitches the game as being about boring stuff. Don’t make your game seem boring.
Inside the Facility. This is all pretty minimal and bland – the whole thing makes me expect something like Tower. Again, if you went to the effort of making a game and entering it into the Comp, there’s probably something about it that excites you – try and convey some of that in the blurb, yeah?
Letters. Epistolary IF is something that makes my ears prick up, but beyond introducing the concept of epistolary fiction, this is an extremely bland – perhaps intentionally bland – presentation. Three greyish blank envelopes fanned out on a plain wood surface. The blurb is almost evasively non-specific. Letters is the most generic title possible for an epistolary work.
Moonland. The cover art is simple, but pretty effective: I’m droning on interminably about colour and legibility, and there are no complaints on that front. I don’t love the font, but at least it’s really legible. (Also, I’m a huge sucker for green/white/black colour schemes). The blurb, though, makes this come across as something like another Vague Amnesia Adventure. Blah.
Night House. Not a great cover – invert colours + greyscale is a pretty tired way to signify Spookiness – but the text’s nice and solid. The description describes the situation clearly, but I dunno, it’s just not all that punchy; if you’re writing an atmospheric piece it’d be good for your blurb to be a bit more atmospheric, perhaps?
Also, I have watched so many Youtubes of South Asians explaining what to do with bitter melon that I can’t see the word ‘karela’ without hearing it said by someone’s mum.
Tentaculon. There is no cover-art or blurb, so all you’ve got is a pretty unprepossessing title.
Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat. Goofy title, no cover, self-denigrating blurb with heavy use of the Unconfident Ellipse. Look, saying your game is hopeless does you no favours: if you set people up to expect a weak game, they’ll probably end up confirming the expectations you set. If you’re going to put a game into the comp, stand by your work.
The Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT! The art is pretty noisy – it’s the existing Worldsmith art with some extra text slapped over the top of it. I haven’t got around to Worldsmith yet, and this might make more sense if I had – without this context, the blurb is mostly just ‘sci-fi stuff I have no context for… OK, what the subtitle said.’
The God Device.
What is in the blood-soaked envelope the archaeologist gave Tanya just before she died?
My money’s on the God Device! OK, the title and blurb really just suggest some Dan Brown airport-paperback shenanigans, and the art looks like the sign of a short-lived mid-90s sunglasses shack. This is an odd combination.
The Skull Embroidery. This is not a strong cover: it looks as if it’s done in coloured pencils, which translate poorly to a digital format, the winding-road layout is all about perspective, and this feels very flattened. And the detail in the middle ground gets seriously hard to read.
The blurb’s long and rambly, and it mentions amnesia in the first line. It’s awkwardly organised, bullet-pointing without actual bullet-points. The whole thing suggests a technically ambitious game – crafting system! combat system! homebrew game! , but not the chops to pull it off.
The Shoe Department. Again, if you have a premise that seems kind of dull from a distance, it really helps if your blurb picks out something to be interested in.
Snake’s Game. The art is honestly pretty good – the title text brings it down a bit, but it’s still decent – but oy, this blurb makes it sound like ‘random surreal shit, some of it unpleasant, for no particular reason.’
Theatre People. A nice image which fits the square shape of the cover, but this is horrible text placement: there’s this attractive pseudo-C17th font, slightly ornate, and it’s just slapped right against the extremely-ornate arch, which includes a boundary between lighter and darker areas, so it’s thoroughly lost. It doesn’t help that it’s a solid black, either.
The blurb does the job, although it could have been condensed a little, I think. My assumption is that this is largely going to be thesp nerdery, which is OK by me.
Toiletworld. This is a joke entry, I’m assuming. If so, good job flagging that up.
Ventilator. The cover art is consciously dreadful – we’re going for cod 80s-action movie here, which is a joke that has been thoroughly covered by everything from AAA games to that ephemeral Twine game that was just a shot-by-shot recap of Deadly Prey. The blurb is… OK, this is comedy, but so far the jokes aren’t quite landing. It does a decent job of letting you know what to expect, at least.
You are standing in a cave… The ellipsis is the worst punctuation mark. Ellipsis in a title is particularly bad, because it suggests a weak, noncommittal trailing-off. The ellipsis has all the indifference of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, except that at least ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ suggests a certain level of commitment to your indifference, rather than a half-assed default. And then the blurb also feels vague and uncommitted.
The art is fine, but the text, again, is ugly and hard to read.
Zigamus: Zombies at Vigamus. If your title is a play on words and you need to explain that play on words in the subtitle, maybe it’s not the best title ever. Otherwise, zombie Pac-Man is basically the least appealing thing to me ever. I admit certain predispositions.