It’s October, which means it’s time for the Interactive Fiction Competition, IF Comp.
80 79 entries this year, setting a record for the second year running. Historically, anything over 50 is a big turnout. There’s no way I’ll be able to adequately play every game, let alone review them. Some form of triage is in order. Naturally, I have an overcomplicated, procedure-based solution.
As I’ve done in past years, I’m going split the games I can vote on into three categories, good to bad, based on my first impressions of blurbs / titles / cover art. This time, though, I’m going to put a little less emphasis on ‘this is a technically strong presentation’ and a little more on ‘based on what I see here, I am excited or curious to play this.’ It’s going to be a quick and sloppy and probably unfair process.
I’d rather front-load the most promising ones somewhat, but only somewhat: a lot of the fun of the comp consists of surprises and interestingly-bad games and good-ass kusoge. I feel like there’s plenty to learn from bad games. And, of course, my effort to judge books by their covers will have pretty hazy accuracy. So here’s the approach: in each cycle I’ll play two games from the A list and one each from B and C. A 2:1:1 ratio seems about right.
Having actually done the sorting, it turned out that Category B had about twice as many titles as Category C, which meant that looking worse would make you twice as likely to get played. (A normal inner-quartile / outer-quartile spread.) Hmm. That’s not how it should work. I shuffled a bunch of games from B into C, so that the distribution’s more like a pyramid.
Once the Excited pile runs out, I’ll reassess. I’ll probably shuffle the lists about a bit as the acidulous smog of comp buzz slowly corrodes my pure, flawless objectivity. Reviews will not necessarily follow this pattern; they get done when they get done.)
This should be obvious, but to be clear: this initial triage isn’t going to determine the actual scores I give games. (For that, here’s my schema.) Full disclosure: I’m on the Comp advisory committee, and my partner Jacqueline Ashwell is this year’s Comp vice-organiser.
Category A: High Hopes
1958: Dancing With Fear: Blurb and cover clearly articulate the setting and themes of the piece, although it could be punchier. (That is not a great title, though.) I am in favour of games with strongly-characterised protagonists, and games about intrigue at parties. My main concern: the last Victor Ojuel game I played (Onna Kabuki) concerned a lot of social-manipulation stuff but ended up leaning too hard on medium-size dry goods.
Domestic Elementalism: Research witch? Domestic elementalism? This has potential; object-transformation mechanics can be a lot of fun, although it’s also the kind of ambitious premise that generally takes a lot of work to make playable. (Could end up being a Growbotics.) The cover would be a lot better if not for its text.
Eat Me: Chandler Groover is very good at cover art and at grabby hooks. He also has a solid record. This will be fucked-up and delicious.
Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous. Mischief is a good mode of player action, and I have an established bias for the subject-matter. May veer too much towards Wacky; we’ll see.
Harmonia: Solid art. Blurb that tersely establishes a thing you’re investigating, which also seems cool and unusual. Liza Daly. Sign me up.
Hexteria Skaxis Qiameth: Games about books: good. A decent hook for such a short blurb. Art style suggests someone who doesn’t have amazing art skills but does have a sense of the importance of good aesthetics, which is always heartening. And I’ve heard preliminary good buzz.
Salt: This is strongly-presented; simple effective cover, evocative title, a concise blurb that gives you plenty of information. None of it is pyrotechnic, but there’s a lot of evidence here of competence and good design decisions.
Swigian: A title in Old English and mention of mead-halls is an automatic promotion, honestly. And that first line is great. There’s some awkwardness in the blurb’s only other line – what on earth does ‘long, but quickly finished’ mean?
TextCraft: Alpha Island: OK, so I don’t know that I expect this to be good, but I’m really curious about its approach. This gets in mostly because ‘IF game that tries to adapt a mechanical genre from other games’ is review bait.
Tuuli: Witches and Finnish pagan neofolk is an automatic Category A, honestly. Nice moody cover, blurb sets up character and setting and Narrative Problem well.
The Traveller: The title and cover art are boring as hell, but the blurb gives me a lot to go on – in fact, it promises so much that I have suspicions that it may fall victim to overambition, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
The Wizard Sniffer: Normally if a game pitched ‘goofy heroic-fantasy comedy!’ my heart would sink into my boots. But Buster Hudson has a good track-record, and one that fits well with this theme.
8 Shoes on the Shelves: Presentation here is a resounding ‘adequate.’ The basic premise is made nice and clear – and I am in favour of WWI stories – but it’s a dry plot synopsis, not an engaging hook.
Absence of Law: In an IF context, ‘SF comedy’ generally implies ‘bad Douglas Adams pastiche.’ The issue with this one is kind of the opposite of my main complaint about blurbs this year: it gives a bunch of details, but they don’t provide a cohesive picture.
Alice Aforethought: The cover almost works but ends up being kind of a mess on a lot of counts – it’s noisy and hard to visually read. Hanon tends to make games that are trying something interesting, but they often end up being kind of a struggle to work through or figure out. The Alice ouevre is a kind of burned-over district, and I’m not vastly excited about New Takes on it.
AND WHEN I SQUINT IT LOOKS LIKE CHRISTMAS: As kid-lit, this is trying a lot harder than Adventure of Esmeralda and Ruby. Maybe a little too hard with all those exclamation marks; I feel that the most important thing kid lit can do is take kids seriously, and exclamation marks suggest a kind of pantomime faux-enthusiasm that easily shades into patronising.
Antiquest: “Are you tired of fighting an annoying parser and unraveling strange puzzles? Come along, and you and the parser will fight together against logic and common sense!” Parser experiments are a fine thing, but this is not a promising way to present it.
A Beauty Cold and Austere: The presentation here is pretty decent: attractively designed cover, a blurb that establishes the premise and stakes. The title’s maybe a tiiiny bit over the top, but it definitely helps build the picture. But the thing it’s actually presenting – maths, psychedelia, pure abstraction – isn’t all that interesting to me.
Behind the Door: The blurb and the cover art do a good job of complementing one another’s information here. But the message seems like a pretty orthodox Alice-inspired fantasy journey – and not one which is doing a great job of aesthetically standing out from that genre.
Black Marker: There are obvious reasons why we’ve been seeing a lot of surveillance-state works in IF over the past few years, and this one is doing very little to stand out. The entire presentation doesn’t add much more than ‘this is a surveillance game.’ Well, OK, fine, good to know, but you’ve got to give me a reason to care about this surveillance game.
Bookmoss: The premise here seems potentially interesting, but its actual writing is kind of stiff. Guys, look, a blurb is not an encyclopedia synopsis, it’s an elevator pitch. It’s good to give information briefly and effectively, yes, but you also need to make that fucker sing.
A common enemy. It seems a safe assumption here that the author is not a native English speaker and hasn’t had the piece tested by one; the blurb is full of errors, to the point where it’s difficult to assess the prose. The blurb is clear about the stakes, but only in very broad terms: it doesn’t really suggest anything about who the character is or what they’re actually doing.
Day of the Djinn: This is not great presentation, but it’s a good deal better than the average this year. The art’s almost good, but its handling of text is just a tiny bit off in a way I can’t put my finger on because Not A Real Graphic Designer. The blurb: on the one hand it’s way, way better than the standard Generic Fantasy Adventure rendering. But there are a lot of missteps – the cliched tone of “discover new things about old places, and perhaps even yourself”, the oddness of ‘smattering’.
Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log: Short blurb for a short game. Does a good job of establishing character and a moderately-unusual setting, although ‘his life will change’ is a decidedly bland plot hook.
The Dream Self: This is decent cover art, and the blurb does a pretty good job of setting up the premise (although ‘the protagonist is kinda boring’ is not a good hook). Mostly I think that dream sequences are usually a terrible idea in fiction; stories about more-or-less consistent dreamlands have a better success rate, but I’m still twitchy.
Fake News: This is one of those titles which makes it clear that your game is gonna be about Politics without offering many clues as to how – are we going for gonzo slapstick ‘satire’, dystopian horrors, what? The blurb is good at suggesting a distinct protagonist, while being careful to avoid giving too much away; but this doesn’t really overcome my instant weariness at the title. The cover art is aiming for nice clean simplicity, but misses the mark – the red title gets tangled up in the black-and-white newsprint.
Future Threads: Oh, man, this cover art. The figure feels disunified from the image – the shading doesn’t make sense with this kind of ultra-bright direct light – the detail of what’s in her hands gets lost, and so does the shape of her hair against the background figure. The sinister figures are readable, but they’re more like smears of paint than elements fitting into the scene.
The blurb goes on for longer than it should, which makes its high-drama tone feel overblown. But it gives a good sense of what to expect from the story.
Harbinger: This is OK. The blurb establishes a premise and a a problem with an objective within a nice brief paragraph; the cover isn’t gorgeous but it shows the thing it’s meant to show and establishes some mood. Corvids are great. Am a fan of corvids.
Inevitable: Goofy mad scientist, room-escape, time shenanigans: this does an efficient job of calling out its genre touchstones, but makes almost no effort on suggesting that it’s going to do anything interesting with them.
The Living Puppet: I think someone didn’t quite get a sense of the purpose of the blurbs. But I am pretty curious about what’s going on in Chinese IF. Anyway, the art for this is fine, but with the title it strongly suggests Creepy Doll Horror which is generally not my jam.
Measureless to Man: Maybe this’ll be good, but this has a mix of studied vagueness and unhelpful detail that doesn’t really help.
The Murder in the Fog: Same deal here as with the others in this set – all we really have to work on is a title and an attractive, moody, but stock-photography image.
My night: I’m not sure if this is aiming at teen slasher horror or more realistic trauma horror or what. (Sidebar: really not keen on authors using content-warnings to say ‘this is PG’ or ‘this is 18+’.) I am keen on games about stupid teen parties and interested in games from outside the anglosphere.
Nyna Lives: This looks as though it’ll be cute, easily-digested, inoffensive and not particularly memorable.
Off the Rails: This is another ‘look I know this seems boring, but I assure you, something cool will definitely happen’ kind of blurb.
The Owl Consults: Man. I really feel like this could have been a Good Presentation. It’s a nice photo, and the text pops against it even though it’s a boring font. But it sorta contradicts itself – are we already ruling the literal world or not? If we’re not, we have more than one challenge remaining, yesno? Thomas Mack’s thing is comedy pieces about terrible fantasy villains, so this seems very on-brand – but my general sense about them is that they’ve been respectable works which I can’t get very excited about.
a partial list of things for which i am grateful: I expect this to be brief and to elicit the same kind of shrug reaction as the faces on the cover.
Redstone: There are some potentially interesting things here – reservation, parser-choice hybrid experiments – but the premise gives you almost nothing to go on except ‘yes, this is a murder-mystery.’
The Richard Mines. This is not a good title. It’s not a good cover either – the historical photo is fine, but the text additions don’t go well. I like historical settings, and ruin-exploration is a solid device, but it’s not grabbing me.
The Silver Gauntlets: Children’s fantasy journey, dealing with disability. I’m reacting hard against that final “You may just discover who you were meant to become” line, though. There are a lot of lines like that in these blurbs – “Will you X” questions are also rubbing me the wrong way.
The skinny one: So this is plainly going to be about eating disorders and body dysphoria. Evidence of decent prose.
Temperamentum: Good photo for a cover image; text legible but not pretty. There’s not a lot of hook in this blurb – you get a general picture of the kind of story this is going to be, but it manages to make it feel very generic.
Unit 322: Disambiguation: “A mystery told entirely through the pages of an online encyclopedia” is a good start to a blurb. And here’s the thing: the engaging thing about doing dives into Wikipedia or TVTropes or whatever is all about weird details, the sense of weird stuff you didn’t know about being just beyond the next link. Offer lots of specific information and the reader becomes hungry for it to be expanded on. Offer a small amount of extremely nonspecific information and nobody will be interested.
(The other thing is that designing database / encyclopedia games is genuinely quite hard, because you need a lot of content to get that experience.)
The Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation: Mostly this establishes itself as a Very Twine Premise: childhood trauma, ‘simulator’ that may or may not actually be a sim.
The Very Old Witch and the Turnip Girl: I haven’t done well with Megan Stevens’ previous work, but I am in favour of witches and games about human relationships. Turnips are pretty good too.
What Once Was: There’s a lot of IF about time travel and a lot of IF about academia woes. This blurb doesn’t deliver much beyond ‘IF about time travel and academia woes.’ Is this time travel that’s about the destination? About the logic and mechanics of time travel? Again, this is very much about describing the opening scene and leaving it at that.
Category C: Outlook Not Good
10pm: Boring image, boring blurb. The content warning is the only real information about the game.
A Castle of Thread: I like this cover a lot, but I’m a sucker for solid black-and-white and for aesthetics of text. The blurb establishes the premise well, but the prose could be a lot stronger – in particular, ‘Now, you have been sent on this errand and you’ll soon learn there is danger in this task’ is a resoundingly weak closing line. My prior experience of MTW’s games is that they tend towards overambition and to struggle with involving the player in the story.
The Castle of Vourtram: A fantasy game entitled The Castle of X says to me ‘aiming to be a big old munge of standard heroic-fantasy tropes, uninterested in doing anything beyond that.’ Wading through the blurb confirms this, and also that your goal is damsel-rescue. The art is similarly not great – it looks as though it’s aiming at an old-school rendition of a castle, but the art style is broken up by the pentagram, and the face within the pentagram either vanishes or looks badly comped-in, depending on how bright your screen is.
Charlie the Robot. Goofiness ahoy. Might be fine. Might be incredibly tedious. Might even be charming. Hard to say.
The Cube in the Cavern: Andrew Schultz has his thing, and it’s not ever going to be my thing, and that’s OK. I mean, bizarre theories about the true shape of the earth could be great material, but
The Dragon Will Tell You Your Future Now: The overall impression this gives is of haphazard, seat-of-the-pants production without a lot of overall plan behind it.
Escape from Terra: No cover, no blurb, and all we get from the title and subtitle is a lump of SF cliche.
The Adventure of Esmeralda and Ruby on the Magical Island: Again, a very minimal presentation. I get that it’s a children’s adventure, but no reason to feel interested in this particular children’s adventure.
Étude Circulár: No blurb except for content warnings. Screams ‘self-absorbed way-too-into-positioning-itself-as-Real-Art piece.’
The Fifth Sunday. This is one of those airport-paperback titles that’s calculated for sounding impactful without giving you anything to go on. No real blurb, and the cover art is a weirdly-comped black-and-white landscape with polar bears and Neuschwanstein Castle and rugged mountains and a little cabin? which I think might be meant to evoke apocalypse, possibly global-warming apocalypse, but that’s mostly a guess. So my response to this is mostly ???
Goodbye, Cruel Squirrel: This is a bare-bones presentation – like, urgh, that cover is Not Good – but you get a premise out of it.
Grue. I don’t have a problem with drawing on the old-school canon per se, but the blurb suggests a pretty routine effort.
Insignificant Little Vermin: Trope fantasy. Possibly ironic. General rule: don’t say AI unless you’re doing something really cool with NPCs, and don’t say ‘rendered through text’ in a blurb for a text game competition.
Into the Dark: Yeah, OK, this establishes the setting and subject-matter, but it’s basically ‘my witchers are different.’ Grimdark stubblegruff protector protag. Snore.
Just Get the Treasure v0.9.1: Diffident, waffly description of rote fantasy scenario.
Land of the Mountain King: There are situations where just posting a selection from your game’s writing will do perfectly well for a blurb. And on the face of it this does the job – it shows you quite clearly what the game’s about – but unfortunately it’s ditchwater-dull expostulation prose that outlines an extremely boring stock-fantasy scenario.
Mikayla’s Phone: Almost no presentation except for content-warnings. Early reports deeply unpromising.
Moon Base: “This is a sci fi/horror game… I hope you enjoy/are scared by it!!! You’ll need to run this using FIREFOX”. Well then.
NIGHTBOUND: Look at this, seriously:
You’ve just arrived in a new land. You’ve left your past where it belongs–hundreds of leagues across the sea–and you hope to start fresh. But all is not well in this new country, and you soon find yourself in the thick of it. Will you end the growing threat here?
So there’s nothing wrong with the basic scenario here – but all we’re told is the basic scenario. We’re told nothing about who we are, what the new land is or why we should care about it, and it ends on ‘the growing threat’ – well, OK, the purpose of a question is to draw the reader in, right? But they have no reason to be invested in that question when they have no idea about what the threat is or what it’s a threat to.
In total, this is a piece that’s signalling really hard that it wants to be generic fantasy RPG, and that it cares more about the conventions and structures of generic fantasy RPG than in the stories or people or cultures or landscapes that those conventions and structures are used to convey. That’s deeply unappealing.
One way out: I just react really badly to forced rhyme.
Queer In Public: A Brief Essay: I see the value in low-interactive testimonial pieces, but man, putting ‘essay’ on it really makes it sound like ‘blogs aren’t a thing any more, so, welp.’
Rage Quest: Disciple of Peace: This is a really bad title. And on paper, OK, ‘take standard SFF trope, deconstruct from different angle to consider implications’ is a fine mode, but I think ‘what if orcs but they struggle with evil’ is, like, kind of a Thing that’s Been Done at this point, plus, like, if you’re going to ask ‘what if some class of people were more prone to violent anger’, that’s a legit question but race is very much not the lens to be using?
On the other hand, this is a decent cover for the kind of thing I suspect it’s aiming to be. Points there.
Rainbow Bridge: Give me something to work with here.
Run of the place: Man, everything about this presentation is off-putting.
Something: This presents itself as a very small and unexciting game about a very mundane topic.
Transient Skies: The blurb takes quite a lot of time to say very little except ‘space game’.
Ultimate Escape Room: IF City: Given that an escape room is basically a live-action room-escape game, it feels… redundant to make a room-escape game about escape rooms. “You love the feeling of living out a real life adventure game” kind of emphasises that this is precisely what you’re not doing?
VR Gambler: This has to take the prize for the ugliest cover. “Turn-based combat, leveling up, treasure, loot, weapons, armor, and classic adventuring” is a) a thing that’s very hard to implement well, and b) not a thing that I’m all that excited to see in an IF format.
A Walk In The Park: Going for a sense of aimless activity, which, enh.
The Wand: I like magic-system IF, but nothing makes me sigh in despondency like a wizard’s castle.
Word of the Day: There are some potentially interesting concepts floated here, but in some very ungainly prose.