Voting is closed in the 2017 IF Comp. I made it through all of the top-tier games in my triage system and had time for a scattering of assorted pieces after that; I haven’t played anywhere near every one of the 79 games, but I’ve had time to at least glance over most of the ones that piqued my interest. Here are my favourite games of the comp:
Set in a New England women’s college, Harmonia is a beautifully-presented story about utopias and their shortcomings; and also about textuality, viewpoints, what can be drawn from texts and what can’t. Liza Daly has been pushing the envelope on IF presentation ever since First Draft of the Revolution, and this is a substantial step forwards on that front. Very few IF works make me downright avaricious with their layout, but this has jumped straight to the top of that list.
Tuuli is a short, punchy game about a novice Finnic witch who’s obliged to step into her mentor’s shoes to protect her village from Viking raiders. At least part of my enjoyment was due to its subject-matter hitting a lot of my buttons, but it accomplishes a great deal in a small space. (cw: its magic rituals involve self-harm).
Will Not Let Me Go is a highly polished, acutely observed piece about old age, dementia and death, deftly using interaction to signify the protagonist’s disorientation and frustration. It’s heavy going, but manages to strike bittersweet notes on a subject that’s prima facie grounds for despair. (Disclaimer: I tested this game.)
Eat Me is a visceral, vision-of-hell horror piece underlaid by really solid design; if you like the macabre worlds and powerfully lurid prose of Chandler Groover’s previous work, it’s like two of those that are somehow occupying the same space. It comes with a lot of health warnings – squicky, grotesque horror with a palpable (if not necessarily intentional) flavour of kink, and I’d counsel caution if you have any kind of Issues around food.
The Wizard Sniffer is a substantial, witty slapstick romp with very solid execution and some smart ideas. It’s perhaps a little long for a single sitting, but it’s a lot more charming and less tired than ‘light-comedy fantasy’ would suggest. (I suspect it’ll win the comp.)
10pm is a dense, one-scene conversation piece, the player-character’s side of which is told through pictograms. I’m not 100% sold on the gimmick, but this is a story that’s really good at presenting complicated characters and their difficult relationships.
Domestic Elementalism is a cosy witchy magical-transformation-puzzle game, gentle and thoughtfully presented. Not earth-shattering stuff, but a good comfort read for a quiet evening: the IF equivalent of a warm blanket and a cup of cocoa.
Hexteria Skaxis Qiameth is an attractively-presented Borgesian bagatelle. If you’re already familiar with Borges it won’t add a whole lot, and I think it falls short of the sense of grand scope that’s needed to make this kind of story sing, but I liked it anyway.
Swigian is a curtly-delivered game about… well, to say too much would spoil it; it loses its way rather in the middle, but it accomplishes a strong, moody atmosphere, and handles Vagueness rather better than 95% of games which take that route. (Which I understand is a fortuitous accident as much as anything.)
Craft. This feels like a year where the notable games are more dominated by solid command of conventional design than by flights of virtuoso brilliance. The most striking pieces – and much of the middle of the field, for that matter – are predominantly by people who’ve been doing this for a while and know the ropes. Much less in evidence are forehead-of-Zeus games, works by first-timers who have new ideas and approaches and are suddenly, excitingly Really Good At This (or at least Really Interesting). This might go some way towards explaining why I’ve heard a good number of people say “this is an amazing year” and a good number say “this is a really uninspiring year”.
For myself, I felt as though the proportion of games which were just plain boring was pretty high – but it’s to be expected that when the number of entries goes up as abruptly as it did this year, the average quality is going to drop somewhat. As part of a cycle, that’s OK, but it can feel pretty dispiriting in the short run.
Presentation. A lot more games are paying attention to presentation and polish in game layout. There aren’t all that many Twine pieces in the default Sugarcane white-and-blue-on-black. There are a good number of works whose layout is very specifically designed for the particular game they are. This is definitely more about layout than art – I don’t see a corresponding increase in the level of cover art or illustration.
CRPGs. Interactive fiction has always had a weird relationship with D&D-derived CRPGs. There were a lot of those this year, both in parser and choice. Few evinced ambitions beyond being an iteration of conventional CRPG adventure, and I wasn’t really very excited by any of them, either as stories or as combat games; nothing approaching the honed design of Kerkerkruip or the assured voice of Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom.
Witches. A lot of witch games. Good.
Second-language authors. An unusually high proportion of games this year appear to have been written by authors imperfectly fluent in English; this varies from works like Tuuli which only have a handful of errors, to things like The Living Puppet where the entire project is sunk by clarity of language. This obviously isn’t the fault of those authors, but it unambiguously weakens their work. I feel as though we should be doing more here, but this is not straightforward.