2018’s ballot is really big once again, so it’s been quite a lot of work just to go through all the blurbs and artwork, assess them, and unpack those assessments; hence this coming out rather later than I’d prefer. Hence also me not always finding very much to say, and sometimes only talking about the art or only the blurb.
But I think this is something that we ought to talk about, because presentation is absolutely critical in setting expectations, drawing in the right players, and establishing reserves of player confidence in your game – especially for authors who aren’t established yet. It’s also, to be honest, a set of skills somewhat distinct from those required to make a good work of IF, and it’s not something that authors get a lot of direct feedback on. So here we go again!
My reactions are based partly on technical proficiency and sensible choices made – but primarily from my personal reaction of whether this presentation makes me eager to play the game, pushes me away or just kinda sits there neutrally. You have been warned.
+=x. Strong suspicion that this title was chosen so as to come first in the list. That said, Chandler Groover consistently makes interesting games. With professional-quality graphic design, also. The cover doesn’t tell you much on its own – it’s the kind of pretty-but-generic image you’d get on the cover of a Penguin reprint – but it looks good and it meshes well with the blurb.
Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death: This isn’t very pretty – it looks like a digital tracing of a medieval illustration and the effect’s a bit rough – but it does a good job of picking out its setting, subject-matter and stylistic concerns. I would dearly like this to be good; I am into text-focused fictions and medieval nerdery, so it’s on the money for me.
Alias ‘The Magpie’. This is a decent cover, although it doesn’t look great at the size it’s displayed: there are a bunch of artefacts and the text’s gone fuzzy. The blurb gives a good idea of what to expect: a light-hearted, trope-reliant caper – and JJ Guest has done that well before. Got to say, though, either ‘Alias: Magpie’ or plain ‘The Magpie’ would have made a punchier title.
Basilica de Sangre: This is a not-obvious concept, and Bitter Karella writes with enthusiasm and dedication. In the past their goofy comedy didn’t quite click for me, but I’d be happy to be convinced this time around. Art: this is a pretty clear example of capable artist, meh graphic design.
Dead Man’s Fiesta: Concise blurb that gets at the meat of the premise, getting at both general mood and themes and the central hook, without overdefining everything. The art isn’t a feat of transcendent beauty or anything, but it’s decently-composed, legible, has a decent colour scheme. I expect this author to have a decent grasp of all the fundamental skills.
Devotionalia: The art text is trying something unusual and mostly succeeds at it, but the background is pretty illegible – obviously my monitor’s gamma wasn’t set just on the knife-edge of perfection, because I didn’t visually parse the two faces crying tears into one another’s eyeballs. Blurb: the theme is interesting to me but the writing could be punchier, although the last two lines are the Good Stuff.
Erstwhile: The cover is in the simple-and-boring-but-inoffensive camp: it doesn’t add much, but it’s legible and not ugly. The blurb is good: motive, interaction hook, not overlong.
Ürs: This is a striking and legible cover, and the blurb suggests something weird enough that I’m not bored by the game before I’ve begun; it might or might not be my cup of tea but it seems likely to be a piece with a strong voice and with craft invested into it.
Animalia: ‘Wacky’ is rarely a good sign. The blurb does succeed, however, in suggesting something unusual that I might want to get the measure of. The art is simple, legible, scales well, and conveys an idea; for a ‘I have no artistic or graphic-design expertise’ effort, it shows a lot of sense.
Bi Lines: “This game poured out of me during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in America“, which means that a) oof, heavy subject-matter, and b) this was written in, like, a couple of weeks.
Birmingham IV: The joke here, I think, is that in the British consciousness Birmingham is a decidedly modern, mundane and unmythic kind of city. The numerous Places I Am From include the West Midlands, except the actually-rural-and-full-of-stone-circles-and-holloways bit rather than the Birmingham bit. So I’m not really sure where this is going. I am a sucker for a corvid, though.
Bogeyman: Simple but effective; it doesn’t show a lot off but it does suggest a certain level of authorial confidence. This would be in the first category if I was more into horror.
Border Reivers: I am a big fan of specific historical-fiction settings, and of the Bits Of British History That Folk Songs Are About. Art: not great. Like the colour palette, though.
Campfire Tales: The aesthetic here is ‘app icon’, which is to say that it resizes well and prioritizes legibility over not-being-boring. The use of colour’s decent; the text, well, I see what the idea was, but it ended up kinda ugly. The spacing’s weird and it’s less-readable than it would be with a flatter curve.
And be careful, because out here, nothing is as it seems!
This is the Year of Extremely Stock Phrases In Blurbs, clearly.
I’m interested in IF designed to be read aloud, and I’m interested in procgen in general, but I expect that this will be rather slight.
Cannery Vale: This leaves me a little unclear about what to expect: it’ll be Dark and Gritty, yes, but it’s unclear if it’s post-apocalyptic, modern realism, survival horror, or what. The ^H stuff suggests a meta element, maybe? The Vale might signal a link to Welcome to Night Vale, or not. The cover’s OK-to-decent: an evocative image, clear legible text (though is this Canneryvale or Cannery Vale?)
Careless Talk: This is a decently-designed cover by dint of having snagged someone else’s public-domain design; as a blurb it’s not bad but also not hugely exciting. It’s trying to show off its prose, I think, but the prose it’s showing off isn’t sparkling enough to be a draw – it feels as though it’s taking entire sentences over things that could be put better in a couple of well-chosen words.
Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night! Episode 7: Fishing with Dynamite! Schlocky golden-age pulp SF is a common theme for IF, and this doesn’t really do anything to distinguish itself: the entire thing just says ‘golden-age pulp SF’ and leaves it at that. (I really am not keen on any presentation that aims for ‘hey, fellas you know [genre]? Its one of those.’) The cover looks like a pro commissioned piece, but the detail’s lost a bit at this scale, especially on the text.
Dungeon Detective: It’s cool to see some commissioned artwork for games – lettering is not a strong suit here, but it gives a strong idea of character and tone. ‘Wacky twist on genre-fantasy tropes’ is a very heavily mined vein, in IF and elsewhere. Detective games are numerous and varied in approach, so the play-style here could be a lot of very different things.
Flowers of Mysteria: Capable watercolour (although the castle ruin looks a bit disjointed from the rest of the scene) the text isn’t integrated well, though, so the overall effect is a bit ‘self-published children’s book’. And the whole thing doesn’t work very well at smaller sizes, which is kind of critical for this use; I’m a sucker for this kind of bleeding-from-the-frame effect, but it really eats up space if the actual margins are outside your control.
‘Mysteria’ is pretty damn weak as fantasy naming goes. I am absolutely here for Arthurian nonsense and into herbal nonsense, but a lot of the framing – ‘collect the four legendary flowers’ – suggests to me that this is going to be a light fetch-quest that doesn’t take full advantage of the richness of its themes.
Grimnoir: The art is crude but it pops, at least. I expect a fairly conventional Dresden Files retread here. I almost put this into the Bad category just because I dislike the title so much.
Haywire: This is mostly a decent cover, although there are some not-quite-right bits about it: I’m not sure whether the figure beside the I is meant to be a sexy lady or something else entirely, and something feels a bit off about the way the spiral and the text are positioned. ‘Dark themes’ is entirely useless as a content warning.
Let’s Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise: I like the joke but I’m not sure if it’ll support a whole game.
Let’s Rob a Bank: I am allergic to the habit of using ‘simulator’ to mean ‘game about’. This is a decent cover to use if you want to expend no art effort at all, except make the text bigger.
I.A.G. Alpha: Not a bad cover at all: clear text, nice use of colour, decently-composed, suggestive without saying everything. Given that the blurb is mostly about trying to cover up player misunderstandings, I expect meta-game fuckery.
Intelmission: Another cover in the ‘this is a mobile app’ category, another game that’s not clear about its title. I’m always interested in conversation games, but this suggests that it’s aiming for simple and generic.
Into the Lair: This is a pretty bad cover: you can read the text fine, but the image is confusing. (Zoomed-in, it’s clearly steps leading into a cellar, but at first I read it as a wooden wall with snow on it.) Good use of content warnings.
I Should Have Been That I Am: Kinda bored by all of this. The cover is OK but a boring ‘the game is set in this well-known location’ thing; I am not grabbed by the premise.
The King of the World: This is a decent bit of cover design, but it doesn’t scream IF to me – it suggests some kind of board-gamey or management-light mechanics. The blurb is very boring and light on specifics.
Lux: ‘Blind protagonist’ and ‘damaged space station’ are not as novel as the blurb seems to think they are. The art’s simple, striking, evokes a little atmosphere, but I can’t figure out if it’s meant to be of anything. I expect this to be diligent work that’s difficult to get very excited about.
The Master of the Land: The cover looks like it’s aiming to be a cheap knockoff of Europa Universalis, but the blurb suggests something concrete and interesting. On the other hand, the writing has a few errors and could use some tightening up.
The Mouse Who Woke Up For Christmas: This suggests saccharine cutesiness, a flavour I really don’t enjoy in children’s fiction. Fussy equivocation – ‘Well, that’s not quite true, there was a mouse stirring, not in the house, but in the shed at the bottom of the garden where he lived’ is rarely a good look in prose, and really bad in a blurb. I have a good idea of what to expect, though.
The Origin of Madame Time: I thought The Owl Consults was OK. I expect this to also be OK, although it might prove to be something in the Tight Puzzle Cleverness category. The art’s a mixed bag – the text is really nice and clear, as is the main figure, but the rest is a bit of a muddle; it could have lost the repeated figures in the lower middle.
Ostrich: Political games are particularly hard to blurb, in large part because there aren’t many blurbs you can write which don’t come across as ‘GUYS GUYS have you READ NINETEEN-EIGHTY-FOUR I just think it’s incredible how TIMELY it still is’. The cover is like the stereotypical thing you’d get in a game about how censorship is bad, as is ‘this is a game for right now’. The rest of the blurb is a little better, though.
Pegasus: This is a fine blurb that gives me a good idea of what the game’s about, an OK cover (although the small hexes obscure the pegasus design rather), but it doesn’t get me excited about any of it – ‘what if the power wielded by superheroes was problematic’ is a very thoroughly-trodden theme.
Polish the Glass: There isn’t very much here at all; I suspect that the entire hook of the game relies on a clever twist or something that the author feels is too much of a spoiler.
Railways of Love: Not entirely sure what to make of this. The cover’s got really strong colours and legible text, but the image is a bit blurry and unclear, and the blurb leaves me with a similarly fuzzy impression of what this is about and how it works.
smooch.click. There’s a principle in headline-writing (latterly named Betteridge’s law) that says you shouldn’t ask a question that can be answered ‘no’. The blurb version: don’t ask a question with alternatives if doing so makes it clear which answer the author is pushing. Devon Guinn’s prior work suggests this will be short and easily digested, but does not fill me with the expectation that any of the kissing will be hot.
Space Punk Moon Tour: The art is trying to look horrible and it succeeds; it does, however, manage to have more legible text than a lot of this year’s game covers. The blurb doesn’t grab me immediately, but it does suggest a story with some kind of emotional core.
Six Silver Bullets: This is an attractively-designed, legible cover. I shouldn’t dunk on spoiler warnings, but the worst line in the blurb is ‘violence, foul language, extensive ruminations on death and free will,’ which creates an impression rather like the kind of alternative comic that eighteen-year-old boys think is deeply profound. That kind of sums this up, actually: this has potential but I don’t know that I trust the author with that potential.
The Temple of Shorgil: This is a nice clean simple cover with legible text, good layout and well-chosen colours; it doesn’t suggest much about the game, but it does suggest that the author took care over it. The title suggests a very uninspired D&D adventure. The blurb pretty much says ‘this is going to be an Arthur DiBianca joint’, with the crucial word being ‘puzzle-oriented.’
Tethered: Super-boring cover, and a blurb that’s pretty much ‘I’m going to tell you as little about my game as possible; also this is metafiction I guess.’ Minus three points for quoting the extremely overquoted part of Chuang Tzu; the Zhuangzi is really good and it’s worth reading the rest of it.
They Will Not Return: The cover takes a pass. The blurb – well, it kind of suggests a piece without much motive force, just a bunch of robots sitting around and being sad that humans are extinct and doing Waiting for Godot shit.
Time Passed: This seems like it’s going to be a simple, straightforward, heartfelt piece about a particular set of feelings; it might or might not succeed in being touching, but I don’t really expect anything more out of it.
Tohu wa Bohu: This might be good or it might suck, but either way it’s likely to be a rough experience. Nice photo and text, but neither are hugely legible at the scale they’re used; I didn’t even realise there was film involved until I zoomed in.
Tower: This is a clean simple cover, but again, I’m really not given a whole lot to go on here. Minus three points for a Lovecraft quote not calculated to drag Lovecraft.
Within a circle of water and sand: ‘A quest with no clear goal’ isn’t promising. ‘No clear goal’ suggests that the author hasn’t sorted their character motivations out; and if there’s no goal, it’s not really a quest, it’s a wandering. ‘Quest’ is an extremely overused word for a very established trope, so if your story doesn’t quite fit it, you should jump at the opportunity to call it something else.
A Woman’s Choice: I expect this to have its heart in the right place but be a less-lurid version of Pretty Little Mistakes. The opening lines of the blurb seem like a companion piece to the best-known Lyttle Lytton entry that’s not actually a Lyttle Lytton entry, Adam Cadre’s “Jennifer stood there, quietly ovulating.”
The Addicott Manor. First, make your mind up: is it Addicott Manor or The Addicott Manor? Second, the image doesn’t work very well at a reduced size. Third, ‘spooky manor, find the treasures’ is not a very grabby hook. Lastly, the second paragraph of the blurb sprawls rather – the core information could have been condensed into something much more succinct.
Adventures with Fido. Cutesy animal games are not typically my speed, and the intro does not suggest anything very interesting. “A simple premise… complete quests, achieve objectives, earn currency, and build friendships” reads like “we had a very limited idea, so we added some rote gamification”. (I don’t dislike children’s fiction at all – rather, I think that it’s a demanding form, which is very often served extremely poorly by adults who underestimate it.)
Ailiphilia: This is an Andrew Schultz game, and it’s displaying the usual Andrew Schultz qualities: it’s got a puzzle Thing, it’s going to prioritise that puzzle Thing to the exclusion of everything else, and every one of its sentences is going to read like a crossword clue.
And You May Find Yourself: The aesthetic here is 90s album cover, or a 90s edgy-cool novel. Amnesia is fundamentally boring and massively overdone; if you’re going to pitch your game on it, you need a lot more in your pitch – certainly, something more than an 80s music reference.
Anno 1700: This cover’s pretty much a total mess: tiny text in a badly-matching colour that still doesn’t pop and is shoved off to the very edge of the frame, confusing composition, perspective that suggests the kissing couple are about to surf a wicked tube. It does get across the idea of ‘pirate romance’, but I suspect that this is going to be more time-travel treasure-hunt than romance. (The Monkey Island reference is not heartening here; the Monkey Island games are pretty great on their own terms, but nodding to them suggests Tropey Retro Adventure.) “Little do you know that you will get more than you bargained for when you find yourself hopelessly entangled in the legend of…” is a run-on of four separate blurb cliches, which doesn’t suggest strong writing.
Awake: The blurb doesn’t suggest anything very striking (sinister science projects with monsters: enh) and there are lots of small infelicities with the writing. The art’s kind of boring, and aside from the red text looking pretty bad, ‘part 1 of many’ suggests an incomplete story.
‘And I probably shouldn’t have written all that in the blurb.’ Trust your instincts, cheechako.
The Broken Bottle: This art is basically illegible at this resolution, and the image doesn’t get a lot clearer at full size. ‘Professor Elwood’s Castle of Oddities’ verges on the precious. Extremely not here for Magical Gypsy plots, which are rather strongly suggested. In general, this looks as though it’s by-the-numbers YA fantasy, and the blurb doesn’t suggest much colouring outside the lines. “The choice…[is] in your hands” and “need your guidance” are the sort of line you see over and over in contexts where interactivity is presumed to be new and unfamiliar; in an interactive fiction competition, that kind of emphasis is superfluous.
Bullhockey! This has strong signs of being a Dirtbag Lad Comedy, a genre I like rather less than I did when I was seventeen, and with a non-zero chance of having a ‘yay for this terrible asshole’ vibe. The cover design is pretty OK for something done quickly and without any particular art resources – it’s legible, has some visual impact, scales well, isn’t incongruous with the dirtbag style it’s suggesting.
Charming: The composition of this cover art is pretty decent, but coloured pencil just translates horribly to digital contexts. Also, don’t use your blurb to tell the story of your development process, unless that story’s closely related to the subject of the game and also really interesting. Put it in your About text, if anywhere.
Diddlebucker! I guess the audience for this is ‘people who loved Ready Player One,‘ which is profoundly unappealing to me. A strong contender for the ugliest cover, and ‘the best and brightest Gamer of ’em all’ makes me want to nope out immediately.
Dilemma. Games whose entire premise is ‘trolley-case’, oy.
Dream Pieces 2: I think I played the first Dream Pieces but I can remember absolutely nothing about it, which isn’t a good sign. But, yeah, this is presenting itself as a small, simple puzzle game without much of a narrative or aesthetic component.
Dreamland: Dreams are fascinating, illogical and colourful; being told about dreams is by default incredibly tedious, and few fictions about dreams display a lot of imagination. There isn’t much in the presentation to contradict this – if you’re going for very familiar tropes, you really need to offer up a distinctive hook as early as possible. I think the text here is trying to camouflage itself?
En Garde. I expect solid work from Jack Welch, but this is an ugly-ass cover. ‘Classic Infocom game, zombies, Comic-Sans-y font’ is, I suspect, a design microtargeted to annoy me, personally. The blurb is of the too-vague school: it offers hints but no hooks.
Escape from Dinosaur Island: Cheesy retro adventure. Does the job, but its job is to say “Sam, don’t play this, you will not appreciate it.”
Eunice: OK. I really like formal poetry, and I really, really dislike bad poetry in games. If you’re thinking ‘should I write my game in rhyming couplets’, the answer is almost certainly not. The blurb makes it very clear that Eunice will not be the exception to this: the rhymes are painfully forced from the very first line, the scansion’s a mess, the sum effect is to render a relatively simple concept awkward. The art’s… OK, in that it’s drawing on some pretty and evocative landscape art, but I think it’d have been stronger if it had picked one and stuck with it, or arranged the panels differently.
A Final Grind: In general, ‘this game mechanic is frustrating, but that’s OK because it’s about being frustrated’ is a really hard sell unless you’ve got way, way more than that to offer. There’s a lot that’s unappealing about this, but ‘Use of a calculator is to be considered cheating’ is a big ol’ coffin nail.
The Forgotten Tavern: This is really bad cover art: the image is near-totally illegible, the text isn’t clear, and I’m not quite sure whether there’s meant to be another image in those unaccountable yellow bars or not.
H.M.S. Spaceman: There are a number of ways that a space sex comedy could shake out, quite a lot of them are bad, and the blurb offers only ambiguous clues. Not a good cover.
Instruction Set: A retro-aesthetic game that only runs in Flash loses a lot of appeal right out of the gate. There isn’t much in the blurb to counterbalance this.
Junior Arithmancer: This is an effective presentation insofar as it says that this is a game I probably don’t want to play very much: a children’s puzzle game about maths being fun. The cover’s very legible but it ain’t pretty.
Linear Love: I am in favour of romance games, but this is a minimal-effort presentation, and in a single line it still manages to get something wrong (‘set where else but in France.’)
Murder at the Manor: This is the most obvious title possible for its genre, and the blurb suggests an effort that aspires to be not merely genre-bound, but genre-generic. This is frustrating: murder-mystery IF is a genre that has been explored a lot but hasn’t really been figured out, but this seems unlikely to have taken that into account. The cover is basically ‘self-published Kindle novel’: a vaguely apropos stock photo with a title in a basic font whanged in wherever there’s space. The colours seem to have been specially chosen to be grey and depressing and give everything a run-down feel, as though – despite the palm trees – this is a damp late winter in the UK circa 1987.
Nightmare Adventure: The blurb is snappy, the cover’s a mess. I expect this to be an unexceptional light-fantasy puzzler.
Shackles of Control: This is the kind of title that could, in descending order of likelihood, adorn a work of D/s smut, swords-and-sorcery, or political fiction. All of those pieces should change their title, however, because shackles and control really just double down on the same concept and leave it feeling overwrought. The blurb and cover don’t seem to have much to do with the title, which could be about the Rapture? Or triffids, for all I know.
StupidRPG: Games which apologise for their existence in their title are rarely worthwhile, and I say this as someone whose first released work of interactive fiction was entitled ‘stupidgame’. Retro graphics do not fill me with hope.
The Stone of Wisdom: A strong competitor for the hotly contested award for Most Uninspired Heroic-Fantasy Blurb.
Re: Dragon: The IFTF is many things, but its business would not make for gripping fiction. Also, Jason ain’t running the show no more, buddy, get with the times.
Writers Are Not Strangers: The cover is an attractive photo, but it’s not used well: the text is ill-positioned and it’s in a horrible faux-handwriting font. ‘Alix’s short stories are inspired by a variety of famous videogames and classic novels. Can you spot them all?’ sits very badly against the tone that the rest of the blurb is trying to establish. Like, if you’re going to say that (and I suggest you don’t) hide it away in AMUSING text or something.
(I did some testing on Terminal Interface, so that’s off the list. Disclaimer: I am married to the lead organiser of IF Comp, and I’m on the IFTF’s Comp advisory committee. For a breakdown of what my scores mean, see this post.)