IFComp 2017 — The Interactive Fiction Competition

I’ve been aware in a backgroundy kind of way of IFComp for a long time. It’s an annual competition for Interactive Fiction (IF), a genre of computer games that are based on text — though, within that rubric, many forms are included: not just traditional text adventures, but hypertext “games” and choose-your-own-adventure branching paths.

This year, inspired by the efforts of Jason Dyer on his excellent IF blog Renga in Blue, I am playing and judging some of the entries myself. (Anyone is allowed to judge: there are no qualifications and only a few rules.)

I say I am playing some of the entries, because there are a lot. There were only 12 entries for the inaugural competition in 1995, but that more than doubled to 26 in 1996, and the competition has just kept on growing. This year, there are 75 of them, and I don’t expect to get around to playing more than a handful. But here are some thoughts on the ones I’ve played so far, in the order that I played them.

1. The Richard Mines (4/10)

I found this competent (no bugs) but uninspiring. The setting — a long-abandoned German industrial base — from has potential for great atmosphere, but I didn’t feel it, which seems like a lost opportunity. I liked having the hint mechanism, even though it didn’t really tell me anything I couldn’t have guessed.

The important change I would make: I tried putting the coin in the box to fix the fuse problem, but it was rejected with a message about being the wrong size. That led me to think I was using the wrong object, when in fact I had it right — I was just putting it in the wrong place. I needed to put it in the recess. This is a variation on the old guess-the-verb problems, but in this case it’s guess-the-noun. Yes, I should have read the description more carefully. But the game had everything it needed to know I’d solved the problem, and should really have either accepted my imprecise phrasing or at least hinted at what I was doing wrong. That would make the game play more enjoyably.

2. Inevitable (4/10)

A one-room game where you have to avoid your own death, as foretold by a time-scrying machine that you have invented.

This is just about perfect, but terribly insubstantial. The writing is clear and stylish with a distinct voice, and every action I tried got a good, appropriate response. But the game is tiny, not only in that it takes place in a single location but also in that there is so very little to do. There is only one puzzle (albeit one that takes several actions to solve) the time scryer that I thought would be the heart of the story is almost entirely useless, and the freeze ray is a red herring. I hope I was in for a time-travel paradox, but the game was over almost as soon as it started. I want more!

3. The Dragon Will Tell You Your Future Now (2/10)

The experience is marred by lots of pervasive errors in the writing, not least the repeated use of “speciest” for “speciesist” and the near-constant use of “it’s” for “its”.

I smiled at “You’re honestly not sure how many bookshelves you’re hitting but you are pulling off some serious sonic the hedgehog stuff right now.”

As far as I could tell, I traversed every part of the hypertext, but I never found a way into the dragon’s office. This game has made me feel stupid. And since there’s no walkthrough, I don’t have a way to fix that.

4. Goodbye Cruel Squirrel (2/10)

Here, you play a gray squirrel, trying to overcome a rival tribe of red squirrels.

I was struck by some strange wording early on: things like “This monstrous ancient of suburban deciduousness”, and “the last strings of Autumn”. Also by mis-spellings such as “hording” and the strange 2004 copyright date. And I found it odd to imagine a shed made of two-by-fours, with two-inch-thick walls. But all of this is easy to forgive. What is not so easy to forgive is that I couldn’t cross the road, even when following the walkthrough. Going south from the north side of the street never gave me any response but the one about being forced back to the side of the street. So I got nowhere.

It’s a real shame. This seemed to be quite nicely constructed otherwise.

5. Tuuli (9/10)

You play a thirteen-year-old apprentice witch, thrust into her mistress’s place when she dies just when she’s needed most.

Tuuli is very atmospheric, and that counts for a great deal. It’s the first IF I’ve played in a long time where the writing is actively good, rather than either functional or trying-too-hard. It’s pretty extraordinary that this was not originally written in English, but is a translation. Not only that: the text tells an actual story, and a compelling one at that. It feels convincingly like it’s from a very different culture, perhaps because of its Finnish roots.

I have quibbles. I would never have guessed the right way to soften Mákke’s corpse without the walkthrough. I tried to put the cloak over her, which seemed logical, but that was rejected. I didn’t realise I needed to repeatedly SUMMON rather then do it once then wait for the effect to build. And although I had the right idea for the climactic puzzle, I couldn’t find the right words. Without the walkthrough I would have missed an outstanding ending, so I’m really glad it was included.

And that ending is honestly as good as any I have read in any IF game, Infidel and Spellbreaker included. The whole of the coda, after “winning” the game, is perfectly judged. It made me feel what it was like to be that out-of-her-depth but fantastically powerful girl, loved and feared in equal measure, and haunted. I was literally close to tears by the end.

It all left me wondering what the spell meant, so I copy-pasted the stanzas and fed them into Google Translate. Sadly, they are not so impressive in English

The wind of Ukko wind Akka
All the wind in the wind

I pray for a bitch
A big wind lift

A big wind lift
I’m a big builder

Just fold the oak floors
Rute the rotten raiders

Raise the wind to the wind
Volters pull

Raise the wind to the wind
Ilseainta riehkimään

Let the wind wind six years
Seuro for seven summers

In fact, it rains on the rapids
As well as the cross

I pray for a bitch
A big wind lift

A big wind lift
I’m a big builder

I might get a T-shirt made with the slogan “A big wind lift / I’m a big builder”.

6. Unit 322 (Disambiguation) (5/10)

This is a hypertext in which you discover, from Wikipedia-like entries, the story of several interlocking pieces of fictional history, before gaining access to a “twist-ending” final reveal.

I’m still not completely sure what was going on. Is Juliet Bloom the same person as Alison Bloom? Who was the mother of Reichardt’s illegitimate son? And, most of all, what do all those codes mean?

Still, this was an enjoyably immersive and unnerving experience.


7 responses to “IFComp 2017 — The Interactive Fiction Competition

  1. Awesome! I am thinking of doing a few this year, though not sure if I’ll have time to sign up and judge, or just work through; historically there are always some Very Good entries, and they all tend to be shorter playthroughs by virtue of the judging rules. I usually try a couple here or there, or go back and poach past winners… that way everyone else has done the legwork on what the great ones are…..

    But 75? Thats quit a lot :) IF has been in growth for a few years I think.

    Oh. OH! Mostly unrelated .. Mike, you might want to track down this story; I picked it up when the author released it, and was amazed and intimidated. It is highly detailed, and enormous, and seemed pretty accurate as much as the author could do. The topic might or might not interest you, but please take a look:

    1893: A World’s Fair Mystery

  2. Ruber Eaglenest

    Thanks for the nice review!

    Also, believe me. Don’t trust google translate translations. ;)

  3. Hey, Ruber, great to hear from you! How did you find this review so quickly? :-)

    I’d love to see a better translation of the incantation, if you have one.

  4. Thanks a lot for the review, Mike! (Daurmith here, co-author with Ruber). If you want a better translation, try this one, since the incantation comes from a song by Hedningarna: http://lyrics.wikia.com/wiki/Hedningarna:Tuuli/en

    I’m very happy you liked the story and the game (minor quibble included)! Apologies for the unintentional frustration. We’ll do better in the future :-D

  5. Thanks, Daurmith, it’s great that both co-authors have dropped in here! The proper English version is indeed much more resonant — although I’m not sure I don’t still prefer “I’m a big builder” over “Make a gale that’s great and growing” :-)

    Best wishes with the other voters!

  6. Speaking of hypertext games, have you ever tried “Choice of Robots”? https://www.choiceofgames.com/robots/

  7. Nope, not come across Choice of Robots. And I’m afraid, given the vast amount of free IF out there, I’m not likely to. (Also, the huge size of that game is a negative for me. I like them small enough to be coherent and self-contained.)

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