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IF awards and how we think about them

We just got a new issue of SPAG. (The Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games, a long-historied zine of the IF community. It's old enough that it was originally "Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games" because we thought IF might die out or something. 1994, right?)

I want to respond to Ted Casaubon's article, "Safeguarding Your IF Voting From Animal Attack". The author looks at our IF voting traditions (IFComp and the XYZZY Awards) and puts them in context with last year's furor around the Hugos, the (much more famous) annual awards of the science fiction and fantasy community.

This is an excellent article overall. Ted's comparison is absolutely one that weighed on my mind last year, and still does today. The 2016 Hugo nominations were last month, and XYZZY nominations just started. Does the videogame world have a radical-angry faction analogous to the Sad/Rabid Puppies? Why yes. So it could happen here and we should worry about that. The article talks about that possibility and it does a good job.

However, I think the article skates over the heart of the issue. Let me quote from the concluding paragraph:

The voting systems described above are all intended to ensure that a minority bloc doesn’t thwart the will of the majority. But the reality is that a majority voting bloc could be just as harmful to the integrity of an IF award, if it was the result of a raid on the polls from outside the community. The only real way to prevent that would be to limit who gets to vote.

(-- Ted Casaubon, "Safeguarding Your IF Voting From Animal Attack", SPAG#63, 11 April 2016)

(Yeah, look at me footnoting.)

Here's the thing: the IFComp, the XYZZYs, and the Hugos are all popularity contests. That's fundamentally what they are. When you talk about ways "to prevent that" -- prevent the majority from winning your popularity contest -- you've made some deep conceptual mistake.

And yet, it's not a simple mistake. Ted is correct to note the 2012 incident in which an unguarded blog post flooded the XYZZY noms with votes for a single entry. That was a problem, and the admins dealt with it (correctly in my view) by disregarding those votes. So how does that make sense? Is that a case of ignoring the majority?

Ted's article describes this in terms of "bloc voting" -- which was also the common diagnosis of last year's Hugo problems. If you look back at Dan Fabulich's blog post, he also talks about "the voting block". But he also says:

The XYZZY Awards are normally decided by a close knit community of interactive fiction enthusiasts; more than a hundred votes is a good turnout for XYZZY. ... But this year, our votes completely overwhelmed the entire interactive fiction community.

(-- Dan Fabulich, "We Almost Flooded the XYZZY Ballot Box", 5 March 2012)

This is not a distinction about tactical voting, but about community self-definition -- "our votes" versus "community votes". And this is what I want to step back and consider.

The Hugo situation was not primarily a case of outsiders flooding the ballot box. The leaders in the Sad/Rabid Puppy groups are well-known SF authors and regulars at SF fan conventions. (The least-known, Ted "Rabid" Beale, is still a writer sufficiently established to join, run for president of, and then get thrown out of the SF Writers of America.)

It is true that Puppy campaigning must have brought in votes from people who would not otherwise have purchased a Hugo voting membership. It is also true that the counter-reaction also brought in votes on the other side. For example, me! I cast a Hugo vote for the first time in probably fifteen years.

But am I an outsider? I hope nobody would say that. I'm a convention regular too; I've been going to East Coast regional cons (Balticon, Philcon, Arisia, Boskone) since high school. I've been to several Worldcons, and every Worldcon attendee can cast a Hugo ballot. I just haven't bothered very often. The Puppy situation pulled me back in.

So, while 2015 Hugo voting hit record levels, it's not obvious that much of it came from people who never read SF. My guess (although I have no statistics) is that most of the increase came from SF readers and folks enmeshed in fandom who suddenly cared a whole lot more about the Hugos than usual. That is a good thing. When we talk about a problem in the Hugo voting, we're not talking about that.

Nor are we talking about the fact that the avalanche was tipped off by a couple of racist, homophobic right-wing conspiracy theorists, plus a bunch of other conspiracy theorists who thought that the first guys were fine travelling companions, and then their toxic views gained currency across a stretch of the fandom landscape. That is a problem -- a big problem -- but it's not a voting problem per se.

No, the voting problem is a hole in the Hugo first-round (nomination) rules, which allowed a minority of the voters (30% if I recall the estimates) to completely control most of the voting categories. Which they did, and filled them with entries that the majority (70%) thought were junk. I don't mean people saying "enh, not my favorite story of the year"; I mean people saying "not in the top ten, not in the top twenty, not worth being mentioned on this ballot". Result: predictable collapse in the second round.

(Note: the particular form of the collapse followed from the Hugo rules, which allow the voters to select "no award in this category" as the winner. This is really just a detail, however. Despite a great effort from the Puppy supporters to say otherwise, the use of "no award" was a response to the problem described above, not a problem in itself. If it hadn't been that, it would have been something else.)

What was the hole in the rules? Bloc voting, or, more specifically, bloc nominating. I think this is a problem in most open-nomination voting systems. It's like this:

  • If 100 people with a range of opinions name their five favorite things, they'll all give different lists. But with a lot of overlap. The top thing will be listed maybe 20 times, the next maybe 15 times, the next maybe 12 times. I'd call it a normal distribution, except that's about single-axis variables, but you get the idea -- a bunch of small heaps piled up to make a larger, fuzzy heap with a peak.
  • If 30 people name five things, but they all agree to name the same list, then the top thing will be listed 30 times.
  • 30 beats 20. The 30% controls nominations. Kaboom, as described above.

The implicit assumption of the open-nominations system is that the fuzzy top zone of the heap is acceptable to most of the voters. Your favorite thing may not be the top nominee, but some of your top five are probably in the list. And if everybody votes their own opinions, it's a pretty good system for doing that.

Obviously it's not perfect. If there's a completely bimodal split, the minority is probably hosed. That is, if 70% of the voters only like green things, and 30% of the voters only like purple things, purple gets shut out. You can say that's what majority voting means -- which is true, although perhaps less true in the nominations round. (Should one or two purple nominees show up in the top five?) But in any case this is an extreme edge case; not what you would expect from realistic, honest votes.

So are the open nominations of the XYZZYs (in progress now!) vulnerable to this sort of collective minority action? Sure. No question about it.

This is compounded by the notion of votes who really are coming from outside "the community". That's what happened in 2012. Choice Of Games has a larger internet following than the XYZZY community; they (inadvertantly) swamped it. You could imagine some Youtube streamer or other net celebrity telling their followers "go to this web site and vote for this game!" Then there would be thousands or tens of thousands of XYZZY nominations for it, and what does that mean?

Ted's article (remember Ted's article? This post is a response to Ted's article, at least it was before it hit 1500 words and climbing):

The enthusiastic ChoiceScript supporters were seen as invaders by the IF community in the 2011 XYZZYs, but with Creatures Such as We taking second place in the 2014 Comp and Scarlet Sails taking 7th in 2015, they probably wouldn’t be considered such outsiders today.

But this is the wrong way to look at it. The same flood of blog-spawned votes for an Inform game would have been equally a problem. The point of the XYZZYs, if there is a point, is to discern what the IF community thinks is best in IF this year. And if "the IF community" is a circularly-defined thing of shifting and argumentative boundaries, it is still a thing. Or else the awards stop being interesting.

A couple of years ago I read an article about the Billboard hip-hop charts. Everything in it sounded familiar -- and this was before Gamergate and Puppies appeared on the scene. It wasn't about malicious or coordinated vote-rigging; it was about the inherent fuzziness of self-defined community.

Ideally, any effective genre chart—be it R&B, Latin, country, even alt-rock—doesn’t just track a particular strain of music, which can be marked by ever-changing boundaries and ultimately impossible to define. It’s meant to track an audience. This is a subtle but vital difference. If an R&B chart tries to cover whatever might be termed R&B music, you get into the subjective, slippery business of determining what, or who, is “black enough” for the chart.

(-- Chris Molanphy, "I Know You Got Soul: The Trouble With Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Chart", Pitchfork, 14 April 2014)

If I may sum up: the R&B/hip-hop charts were interesting when they measured what the core hip-hop audience was listening to. In the 80s and 90s that meant sales at stores where the fans -- and artists! -- were buying; it meant playlists on hip-hop radio stations. That's how you knew where the genre was, what was new and hot and (perhaps) about to cross over to the mainstream.

But now it's Internet time. What's a music store? What's a radio station? What do you even measure? Well, you measure digital downloads; but that's everybody, not R&B fans. And so you get a chart which shows, not the top hip-hop songs, but the top songs which are hip-hop. It tells you nothing about the genre, only about how you label songs. "Crossover hits" become meaningless.

Our community awards are about what's hot in IF -- what we, the fans and (presumed) literate critics of IF, think is new and good. We do that by polling our community! And, yes, excluding everybody else from the poll. You can say the same of the Hugos: they're supposed to measure what sci-fi fandom, the widest-read and most discriminating nerds, say is best.

That's why the raw cry of "include more voters!" is a problem. Take that to its limit: you poll every gamer (or every reader). Then your awards go to the most popular game which can be called IF. Or the best-selling book which looks like SF/fantasy. But that's boring! Best-seller charts are easy to find. Robert Jordan and his literary successors sell in truckloads. You go to the Hugo lists to find out if those books are any good.

(Spoiler: Robert Jordan has been nominated for Best Novel once. Lois Bujold has been nominated ten times and won four times. No, that doesn't define quality, but at least it tells you what fandom likes.)

So we want to keep voting inside "the community". But we also want the community to be open to newcomers. Um...

(Hugo voting is limited to Worldcon members; anybody can become a voting Worldcon member for $50. Now you understand the conflicting imperatives between those two facts.)

The IF world has the great advantage of being small, informal, and not very important. The XYZZY and IFComp admins retain the right to exclude votes (or works) at their discretion. That works because we know Sam and Jason; they're open and flexible about their decisions; the discussions remain personal. The Hugos are more ponderous and (necessarily) more legalistic.

But, in both cases, one cannot determine right action through rigid rules. You have to know what's going on in the community. To define the community, even, you have to know what's going on. (Circular, like I said.)

Let me quote one more bit from Ted's article:

[...] last year’s comp saw rumblings of the fact, or perhaps coincidence, that every Twine game in the 2015 comp, without exception, received two 1/10 votes.

As I said in the linked thread, that sounds about right to me! There are people in the IF world who like parser games more than choice-based games; our awards should reflect that. It doesn't surprise me that a couple of those folks feel so strongly that they'd one-star every Twine game. Those votes are coming from inside the house.

If fifty voters were doing that, it would indicate a problem. Not because there's a hard-line limit (more than 25 votes is a bloc?) -- but because it doesn't reflect what I see and hear on the forums. There just isn't that much negativity. So I would want the admins to look into where votes were coming from; I would check out non-IF gamer sites for organized opposition.

In between two and fifty... judgement call. It's contextual. It's all contextual.

Of course, this is where the "conspiracy theorist" element rears up. If what you see in the community absolutely contradicts what I see -- say, if you believe that one publisher gives marching orders to the majority of Hugo voters -- then we will never come to terms about what is right action.

In the end, we're talking about three distinct-but-enmeshed problems:

  • A two-stage voting process with open nominations is mechanically vulnerable.

  • Defining the boundaries of your voter pool is both absolutely necessary and necessarily subjective.

  • Awards or no awards, there is a toxic subculture within both the gaming and sci-fi fan communities.

On the third problem, I have nothing smarter to say than any of the rest of us.

On the second, I try to participate in the process. I trust that the IF community can grow organically without losing itself. It's worked so far, and it's worked by communicating across boundaries.

As for the first... IFComp doesn't have open nominations in the sense that we're talking about. (But it has open submissions, and we can't dismiss the idea of a voting bloc pushing its own entrants.)

In the XYZZYs, the discretion of the IF award organizers should serve. We hope. One day it won't, but I think that will be when the IF field is too large for personal ties to hold it together -- and that will a success in its own right.

On that subject, I should note that the Hugo rule change proposal is in progress but has yet to be adopted. For obvious reasons, the Hugo rules are hard to change. If the proposal is ratified this summer, it will be adopted next year.

Therefore, this year's Hugos may well be as much of a mess as last year's. Or not! Or a different mess! We hear that first-round voting ran at twice the volume of last year, but what do these new (or returning) voters want? If there are two teams -- to oversimplify -- which team are they on? Tune in on the 26th to find out, I guess.

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Two weeks left of IFComp judging

The 20th annual Interactive Fiction Competition remains open for public judging through Saturday, November 15. There are 42 games this year, many of which you can play right in your web browser, and all of which are free.

This is my own first year as competition organizer, and while I rather expect that many readers of this blog already count themselves as IFComp judges, I humbly invite the rest of you to take a look at this year’s crop of short new text games and consider participating as a judge. If you start within the next few days, you’ll still have time to meet the minimum judging quota of five games.

I don’t mind saying that we’re already on-course for a very healthy vote turnout, with over 2,000 individual game ratings already submitted — but more ratings are better, and with such a large crowd of contestants, every rating does count. I hope you’ll join us!

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Zarfplan: June is getting there

Happy Canada Day (and pretend I said that in French). 82 out of 90 rooms complete.

I'm not really measuring progress in rooms any more. There were only a few days this month that I'd mark as "wrote some rooms". June was mostly spent on underlying mechanisms which are not located in specific rooms; they're spread through the game. I don't want to get spoilery at this late date, but I have implemented large swaths of code for:

  • dragons
  • human figures
  • shadows
  • doors that change state
  • progressive starting conditions
  • ritual environments
  • looking through magical lenses at all sorts of things
  • the alternative to sheets of paper
  • the problem of trying to create two doses of some potion when I've only implemented one
  • a cigarette lighter

The cigarette lighter was a late addition. Some rituals require you to set stuff on fire. There's a couple of fire sources in the game, and you can light a bit of wood and carry that around, so it's all workable. But carrying around flaming bits of wood turned out to be annoying. They burn out. You have to get more. It felt like an imposition. So yesterday morning I said "Why doesn't this chem lab have handy butane lighters, anyhow? Real labs do."

(I don't call it a "butane lighter", or a "cigarette lighter" either, but a pocket flame source is a pocket flame source. Perhaps you have fond memories of So Far.)

So I can't put the nail in the room-list this month, but I have checked off lots of the game's remaining tasks. I am still fairly confident that I will have a complete, testable game at the end of July. That could slip partway into August, because every task list has a "last 90%" that trails off into infinity. But the game is filling out fast, and it feels like I finished half of the remaining job last month.

I am excited. And nervous.

Again, there's a chunk of work to do after the "complete game" milestone. I'll need to polish the iOS interface and build its eccentricities. (I'm thinking a tappable encyclopedia of rituals, which updates as you discover them. That will save a lot of "RECALL TARNISH RITUAL" commands. And then there's the tappable map, of course.) So August at least is scheduled for that stuff. But I will have beta-test reports coming in as I do the iOS work, so I can parallelize.

Other June news:

For the first anniversary of Seltani, I posted a little puzzle Age called Salvanas. (That link will take you straight into the game world, although you'll have to sign in to solve everything.) No story, just a collection of Myst-style puzzles -- only in text, of course. Statistics indicate that only seven people have completed it to date! Surely this can be improved.

I also got my butt in gear and posted the source code for nearly all of my Inform games. I've always had the source for Hunter, Shade, and Heliopause on my web site; I've now added Dreamhold, Spider and Web, So Far, and several others. (All are under a "for educational/academic interest" license rather than an open-source license.) If you're curious about Inform 7 source code -- or Inform 6, or actually Inform 5 for the oldest ones -- dive on in.

I've been taking a look at new distribution platforms. If you saw Shade on for pay-what-you-want, would you pay a dollar? I could set that up. There's also the Humble Store, although that's got an application process and their developer FAQ is a bit thin.

And finally, the 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition is open! Gaze in awe at the brand-new web site, built and run by our blog-host Jmac. Sign-ups and prize donations are now being accepted.

See you at the end of July. With a little luck, I will be into the final stage of development by then.

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Jason McIntosh is the new IFComp organizer!

I'd be coy about it, but the above title is what Stephen Granade posted, so I'll stick with it.

Stephen has been running IFComp since 1999. In that time... you know what, a recap of the IF world in the 21st century would be messy. Put it this way: stuff keeps changing. We all try to keep up. Stephen's patience and good humor have kept the Comp steady through all these years.

Now Stephen is stepping down to concentrate on his career as a serious rocket scientist. Jason McIntosh has volunteered to take over and helm the ship. Jmac needs no introduction here -- because it's his blog -- but you can poke at the links if you want.

2014 will hold the 20th IFComp, and I sincerely look forward to steering this institution SG has helmed since 1999, even while aware that I find myself with shoes of a certain magnitude to fill. A lot's changed over the last few years -- to say nothing of the last fifteen -- and I see the Comp as more important to the continuing development of text-based games than ever before, both as a body of work and as an increasingly diverse art form.

-- Jmac's comment on the announcement

Is he hinting at changes to come? Only the Shadow knows!

(I am not the Shadow.)

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Cold Iron: my (very short) IF entry in the Comp

IFComp is over, and it turns out I entered this year! Cold Iron placed fifteenth of 38 entries. It's a tiny little game -- so if you're hungry for Zarf IF, you can either be disappointed that it's so small or happy that it only took a few days of my time to write. But I think it's pretty good, and reviewers seem happy with the quality of work (if not the quantity).

But there's more to the story than that. I collaborated with three other Boston IF authors to create a secret, cross-game bonus puzzle.

The idea was originally suggested by Kevin Jackson-Mead at a PR-IF meetup. He thought it would be cool if several of us entered IFComp with games that shared a metapuzzle. We talked over ideas, and then I wrote a small puzzle structure and passed it around. I set it up to fit into four games. Doug Orleans and Mike Hilborn volunteered to handle the other two parts, and we charged off on our quest.

The plan -- I'm not going to give away specifics here -- was for each game to stand on its own, in its own style. But certain elements would be repeated throughout the four games. By applying ideas from one game into another, you could uncover secret extra information, and that would eventually lead to a hidden ending. We would all enter using pseudonyms (so that nobody would be surprised by four PR-IF entries); the only initial clue into the metapuzzle would be the common elements.

As it turns out, several players noticed the common elements between some of the games. (A few even caught the entire list.) However, nobody took the extra step to say "Hey, these games must actually be related, and there must be some way for me to apply that fact."

We waited until the Comp was over, hoping that somebody had figured it out and was hoarding the secret until the end of judging! Sadly, no. On the night of the 18th, Doug posted a message indicating that there was a connection between the games, and more to be solved. That was all it took; a group on IFMud (notably Carl Muckenhoupt and Michael Martin) worked out the rest within hours.

Could we have tuned the clues better, so that players caught on without a nudge? No doubt. It's very hard to judge this stuff in advance. In retrospect, we made the same mistake as the infamous PAX USB puzzler. We puzzle-people like to think we are hyper-observant machines, attuned to every scrap of a clue in our environments... but in fact we're slaves to expectation just like everybody else. Nobody sees what they're not looking for.

It didn't help that this year's Comp was full of coincidental game similarities. At least two games were notably similar to one of our four games, in one way or another. So many of the people who might have cottoned on were looking at the wrong set of games. (When we finally posted the nudge, we were careful to make clear exactly which pseudonyms were involved -- and how many.)

If you want to try to solve the metapuzzle -- and incidentally play my new IF game, as well as three other worthy entries -- look at:

If you want to read the online discussion in which the metapuzzle was attacked and solved, I've posted a transcript of that.

Looking at these four games, I am struck by how different our approaches were. I was trying to write the smallest Zarf-style game I possibly could -- this was, after all, coming together right as I was finishing up Secret Hideout and Meanwhile. Doug wanted a project to learn Inform 7 with. Kevin wanted to wrap a story around some formal puzzles (rather like his Comp entry of 2009). And Mike, well, Mike blasted out of the gate with a full-size story idea. (I assumed, at first, that he had been planning Doctor M for months. No, he started at the same time as the rest of us. He just wrote a heck of a lot more game in that time.)

I'm not sure what else to say about the project, except that I'm pretty happy with the way it came out. I don't know if anybody will try an IF metapuzzle again; if nothing else, we've alerted everybody to the possibility.

Oh, yes: "Lyman Clive Charles" is a portmanteau of L. (Lyman) Frank Baum, C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis, and Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson).

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The Warbler's Nest, and some IFComp thoughts

I am pleased to announce the release of my new game, The Warbler’s Nest. It’s a very short work of interactive fiction, a mood piece more than a puzzle-filled adventure. An experienced IF player might take 15 minutes to traverse it once, and around half an hour to explore more thoroughly. Less experienced players may wish to budget a little more time, and keep a friendly quick-reference card handy.

The game is sufficiently brief that I really can’t say anything else about it here, except to mention that you can play it in your browser, thanks to the happy modern-IF technologies I celebrated in my recent video. (And to remind you that works of pure text like this are about as safe-for-work as a videogame can possibly get, ahem.) Naturally, you can also download a copy to play on an interpreter, if that’s your thing, and a visit to the game’s homepage will satisfy any further curiosity you may have about the work.

With that done, I’d like to share some thoughts about the Interactive Fiction Competition. A less polished version of Warbler eked out a tie for ninth place (of 26 entrants) in the 16th annual IFComp, which wrapped up last month. This was a very strong year, so I’m pleased that the game even made it that high; I played and quite enjoyed most of the other contestant works. First prize went to Aotearoa, Matt Wigdahl’s masterfully constructed take on the “modern kid visits an island full of totally awesome dinosaurs” style of young-adult adventure story.

The annual community-wide metagame of creative and intelligent reviews of IFComp entrants seemed stronger than ever this year, as well. Among my favorite review collections of 2010 are those of Christopher Huang, Sarah Morayati, Brooks Reeves, and Emily Short.

And yet: even though I look forward to writing and releasing my own next work of interactive fiction, I do not plan on doing so as part of the IFComp.

My experiences as a contestant were quite mixed, mainly because of how the competition’s rules prohibit authors from modifying (or publicly discussing) their entry for the entire six-week-long judging period. I did not foresee the real pain I felt when the first reviews came in, soon after the comp began.

Every reviewer, whether or not they liked the game, ran without fail into the same handful of bugs and stylistic flaws that had managed to elude me and my initial playtesters, writing about them in their reviews. (The reasons they were invisible to us make for an interesting design lesson and story unto itself, and one I hope to write about in another post.) By the end of the first week, I’d catalogued all these problems, and planned fixes for each. But there’s the thing: the reviews kept coming, naming the same problems, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. With the comp rules binding my hands, I could do nothing but silently allow people to continue playing my flawed game for another entire month, even though I could fix it with a single file upload.

In all my work, both professional and creative, I’m used to — perhaps spoiled by — digital tools that let me work quickly and iteratively, attacking errors as soon as they’re identified. But in this case, I found myself fixedly and weirdly misrepresented by my past self’s flawed vision, when my present self had something better to offer but was unable to share. I found it a deeply uncomfortable exeprience.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I found all the feedback and criticism I received during those six weeks, both in public reviews and private communication, immensely valuable. I worked hard to synthesize it all into the game’s current release, and Warbler as it stands now is so much more polished and playable as a result of all this free labor from smart people. This is brilliant, and I can’t thank everyone enough.

But, for me, that damned rule did its best to outweigh my happiness about the good stuff. As the days after the October 1 starting gun stretched into weeks, the torture I initially felt at being unable to leap in with bugfixes and improvements boiled away into simple frustration, stress, and heartbreak. While I continued to promote the comp online, I found myself conversationally advising people not to play my game until December, when I planned on publishing and promoting the “real” version. (Unless they wanted to run the whole comp gantlet as a judge, of course, but that’s not really a feasible suggestion for new or casual IF players.)

You’ll note, however, that at no point in the article do I suggest that the rules themselves are flawed. They didn’t end up working out so well for me, but that’s OK because — thankfully — it’s not about me. The rules of the interactive fiction competition are not put into place to make Jason McIntosh happy. The rules are there to make sure that the comp functions as a stable engine that rotates once per year, burping out dozens of fantastic new IF games unto the world. And I argue that, by god, it’s done it again, meeting a high watermark entirely appropriate to a 2010 that’s seen more exciting news and advances in the art of IF than anyone last year could have predicted.

I am pleased and proud that I participated in the 16th IFComp, regardless of how well my work scored. But now that it’s over, I intend to promote Warbler as an independently produced videogame in its own right — and will skip directly to this step with all my future IF works. While the comp helped give me the confidence that my work is worth promoting, the salient point is that I do have that confidence now, and intend to make full use of it from now on, all under my own power.

And I will release bugfixes in a goddamn timely fashion!

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[IFComp2010] Seven Games Reviewed

I played some more IFComp games. Behind the jump you’ll find mini-reviews of seven games. There will be some amount of spoilerage after the jump, so be warned. If you would just like to know whether I think these games are worth your time, here are the non-spoilery micro-reviews:

  • Rogue of the Multiverse: Highly Recommended
  • The Sons of the Cherry: Not Recommended
  • A Quiet Evening at Home: Not Recommended
  • Gris et Jaune: Recommended
  • The Chronicler: Not Recommended
  • Death Off the Cuff: Highly Recommended
  • East Grove Hills: Highly Recommended

Rogue of the Multiverse by C.E.J. Pacian
Even though this is an “odd-format” game (read, not Z-machine or Glulx), it’s by the celebrated author of Gun Mute, so I had high hopes for this game, and I wasn’t disappointed. You start off in prison, and I wasn’t initially entirely sure if I was just supposed to go along with things or try to escape. After getting killed during my first escape attempt, however, I figured this wasn’t that kind of game. The game as a whole is fairly linear, but the story is excellent, and there certainly is enough interactivity to make it engaging. What really shines about this game for me, and why I highly recommend it, is the writing. It’s humorous sci-fi, which I can sometimes like but which I sometimes tire of pretty quickly. This managed to hit the perfect tone of being humorous without being comical, and I certainly never got tired of it. Your interactions with the doctor are particularly fun. And, of course, the game is solidly implemented, so it’s really a nice way to spend some time.

I had two main problems with the game. The first was that I didn’t really know much about my character. I could assume I was some kind of “rogue” from the title, and I knew that I was a human currently in a world dominated by non-humans, but that was about it. My second problem was that I didn’t find the ending very satisfying. Near the end of the game, you are presented with a binary choice, and this seems to lead to the two endings (at least I didn’t find any more than two endings). Neither ending was very satisfying.

However, the problems I had didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the game, and it’s short enough that I didn’t feel too let down by the endings.

The Sons of the Cherry by Alex Livingston
The last of the odd-format games, this one uses ChoiceScript, a choice-based programming language (think Choose Your Own Adventure books with stat-tracking). I was not feeling very hopeful after the first decision I had to make was what color shirt I was wearing. It asks you a number of questions at the beginning to determine your various statistics. Not all of them are as bad as the shirt one, but it just wasn’t very motivational. But OK, I thought I’d give the story a chance. And it’s got some promise, but you’re very much railroaded along. You’re allowed to choose to refuse to go along with what the main NPC wants you to do, but then you’re told that you do it anyway, except that you’re not as powerful, so you end up dying early. Of course, the reason I didn’t go along with what the main NPC wanted was that it was obvious to me that he was a bad guy, responsible for my troubles. I decided to replay the game, going along with what he wanted (and what the author obviously wanted) just to prove to myself that the main NPC was in fact a bad guy. And guess what? I was right.

Unless you’re a big fan of choice-based narrative and want to see an example of how not to structure the narrative, you should definitely give this one a pass.
A Quiet Evening at Home by Anonymous
This is obviously the author’s first attempt at writing interactive fiction. You can check out the other reviews of the game to see all its problems. I don’t want to dwell on it, because it has all the sorts of problems you’d expect to find in a first game that has not been betatested. And that’s the main point I want to make. If you’re going to take your first game and put it out there for public consumption, please have it betatested to some extent. Try asking at the various online places. If you’re too shy for that, try asking people you know, even if they know nothing about interactive fiction. Just having the experience of watching someone else try to play your game, or reading a transcript of someone else trying to play your game, will help immeasurably.

I saw some real promise in here. There were some funny responses to various actions. I was impressed to see that the refrigerator door swings shut by itself if it’s been left open for a few turns. I liked the ending where I was sprayed by a skunk. I think just a little bit of polish would have let all these things shine a bit more, even if it wouldn’t have made this any kind of masterpiece. So, anonymous, please keep writing, and please have your next work betatested (I’d be happy to do so).
Gris et Jaune by Steve van Gaal
I was definitely intrigued by the beginning of this game, and up through about half an hour in I was totally into it. I loved the setting and the story, and even though it was fairly linear, I was enjoying the interactivity. If the beginning of this game had been submitted to IntroComp, it totally would have won. However, after the first act, the game opens up completely, and I was lost. I quickly learned what I shouldn’t do, but I had no idea what I should do. I did a few things. I resorted to the hints. I still couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t have the energy (or the time) to start over and use the hints from the beginning.

I totally recommend that you play the beginning of this game. It is very much worth it. And then just decide to end the game when you’ve escaped the house. Pretend that that’s the end of the game and call yourself a winner. It’s OK; you have my permission.
The Chronicler by John Evans
It’s not a good sign that the help says: “Unfortunately, due to time constraints it’s only half finished, or perhaps three-quarters. I can only hope that you’ll find some amusement from the manipulations of objects it affords, while apologizing for the shortness of the experience.” It has a standard sci-fi type of setting, but I never mind that, being a sci-fi fan. However, after not having much motivation, seeing various unimplemented things (scenery, verbs), and getting an error, I kind of lost interest. I really tried to force myself to play a little more, but I was unable. Given all the marks against it, I just couldn’t care about the game and certainly didn’t want to invest any energy in it. Maybe I didn’t give the game a fair shake, but if it starts out admitting that it’s unfinished, why should I put in the effort?
Death Off the Cuff by Simon Christiansen
I know that there are other murder-mystery IF games out there, but this is the first one I’ve played, and I have to say I really enjoyed myself. I really liked how it excused the fact that you the player don’t know what’s gone on. You are a detective with everyone gathered in the room to make the big-finish accusation, but the detective doesn’t have a clue who the murderer is. So you’re just making random observations about people, hoping that they will confess or in some way slip up.

The first time I was able to accuse someone, I didn’t because I didn’t think he did it. After playing some more and getting somewhere but still not able to accuse someone else (even though I’d started to figure out something of what was going on), I decided to save the game and see what happened if I accused the guy I thought was innocent. And it was a very nice ending. The guy is obviously not guilty, but you ruin his life with the accusation, which eventually causes him to commit suicide. The ending part that usually says “You have won” or “You have died” instead says “You have saved your reputation.” Awesome.

One thing I’ve learned is to definitely type “about” or whatever if the author tells you to in the beginning. Some of these games would have been a lot more frustrating without a bit of guidance. In particular, the about text for this game outlines what the interaction is going to be like (mostly just talking about people or objects, with just a little manipulating the environment), which helped me enjoy it more. I certainly would have gotten more frustrated if I went into it expecting to be able to search for clues around the room, move objects, etc. and then finding I wasn’t able to.

The other kind of losing ending I found (there are several versions of the “You have saved your reputation” ending, depending on whom you falsely accuse) was particularly great, too. I had run out of stuff to do, so I started talking about my own moustache. It lets me keep talking about it, which is usually a sign from the game that there’s something interesting there. But I was saying stupid stuff, and then I was shot from behind while pacing around the room pontificating about facial hair.

I highly recommend this game, and it makes me want to go look at some other murder-mystery IF games.
East Grove Hills by XYZ
This is another pretty linear game. There aren’t really any puzzles to solve, and there’s not much to do besides move the story forward. However, it really worked for me. The story jumps around in time, and it all revolves around an attack on your school. Most of how you advance the story is through conversations, and the conversations worked pretty well. I was a bit confused by the second conversation, though. You were given your conversation options, but then after those came some notifications about other things going on in the room at the time, and then you were able to respond. I wasn’t entirely sure if those things happening in the room were supposed to have happened before my response, at the same time as my response, or after my response.

This entry is pseudonymous (although it might as well be anonymous given the pseudonym XYZ), but that pseudonymity is essential to the fiction of the game. You find out during the game that this piece of IF started as a failed attempt at a school project and was later turned into the current game as a response to the tragic events. The narrator dropped in some references to IF games earlier (saying that he thought in compass directions because he had been playing too many games), but the revelation that this game you are playing is referenced in the fiction was just a really neat experience for me, and it’s a lot of what made me appreciate the game. I’m not that well-versed in the history of IF, so I don’t know if something like this has been done before, but having the actual artifact of the IF game itself be a part of the story is really, really cool. Go play this game.

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[IFComp2010] Reviews of <em>R</em> and <em>Leadlight</em>

It’s time for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. Since I’m not participating as an author this year, I’m going to be participating as a judge. I might not end up reviewing all of the games, but I wanted to start off by looking at the two games that are not in one of the standard formats (Z-code, Glulx, or TADS), since they will likely be getting somewhat less attention because of that. They are R by therealeasterbunny and Leadlight by Wade Clarke.

After the cut, there will be some spoilers (although not major ones). Don’t read further if you haven’t played the games yet and don’t want the experience spoiled. I will briefly say that R is maybe not worth it unless you are into pirates or you are nostalgic for Scott Adams games and that Leadlight is definitely worth playing despite its unusual platform.

R by therealeasterbunny is made using the format of the old Scott Adams games. These games were before my time, so any nostalgia factor was lost on me. The only thing I got out of the format was being annoyed at how things were set up and missing various conventions that I’m used to. For example, you can move by just typing a compass direction, but there are certain directions that are listed as things that are in a location, like “Trapdoor”, “Path”, etc.) that you can only go to by typing “go [whatever]”. I was stuck fairly early in the game until I consulted the walkthrough to find out that I had to type “go trapdoor” to go back down into the hold of the ship (I had gotten up to the decks initially by typing “climb ladder”). Once I figured that out, it wasn’t a big deal. The other thing I had to consult the walkthrough for was for some guess-the-verb stuff. I knew I wanted to distract the sharks with the meat, but typing “drop meat” just dropped it on the ground without doing one of two things I might have expected in a modern game: just going ahead and throwing it in the water or giving you some kind of response to clue the correct command. (The correct command, it turns out, is “feed sharks”.)

The rest of the game was OK, with some puzzles that were easily enough figured out and some that were head-scratchers. I may have headed to the walkthrough a little too easily because of my earlier frustration with the interface, but some of the puzzles really were not well clued. There were also things I couldn’t do that frustrated me a bit. I was particularly flabbergasted that the “pirate’s code” kept me from simply running my sleeping enemy through with a cutlass. Mind you, this was the enemy who had snuck on board my ship while I was sleeping and ripped my sails, put a hole in my rowboat, and stole my food, my map, and my wench.

The one highlight of this game, though, and it’s not an inconsiderable one, is the whole pirate theme. I was initially cringing at room names such as “I be in t’ stern o’ t’ bowels o’ t’ ship”, but I quickly got used to it. The theme is very consistent, in an “Arr me hearties” kind of stereotypical semi-comical pirate kind of way. If this kind of theme were done in a more modern type of game, it would certainly be a lot of fun.

So, as I said before, this game might be worth it to you if you were into the Scott Adams games or if you are a big fan of pirate adventures. Otherwise, I’m sure there are other IF Comp games that will be more interesting to you.

And one of those games is Leadlight by Wade Clarke. I have to say that I had some initial problems because, for some reason, my configuration wouldn’t work with the supplied Apple IIgs emulator. The author pointed me at an Apple IIe emulator, and that cleared up my problem. So this is another one of those nostalgia platform things, but I had less of a problem with it. For one thing, the game was very fully implemented, with lots of things to look at and interact with. Also, there is a nice manual that comes with the game, so it’s pretty clear how to go about doing things.

This is a zombie horror game where you are a student at a girls’ school in Australia who wakes up after nodding off to find some kind of zombie apocalypse afoot. Much of the game is about killing zombies (your former classmates and teachers), and one of the few negative feelings I had about the game was the way combat worked. At least early on, you’re not all that tough, so I spent quite a bit of time saving and restoring in order to get a decent result in combat, which probably contributed to me not finishing the game quite within the two-hour limit of Comp games.

So, yes, you have hit points, and you also have other stats. This isn’t something I’m used to in IF games, but it worked well overall here, with different items giving you different stats. The game also has a really interesting method for keeping score. You get one point for each weapon you find (this is, after all, a zombie game), each enemy you kill, and each “secret” you find. Generally the secrets are things that you examine that give you a little bit of the backstory (which, by the way, is pretty interesting). You also have a couple of opportunities to earn some bonus points for helping some of the other victims. I ended the game with a score of 76/80, having failed to find just 4 out of the 25 secrets. One other nice aspect related to the scoring system is that there are “deathtraps”, but you can always undo and lose a point. Of course, I quickly learned to save often, so I ended the game without any negatives.

The puzzles in the game were really well clued overall, and I only had to consult the hints a couple of times (and I was helped along to resorting to the hints because I was running up against my two-hour time limit). I’m not the best puzzle solver, so maybe that means these puzzles will be too easy for some people, but I found them very satisfying. And I’m proud to say that I figured out how to make it to the endgame all on my own (there was no hint provided for it), even though it was one of the puzzles that I didn’t think was clued very well. I think what helped is that there really are a limited number of commands the game recognizes, and the game is nice enough to give you a list of all of them.

The other real standout aspect of this game is the atmosphere, in particular as brought out by the writing. You end up killing quite a few zombies and seeing lots of destruction, but it never gets repetitive and is always creepy. A particular favorite I encountered after slaying a zombie teacher was, “Mrs Palmer’s remains are just horrid, stinking slush. They continue to ooze even as you watch.” There was also a note found on a girl’s corpse in the chapel that was from her mother telling her to make sure she eats today. It somewhat acted as a clue to let you know that you should try eating the food you find to recover your hit points, but it really hit me as a reminder that all of these corpses had loving family, and it made finding that corpse all the more poignant.

Having only played two games, I can’t say yet which games I think well end up at the top, but I really hope that people give this one a chance even though it’s made for an odd format.

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IF breaking news

Logged on this morning and found three, three, three vonderful things about IF that I didn't know last night!

Rover's Day Out, by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman, has won the 2009 IF Competition. Congrats!

Broken Legs (Sarah Morayati) and Snowquest (Eric Eve) took second and third; full results are online. The Gameshelf's own Kevin Jackson-Mead got 21st place with his entry Gleaming the Verb. He is reported to be happy not to be last. :)

Congratulations to everybody.

Jason Scott has achieved his fundraising goal of $25000.

I chose $25000 because that would remove, summarily, any living costs and basic needs I would have while I was working on my projects. The money will go to keeping me floating while I do these projects; If more than this amount comes in, I will not consider this profit, but a mandate to keep going on projects further. My rough estimate is that $25k will keep me going for at least 3-4 months, and probably longer. That's full-time, constant work on saving computer history, speaking, and presenting. --from Jason Scott's Sabbatical page

One of these projects, of course, is his Get Lamp documentary on the history and culture of IF. The "speaking and presenting" parts are likely to including IF-related activity at PAX East, and I'm looking the heck forward to that.

JayIsGames has announced an IF competition for short room-escape games.

Secretly, in between all the real stuff I do in my life. I blow a lot of time playing little Flash web games. Flash room-escape games are my favorite sub-genre of these; they encompass the conventions of graphical adventures without costing twenty bucks or taking three years to construct.

The JayIsGames casual-game site has always tracked these little niblets of immersive fun. They've also occasionally stretched themselves to cover text IF. Looks like they've decided to bring the subjects together: they're sponsoring a design competition for one-room IF games, with the theme of "escape". Entries must be Z-code (for portability reasons -- it's a web-game audience), and the deadline is Jan 31.

JayIsGames is a popular site, and I expect this will bring a lot of energy to the IF world, both in game creation and attention. And yes, I might be entering...

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Boston IF Meetup, Tuesday, October 27

It's Boston IF Meetup time again. This time, bucking tradition, it's on a Tuesday, not a Monday. Come join us on Tuesday, October 27, at 6:30 in The Trope Tank (14N-233 at MIT). We have two people talking this month:

  • Andrew (aka Zarf) will be talking about procedural text generation, using room descriptions in his game Hunter, In Darkness as an example (go play it if you haven't). Late-breaking news: he's also working on a second example in Javascript.
  • Michael (aka Mike) will be showing off and talking about the games he made for IFWM earlier this year (IFWM was the impetus for the Boston IF Meetups (Meetsup?)).
There will, I'm sure, also be the usual talk about games in general, and I'm sure there will be at least some mention of the competition that's happening right now and that I'm not discussing in public. Usually around 8 or 8:30, we head over to Cambridge Brewing Company for food and/or drinks.

This is free (except for food and/or drinks) and open to the public. Please feel free to come by and talk, listen, or present (if you're planning to present, some heads-up to me might be nice before the actual presentation, but it's not strictly necessary).

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IFComp begins

If you know what the IFComp is, then you didn't need to read it here. Nonetheless! I'd feel dumb if I didn't mention it.

The 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition has begun. Twenty-four short text adventures. Including one by the Gameshelf's own Kevin Jackson-Mead. Play 'em, vote on 'em by November 15th. Or play and vote on as many as you get around to. Or just play some. Up to you.

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