Initial Impressions of IFComp 2017

IFComp is a crowded field this year. With nearly 80 entries (some, if I recall, withdrawn at time of this posting) it’s hard to sort through. I’ve curated a list of the interactives I’ve most enjoyed so far, with a couple words on what makes them innovative or enjoyable to me. I might dig deeper into some of these mechanics at a later date, but for now I think it’s most useful to focus broadly rather than narrowly before comp ends. A reminder: you can rate interactives as long as you’ve played more than 5!

10 pm; litrourke

10 pm is a heavily customized Twine piece about family, frustration, and confinement, among other themes featuring a boy who, for reasons the game obscures, no longer speaks. The central mechanic involves choosing his signs to communicate with the one adult in his life, a man named Ty, who is not his legal guardian and who is perhaps not particularly suited to parenthood. A number of the narrative beats are oblique, and require the player to fill in some of the gaps themselves from Ty’s responses; this is fundamentally a game which requires the reader to deduce. If the relationship between Ty and Bird were less fraught, I think the mechanic would be less interesting: but Bird is, in my reading, attempting to assert a narrative, to make claims about events and his feelings and what he wants in a way that is designed to get Ty to agree. But Ty, for a number of reasons, can’t or won’t. The precariousness of the signs the player has to select from, and the abstraction–not necessarily knowing how what they say might be taken–sums up the sort of control this kid wants to have over his life, and how impossible it is.

Eat Me; Chandler Groover

By now it’s no secret that I’m a fan of the limited parser, and Groover does some of my favorite work in this space. “Eat Me” bursts with vivid, lush, horrifyingly and lovingly rendered descriptions of edible scenery. Some of these items may not seem palatable, such as the corpses in the dungeon in which you find yourself imprisoned, but they are all edible. Your appetite is your one talent, the parser-voice reminds you; like a fairy-tale protagonist, you are exceptional because of one key ability. That narrative voice is pitched perfectly, gently admonishing and encouraging in equal measure, with an undercurrent of cloying threat. The world, in addition to being oversaturated and often repugnant, is responsive, decaying and collapsing in response to your appetite, and the puzzles are clever. It’s very, very heavily a piece about a particular embodied experience to appetite, and carnality. The word I think of is “gorge”, in both senses: to overindulge, but also a sickness that rises in my throat.

Nonetheless, it does feel worth playing, indulging in, perhaps for its very excess. But the rich description means that I’ve found myself having to pace out this game; I can’t play too much of it without feeling a heavy satiation of one sort of storytelling. It does that sort very, very well, but it’s not a game I can polish off in one sitting.

Harmonia; Liza Daly

Interactive fiction about redacted or mysterious literature is pitched to my interests. Harmonia features a young adjunct professor substituting at a women’s college and exploring the secrets of the utopian community that used to exist on the site, through a combination of multiple texts and the author’s marginalia. Harmonia’s made in Windrift, Liza Daly’s engine for hypertext fiction, which here is leveraged to provide the main mechanics of clicking on marginalia to supplement and sometimes advance the story to create a seamless back-and-forth. I’ve come to expect thoughtful mechanics for link-based choices from Daly’s work, and this is no exception: at certain points, cycling text signifies verbal stumbling; the author’s own marginalia on her work provide a slightly looser, more biting commentary than her manuscript allows. It’s highly textual and highly textured, with the position and reason for each piece of narrative being clearly and thoughtfully delineated, and that format of marked-up texts to leaf through and piece together had me entirely hooked.

The mechanics aren’t only visually satisfying, though. Certain bits of marginalia gesture at more subtle ways “utopian” communities are undermined: the protagonist’s working-class background is raised in a mention of professors cooling at the protagonist’s credentials, and the ubiquitous whiteness of the founders’ portraits comes up very early. Their place in marginalia seems fitting: Blithedale’s structures hold to a vision that promises idealism but betrays the realities of lived experiences and struggles; those structures force Fuller to the margins, remind us that both narratively and mechanically she is an outsider. It’s not, fundamentally, a mystery–the events that unfold are heavily foreshadowed. Instead, it’s about community, legacy, and the complex construction of both. As such, it’s entirely and unsurprisingly my sort of piece.

Hexteria Skaxis Qiameth; Gabriel Floriano

I was going to like Hexteria from the moment it mentioned Wittgensteinian language games. It is a language game about language games that allows you to manipulate language and watch the narrative change beneath your fingers; the interactivity and interface is intuitively and cleanly designed. Reminiscent of Borges and Eco and Calvino, it draws on interactivity and procedural generation to tell a story and to make a point about the infinite possibilities of language. If I have a criticism, it’s what Kate Compton calls “the oatmeal problem” of procedural generation: infinite variations are not useful if they all are more or less the same thing, and while Hexteria is making a point that semiotic fissures are infinitely fractal and often much closer than they seem, the possibilities don’t feel meaningfully infinite. Still. To criticize an IF Comp game for not being Borges seems unfair, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a short play, about 10-15 minutes depending on reading speed and how much care you put into constructing your fictional grammars.

Salt; Gareth Damian Martin

Another game with a mechanic I haven’t seen before in an IF Comp setting, Martin’s work is an embodied meditation. By requiring the player to use the spacebar to swim and breathe, as well as the indication that the piece should be experienced with headphones (and the atmospheric soundtrack does add a great deal) there’s a desire to curate a full-body immersive narrative experience. And for me, it’s effective. The text fades as you swim, and perhaps a bit too fast: but I’m not sure how much of an issue that is, as your thoughts come and go and drift with the tide. What matters, in a sense, is how motion and thought are connected. It was impossible for me to be unaware of my body and breath while playing. It’s a short experience, and one which I recommend–especially with headphones, if possible.

Swigian; Rainbus North

I went back and forth on including Swigian on the list, because I haven’t finished it and stopped at a moment in the middle where I felt the game sagged a bit. But I couldn’t leave it off, because its opening is one of the lovelier experiences I’ve had in the competition so far. The dawning sense of realization: of who I was, of what I was doing, and how that knowledge propelled me forward as I played. I’m wary of saying too much here, especially given the title, because the pacing of that revelation is part of Swigian’s charm for me. The prose is stark, and spare, and pitched evocatively for the genre it’s evoking. If you’re a literature person, I absolutely do recommend giving it a go.

Tuuli; Daurmith and Ruber Eaglenest

Tuuli is a short parser game about a young girl who has to take over for the village witch in order to stave off a Viking raid on her village. You play as Lenne-who-would-be-the-witch, and even that character description tells me that this is a story about impostors, magic, and prices to pay. That instinct isn’t wrong, and I’m glad, because games about coming into one’s own are more forgiving towards parser errors: fumbling around and gaining a sense of mastery feels thematically frustrating, not solely irritating. There are a few verbs that aren’t standard-parser verbs for someone with minimal experience in the genre, but the help menu does hint at them. There were several moments that didn’t feel intuitive to me, including one at the climax of the game: but the denouement made up for that moment of frustration for me. There are some rough translation errors still, but overall the prose economy serves the story well. It’s rough and spare and Anglo-Saxon, and the repetition brings to mind ritual and Icelandic saga poetry. It’s suitably haunting, with an evocatively sketched, fascinating setting that I haven’t seen much of in interactive fiction.

Will Not Let Me Go; Stephen Granade

Disclaimer: I was a beta tester for this piece. I’m recommending it anyway. Its mix of narrative voice and mechanics that support its story is exactly what I love in narrative design. From the opening indication that the story will remember your place, which fades out until only “remember” lingers, it’s a thoughtful and sometimes painful exploration of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Early on, the narrative often breaks off, prompting the player to click a link to continue, as Twine games so often do: but here, the break, pause, click stands in for the search of a word, the disorientation of memory loss.

The maze-like puzzle of Fred’s house is another staple of interactive fiction games, but here, the disorientation of searching that the player feels is mirrored by the character. I found myself wondering if I’d checked the kitchen or the living room yet, doubting my own memory in a way that echoed my narrative experience. The interface, too, from images to link choices to background color all contribute to the jumbled, sometimes-coherent slippage of loss, and self, and memory.

There are games I haven’t gotten the time to dig into yet but seem worth checking out, if they hit your interests. Sam Kabo Ashwell’s review of “Wizard Sniffer” is here; it seems like a funny, if trope-y, parser puzzle game. There also seems to be a tremendous amount of buzz around Arthur DiBianca’s “The Wand”.

Disclaimer: Stephen Granade and Liza Daly are Patreon supporters.

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