2018’s iteration of the Interactive Fiction Competition provides an amount of entries that may feel daunting to even dedicated text-game enthusiasts. I’m providing a list of experiences I found interesting, fun, worthwhile. Some of these might not be the most polished we’ve seen in IF Comp, but all had something that made me take notice. You can find all the games here, and vote (provided you’ve played 5 or more).
+ = x
I’m convinced Chandler Groover picked this name to place + = x at the top of the competition’s list, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a particularly good use of Texture, a platform whose limitations still give me some reservations. One of those is how easy it is, as a designer, not to notice when a branch terminates and offers the user no way to return to the main story; there was still one of these when I played + = x. Nevertheless, using the drag feature to deposit paper slips feels more seamless of a mechanic than other uses I’ve seen, and the world Groover builds feels unyielding, paralytic, and fascinating. His prose is excellent, as it has been consistently.
Alias ‘The Magpie’
Now this is just good fun. The PC is a roguish thief who impersonates a psychiatrist and is almost immediately asked to pretend to be his nemesis, a thinly-disguised Hercule Poirot. It’s a very long, very puzzly traditional parser game that I have not finished, but the tone is spot-on Jeeves and Wooster parody and is really enjoyable. Several moments felt very unintuitive, including one fairly near the beginning of the game, so I’ve made cheerful and copious use of the walkthrough; I think that’s kept the game feeling fun despite its length.
I absolutely, absolutely needed a map. (I am the kind of person who hates making or using maps, even when I know they’d make my experience easier and thus more pleasant.) Reader: use a map.
The most entertaining game about child murder I’ve ever played. I actually found Animalia a bit tricky on first playthrough, as your job is to assemble a crack team of forest animals to impersonate a kid they’ve sacrificed so his parents don’t catch on. The humor is clever, and each of the animals you choose has a different method of navigating problems, so it doesn’t feel as though your decision is merely aesthetic.
I do think the blurb could have made it more clear that you are not just animals impersonating a child, but that you are doing so because you have sacrificed said child in a gruesome forest ritual; this is the sort of thing that people who’d want a content warning for it would have very likely appreciated.
Oh dear. Content warnings for just about everything here.
This game does, with seeming ease and brutal cruelty, what Taghairm tried for back in 2015. The writing is beautifully evocative, sparse and spare and able to convey a great deal of cold and dread in very little space. (One of the early click-to-continue links says of the titular character that “HE EATS LIKE A DOG IF A DOG COULD HOLD A SPOON”.)
The background sound is eerie and effective; the looping soundtrack doesn’t detract from the reading experience, but adds an eerie chill, almost like a music box in an abandoned room. Abuse and complicity, handled with nuance and complexity. I hope to see much more from this author in the future.
Dead Man’s Fiesta
An understated, earnest and funny game about dealing with grief and trying to get rid of a haunted car. That’s a tone which is difficult to nail; it’s that wry British understated humor, but with a tremendous amount of heart behind it. Having bought this haunted car as a metaphor for the protagonist’s grief felt fairly clear to me, and I didn’t need what felt like undue emphasis placed on that fact–it’s clear enough without it. I ran into some issues with the CSS styling that made it feel like I had to scroll forever, and while I’m sympathetic to how difficult it is to get CSS to play nicely in every browser, I do wish the interface had felt a little simpler.
Perhaps I’ve missed something, but the plot felt rather on-rails, which would have bothered me more if it weren’t a game about grief. Mourning is very rarely straightforward or controllable. The game’s strength is its writing and tone, I think, so if that leaves you cold, you may want to duck out before the end. This game didn’t catch me within the first five minutes, but I’m glad I finished it.
This is a very #aesthetic game, and I suspect I like it more than some others will. It mostly does one thing, which is ‘an evocative, doomed setting of a cultist tending to a dying ritual’, but it does that one thing very, very well. The music and design choices heighten the experience; it’s probably one of the most slickly-produced games this year.
I love the central mechanic. You are a ghost! Because you’ve died at Thanksgiving! And you can explore people’s memories to find out what happened and what secrets they’re hiding! The inventory management system of clue-linking is ingenious. I’m very interested in the murder mystery itself, which I should be, since it’s “my” death. But I’m much more interested in knowing more about what’s beneath the surface. Excellent writing, and the narrator’s snarky/exhausted tone is very much appreciated. I don’t want to dig into the plot points too deeply, as the pleasure for me was unraveling them, and it’s worth doing yourself: though I recommend setting aside some time.
Master of the Land
Master of the Land feels ambitious, full of things I personally like, and yet the execution isn’t fully there. You play as the daughter of a powerful family, with particular reservations about all that your role entails, exploring her family’s house (more on that later) on a festival night. It’s a court intrigue game, which longtime followers will know is essentially my favorite genre, and what makes court intrigue games work for me is the sense that there is a whole world of intricate plots unfolding around me, with or without my involvement or knowledge, if I don’t look hard enough. Master of the Land does that well, although there are some hiccups where the text seems abrupt or jarring because I did or didn’t trigger event X or Y. I’m not asking for seamlessness, and maybe this would have been less of an issue had the writing been stronger.
The difficulty I had was remembering where I was. My PC knows this place well, and I had such a hard time situating myself, to the point where I missed certain events. Which is fine–I want things to be missable in palace intrigue–but I’d rather it come about because I have three different schemes going, not because my character knows exactly where she’s going but I don’t. It’s a bit of PC-player disconnect that I find jarring.
I haven’t finished it, and so the ending may change my opinion to either ‘recommend’ or ‘don’t’. But regardless, I think what it’s working toward is worthwhile. I’m recommending this with reservations.
Ostrich feels a lot like “Papers, Please but in a news organization”, which is not a knock against it, but merely a comment on how high the bar is to clear. Still, it feels weighty, especially at this current moment. You play as someone in the euphemistically-named ‘Advertising Corrections Team’, deciding what to censor and what to let slide. The censoring mechanic works very well to foster a sense of dread and helplessness: are you going to do your job? Or are you going to risk sticking your neck out? (Last ostrich metaphor, I promise.) Ostrich borrows the ‘today, the rules change’ mechanic from Papers Please, but its particular execution meant I had to actually consider what edge cases were actually permitted. And this time, I think, requires the player to dwell on parallels to contemporary events more than they might have otherwise been inclined to.
The game alternates between the work and short scenes that indicate the rising tide of unrest and cruelty that your actions as cog in a governmental machine are causing, and while some of those scenes can feel a bit on the nose, Ostrich is a more powerful game for including the human consequences. It’s not perfect, but it is worth playing.
Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303
A fairly short and straightfoward parser game that works its central conceit very well indeed. As you’re remoting the interface of a mech, you can only tag and give inputs and commands, using the limited parser comprehension well. The writing is good, and it would have to be, given that most of the game is (as far as I can tell) about the narration. I don’t want to say more than that for fear of spoiling the experience. A note: I’m not sure it’s possible to win this? I couldn’t finish it, and I’m not sure if that’s the ending or if I’ve done something wrong. Still, interesting enough that I’m willing to put it on the list, with reservations.
They Will Not Return
Reminiscent of the Bradbury short story “There Will Come Soft Rains”, They Will Not Return is a short, choice-based game about robots coming to terms with a natural disaster. Some of the dialogue around issues of ethics, agency, and philosophy feels a bit clunky, but the worldbuilding is excellent, especially the sense of climate-induced social unrest that the ruined world still bears the marks of. The first part of the game is built around a very neat hub-and-spoke model that works well for building tension and establishing that Something Is Wrong. The latter part felt a bit more on-rails, and the ‘puzzle’ at the end an afterthought. But it’s still an interesting playthrough, and, I think, worth the time.
Tohu wa Bohu
I keep thinking about this game, which is some of the highest praise I can offer in IF Comp. Made in Texture, it’s a meditation on dissociation. The opening section drags the most, and feels like all of my objections to Texture as a system in one. But then the game opens out, and starts playing with what that mechanic can do. It’s beautifully written, and involves a lot of slotting words and concepts together and deciding what I think of them. It feels like one of the things that ‘poetry as IF’ can be, and I am here for it. This will be my most polarizing recommendation, I think. But I thought it was beautiful.
This is the opposite of Master of the Land: I’m not personally interested in rabbit adventure stories (blame Watership Down), but I can recognize the quality of story, execution, and visuals. (The visuals in particular do a great deal to flesh out the world vividly.) The character voices are particularly strong, and the puzzles aren’t difficult, but neither do they feel tacked on or an afterthought. The sort of game I’d absolutely recommend to a kid getting into IF. (I get this question a surprising amount, and Birdland and Ryan Veeder’s games are my current automatic pulls.)
A note: Re: Dragon is pretty funny, and very clever in its conceit, but it really does require having played The Dragon Will Tell You Your Future Now from IF Comp ’17. And I can’t recommend that one. But if you’re an IF Comp veteran, you may well enjoy this a great deal.