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This year the annual Interactive Fiction competition has been running again, now into its 23rd year. I’ve played and judged the games in every year, and this year was no exception.

A major challenge this year was the sheer number of entries. 79 different games to play. Fortunately judges don’t have to play them all! Just 5 need to be rated for your scores to count towards the final ratings, and there is a month and a half to do this in. I aimed for more, and ultimately managed to judge 40 of the games, so just over half the entrants.

The games are a mix of more traditional parser-based text adventures (like Infocom etc. in the past) and web-based clickable interactive stories. The latter is a fairly recent addition to the interactive fiction scene, but growing in popularity, and fun to play. But parser games are still being written, and were present in sizeable numbers this year.

A wide variety of genres of game were present, ranging from ones set in the real world, through fantasy, sci-fi, horror and even more. There’s a particularly entertaining classification scheme online, which I recommend reading.

The games are also widely varied in terms of length. Some were very short, less than 15 minutes or so. But many were an hour or two, posing challenges for how to pick which games to play in the time available.

Fortunately the IF Comp website provided some help, generating an individual randomised list for each judge, as well as full random each time, and alphabetical. I used my personal random list to start working through the games. I started with the shorter games, quickly playing a dozen or so of these. Then I moved to longer ones. I played a mix of parser and clicky, and generally alternated between these. Over the nearly seven weeks of judging I probably put in about 30 hours of play. But it was spread over many weeks, and many play sessions. The key thing for me was to keep nibbling at the task, week after week.

The scoring scheme we are asked to use is to score between 1 and 10, but each judge can devise their own criteria. My ratings are grouped in pairs, e.g. rubbish; poor, some merit; good; promising; excellent. And for each of those I have 2 votes to choose from e.g. 7 or 8 for promising etc. Each judge uses their own scoring system, all entered as 1-10 in the site.

My votes in this year's IF Comp

My votes in this year’s IF Comp

My spread of votes from 1-10

My spread of votes from 1-10

My overall impressions of the competition this year, based on 40 out of 79 games that I played, are generally positive. There was a wide variety of games to play, to suit all tastes, and a lot of creative works, in terms of writing, experiments with user interface, and implementation. Generally the games worked well. Though as a tablet user I found the Quest ones (a mix of parser and clicky interface) lost lots of the vital user interface on my iPad, in particular directions and object listings. But that wasn’t a fault of the entrants, and I worked around it.

I noticed a number of trends this year. There were several stat-based computer role playing games, especially fantasy ones, with randomised combat. Actually there were a lot of fantasy games generally, in particular involving magic. There seemed to be fewer sci-fi games than usual, but that may just be based on those I played. And there was nothing particularly Lovecraftian this year [correction: Measureless to Man, that I didn’t play during the judging period, is Lovecraftian]. Though Chandler Groover’s Eat Me was a dark Gormenghastian horror.

Four games particularly stood out for me, that I want to discuss in some detail. I expect that they will all do well in the final rankings when they are announced in a few days time.

Firstly Buster Hudson’s The Wizard Sniffer. This was a real hoot, a Monty Python esque parser game, with some of the most memorable characters I can remember seeing in IF for a long time (e.g. the clown!). Superb writing throughout combined with complex but flawless coding. Also a game that is very newbie friendly, in terms of a well-implemented in-game hints system. And just ridiculously good fun. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

As a complete contrast in terms of user interface the only other game I scored 10 was Stephen Granade’s Will Not Let Me Go. This was a Twine-based web game, where you clicked on links to move things forward and make choices. The central character has dementia, and it was a devastatingly well-observed piece. One sequence in particular stood out for me, but I won’t say more here, for risk of spoilers. Interestingly the author is a long-time parser IF writer, and former organiser of IF Comp. I don’t know if this is the first Twine game he’s written, trying a very different form of IF. But it is superbly done.

Another web-based game I particularly liked was Liza Daly’s Harmonia. In this one you are a teaching assistant at a university, and uncover strange goings on. It is a gorgeous design: presented as if you uncover scraps of information, and are scribbling your own notes on the text. The illustrations are also great. My one quibble, and it was a big one, is that it didn’t feel quite interactive enough for me. In particular I didn’t feel as though I had as much agency as a player as I need to feel properly invested in an interactive experience, and always use as one of my essential judging criteria in IF Comp. But in every other respect it was superb.

The fourth game that I want to highlight is Victor Ojuel’s 1958: Dancing With Fear. Another parser game, this was a heady mix of 50s Caribbean setting, plots and intrigue, and, yes, dancing! I loved the writing here, written in an episodic way, and thoroughly immersive. However there were areas where it needed more polish, or slips that should be picked up on before release. A little more time developing may have made the difference for me between scoring 9 and 10. But another strong game from an author who is now a regular IF Comp participant.

Against these good examples there were some bad things that stood out. I’m not going to name specific games here, but do want to comment on recurring issues that I encountered.

I’ve already mentioned the key issue of interactivity. A small number of the web-based clicky games were too much like “next”, “next” etc. without me making any significant choices. I also didn’t like games that were under implemented, e.g. those with objects mentioned in room descriptions not coded, or too sparse a sense of world building. This leads to a poor experience for the player. More playtesting should have helped correct these issues. I really did feel that quite a lot of games were under tested. More playtesting would also have identified the large number of typos that slipped through in some games. I certainly felt that some games were overly rushed, and a little bit more time, and particularly in testing, would have been beneficial.

But generally it was a good crop of games that I enjoyed playing. I’m also keen to play others that I didn’t get to, like The Owl Consults – I expect from other reviews that it will rate highly in the final rankings announced in a few days.

Playing the competition games was also inspiring for me as someone writing my own Inform 7 games. There were obviously lessons for what to avoid e.g. implement scenery properly, make sure you test enough, and prioritise player agency. But the competition also gave me more positive ideas, in particular ways to incorporate non player characters more, and how a limited set of locations can be used very effectively. I was also encouraged by games successfully employing a number of separate scenes, because that’s the approach I’m taking in a couple of the games I’m writing now. And as someone who may enter a game into a future competition it’s great to see what a dynamic context the IF Comp is again, with a real buzz on social media and the intfiction forum.

In closing, IF Comp is great, yet again! Huge thanks to all the authors, playtesters, judges, and not least the organisers. I very much enjoyed taking part as a judge. Having more games than usual is a good thing, even if most people can’t play them all. And I’m still hugely impressed by the variety of games present, e.g. in genre, user interface and length. Thank you!

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Each year the Interactive Fiction competition happens around now, where people enter text adventure games, and then there’s a few weeks for judges to work through as many of them as possible.

This year there were 36 entries initially, though 1 has since been disqualified. I’m not confident I’ll get to judge all 35 games in the time available, but I am going to play and judge as many as possible.

Quite a lot of the entrants this year are traditional parser based games, including many written in Inform 7. But a growing number are web based, almost choose your own adventure type games, which can often be played quite quickly. This year there’s even 1 CYOA game presented in a PDF form, so similar to a book.

Playing and judging the games is also good for helping me as an interactive fiction writer. I can pick up ideas and techniques from other games, as well as form a clear idea of the sort of things I’d like personally to avoid.

But that’s something else I need to get on with in October and November, which again reduces how intensively I can throw myself at AcWriMo this year. But judging the competition is fun, and I enjoy it, so will happily do it.

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