IFComp 2008: Conclusions and ruminations

Since the judging period is still underway, I suppose I should put in a spoiler break.

Looking at my comments so far, you’d probably think that this was another unusually bad year for the comp. I’ve been very critical, and my ratings have skewed low. Possibly this is because of all the time I spent beta-testing games before the comp started — once you’re in nitpicking mode, it’s hard to get out. There were a number of genuinely good games this year.

General trends: Four games on systems created by the authors, two outright acts of trollery, two and a half one-room games. (I’m counting Dracula’s Underground Crypt as the half there: it’s a two-room game that you can bring to a satisfactory ending without discovering the second room.) No conventional mystery stories, although Nightfall is certainly mystery-like. I noticed several games that reported a score of “0 out of a maximum of 0 points” instead ot suppressing the score reporting completely. I also noticed quite a few games that had commands that produced no output at all when applied at the wrong time or to the wrong object, something that I don’t recall seeing a lot in the past. Perhaps Inform 7 makes this kind of error easier to produce?

If you’re at all interested in getting other perspectives on the comp, the incomparable Emily Short has collected a list of other people’s reviews. (The list doesn’t include her own blog, so be sure to check that out too.) Looking them over, it seems that the single game where my own reaction was the least typical was April in Paris.

My prediction for comp winner is definitely Violet. I haven’t written up Violet here because it’s one of the games I tested, so let me just describe it briefly: Violet is a one-room game about a graduate student having to eliminate distractions so he can work on his dissertation. Violet is the protagonist’s girlfriend, whose internalized voice is the game’s narrator — sort of a “What would Violet say if she were here?” thing. Like Grunk, the narrator from last year’s winner, she’s very strongly characterized, and that makes for some interesting questions of interpretation. When you overhear an ex-girlfriend chatting someone up in the hallway, for example, imaginary Violet is understandibly hostile towards her, but how much of that hostility is from the PC’s memory of real Violet and how much is the PC putting his own feelings into imaginary Violet’s mouth? At any rate, it’s gotten overwhelmingly favorable comments from most other people.

My best guess for the Golden Banana of Discord (the unofficial award for highest standard deviation) is Buried in Shoes, another game that I tested. Some people like its poetical laconicness, others feel that it just doesn’t give us enough to care about. I have to confess that I’m in the latter camp. Which raises an interesting question: What do you do when you’re testing a game that you don’t like?

It’s easy to beta-test a game that you think is basically good underneath the bugs: anything that you think disrupts the experience you’re enjoying gets written up, be it something as concrete as “The command ‘inflate cranberry’ produces a system error” or as abstract as “The Sergeant-Major’s motivations could be fleshed out more”. But what if the game is just fundamentally unappealing? Suppose I had been asked to beta-test The Lighthouse. It has a few tangible bugs, and I would have reported them, but the end result of fixing those bugs still wouldn’t have been a good game. How do you tell the author “Just write a better game”?

All in all, the beta testing experience was a mixed bag. As I commented in an earlier post, it’s frustrating to submit a beta report and see most of the issues raised in it show up in the released game. And there’s a sort of vicious cycle in action anyway: the authors who were most responsive to feedback were the ones whose games needed the least fixing, while the ones who needed testing the most started way too late, if at all. Having more or less run the gamut there, I’m a little ashamed of the way I treated my own beta testers when I entered the Comp seven years ago. And in fact I’m somewhat inspired to revisit that experience.

Testing is important, but trying to improve the overall quality of the comp by volunteering as a tester may be futile. Next year, I intend to improve the overall quality of the comp by submitting a quality game.

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