IFComp 2019: But is it IF?

I commented before that Flight of the CodeMonkeys provokes the question “But is it IF?”, but that’s a little unfair. CodeMonkeys devotes most of its space to a noninteractive story punctuated by coding exercises, but by the end, it resolves into something clearly recognizable as choice-based IF. In the last few days, I’ve hit several other entries that push the boundaries much harder.

Consider Language Arts. This is a Zachtronics-style puzzle game about creating little programs to transform words on a grid. It has exactly the same relationship to story and text as any other Zachtronics-style puzzle game: between puzzles, you get to read some expository dialogue. It has interaction, and it has fiction, but it never puts the two together. OK, but surely that’s true of the more soup-can-oriented works I recognize as IF? Maybe, but that’s because IF, like all genres, is more a matter of “family resemblance” than of definition. This game is clearly recognizable as a different genre. Maybe if it ran under Glulx I’d consider it an abuse in the tradition of Andrew Plotkin’s 1995 Tetris adaptation, but as it is, I don’t really feel like it belongs here. And that makes it difficult to know how to judge it, because it really does seem to be a pretty good Zach-like.

Then there’s The Shadow Witch, a story of an evil witch trying to meet a quota of five misdeeds in a small cave system in a fantasy world. This is a genuinely interactive story, even supporting multiple endings, and if it were more text-based, I’d have no problem recognizing it as IF. But it’s a graphic adventure made in RPG Maker, like To the Moon (but shorter and sillier). You can bring up the character stats and everything, although without any combat, they’re just for show. I suppose it’s a difficult edge-case to be in, because it wouldn’t comfortably fit in an RPG comp either. Do we want this here? I don’t know. It fits your dictionary definition of IF a lot better than Language Arts, but it’s still not in the genre of thing that the term “IF” is used to describe. On the other hand, we’ve had a few point-and-click graphic adventures in the Comp before; I think the only thing really keeping them from being submitted in greater numbers is the effort involved, and the relative obscurity of the Comp. From a certain angle, it’s less of a stretch than accepting Twine.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about Lucerne. Lucerne is a short horror story written in Twine, and as far as I can tell, the fact that it’s written in Twine is the only thing giving it anything like a claim to being IF. It’s neither parser-based nor choice-based: it has no parser, and it has no choices. It is simply split up into a series of pages, each containing a single link to the next page. It’s not at all unusual for Twine pieces to begin like this, to have an intro consisting of several pages of static text before you get to the first choice, but here, that’s all there is. It doesn’t even do pauses or annoying text effects, so it’s hard to see why Twine was used at all; it might as well just be a text file. The author has either missed the point in a fairly epic way, or is deliberately testing to see what can be got away with. And yet, on the “family resemblance” front, it clearly beats out both Language Arts and The Shadow Witch!

I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. Sometimes I act like one anyway, but that’s a character flaw that I struggle to overcome. But the Comp has always relied on its judges to act like police. Instead of making executive decisions about what does and doesn’t belong, the organizers trust us to make that decision with our votes. But it’s always a bit uncomfortable to have to exercise that authority. There were people who said that my own Comp entry from 2001, The Gostak, wasn’t really IF, and I disagree there. I guess the best we can do is for everyone to draw their own line in the sand, and let authors decide how many they want to cross.

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