IFComp 2020 Conclusions

And that’s a wrap! There were 104 entries, initially. One was disqualified for having been released previously. Three were one game in disguise. And there’s one I wasn’t allowed to vote on because I had beta-tested it. That left a nice round 100 games for me to judge, and I actually managed to judge them all, and post about half of them. I didn’t say this before, because I wanted the freedom to change my mind if it didn’t work well, but I had a system for this: I’d play two items from my randomized list, and then choose one of them to write about before proceeding to the next two. I actually think taking them in pairs like this helped me to choose votes, but I also think that the sheer size of the list meant that my standards drifted over the span of it. But that’s why we randomize.

Some notable trends observed this year: Multiple games where you play as a disembodied spirit. Multiple games that don’t have a player character in the conventional sense at all. An unusual amount of Asian representation compared to previous Comps. More serial killer stories than I’d like. Two games where you gradually discover evidence that you’re a vampire, which struck me as a funny coincidence considering how different those two games are otherwise. Several games based on semi-abstract card-game-like rule systems, replacing the player freedom of a full-on parser and the authorial freedom of hypertext with a small but consistent set of actions, where the player spends the first half of the game figuring out the rules and the second half applying them to optimize numbers. It’s worth noting that this experience is basically what the first text adventures were like before we all got used to their conventions.

One trend I find particularly interesting is the number of games that use Twine, or another choice-based interface, to make old-school adventure games based around puzzles, inventory, and free exploration of multiple rooms. It’s not a combination I would have expected to be popular. I always sort of thought that this specific form of description and interaction, the “medium-sized dry goods” model, ubiquitous in games but not particularly in non-interactive fiction, is a product of the underlying technology in ways that don’t really apply to Twine. But apparently people like that model enough to go to some effort to produce it in places where it’s neither necessary nor automatic. And when you see what they’re doing with the combination, it has clear advantages! Eliminating the parser helps to keep the interactivity focused on the meaningful and contextually appropriate. It’s clearly still an area where the basics are still being experimented with, though.

I haven’t more than glanced at other people’s reviews yet, so I don’t have a good sense of what the winner will be. My own top-rated games were Academic Pursuits and The Impossible Bottle, but Pursuits is far more accessible, so that’s my guess. The main thing limiting it is that it’s shorter than Comp-winners tend to be. A Rope of Chalk and A Murder in Fairyland are also strong contenders. Anyway, we’ll have answers soon enough. My prediction for the Golden Banana of Discord (the unofficial award for the game whose ratings have the highest standard deviation) is either Amazing Quest or You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf, both of which I expect to be polarizing.

I’ve spent a substantial chunk of this year judging this Comp and neglecting other projects to do it. I will very likely skip next year, especially if growth trends continue and it winds up in the neighborhood of 120 entries. Maybe I’ll blog the Spring Thing instead. That’s still relatively small.

IFComp 2020: The Knot

The Comp is on its last day. Let’s take one last look at a game that I previously judged without knowing its full extent. You won’t find The Knot in the list of entries, because it’s spread out over three games: “Adventures in the Tomb of Ilfane” by Willershin Rill, “Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!” by Tarquin Segundo, and the one I had written up previously, “Terror in the Immortal’s Atelier” by Gevelle Formicore. (The title The Knot is used in the closing credits for the whole.) Note that the author names are part of the title. The putative authors are just as fictional as the game content; each nonsense word they’re composed of, “Willershin” and “Formicore” and so forth, is used in the other two games in some other capacity, as the name of a fantastic creature or a lost civilization or whatever.

The three games are in different genres: fantasy, space opera, Indiana-Jones-style tomb raiding. But they’re exceedingly similar, fitting their content into the same patterns, even reusing essentially the same intro text and room description, just swapping out some words to fit the genre. The connection between them couldn’t be clearer, and the only reason that I missed it when I played Atelier is that I hadn’t even noticed the existence of the other two games yet. The titles even strive to minimize this possibility of this happening: because they all start with quotation marks, they get listed together when alphabetized. But my IFComp account is set up to randomize the order by default (the better to give every game a fair shake), and the unprecedentedly large number of entries made it easy to lose sight of them. So, bad luck there.

The reuse of names had me wondering if the three works were set in the same world at three points in time. Is Dr. Chirlu, the “action scientist” who worked on creating a powerful energy source known as the Knot, the same person as Autarch Chirlu, who rules his world with an iron fist, using a mysterious artifact known as the Knot to maintain his immortality? I don’t think that works, though, because the same words are sometimes used with completely different meanings. “Ilfane”, for example, is a legendary hero in one game, an invading alien race in another, and the device housing the Knot in the third. There is, however, some suggestion of connections between the worlds beyond just the presence of an immensely powerful object called the Knot. Like when the tomb of Ilfane contains a representation of the solar system where the spaceship Teresten is. And it is these connections that form the basis of the puzzles.

As with the fact that the games are connected, the game goes out of its way to make the puzzle clues really, really obvious, to the point of putting “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT CLUE” in flashing letters at the top of the page and saying “Perhaps you should take a note of this if you ever come across [situation found in another game]” afterward. I have a better suggestion than taking notes, though: these games are best played simultaneously, in three browser tabs or, even better, if you have enough screen space, three browser windows, side by side. That way, when you find a clue, you can keep it on the screen while you play the other two games, looking for the puzzle it’s a clue for.

Anyway, there’s not a lot of game past the point of noticing the connections I’ve just described, completely spoiling the experience of discovering them. Two of the games don’t properly end in themselves, just leaving you hanging on a page with a final clue that you need to reach the ending of all three stories in the third. This goes a step beyond the Hat Mystery and into Broken Age territory: a story that needs to exploit the meta to conclude, its characters sharing information through the player that they have no possible in-world source for — unless you consider that they’re sharing it via the one thing they all have access to, the Knot. Which fits at the meta level as well, because, as I’ve said, the Knot is the name for the conjunction of the three games. It’s been said that the ultimate goal of every game is to destroy the world by bringing it to a successful conclusion. Here, the Knot, the in-world manifestation of the trilogy of games, solves all of its protagonists’ problems by deleting itself from their worlds, right at the point where the player’s interactivity ends.

IFComp 2020: For a Place by the Putrid Sea

A young woman (“I’d been 16 for a couple years now”) returns to the fictional city of Gotomomi, on Tokyo Bay, to lie low after some unpleasantness abroad, bearing a horrible new scar and a story she’d rather not tell. She has no place to stay, and there’s a years-long wait list for even the seediest of apartments, so she immediately turns to crime. A tenement by the docks has a tenant who just died, and the caretaker will let you unofficially take her place if you can dispose of the body discreetly. And after that, there are opportunities to move up to better apartments by doing more shady favors.

It’s the sort of story where nearly everyone’s out for themselves, and operating at least slightly outside the law, from the wretched souls picking over the trash illegally dumped in the bay to the well-heeled operators of a clandestine casino. Mix in a few heavy doses of social satire, like when you can’t call in a rescue for a stranded seaman without providing his health insurance number, which he doesn’t have, because he’s American. That’s the flavor of this piece. It takes place in a system with deep problems, where the protagonist gets ahead, and gets closer to a personal agenda that even the player doesn’t know about until near the end, by acting as problem-solver.

And that means it’s a puzzle-based adventure game. It’s pretty neatly designed, with a tight little core map with some larger mazy sequences dangling from it. The constraint in the early game makes it easy to get going, and the progress upward from floor to floor of the tenement is a good way to mark your progress in the story. I do think the puzzles get a little too obscure in the middle, where you have to think of making a Molotov cocktail on the basis of too-vague prompting, and then are expected to have some real-world knowledge of how they’re made. But overall, it’s well-built.

I’m a little leery of the fact that the puzzles make our Japanese teenager protagonist undress on multiple occasions, sometimes in the presence of a Russian motorboat pilot. That seems fetishy, but at least it doesn’t dwell on it.

IFComp 2020: The Copyright of Silence

Here we have a fictionalized account of the origin of John Cage’s 4’33”, the famous musical piece consisting entirely of silence. As a guest in Cage’s house, you engage him in conversation as he talks about the concept of silence and reads you excerpts from a book he’s writing on the subject.

At first, I didn’t really understand what the work’s attitude towards Cage was. Ultimately, it’s satire, but it doesn’t directly make fun of Cage’s words or ideas, presenting them with genuine quotations when possible. Possibly the author felt they were ludicrous enough taken as-is. At most junctures in the conversation, you have three options: a respectful or even sycophantic response, a rude and mocking response, and saying nothing. Yes, for once, the silent option isn’t just a default to deal with a lack of a decision, but is meaningful and thematic as silence. Whether Cage takes your silence as a polite or rude varies with context.

Anyway, there’s more to it than just dialogue. The house has four rooms, intriguingly shown all at once in a sort of schematic view, four boxes containing text. Your choices are listed in the one representing your current room, while the other rooms merely show the current locations of Cage, his dog, and his parrot, the latter two of which wander about Melbourne-House-Hobbit-style. The dog will make you sneeze if you’re in the same place, and the parrot will attack you viciously, making you scream — things that become relevant when you find the stopwatch, which tells you how long you’ve managed to maintain your silence. Even with that statistic, it isn’t until the epilogue that you find out why you’re timing your silences: if you manage to keep mum for four minutes and thirty three seconds, you can make the legal case that Cage got the idea for his famous piece by hearing you perform it.

This is very difficult to do. Too difficult, in my opinion. This is a game that’s meant to be played repeatedly until you get it right, but even so, it both relies on the player’s willingness to experiment and, through time limits and restrictions on what you can do when, does its best to keep the player from experimenting.

Still, bonus points for including a music toggle in the UI that has no audible effect, presumably for turning the silence on and off.

IFComp 2020: How The Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings

Here we have three fake just-so stories in a spot-on imitation of Kipling’s prose style. Or more like five stories, really, because the first two start with highly bifurcating choices that completely change what the story is about, but you get three of them in a single run. The stories go some silly places (“Do whales really climb trees?”), but arguably no sillier than their source material.

The interesting thing about it is that you’re not playing the role of protagonist. Rather, the whole thing is presented as your grandfather telling you stories and occasionally prompting you for details: “And what do you suppose happened then?” The possible answers are as likely to be things that happen to the main character as things that the main character does. It’s a style of IF that you don’t see much — it would be difficult to do in a parser game with mechanics based around giving commands to a character, but even in choice-based IF, the easiest way to give the player a stake in the story is to ask them to identify with, and act as, a character in it. Here, we do that halfway, identifying as a character around the story.

And really, some of the branches play up that role as a role. There’s one optional bit where the audience figure asks for a kangaroo to be included, and the storyteller refuses at first, because the story is set in Africa, but relents in the face of persistent insistence. At the very start, we’re warned about how this sort of interference could wind up altering the story, and with it, because the stories are how things came to be as they are, the fabric of reality. But the player doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. The stories are going to wind up warped no matter what choices you make.

IFComp 2020: Where the Wind Once Blew Free

A tale of war, grief, and spirituality in the American southwest using anthropomorphic animals. I don’t think I ever really got into the right mindset for this one, because the whole aesthetic is a little bewildering. Most of what I saw was structured around digressions that return to the same scene, with the same words and sometimes the same cosmetic choices, as if repeating things for emphasis, or illustrating the inevitable point that the character’s thoughts keep returning to. It wants to be taken seriously, but it’s also a fantasy about furries. It has an emphasis on the details of guns. Apparently there’s gore, although I didn’t reach that point. I did see a video montage in the third chapter that attempts Lynchian horror and comes off as ridiculous, but I don’t doubt that there’s sincere emotion behind it.

The blurb says it’s only an hour long, but I was unable to finish it — my first playthrough ended in premature death, my second in a bug. So I never made it past chapter 3. Regardless, what I saw of it feels like the start of something much longer. Largely, I think, due to the world-building. This is a work with an entire lengthy menu for unlockable lore, like you see sometimes in RPGs.

And, like RPGs, it starts with a character creation system, where you assign points to stats, including agility, book smarts, and two distinct stats for noticing things, active and passive. Choices are sometimes contingent on stat checks, unless you play in god mode, an option offered at the beginning. The peculiar thing is that the story doesn’t stick with one character. The first chapter follows the apparent main protagonist, Silver Bear, a veteran with a dead friend whose voice he still hears sometimes, as he follows it off the highway and into the desert. The second chapter switches to a young snake on a ranch with no obvious connection to Silver Bear, the third to the ranch owner, a gila monster. And no matter who the viewpoint character is, they have the same stats and inventory.

The UI, too, is baffling at first. It’s slickly designed, but for beauty rather than usability. There are glowing, pulsing words in the text that are clearly hyperlinks; there are decorative elements that glow and pulse in exactly the same way, with the same rhythm, which makes them look clickable, but they’re not. When I encountered my first page without inline links, it took some effort to identify what I had to click on to continue. Compounding this, it often takes up to three seconds to visibly respond to clicks on legitimate links, creating momentary confusion about whether you’ve clicked on the right thing or not.

The thing is, I feel a little uncomfortable even complaining, as if I don’t have the standing to judge this work. It’s like the social discomfort of encountering someone who doesn’t realize that their entire world view is completely alien to you.

IFComp 2020: Flattened London

This one’s a mashup of Fallen London and Flatland, a surprisingly harmonious pairing. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising — they’re both extremely Victorian, after all. But Flatland is Victoriana as seen from within, rife with the unexamined classism of empire, while Fallen London views it from without, mythologizing it semi-ironically. And anyway, that’s not the surprising part. The real goods is in seeing how little it takes to finagle a Flatlander’s discovery of the third dimension into something occult and eldritch, a guarded secret known only to mad cultists, but also something that, like most of Fallen London, can be mastered through resource acquisition.

That said, the Flatland aspect is irrelevant to the majority of the content. Sometimes I’d run into something like a cage suspended from a chain and wonder: How does a cage work in 2D? How does a chain? Answers are not forthcoming. So mostly this is an adventure game in an abbreviated Fallen London-ish environment that stuffs in as many of the original’s outlandish ideas as it can get away with. But that’s enough to be pretty satisfying.

At the start of the story, you’re offered a commission from Mr. Pages, one of the mysterious powerful entities that lords it over the underground, to procure a certain book, a manuscript that explains the mysteries of the third dimension. Once you have the book, you can complete your mission, and with it the game, by giving it to Mr. Pages as requested, and be rewarded lavishly, or you can dispose of it in a few other ways, including destroying it and making it public. But the thing is, the clear best ending doesn’t involve disposing of the book at all. Rather, you get it by finding valuable objects in every corner of the map and delivering them to the trophy case in your home, which mysteriously has slots just the right shape to receive them. There are entire areas of the map, and associated subplots, that you don’t have to engage with to get a book ending, and which are solely about obtaining valuables. So there’s basically two parallel courses of action, which is, again, very much like the gameplay in Fallen London.

For what it’s worth, I found the puzzles leading to the treasures to be pretty reasonable, except for one that I couldn’t even begin to approach without hints, because it required dying, which is something that you pretty much have to seek out deliberately. The game content contains clues about this, but they weren’t strong enough to overcome habit. I suppose someone who’s more into Fallen London than me might have better intuitions about this: the boundary between life and death is fairly permeable in that setting, where the deceased routinely rejoin society after a few months entombed, and the Crown has diplomatic relations with Hell. In this one respect, I think the game is less accessible to people outside the fandom.

IFComp 2020: Quintessence

It’s been pointed out that one of the advantages that choice-based games have over the parser-driven stuff is the ability to easily vary the scale of the action. Inform defaults to what’s been called the “medium-sized dry goods” model, where the focus is on moment-to-moment physical interactions, because that’s what the system understands. Whereas in a choice-based system like Twine or Ink, you can wind up choosing “Pick up the amulet” one moment and “Spend the next month negotiating a truce” the next.

Here we have that capability taken to an extreme. The scale is an entire universe; time, when it exists, ticks forward in increments of billions of years. The player character, to the extent there is one, is a “quanta” (which is clearly plural, but that might be deliberate), a sort of disembodied mind that can survive the repeated growth and collapse of the universe and occasionally, depending on your choices, can be born into the world, as a cat or a dog. Cats and dogs figure big in the story’s cosmology; the entity responsible for the entire cycle of the universe is called “the Forever Cat”.

It’s all rather abstract, though. Much of the text is cosmic vagueness along the lines of “The spreading distance grows the space within us. Gravity’s range is infinite, but our bonds weaken. Always ahead and behind, time without comfort surrounds us. We race apart.” Followed by a choice where you don’t have much of any basis for choosing one thing over another — except that in a lot of cases choosing wrong ends the current cycle and starts you over from the beginning. So a lot of the reader’s attention is on remembering what choices to avoid. I’m not convinced that that’s the story the author wanted to tell.

IFComp 2020: Sage Sanctum Scramble

This one’s close to a pure puzzle game. The whole idea is that you have to collect “keywords” by passing challenges set by various ludicrous “sages”. There are a great many challenges — I’ve unlocked 58 so far, which is enough to get a winning ending, but not the best one. And there’s a good variety to them. Some sages just want you to guess their word on the basis of riddles or hints or warmer/colder. Some want to play word games with you, and just give you the keyword outright after you solve a series of little puzzles like “I’m going to give you pairs of words and you have to give me words that connect them” or whatever. There’s a series of puzzles where a machine transforms letter sequences according to rules you have to figure out by experiment. There are anagrams and mini-crosswords and at least one cryptogram. It reminds me a little of the small items they’d shove together on a single page in Games Magazine, and a lot of The Fool’s Errand and its sequel.

Notably, it only accepts one-word commands, and most of those single words are interpreted as guesses in your current puzzle. There are just a few commands that do anything else, including LOOK/L to repeat the current puzzle, PUZZLES to get a list of available puzzles and numbers to switch to a different puzzle, BOOK to list the keywords you’ve collected. Because everything is done from the same command line, it’s impossible to use any of these words in a puzzle. There’s one puzzle that’s essentially one-dimensional Lights Out on an alphabet with wraparound, except that the alphabet is missing L, because it has to.

What do you do with the keywords once you have them? You proceed to the endgame, where you use them as spells to fight a monster. If you fail — or if you succeed but want to keep on solving puzzles — the game lets you rewind to before the fight. Words disappear from your list when used, offensively or defensively, and the only way you fail is by running out of them. Most of the monster’s attacks can be countered by words with specific properties, like “alternates vowels and consonants”, but if you don’t have such a word, you can use any word at all as a last-ditch defense. Huh? What does it matter, then? Well, the counters completely nullify the attack, whereas the defenses keep you safe but let it damage the Sanctum, affecting the ending you get.

The narrative aspect is minimal and the descriptive text is short, but at least there are some amusing characters among the Laputan coterie. The most memorable is smug a fellow who insists that you guess his keyword with one completely inadequate hint, but who can be goaded into giving you more information by ignoring the one hint until he’s beside himself with frustration. That one puzzle was particularly difficult because it broke the pattern of the rest of the game: that the puzzles have basically no connection to their presentation.

IFComp 2020: BYOD

A very short piece about hackery in a corporate environment, enabled by a nigh-magical app on your phone that gives you remote access to anything networked, provided you know its address. The app presents any functionality of its targets through the Unix everything-is-a-file paradigm, letting you read and write them through simple commands.

It occurs to me to wonder why we haven’t seen more parser IF about command-line hacking interfaces. It seems a natural fit, and I for one would like to see more of it. Especially since this game barely whets your appetite for snooping around in other people’s computer systems and then it’s over. I could see making much more use of the system presented here — or maybe it’s good that it doesn’t pad it out? One thing makes me think it could support a longer story: it takes place in one room, and there’s a sense that the filesystems are a substitute for conventional exploration.

One thing I almost missed by playing from a standalone interpreter: The website provided for the game is something else. The index.html is a perfect replica of an old MS-DOS directory listing, with the right font and everything. In addition to the game, it gives you a couple of virtual feelies, including a fake hacker newsletter and something very similar to a 90s Amiga demo. All this is kind of anachronistic to the game content, with its 2000s smartphone, but it’s a lovely little Hypnospace-ish nostalgia trip that put a smile on my face and raised my rating by a point or two, even if it’s not a part of the game proper.

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