A Brief History of Spring Thing

springthing

(Brian Rushton) #1

Spring Thing is an IF Competition that has been held (with some minor exceptions) every year since 2002. Held in April/May, It has provided a counterpoint to the crowded and intense Interactive Fiction Competition held in October of each year. Over time, it has evolved from a showcase for long games to a place for philosophical experimentation to a springboard for new authors. In this essay, I’m going to delve into its history.

[Unlike IFComp, there are many Spring Thing games which I have not played, so I am relying more on reviews here. I have tried all of the winners.]

I welcome responses from individuals who have more memories or knowledge about Spring Thing.

Origins

Spring Thing began in 2002 when it was organized by well-known IF author Adam Cadre. In his own words:

The comp’s second organizer listed several of its rules goals:

As noted above, Spring Thing for many years required a $7 entry fee. The smaller group of entrants, entrance fee, and lack of time limit on games all contributed to a unique atmosphere for the competition over the years.

Let’s break the comp down year by year, and highlight its winners:

2002

The inaugural Spring Thing met with mixed success. There was only one entrant: Tinseltown Blues, by Chip Hayes.

On one hand, the low turnout was disappointing. Adam Cadre declared Chip the winner and allowed him to upload and announce the game in any way he wanted.

On the other hand, Tinseltown Blues was what many had hoped for: a game far larger than a 2-hour IFComp game, a big puzzlefest set in Hollywood.

Playing the game now, I enjoy it, but it suffers from one of the most common problems for big games: pacing. Some people are great at pacing big games; Zarf did a great job with Hadean Lands and So Far, Short with Counterfeit Monkey, and Gentry with Anchorhead, for example. But many people either 1)railroad the player far too much, or 2)don’t give any reasonable directions at all. This game does both; the opening is highly railroaded and full of text dumps, and the later parts require difficult-to-guess actions and a tightly-timed sequence that renders the game unwinnable if not taken care of in time.

This marked the first time that Spring Thing was used to release a very large game that wouldn’t fit in IFComp.

2003

Cadre announced the second Spring Thing in June of 2002, giving authors plenty of time to prepare. In the second year of Spring Thing, interest picked up a bit. There were 4 games released this year, instead of 1.

Entrants had various reasons for putting their games in the comp. Two of the games (Doris de Lightning, Cross of Fire) seem to have been entered here because they were longer than the traditional 2 hours. The author of another game, Kathleen Fischer, said that she was interested in seeing how Spring Thing would differ in ‘feel’ from IFComp.

The winner, Max Blaster and Doris de Lightning Against the Parrot Creatures of Venus was big and flashy, the equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie. Written by Emily Short and Dan Shiovitz (author of Bad Machine, among other games), this was a really long superhero game involving a Bond-like Max and a superhero Doris as two playable PCs.

The game is quite movie-like; it opens with a cinematic animated-text title screen, and is presented in a linear format of 5 or so challenges. Each challenge can be played through as Doris or as Max, and the finale requires both.

Unfortunately, the game is plagued with bugs, and some commenters found the pacing off (again, a common problem in large games).

The runner-up Inevitable is by Kathleen Fischer, an author who produced many remarkable games in her most productive years but who is now largely forgotten. Inevitable is a brooding sci-fi set piece involving abandoned ruins and ancient artifacts. Like most of her games, Inevitable is richly developed and well-programmed, but provides less guidance for the player.

Anssi Raisanen is the most prolific Alan author I know of, and they have been releasing charming, short puzzle games since 2001, with their most recent release being last year. Their 2003 entry, Puddles on the Path, is of similar quality and style to their others. I like these game; if you try one and like one, there are quite a few more available.

Finally, Cross of Fire was a fairly buggy game notable for starting with a scene where you shoot up cocaine as Sherlock Holmes.

This marked the first year to have short games, the first year with Raisanen, and the first year with a Sherlock Holmes game.

2004

From a post by Adam Cadre on rec.arts.int-fiction:

Despite many voicing support for Spring Thing and a growing number of mentions about Spring Thing in other topics, no one stepped up to run it in 2004.

2004 was a low year in general for IF, as many long-time authors disappeared after a few disappointing years in terms of player interest. Many big experiments had been done, and people on the forums felt burnt out. From 2005 and on, though, there was a sort of resurgence, with Spring Thing becoming more prominent and highly polished games like Vespers, Lost Pig, and Violet coming out in a few short years.

2005

In July of 2004, Greg Boettcher posted the following:

By the time the comp began next year, it had attracted 6 entrants, and its first breakout hit.

Aaron Reed entered Whom The Telling Changed, a highly experimental work. In this game, you are a witness to a storyteller in a tribe engaged in a long dialogue, psyching everyone up for a conflict with a rival tribe. Gameplay proceeds through your character shouting out keywords in an attempt to influence the story and to reach one of multiple endings. It was Aaron Reed’s first experimental game (after his successful puzzle game collaboration Gourmet in 2003).

The game Bolivia By Night deserves a mention as a long game with an innovative setting with a sort of magical realism (if that term encompasses driving a tank-like hot tub that is magically powered by a dvd of some Olsen Twins expys through a drug-dealer’s mansion).

David Whyld entered the first of his four Spring Things Adrift games, Second Chance.

This comp marked the first time a Spring Thing game had a highly experimental winner and launched an author into success, as would happen later with others. It also was the first time a ‘short’ game had won, and from now on, short games would dominate the comp.

2006

This year saw only four entries, but the entry that overshadows them all is The Baron. This is the most iconic Spring Thing game, with over 100 ratings and 16 reviews on IFDB, 7 XYZZY nominations (and one win), 6th and 9th place in the Interactive Fiction Top 50 of all time polls from 2011 and 2015.

This game was Victor Gijsber’s first and it made a big impression. The review from Play This Thing! says it best: “The Baron is a provocation, both in form and in content: in form, because it requires the player to choose not only actions but also an ethical philosophy; in content, because it asks what moral options remain for a person who recognizes himself as monstrous.”

Robb Sherwin and David Whyld both released games in-line with their previous works as well.

This marked the first time Spring Thing had games centered on big ethical dilemmas.

2007

This year was essentially a repeat of the last one. Again, there were 4 games, with 2 ADRIFT games and one winning z-code game by Victor Gijsbers.

Gijsber’s game, Fate, has not attracted as much attention as De Baron, but it is my personal favorite of Gijsber’s games. In it, you play a magical mother with foresight. You know that your precious baby is going to be slaughtered at a young age. You can do many different things to try to help them, with varying levels of success provided by your foresight. Unfortunately, the greatest things you can do for your child require the worst deeds at your hands.

David Whyld released yet another ADRIFT game, The Reluctant Resurrectee. This one was clever: you are a disembodied eyeball rolling on a desk. I liked it enough to base part of my 2017 IFComp game Absence of Law on it.

This marked the first year with a repeat winner.

2008

In 2008, there were only 3 entries. At this time, intfiction.org was becoming more prominent as r*if’s star began to wane.

The biggest entry here was only a preview, and it took third place: Aaron Reed’s Blue Lacuna. I don’t really consider Blue Lacuna a Spring Thing game, as it was entered only partially into Spring Thing. This preview was not well-received, as people wanted more. However, it went on to be one of the most successful IF games of all time, providing a PhD dissertation for Reed and landing in the top 10 of the IFDB Top 100 and the Best IF of All Time polls.

The winner, Pascal’s wager by Doug Egan, was another interesting morality based game in the vein of De Baron or Fate. The only way to win is to worship God your whole life. Unfortunately, there are 6 gods, and the right one to worship is chosen randomly, as is the one your parents worship. You are forced to approach several distinct tasks throughout your life which can be approached in any of the six ways (purity, violent brutality, self-preservation, etc.).

This marked the first time that a partial game was entered.

2009

In 2009, the IF community was continuing its slump, as more and more players aged out or moved on to other things.

The winner this year was Jim Aikin with A Flustered Duck. Aikin is known for creating big puzzle games like Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina or Lydia’s Heart. This is another game in the same vein, a solid playable piece that fulfills Spring Thing’s original intent.

2010

In 2010, there were no entries at all. As Bainespal wrote on intfiction.org: “Apparently, there was not a single entry! [emote]:shock:[/emote] That’s a little bit of a disappointment, to me. I’ll take this as a sign that I need to get off my lazy butt and write the game that I’ve been thinking about for Spring Thing 2011!”

After 2010, IF began pulling out of its slump as old authors returned to play with their children and the Twine revolution began to take off. This was also the year when the Choicescript community became more involved with the pre-existing IF communities.

2011

This year saw a healthy crop of 6 new games, including 3 really big, polished ones.

The winner was by the author of Anchorhead. Called The Lost Islands of Alabaz, it is a long puzzlefest geared towards children. I am currently playing it as I write this, and I really enjoyed it after a very confining introduction. It came with an XYZZY-award winning PDF feelie. Overall, many reviewers found it too simple for adults and too confusing for children. I like it, though.

Sean Shore released Bonehead, a complex baseball game that was very polished but a bit hard to get through. His later IFComp winning game Hunger Daemon exhibits the same polish but with better guidance.

Mentula Macanus was also released, which is probably the highest-quality game I’ve never played. It’s an incredibly foul and dirty riff on Greek mythology and classic IF games, and it one of the most polarizing games of IF ever created.

This year was the first time a children’s game won, and the first year to have more than 1 or 2 highly polished games.

2012

This year was the calm before the storm, as the slowly reviving parser community was about to be hit with the amazing Howling Dogs in the fall.

The winner was The Rocket Man and the sea, a charming parser game where you play a child with a strong imagination who encounters a mysterious man. Play changes between the real world and fantasy. I found this game engaging, though brief.

Jim Aikin wrote another big puzzle game, The White Bull. Many of my comments for A Flustered Duck apply here, although this game contains 6 musical ‘cues’.

2013

This year was memorable in multiple ways. The winner of the three games was Witch’s Girl, a Twine game, and the first Twine game to win any major IF Competition. It’s an illustrated game with some very clever branching. I highly recommend it.

It’s also notable for introducing Andrew Schultz’s first Spring Thing game, A Roiling Original. More and more after this year, authors that were highly productive would enter games into Spring Thing simply because they were making so many and needed somewhere to put them.

2014

This was the year that Aaron Reed took over from Greg Boettcher. As Aaron said:

This was also a year of great tumult for IF. Gamergate was occurring, and it hit hard in the IF community, as there were both entrenched hardline white male parser gamers already in the community and incoming younger LGBTQ+ creators excited to finally have an outlet. The two collided, resulting in year of great experimentation and also of people leaving the community or being attacked. Many experienced authors supported the new groups.

This Spring Thing was won by a game in the Choose Your Story system, called The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost by Briar Rose. There were three Choose Your Story games entered this year, and it provoked a reaction from the community. There was intense name-calling and profanity laden rants from both sides.

The winning game itself is most closely related to Choicescript. It is an earnest story about a slave boy sold off to fight as a gladiator. I found it a little rough around the edges, but I enjoyed the storytelling.

Just like IFComp of this year, most of the winning games were choice-based games, with the top four spots occupied by the Choose Your Story games and by Geoff Moore’s inventive twine game Surface, which had unique styling and images and a plot inspired by the likes of Porpentine, with two worlds.

This year also had a major issue with a disqualification. The author has since tried to make amends, but there was a game that was disqualified for voting irregularities. There was a sharp disagreement about it, and it sparked major changes in…

2015

Due to voting irregularities from the last year and an increasing emphasis on Spring Thing as an inclusive place free from the stresses of IFComp, Aaron Reed transformed it into a festival. Now, the rankings are not published, and authors can receive one of 2 ribbons, one for Audience Choice and one for Alumni’s Choice. Instead of cash rewards and entrance fees, all authors participate in a random prize pool.

It also introduced the idea of the Back Garden, where games could be entered in a non-competitive way, especially for unfinished works or works by well-known authors who didn’t want to crowd out others.

The winner this year was Toby’s Nose, a Sherlock Holmes entry and Chandler Groover’s breakout game. Groover had previously released a twine game in the middle of IFComp which received little attention. He then tried a more standard puzzle-based game for Parser Comp, but was frustrated when players didn’t figure out what seemed like simple puzzles. He then settled on eliminating traditional play completely, and started a pattern that would lead to the most successful collection of games by any author in the last few years.

Toby’s Nose has you play as Sherlock’s dog Toby. You just smell things, which bring up memories in which you can also smell things. In this recursive way, you solve the mystery. This game has influenced every game I’ve ever written, and I know it’s influenced others, as well. It was nominated for several XYZZY awards and is fairly high on the IFDB top 100.

This year was also the Spring Thing debut for several other authors that are well-known for their choice-based works, including Bruno Dias, B Minus Seven, and Porpentine, who was already well-known for Howling Dogs and Our Angelical Understanding.

The back garden included Aspel, a multiplayer game by Emily Short using Zarf’s Seltani engine.

This was a huge year for changes, including the revising of the ranking system, the proliferation of talented authors, and the overall sheen of professionality.

2016

By now, IF in general had entered into its Professional Phase, both in terms of actual jobs and in author’s behavior. Far from its origins as a hobby for STEM major grad students, IF had become a career choice.

A whopping 17 games were released this year. Like years past, it included massive games not fit for IFComp (such as the psychedelic Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony), interesting experiments (like Ms. Lojka and the bilingual Sisters of Claro Largo), previews of full games (like Nocked!), and games by authors who were just so prolific they had to release them somewhere (like Fourdiopolis and Xylophoniad).

This year also got a boost from Veedercomp games. Ryan Veeder had organized a private competition for people to send him games. These were not released to the public; however, many authors showcased their games in Spring Thing, including Buster Hudson with Foo Foo and Chandler Groover with Three-Card Trick.

The winners were:

Tangaroa Deep, by Astrid Dalmady. This short but spine-tingling game was the result of a long career path by Dalmady, starting with simple games like Crossroads and moving on to more complex games like Arcane Intern. Dalmady would go on to place highly in IFComp and find commercial contracts.

Xylophoniad by Robin Johnson. This greek-influenced parser game used a hand-rolled engine by Johnson, who released four games in 2016, including the IFComp-winning Detectiveland. All of these games have a Scott Adams-type feel, with sparse scenery leaving room for detailed puzzles and amusing dialogue.

This was the first year with 2 winners, and the biggest year to date.

2017

This last year had 22 entries, including an interactive opera and a pinball simulator! It cemented the competition’s place as the comp for games that were too long for IFComp, highly experimental, unfinished, or the overflow of a highly productive author.

There were three winners this year. Two games tied for Audience Choice and another won Alumni’s Choice.

The first audience choice winner I want to discuss is Niney by Daniel Spitz. In a way, this was a callback to the non-standard games of Gijsbers and Reed that focused on choices with consequence. It is highly unconventional, and has you picking up ‘roles’ instead of inventory.

The second winner was Bobby and Bonnie by Xavid, who later published Future Threads. Bobby and Bonnie used an innovative graphical system, an unusual narrator (or pair of narrators), and a cheerful setting. The gameplay, however, was classic parser gameplay.

The Alumni’s Choice Winner was Guttersnipe: Carnival of Regrets. I actually just finished this last week. It’s in Quest, which is a notoriously buggy system. I frequently found myself struggling with the parser. But the overall story-arc is one of the most enjoyable I’ve experienced in a while. It’s all classic fetch-quest gameplay with clever characters. It can be hard to read the main character’s accent, but it all flows together after a few screens. I had a huge feeling of satisfaction upon completing the game.

There were many other good games this year, too many to mention. By 2017, Spring Thing had grown essentially as big as the IFComp was in its early years. But, thanks to the festival system, it has managed to avoid some of the rancor and despair that cash prizes and rankings can induce.

Conclusion

Spring Thing went through many phases over the years, but it has always provided the community with a way to display games that are off the beaten path, and to provide a respectable outlet for games outside of IFComp.

This year is shaping up to be a great one. While I’ve spent a great deal of time on my entry Sherlock Indomitable, I wasn’t happy with the linearity imposed by the story structure. I look forward to the new games being entered this year. Good luck to everyone!


#2

Wow, the Thing’s first comprehensive history! This is incredible. :smiley: I’ve linked it from the festival’s History page, if that’s okay. Thanks much for researching and writing this up!