Author Highlights: Jon Ingold

(Brian Rushton) #1


Jon Ingold is the fourth and most recent person to have won two XYZZY Awards, as well as an IFComp. He was the first person to win IFComp and XYZZY Best Game with the same game, All Roads.

It took me a long time to realize how prolific Jon Ingold is, because his games are so diverse, much more so than other prominent authors. I didn’t realize they were all by the same author. From the insane puzzles of Mulldoon Legacy to the linear story-based games My Angel and All Roads to experimental games like Dead Cities, Ingold has explored almost every type of interactive fiction game. He does this consciously: "Kubrick said he wanted to make a definitive film in every genre, and I think that sounds like a good thing to aspire to. I may not succeed, but it’s worth a try "

Ingold has a history of cooperation with other authors, releasing games with Mike Sousa and Ian Finley. Going farther, Ingold founded the game company Inkle, which has produced the Inklewriter and Ink game engines, the latter of which is being used increasingly frequently for Unity-based games. Inkle released the award-winning 80 Days, the Sorcery! series, and the upcoming Heaven’t Vault, among other games.

Selected Works:

The Mulldoon Legacy (1999)

This game is one of the highest-rated games on the IFDB Top 100 list. It is a very, very large puzzlefest. I would say it is in the top 10 of all games for length, longer than any Infocom game, than Curses!, and comparable to Blue Lacuna.

I found this quote on The Mulldoon Legacy very enlightening. I apologize for the length:

Fail-Safe (2000)

This game plays on IF conventions, much like Cadre’s games. It explains both the format of a parser game (player types, narrator responds) and the parser’s limitations (‘I don’t understand that’) by phrasing the game as a static-filled conversation with a survivor of a spaceship disaster.

Games that explain the parser and its limitation tend to do very well, with Lost Pig as the prime example. Fail-Safe is a particularly good example of this genre.

My Angel (2000)

This was a highly unusual game. The author coded Inform to write in the form of a novel. Action are typed into the status line, with errors being printed up there. Only actual game text makes it to the game, sometimes adding a single line, sometimes adding an entire paragraph.

It’s a bold experiment, but it didn’t catch on. Morayati tried a similar experiment years later with Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory. The idea of letting the story flow as a book is pleasing, but in practice it tends to lower the amount of feedback players get from the parser or delay it. Since the major issue with parser games is trying to know what commands are allowed, this interferes with the core mechanics of parser games. However, My Angel is interesting, and still fun to play.

All Roads (2001)

This was Ingold’s most successful parser game. Set in Venice, it is a highly linear story (which uses several clever tricks to appear non-linear) involving jumps in time and temporal paradoxes.

The biggest puzzle in this game is the plot itself, with everything else crafted around it. In this way, it makes the game a meta-puzzle that can’t be gamed, as nothing is explained in-game.

Dead Cities (2007)

This game was part of the Commonplace Book Project, which was a collection of games inspired by Lovecraft’s work.

Using his own Flexible Windows extension, Dead Cities is a short horror tale unusual in its use of multiple windows: one for input/output, one for images, one for inventory, one for suggested actions, and one for location.

This was part of Ingold’s ongoing experimentation with making parser games accessible to the general public.

Make it Good (2009)

This game is the probably the pinnacle of detective-themed interactive fiction. Very conscious of its forbears, especially Deadline by Infocom, this is a dark, gritty, and very hard murder mystery.

You play a detective that has fallen on hard times. You’re given one chance to make things good by taking care of a complicated case. There are many suspects, and things are on a timer.

Like All Roads, much of the puzzle is in the player’s head, as they try to figure out what’s going on.

The Shadow in the Cathedral (2009)

The Shadow in the Cathedral, co-written by Ian Finely and released by David Cornelson’s Textfyre company, was an experiment in commercial IF released just a few years before commercial IF really took off.

This game is unusual, being a linear game with fairly easy puzzles that is very long. Most linear games are short little bites. This game just has a lot of content.

It is a steampunk game involving a world where all religion and thought is centered around machinery, springs, and clocks. A masterpiece of a game, it has been neglected over the years, perhaps because it was once commercial, and perhaps because it is part 1 of an unfinished series.

A Colder Light (2012)

This game continues Ingold’s progress on making interactive fiction player-friendly.

The parser has been heavily modified to be link-only, in a manner very similar to Robin Johnson’s Versificator game. There are inventory buttons, location links, and new buttons that pop up when clicking on an inventory item or location item.

The combination works well, and I found this a beautiful game. But this was all building up to:

80 Days (2014)

In 2011, Ingold founded the game company Inkle with artist and programmer Joseph Humfrey. After releasing a few of the succesful Sorcery! games and a Frankenstein game, both based on the original stories, they went to work on the game 80 Days.

This game, and Inkle’s other works, are completely choice based. Ingold had focused so hard for years to simplify parser games that he simplified them out completely. In a sort of manifesto on parser vs. choice, Ingold said:

80 Days is an illustrated game taking place on a 3d globe. The player unlocks new train paths from city to city, buying and selling goods to make enough money to get by. Each city has optional storylines, and each day on the train has its own storylines. During travel downtime, there is a conversational mini game asking other passengers about various cities. It has a wordcount of roughly 750,000, and won numerous awards, including Time Magazine’s Game of the Year.

This game won the 2014 XYZZY awards, the only commercial game to ever do so, and one of the few illustrated games to win.


Ingold’s games purposely lack overall themes, because (as stated in the quote earlier) Ingold’s original goal was to make a definitive game in each genre.

There are some things that crop up from time to time. There seems to be a fascination with physical and temporal teleportation. And many of his games require the player to reconstruct what really happened in a mental uber-puzzle; such games include My Angel, All Roads, Mulldoon Murders, Make it Good, and Insight.

Ingold’s protagonists tend to be powerful but silent figures whose backstory is always implied as being extensive but is rarely shown. His NPCs tend to be adversarial or frightening, and all of his games have a hint of darkness to them.

His biggest theme, though, is his quest to make interactive fiction accessible and non-frustrating. From the success of 80 Days and Ink, he seems to have succeeded.


As noted by Emily Short in one of her reviews, one of Jon’s striking achievements in “Make It Good” was making the IF system itself complicit in unreliable narration: the game reports that your prints are found on the letter-opener regardless of whether you wear gloves when handling it. “Obviously” this is a parser bug, until you realize that it’s not: this is a genius and bold little bit of misdirection.