Best critical IF blogs?

Is there anyone writing about specifically text-centred IF in a such a way, not as to give an overview of all the games being released and trying to boost the whole community, but more from the point of view of calling out specifically those games – and generally only those games – that break new ground formally as works of art? And entirely omitting mention of the 80-95% of releases that tend to be also-rans, i.e. repeats of a proven formula?

Let’s say, using the distant past as allegory to avoid needlessly hurting feelings, that I were very interested in Adventure and Planetfall (because of Floyd) and Suspended and Deadline and A Mind Forever Voyaging, but not at all interested in Zork II or Enchanter or basically, most of the rest of Infocom. (None of this is true; I loved all the Infocom games, but I’m not as interested in playing plain retreads of the same types I played before, as when I was younger – even if those games were good and the retreads are good.)

There are plenty of critical magazines that take this kind of approach in other media (though they have been slow to come online), and with indie games in general there is also a growing number of critical blogs. Text IF journalism, however, seems stuck in a sort of cheering, ‘grow the community’ mode, which is great for the community but typically results in a very poor signal-to-noise ratio for someone trying to keep up with important developments in the field on limited time.

I ask this with apologies to anyone who believe they are already doing this on your blogs or other forums. I am sure that any inaccuracy in my perception would be due to the aforementioned limited time on my part, but I do perceive a gap here in what kinds of writing are done about text-based IF.

What is the best critical blog or website about IF that you read? Where you go to find out who is really innovating? I’ve read too many ‘explosion of new CYOA’ articles – I don’t want to read about an explosion. I want to read about only the stuff has a chance to move the medium forward.

Any help in my quest for enlightenment would be greatly appreciated.

P.S. Here’s what I don’t want though: I would be disappointed if this turned into an argument over what is the IF ‘canon’. A canon presupposes some kind of agreement of the elites over what is worthwhile. While I’m sure there is some informal agreement, I have always failed to find a point in designating one ‘official’ story on what is important in the literary and film worlds; those canons have been pretty decisively struck down as speaking from any authoritative place, and with good reason, so I don’t wish to see IF go down that road. Everybody has a different opinion and they should all be able to co-exist, and with that being fully acknowledged – who is actually attempting a more critical perspective on their blogs?

I think you’d have better luck if you were looking at authors rather than games. Some authors keep trying to push IF in new directions and it shows, and it’s easier to look at their IFography than to hunt someone who’s exclusively reviewing “what’s pushing the envelope”.

Your example of Planetfall makes it a tad harder, though. From what I understand, the innovation wasn’t even really in Floyd himself, but the way he SPOILER WHICH EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT ALREADY ANYWAY. Apart from that, isn’t Planetfall a very typical adventure game?

I think most such criticisms come up at the time of release of a game, or in SPAG and, often, the spot reserved for very detailed reviews. It seems that we’ve more interest, being in the middle of this, in creating and playing new games, experimenting, theorizing with a practical basis; rather than to stand back, look at it with a critical eye and analysing like that. For some reason, that feels very alien to the nature of IF.

I felt Floyd was an important innovation in the creation of personality, for its time. It could have easily had precursors however, of which I was unaware, and that’s exactly the kind of discussion I would like to see a blog centred on.

I hear what you’re saying about SPAG and whatnot and there are many helpful reviews posted in here as well, and I have tried to go that route, but ultimately had to face that I am really not that excited about the plan of reading every game review in order to find out if any of them mention anything groundbreaking – I would much rather read the blog of a person who had already done that for me. 8)

I doubt such a thing exists, although certain reviewers may always be on the lookout for innovation so their reviews may be more helpful - but something else you could do, you could start a poll in IFDB. I know it’s not exactly the same thing, but it might give you a sense of which authors, and which reviewers, do what you’re looking for.

And that concludes my contribution to this thread. :slight_smile: Maybe the next guy will actually say “I know exactly what you mean! Try this bloke here!”

You could also look at what has been nominated for the innovation XYZZY awards.

What a sad statement. I was hoping that things were not as they seemed and that I was just ignorant.

Sure, but the XYZZY awards seem focused pretty exclusively on parser games alone, and anyway regardless of what categories they say they are for, voted awards are always a popularity contest, and will therefore tend to overlook important contributions from less popular authors. Besides, the taking of any kind of survey or a poll seems antithetical to the goal of seeking out critical perspectives.

Thanks for trying.

I disagree. Floyd’s story would not have the impact it does without the entire game’s worth of interaction, as Floyd follows you around, comments on what you’re doing, wanders off, comes back, and generally acts like an interactive sidekick. That was new in Planetfall; we’d had extremely random NPCs (the thief, the wizard of frobozz), scheduled ones (everyone in Deadline), and obedient ones (the robot in Zork 2) but most of Floyd’s code was dedicated to characterization and reacting to your actions.

As to your original question: I agree. This is a gap. But maybe (I know, this is going to sound harsh) there just isn’t enough innovative activity within the IF world?

I mean, the parser-based IF world. I think exciting things are still going on, but about distribution and speaking to new audiences. In terms of defining our art form, I think we mostly shifted from “breaking new ground” to “trying to tell better stories” several years ago. Not entirely! But the exceptions tend to be singular – Blue Lacuna shows up, we talk about it.

You could look at Aaron Reed’s and Emily Short’s blogs (though Aaron’s just done three games, one Twine, one by a guy who does point-and-clicky stuff that is of interest to IFers, one that I don’t know; and Emily’s last reviews of specific IF games was during IFComp, I think, though not all of them were comp games). And Sparkly IF Reviews might do something of what you want. You might also check out the Interactive Fiction tag at (hey, Pacian released something new and no one told me?)

But really, if you want something like a gathering of critical approaches to innovation in interactive fiction, I’d say maybe you should start up something like that and invite other people to contribute.

Interesting. You don’t say whether you or not you think this is a bad thing. Shouldn’t we try avoid this outcome and find ways to keep promoting more formal experiments, and never think of the art form as ‘defined’? For it to stay healthy, I mean. Probably the best way to promote this chicken would be to start more egg blogs focused on innovation. 87

I have had plans to start one for a while, but I am dilatory. I just want it to exist, so I can read it. Besides, I keep getting it into my head that hey, if I am going to do this, then I should start at the ‘beginning’, with Adventure, and then it becomes a Massive Side Project, and then it goes on the shelf with all the others… I expect that’s a common story.

Yeah, you read my mind, man. See above.

Thanks for those references; I had not heard of all of them. I do subscribe to Emily’s blog, and I find her perspective interesting, if very different from my own. Versu is tops on my list of things I must take for a spin. Ultimately, she talks about a lot of stuff; much more of it relevant to game design issues than critical theory, but I think hers is the closest example so far.

Thank you for that info, I was unaware of that. It probably doesn’t help I haven’t played Planetfall yet and was going by impressions.

I think the phrasing there – “the parser-based IF world” – definitionally misses what I think is the most interesting trend in formal development over the past few years: the peeling apart of world model from input layer, the rejection of the idea that everything has to look like the classic z-machine and the exploration of many resulting variant interactive text formats, such as multiple-choice or keyword driven games with a rich model beneath, interactive poetry with typed input but little model, and so on. ChoiceScript, StoryNexus, Varytale, Undum, inklewriter, Ex Nihilo, Versu, the interactive epistolary model in First Draft of the Revolution, much of Kazuki Mishima’s work (especially Pale Blue Light, which blends parser and poetic treatments), maybe make some change, howling dogs all represent different ways (in the form of tools or interactive pieces) to explore this territory. Perhaps even Kentucky Route Zero.

What’s happened isn’t that the IF world has stagnated; it’s that the formal experimentation has become so varied and complex that the results look like members of a different species.

And strictly in the parser world, you’ve got Kerkerkruip, Calm, Flexible Survival… I think there’s new ground being broken within this world, if not at the same pace as in 1982 or 1999 or whatever year you like.

Yeah. I think I would actually say that groundbreaking stuff gets less attention than it used to because there’s such a lot to cover, and/or because of some other demographic shifts in the community; there’s no longer (as I’ve said elsewhere) really one IF community, even to the degree that was ever true (and it was never completely so); it’s less the case that everyone is playing just the same small set of game; it’s less the case that everyone playing those games brings the same expectations and background, etc.

Perhaps Nick Montfort’s blog? It has a lot of non-IF stuff, too, but is generally from an academic/literary perspective.

Hmm, I’ve seen it before, but it seems he is posting way more frequently than he used to. Some pretty interesting-looking recent posts. Thanks for linking that!

All the more reason to expland the rubric to include the forms Emily just mentioned, I guess. I would really like to see that happen, CYOA brought into the interactive fiction fold – well I mean, it already obviously is in the fold, I just would like to see that more acknowledged, especially when people are saying, ‘Innovation has slowed down in this genre,’ maybe yeah the genre definition is too small – something I have always argued for, anyway.

But, perhaps oddly, that does not mean I am actually going to play any CYOA. There is too much of it. There is wayyy too much of it, and I only want to play the stuff that does something special, that I would think, ‘I didn’t expect that this is what it would feel like to play a CYOA.’ If that makes any sense.

This is very interesting. It makes me wonder two things. (1) How many of these different CYOA systems are really doing something significantly different from each other? And (2) Given all of this experimentation, why should parser innovation iin and of itself be slowing down compared to its former pace? There are more and more hybridised forms; why isn’t the parser more often a part of that? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I definitely don’t think the parser is played out.

I hope it never gets played out.

I don’t know if it’s systems that are doing different stuff as much as individuals, thanks to the ever-increasing accessibility of the tools. A Twine lets users experiment a lot more quickly. And the experiments can take the form of complete projects quickly, too.

A ‘quick’ experiment in parserdom may lead to a speed IF that’s unsatisfying in 90% of ways (my own bias and exaggeration :slight_smile:) with 10% being the novel element – or if the experiment is going to be implemented fully, it may take months/years to make. At that rate, CYOAs are always going to seem like they’re doing everything faster. To get what the parser can do into your game, you go to a whole new level of time and work.

It also depends what kind or degree of innovations you (Larroquod) expect. I’m interested in new mechanics or ways of doing things appearing in parser-based games, but I don’t expect them to come at any particular rate. I’m not worried if they don’t. I do expect a constant sort of organic expression of our times, and that happens without me having to do anything. But I’m a guy who’s probably more into infinite variety within genre (which of course can also seat innovations) rather than games which arrive whose subject matter is their innovation.

  • Wade

Because traditionally parser-based systems run in strictly sandboxed environments (interpreter + story file model) and it’s very hard to break free from the limitations. Because the parser is a significantly complex structure, and also because homebrewn parsers are generally scoffed at, compared to CYOA/hypertext systems it’s several magnitudes harded to make a parser-based game that truly has any new kind of gameplay elements beyond what the sandbox allows. As a comparison, Ex Nihilo which was mentioned earlier was whipped together in about a weekend and the engine is only a bit more than 200 lines of code.

The situation will hopefully change for the better in near future, though.