Caliban's IFcomp/Community Thread of Appreciation

Hi y’all, as a starry eyed new entrant to both the community and the competition I wanted to post something about what rediscovering interactive fiction has been like for me and then, not really ‘reviews’ in the critical sense, but just express my awe and appreciation at some of the work I’ve come across through this process. The following is an adapted extract from a longer substack post I wrote reflecting on the whole topic of text adventures and IF (which you can find here if you’re interested) and then in the subsequent thread I’ll post my various adorations for games I’ve played as they appear in the orginal blog.


In my mind games based around text had died some time in the late 90’s- meaning that while such games were still available- and people might still be creating them- they were not growing as an art form. They were a peripheral, archeological experience that mainly survived as a compliment to more successful organisms, like the sonnet form in a fantasy novel or a playable version of an 8 bit arcade game rendered in a virtual environment. But the IF community gathered around Narrascope disabused me of that notion.

The IF community I saw at Narrascope was mainly young (as in younger than me), optimistic and, by the standards of the games industry, highly diverse. They seem to have no conception of their work as niche or hobbyist and there is not so much nostalgia for the past as a purposeful intellectual appreciation of it. These are enthusiasts, obsessives, fellow dorks if you will, but also cutting edge writers and highly refined artists contributing to the forward march of our culture. Discussion ranged from the highly technical, to the ethical, to the aesthetic to the radical. We met in the aftermath of the heatwave and the early days of the war in Ukraine. The welcoming lecture was introduced with the reassurance that we were entering a space where we could not expect to escape the effects of these terrors, but at least contribute to an alternative commonality. It was a gentle sentiment that spoke to the spirit of the community; inclusive, questioning and mutually supportive.

Encountering the IF community has been like drifting apart from an old friend, hearing somewhere that they have died, and then bumping into them one day on the street and discovering that they have been living their best life without you this whole time. When you meet such an acquaintance you will be at first elated to find them alive, and then desperate to get a piece of what they’ve got. After playing Ataraxia I began skootling around in Twine. I didn’t have any intention to create a viable game and ended up instead with a meandering highly personal exploration of my anxieties and memories. I named it Lucid to convey the idea of consciously exploring a dream, which to me is the essence of reading Interactive Fiction. While I was working on this I learned about IFcomp and thought that entering it might be an interesting way to sneak into the community, that is sneak in the sense of stumbling awkwardly into a pep rally wearing poorly constructed cheerleader cosplay. I made some edits to Lucid to make it a little more appropriate for public consumption, gave it to my friends to playtest, and then entered it into the competition. NERVES.

The competition isn’t over, but the experience has been wonderful. The IF community has survived and grown by enthusiastically nurturing it’s constituents. There is no gatekeeping or passive aggressive hostility. People have strong opinions and are open about their tastes, but they are shared constructively and with an emphasis on positivity and the possibility of growth. The open source Twine community in particular is an incredible resource, Lauren sherpa’d me through a lot of my climb to submission but once i’d gained confidence in the basic principles I found that I could find the answer to practically any question about the platform simply by searching the forums for some paleo-noob with the same query which invariably multiple initiates had examined and resolved many times over.

A lot of the participants share reviews of the games they have played as part of the competition, but I don’t feel like I’ve earned the right to really review the games I’ve played. Besides which my experience has hardly been critical, but more like an infant walking wide eyed into an arcade run by strange, chthonic spirits. My heart full of wonder and terror, my sanity shaken.

Instead I would like to offer the following tributes to the completely random selection of games I played in order to rate them as a participant-judge in IFComp 2022 (check out the rules here). Some of them are tentative explorations of the format expressing powerful feelings and compelling ideas, others highly sophisticated games that seem ready for commercial publication. I hope that you will try them all, every one is worth your interest and your time.

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Lazy Wizard Academy- By Lenard Gunda

The first game I played was, by complete chance, the most nostalgic. The 90’s saw fantasy go through a necessary era of self parody, the pinnacle of which was Terry Pratchett’s series of Discworld novels, seeing a tumult of pythonesque heroes that were, far from heroic, cowardly, sarcastic or, indeed, lazy. The proceedings of Lazy Wizard academy are thus familiar, but all the more lovingly rendered for it.

This is a classic parser game with fun mechanics, exploring the expanding map of the academy the player accrues puzzle solving spells. The non player characters are a delight, and Lenard has conveyed wit and personality in just a few phrases. This is always great to see done well and with a lightness of touch, like a good comic artist can convey character with only a few pen strokes. I particularly enjoyed the obnoxious goblin in the kitchen which provides precisely the kind of atmospheric service the genre demands.

It was the small touches that stood out in Wizard Academy, like the magical antics of the helper Djin that remind you it’s present in your current location or the neat, evocative descriptions of the paintings that hang everywhere in the school. This was a warm homecoming to the genre and I was grateful for it.

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Staycation- By Maggie H

Staycation is a relatively brief game that conveys a sharp feeling, like a quick stab to the kidney. It deals with themes of mental health and struggling with isolation and I would caution anyone who doesn’t want to reflect on those feelings to approach it forearmed, but speaking as someone who does I fully recommend that you do.

What I found most interesting about the game was its format. Most contemporary IF seem to fall into the category of either parser games that use typed inputs or choice-based games where options are selected by clicking a link. Staycation fits very broadly into the latter category, but rather than clicking a link the player drags one of a series of icons (“look”, “speak”, “listen” and so forth) into the body of the text and onto one of a series of highlighted words.

This may be a familiar interface to people who are more au fait with the various platforms on which IF are being scripted, but I think even if I had seen this before the author has made clever and effective use of it. The selected choice doesn’t simply trigger a new passage, but often alters the original text. This plays beautifully on the layers of thought and feeling experienced by the unnamed protagonist, the double think of the persevering depressive and the sinister un-thoughts that one battles to suppress.

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The Archivist and the Revolution- By Autumn Chen

This was the first game I played in the competition that felt like the work of a highly accomplished practitioner. When I read that it had been created by means of the same platform that I had used to assemble my own, maddeningly jank, offering I felt very quiet inside. Several games later I am yet to find another entry which has achieved comparable ambition with equivalent polish.

The Archivist and the Revolution presents a dystopian future where the world has been scorched and a remnant fraction of humanity struggles on in a colossal bunker-city where, as it’s perfect tag-line explains, “The world is ending and you are still paying rent”.

The basic gameplay revolves around this contradiction, making ends meet in a world where life is increasingly impossible and all the forces of the state are organised to oppose your very existence. I don’t want to give too much away, because the game’s greatest achievement is the way that it’s rich lore is integrated into gameplay in a way that reveals itself organically and under the agency of the player, but it is this sense of living in a world that objects to you on the most fundamental level which is the core conceit.

Like all the best speculative fiction I found the allegory at once unsettlingly relatable, as it could be for any subject of late era capitalism, but also profoundly illuminating about existences beyond my own. I insist that you play it.

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Trouble in Sector 471- by Arthur DiBianca

I have to apologise to Arhtur, because I cannot remember the initial setup for the game and as I refuse to abandon my current save, even for the sake of praising their work, I cannot reload the game and check that I have the details right.

Trouble in Sector 471 is set on a space station which has been infiltrated by alien lifeforms that interfere with its operation. The space station is maintained by an entertainingly varied range of robot characters, of which the player is one. Your job is to move around the game world interacting with the robots, opening up the map with various puzzle solves and exterminating the bugs. Very satisfying. Very fun.

Trouble is a parser based game but rather than verb/noun combinations it employs a limited set of one word commands. This feels restrictive at first, but as the game expands so does this list of commands and they reveal themselves to be the genius at the core of its play.

There are so many wonderful little touches in the game, like the ascii map and the brilliant use of an out-of-game decoding page for the walkthrough. I was limited by the 2 hour window in which to judge these games, but I will definitely be back to thread my way through it’s joyful, intricate puzzle.

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Elvish for Goodbye- By David Gürçay-Morris

Rediscovering interactive fiction has been a continuous process of revelation for me as I’ve seen the range of ways in which the interface between reader and text are explored and expanded by the community. Elvish for Goodbye epitomises that revelation.

In some ways what Goodbye offers is precisely the tender, thoughtful encounter the title suggests. It plays on the preconceptions we have received from Tolkienesque fiction about the titular race and it’s associations with melancholy, otherworldliness and the fantastic, as well as the Oxford Don’s fanatic legacy of imagined languages. But equally the game presented me with things I never expected and did not know that I was looking for.

Many video games involve an element of simulation defined by how the player’s agency is connected to the narrative. In that sense the core of Goodbye simulates an interview with a poet and through that means initiates the player into the imaginative history of their world and the civilisation of the Elves. It is a rare conceit and executed brilliantly.

There are stories here, the fate of the poet and the history of the Elves, but the agency of the player in no way shapes them- but is instead is used as a tool to explore the fascinating threads of the lore behind them. I would love to discuss some of the elements of the world David describes, but to do so would rob you of the delight and wonder of discovering them yourself. I urge you to do so.

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No One Else Is Doing This- By Lauren O’Donoghue

Finally, I could not finish without saying something about Lauren’s entry in this years competition. I can’t vote for it myself as I was a playtester but I would like to offer a few words of appreciation both of the game and of the way in which it has been received by the community.

No One Else is Doing This simulates the role of a community organiser working for a leftist organisation on a perpetual recruitment drive. It communicates the exhausted passions of a working class radical struggling with a toxic, micromanaging NGO culture, an alienated and ambivalent public and the persistent needs of a frail human body that just can’t get warm.

The writing is, typical of Lauren, phenomenally good and applied with the evocative lightness that characterises her work, but the bitter genius of the game is in the subtle application of org specific jargon that speaks to the deteriorating politics of the movement as the desperation to produce results obscures the very lives it has set out to organise.

It has been a real joy, and an education, to see the enthusiastic and varied responses to Lauren’s first foray as an IFcomp participant. What has been especially interesting is the common thread in the reviews people have written about her game, of people sharing and contrasting their own experiences canvassing and door knocking for different causes.

It reflects the progressive spirit at the heart of the IF community- a spirit that has protected and continues to champion spaces like IFcomp where games are still being made for reasons other than to satisfy the bank accounts of tech moguls, to share personal experiences, to communicate social or existential truths, for fun, for education for why the fuck not. To tell us a story with the capacity to transform the way we think about ourselves and our world, to alter our perspective, to shake our sanity.

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Thanks for the kind words! :blush:

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You’re very welcome dude, thanks for the game- it was a real pleasure to play.

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Beautiful! You’ve described my own journey, and likely those of many others as well, far better than I ever could.

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Thanks Sam

Thank you so much for taking the time to play my game, and to write so thoughtfully about it. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you doing that! :smiley:

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Mate, your game was inspired. It genuinely made me think about interactive fiction and story telling in completely new ways. And such a beautiful tribute to the writer who inspired you. I wasn’t really aware of her work but you’ve made me want to explore it. What was her name again? I wrote it down somewhere…

Ditto. Although I rediscovered modern IF a good while ago (around 2003) while searching up information about old Infocom games, I too experienced that sense of delight “Wow, you mean people are still writing this sort of thing? And tools are available that I could write it also? Cool!”

And though I have not been as prolific as some authors, I remain fascinated at the ways that the competition has grown and evolved.

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Joan Didion :slight_smile: check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it’s a collection of her essays and it includes “Goodbye to All That,” which has always been my fave!

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