Inspired by Chris Klimas’ post, I’ve decided to go through and give a summary of each IFComp after I finish playing all the games in the comp. I’ve only played up to 2000, so it might take a while to get to the other posts.
This is about the first comp, 1995.
One of the very biggest influences in IFComp 1995 was the game John’s Fire Witch. This was the most successful game in years which was both a) good, and b) intentionally ‘short’. How short is short? Magnus Olson called it “a short (in the author’s words, ‘snack-sized’) but extremely well-written piece of IF. On the surface, this game isn’t very remarkable: it’s quite simple (it took me about three hours to solve)…Still, this is one of the best - perhaps the best - shareware games I’ve ever played”
He went on to describe his feelings about this new, shorter fiction:
“This reviewer, being a busy man with too little time to spend on IF, and in addition being slightly disturbed by the recent trend towards ‘simulationist’ IF (where the authors try to provide a good simulation of their literary world, complete with all objects, an attempt which will only serve to overwhelm the poor player with useless information) would certainly like to see an increase in the number of small but well-written games like this. ‘John’s Firewitch’ is an excellent example to emulate for prospective authors.”
Fire Witch came out in February, and these reviews and the discussion around them appeared shortly thereafter, and the idea of ‘we need short games’ spread.
Of all games in the comp, Uncle Zebulon’s Will (the TADS winner) resembles John’s Fire Witch the most: both involve outsmarting the devil in a house with a mystic connection to another world.
This comp was the smallest of all (12 games), so I can discuss each game instead of summarizing. But I’d like to focus A Change in the Weather first.
In 1998, Zarf wrote about his goals with A Change in the Weather (and So Far):
"Back in the old days ('95), people used to tell me that a text IF work couldn’t possibly have the kind of plot and character development that a book did. Because text IF (in the Colossal Cave tradition) was fundamentally a game, it was basically a bunch of puzzles with some stuff stuck on top; interactivity meant puzzles…
These days, people tell me that a text IF work (in the Colossal Cave tradition) can’t possibly be interactive fiction, because the shallow if-then tree nature of the programming is a straitjacket…
I like to think that I caused this viewpoint shift…
But I did write “A Change in the Weather” specifically to stick a fork in that first viewpoint; and then So Far. They must have worked, because of the number of people who said “Oh, that’s the shape that fits what I want to do!” and did it. Ok, good."
Looking at the difference between 1995 and subsequent comps, I actually think Zarf’s right; ‘A Change in the Weather’ stands out for being completely story-focused. The puzzles are very hard, but they focus the player’s attention on the story: the puzzles change the player from a sad wanderer, to one enjoying nature, to one trying to survive, to one trying to save.
Uncle Zebulon’s Will, the other winner, was in some sense the last successful game of its kind. A sparely written game, with a static demon that prevents you from taking items from a house, a complex machine that has no real-game purpose whatsoever, a mirror-world just because, and a painted on plot. It’s very good at what it does, but after 1995 players demanded more story for their content. Mulldoon Legacy was very story-rich, and Risorgimento Represso (another later successful old-school game) created a large backstory about a rebellion.
The Mind Electric, by Jason Dyer (a longtime, and current, IF participant) was a cyberpunk game with a surreal world filled with puzzles. It has a cool backstory, but the main centerpiece is the puzzles.
Toonesia, the second place TADS winner, is unusual in being a blatant copyright violation. You play Bugs Bunny, outwitting Elmer Fudd, with the smallest of name changes. This game uses cartoon logic (like picking up holes).
The magic toyshop didn’t even pretend to be anything but puzzles. You play tic-tac-toe and towers of hanoi, and it assumes you’ve played Curses! and Trinity (which, in 1995, was a good assumption). Surprisingly, many players in the 90’s said this was one of their favorite games.
The one that got away is a game that’s a bit more story focused than the others. As baf said, it is ‘A small game that emphasizes the fiction aspect of IF - the puzzles are few and simple, but there’s a lot of description and dialogue (kind of like A Mind Forever Voyaging, except funnier and about fish.) Good fishing simulation. Exaggerates wildly. Probably good for beginners.’ While this game was also story focused, there’s something different about A Change in the Weather’s approach that made it more influential; perhaps it’s because the puzzles were the story in Weather, while the story happens around the puzzles in The One that Got Away.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents “Detective” was a somewhat influential game, spawning some later ‘mystery science theater’ games and introducing the idea of the ‘so bad it’s good’ text adventure. Detective was, I believe, an AGT game (a parser better than many other non-Inform/Tads parsers, including AdvSys and Adrift), written by a teenager. The authors of this game contacted the Detective author and received permission to mock the game with this MST’ing.
Undertow is a game I actually liked. Stephen Granade wrote many of my favorite games later, and this is his first effort (or second, depending on when Waystation was released). You are involved in a murder mystery on a yacht. Very reminiscent of the Infocom mysteries, with characters on a timer. However, it suffered from being too hard, and having some guess-the-verb issues.
A night at the museum forever was the first IFComp time travel game. It has some clever ideas, but it basically amounts to going back and forth in time, affecting the future. To me, this was a foreshadowing of the vast middle wasteland of IFComp games where the game is big and slightly underimplemented, and impossible without a walkthrough; but where after reading the walkthrough, you scratch your head and say ‘I guess that makes sense’. This type of game was very common in the first few years.
All Quiet on the Library Front is just an unabashed fanboy game; you are at a museum full of the best IF titles, and you wander around checking it all out. Like A Night at the Museum Forever, it suffers from ‘flail about until something happens’-itis, but is an interesting snapshot of one author’s feelings for contemporary IF.
Tube trouble was just a very small game about using the subway, with the same issues as the previously mentioned 2 games. It only placed lower due to being smaller. However, there were none of the terrible homebrew games or deathly buggy games or troll games that plagued later comps.
Undo was a game far ahead of it’s time. It is a dadaist, absurdist game, based on an absurd joke. You can do things like ‘take nothing’ and ‘drop nothing’, and interact with computer faults. It’s tiny, and reminiscent of Rybread Celsius’ later games. Many people said they liked it, but that it was too short.
The impact of this comp was huge; the size of the comp for the next few years increased dramatically, and the style of games changed quite a bit after Plotkin’s (and others’) games. This emphasis on story didn’t eliminate puzzles; that was to come in later years.