This year was proclaimed by a few as ‘the worst IFComp so far’, but it had several niche games that are still successful now.
Of course Photopia was a major influence. Laura Knauth used extreme attention to color in Winter Wonderland, and framed it as a sort of Fairy Tale (although her 98 game used color as well, so it’s hard to write it down to Photopia’s influence). Puzzleless games had been entered in the comp before, but now it became a badge of honor. One game’s blurb reads ‘This game has one puzzle, and the solution to this is given immediately as the game begins. It’s about loss, sadness, love, mystery, supernatural beings, and moving to a higher plane of existence’. Another said, ‘This is not a game, but rather an experiment in telling a story using a dynamic and interactive medium.’ Two of the top 5 were essentially static presentations, experiments in new media types.
At the same time, others seemed to move the opposite way. Winter Wonderland and A Day for Soft Food were unabashed hardcore puzzle fests, with mazes and hunger puzzles.
Varicella was released this year, and was one of the biggest games of this year, but it was released in August, too late to have a major effect on the competition. Mulldoon Legacy was released after the competition began, Worlds Apart was released in December. I believe Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina was also released after the comp again. However, Aisle was released in May or June, and instantly became a big part of discussion. I wonder if Ian Finley’s two games weren’t influenced by it.
The success of Arrival and HTML Tads from 98 only increased this year, with Six Stories (including extensive voice acting and the use of some images) making third place.
Winter Wonderland is probably the least-played IFComp winner, adjusted for length of time on IFDB. It currently has 31 ratings, which isn’t too far from Detectiveland, which has been on IFDB about ten times less.
Winter Wonderland uses Ascii Art and colors extensively. It has a beautiful opening image of snowflakes and a fancy font. It’s white on black, with yellow and red used to highlight important information.
Winter Wonderland is an unabashed children’s fable, a Winter Solstice story (with influences more from old European legends than Christian or American versions of Christmas). It has a super-sweet story; many critics prefer darker stories or stories with more conflict, and others don’t like being reminded of Christmas outside of the season, so it’s cause some division.
This game is an unabashed puzzle fest, the last IFComp winner to contain not one but two or more traditional mazes (ones that can’t be solved quickly by some neat trick, like Photopia’s or or Lost Pig’s). It also includes a light source puzzle. It is a game fairly far removed from modern sensibilities. I love it.
For a Change is probably the most familiar game to most readers. This game used surreal imagery and a bizarre twisting of the English language to create its own ‘language puzzle’, like The Edifice or The Plant, but now incorporated into the game. You begin with a pebble ‘insinuated into your hand’. Examining yourself yields ‘You are faded and silent’. One of the most memorables characters (or objects?) is the toolman which is ‘inscribed on the brown grass’. We learn that ‘The toolman is bright and misty. Thoughts and uses hang from his shoulders like birds.’
I believe this is one of the standard games released with Frotz, and it is an example of a game that works far, far better in text than in any other medium. Like Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem, it provides suggestions and possible images but nothing definite. This kind of surreal, impossible world would become much more prevalent over time, with authors like Alan de Niro and later Porpentine doing extensive work in this area.
Six Stories is unique as a top 3 game. It’s one of those ‘Critics hate this game for its one simple trick’ games. That trick is voice acting, which is the heart of the game. The idea of Six Stories is that you have a brief intro, then sit in a room with six characters. Each character has a short story or fairy tale to tell you. This is revealed in a pageful of text which is simultaneously voice acted, using HTML TADS.
Ian Finley had two avant garde games in this competition: Exhibition and Life on Beal Street (Finley was still in high school at this point). Exhibition is a completely static game, more like a portrait from The IF Art Show than anything else. It was the 90’s equivalent of 500 Apocalypses. In this game, you are at a museum with several rooms. Each room has one or more paintings. Examining the paintings reveals your thoughts. There are several protagonists you can switch between.
Life on Beal Street pushes things even further. It is just a linear sequence of paragraphs with ‘Enter 1 to keep going or 2 to turn back’ at the bottom. Replay shows that there is some randomization, but your choice boils down to 'how far am I willing to commit myself to this course of action). This can be useful as part of a larger game (‘Do you want to wake up the room full of bats? Are you very sure? You could die. Okay, press 1 to wake the bats’), but it was shocking as a game-in-itself.
Hunter in Darkness was Plotkin’s first re-entry into the comp that was an actual game. Like all of his later comp games, it didn’t try to recreate the winning formula of his earlier games, but instead explored a niche. Hunter in Darkness has a maze (with a neat solution, but still a maze), which immediately turns some modern players off. It is linear in unusual ways, one of the first examples of what I call ‘linear thriller games’ (other examples include Gun Mute and Attack of the Robot Yeti Killer Zombies).
Mike Snyder entered the first of his many XYZZY Best Game nominees, in this case a homebrew parser with graphics called Lunatix- The Insanity Circle. Mike Snyder is one of the least mentioned authors with 3 best game nominations.
A Moment of Hope was a game that tried to be a tear-jerker; its blurb says ‘anyone who knows you well could tell something is up. Your hair has been brushed and neatly braided. The area around your beard is shaved smooth, and your teeth have been brushed recently. You aren’t wearing your pajamas.You try to put her out of your mind and think about something else. It doesn’t work.’ It does a good job of showing exactly how a young teenager/college student introvert deals with a crush on an extrovert, and was one of many ‘misery’ games that would appear in IFComp dealing with one bullied kid’s travails (there were several examples in 2016’s IFComp).
The first webgame was released this year: Remembrance, where you select a verb from a drop down menu and type in the noun. It was very clunky, and web games did not take off for a long time.
This year also saw the entrance of a new star: Robb Sherwin entered Chicks Dig Jerks, a Hugo game. Robb. As Sam Ashwell calls his style ‘King of the Slackers, an approach championed by Robb Sherwin. Under this approach, the protagonist is a laughably sorry case - but comes across as sympathetic and sensible because everyone else is so, so much worse, or because their failings are (see Violet) ones that it’s assumed the audience will be able to relate to.’ Later, talking about rewards in games, he also said ‘A reward doesn’t have to be something that’s useful to the player in game terms: it can be a tasty turn of phrase, a neat little insight into character, the summoning-up of a beautiful or evocative image, a good joke. The main reason that anyone finishes a Robb Sherwin game is because, even though the mechanical aspects of his games are often really frustrating, he hands out this kind of prose reward so often.’ Sherwin would go on to make several games, including 2011’s XYZZY Best Game Cryptozookeeper.
This year had one game I couldn’t play: Skyranch, which I believe requires Windows 95 or some kind of memory management program (in any case, it’s not compatible with vanilla DosBox).
Finally , it has a stark warning for modern IF authors. Guard Duty came in 36th place. It had active NPCs and a huge, rich world. But a game-killing bug at the beginning sent it to the bottom of the list. Other bugs caused even more problems. There’s no point in spending months on a game only to have it completely ignored due to bugs.
HTML Tads did even better this year than last. The next year (2000) would have an HTML TADS game win, and 2001 was filled with images and sounds from HTML TADS (just not among the winners).
Sherwin would go on to be a major IF author.
Ian Finley, perhaps disappointed by the low rankings of his avant garde games, went on to win the next year with a more traditional, longer game.
Similarly, Mike Snyder would abandon the homebrew parser for Hugo, due to the negative attitude in general about homebrew parsers.
Winter Wonderland was almost a farewell to the 90’s, a homage to all things Old School (and one of two Christmas themed puzzle fests released that year). No other competition winner would be so old-school in the future; the closest would perhaps be the Earth and Sky games, but even they had much more cohesive storytelling.
The next comp was commonly regarded as ‘the best comp of all time’ for several years, and I have to agree.