This was the first year that I participated, and so I knew quite a bit more of the back details.
The crisis of 2014 had in some senses created a power vacuum. Much of the old guard had either abandoned the IF Community altogether (due to aging up, anger at disagreements, etc.) or turned to other experiments such as Twine, Choicescript, Storynexus, or paid work.
The early 2000’s had seen an emphasis on artificial intelligence, conversation, and simulation. Authors talked earnestly about being able to have real, life-like conversations in a few years, with perfect physics simulation. Much of Emily Short’s work comes from this time. The parser was hailed for its complete freedom, and most ‘common knowledge’ design principles centered on immersion and realism.
By the 2010’s, it was clear that humanity was far from realistic conversational AI and world simulation, especially from parsers. People turned to other, newer methods. This left a hole for a new group of IF authors to enter, one that wholeheartedly embraced the limitations of the parser and wrote games exposing its inner workings. Simulation and illusion-of-reality became secondary to this sort of ‘impressionistic’ parser game and its focus on constraints and powerlessness.
Simultaneously, Twine, Undum, and other authors, frustrated by the negative response from the parser-only subcommunity, started developing richer puzzle systems and geography/inventory-based gameplay. The two groups, parser and hyperlink, were essentially reaching towards each other, essentially meeting a year later in Robin Johnson’s 2016 IFComp winner Detectiveland.
One of the biggest influences this year was Carolyn VanEseltine’s Parser Comp. Many authors had come to feel that they shouldn’t bother writing parser games, as they were less popular than the other kinds to general audiences. This competition allowed people to write parser games that would just be judged against other parser games. It produced an extraordinary set of games, led by Steph Cherrywell’s Chlorophyll. Several other major authors began to emerge during this competition, including Chandler Groover, Caleb Wilson, Buster Hudson and Bruno Dias, as well as many other, more experienced authors.
The previous year’s ectocomp had produced Lime Ergot, which had a massive influence on Chandler Groover. Toby’s Nose is influenced by it, as is the opening part of my 2017 IFComp entry and quite a few other games. In Lime Ergot, you cannot move, but you can ‘telescope’ by examining nested items.
Hana Feels was a sleeper hit, a government-funded exploration of self-harm in Twine with beautiful portraits. It was the third most-played game of 2015 on IFDB. The author went on to be part of Adventure Cow and I believe helped write Strayed.
TwinyJam ran this year, producing a huge amount of games that had to use (I believe) 300 words or less.
Spring Thing produced the excellent Toby’s Nose, a dog-protagonist Sherlock Holmes game inspired by Lime Ergot. Toby’s Nose was a major influence for my 2016 IFComp game, and for other people as well.
Brain Guzzlers has been quite a hit over the last couple of years. It is an old-school treasure hunt with new-school style. The author, Steph Cherrywell, had previously written Jacqueline, Jungle Queen and Chlorophyll. Brain Guzzlers, however, used character portraits drawn by the webcomic artist herself, as well as a conversation extension very similar to that used in Photopia. The game was clearly larger than most other polished games in the competition, but easier as well.
The big draw here, though, was the writing and the setting, with a ‘gee-whilickers!’ 1950’s sort of feel. The conversation extension ended up being used again to great effect in Ondricek’s Fair in 2016.
Map was a game that I loved and gave a 10 when I played it, but thought no one else would. I was pleased to see it place second, but since then it has sort of languished with negative reviews (it still is near the top of most-played and highest-rated games of 2015, though).
In this puzzleless game by the author of Fifteen Minutes, you explore your house that mysteriously adds rooms each day. Each room takes you to a decision point in your past, which you can change, influencing your present (such as your marital status, number of children, wealth, etc.). The game ends after a week.
Midnight, Swordfight is Chandler Groover’s biggest game. Groover, one of the most influential parser authors of the last few years, got started in 2014 by releasing the Twine game Hunting Unicorn, but he soon discovered that putting an unadvertised game on IFDB during IFComp is a sure way to be ignored. He then entered parser comp with a game with traditional examine/search/use puzzles, but was frustrated that players seemed not to be able to find anything. At that point, he completely eschewed traditional play style for something new. Toby’s Nose used essentially nothing but the ‘smell’ command, and could be ended at any time by accusing a suspect; the player had to solve the puzzle in their head, instead of the character having to amass a wealth of evidence.
Midnight. Swordfight. was intended to be a one-move game, but Groover said he couldn’t bear to leave it as one, as he didn’t really like one-move games. So it has two realities: one where you are in the final motions of a duel and have one move to live, and one where time is frozen and you explore in time-based (rather than compass-based) directions. It uses an innovative ‘playscript’ inventory that tells you exactly what commands are allowed at any time. Such ‘limited parser’ games became popular over the next few years.
As a warning, this game does contain very strong profanity and an explicit scene.
Birdland took 4th, and ended up dominating the XYZZY awards to an unprecedented extent. This game takes inspiration from scripts, with all text presented as dialogue and stage directions. It uses color changes and character portraits to good effect. It is a story about a young girl at a summer camp where everyone is acting weird.
As a twine game, it made itself open to strategizing by taking the weeklong story and splitting it up into night and day segments. The night segments feature absurd dreams where your actions determine certain stats. The daytime segments have fairly linear storylines but with some of the best content locked unless your stats are high enough.
Cape is an Undum game with a twine-like gameplay feel, and was notable for 1. being very fun, and 2. being a hypertext game that focused on the poor and financially oppressed, rather than traditional hypertext subjects of gender or sexuality. Dias would go on to write several other games and systems, including Voyageur and Raconteur and other -eur related topics.
Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy, old-time experts, made their best game yet with the very large Sub Rosa, a real treat for old-school parser fans. In a very alien world, you break into a mansion, uncover secrets, and have to put everything back where it was before leaving.
Felicity Banks made a splash with Scarlet Sails, a choiecscript steampunk pirate game. She has since used her talent for writing really, really fast to become one of the most financially successful and prolific IF authors. Her Choices that Matter series has picked up a lot of buzz in mainstream game outlets.
Astrid Dalmady, who had quietly been building a unique style of twine games over the past year, released Arcane Intern (Unpaid), a sort of Harry Potter pastiche that was the most-played IFComp game. Dalmady would develop her skill over the next year, winning a division of Spring Thing and later breaking the record for highest-placing Twine IFComp game ever, as well as being nominated for a best game XYZZY and winning other XYZZY’s.
Jeremy Pflasterer took up the torch for TADS fans everywhere, entering the only TADS games in both this year’s comp and the next.
Hanon Ondricek released the divisive Baker of Shireton, which half of the judges experienced as an odd but fun short baking simulator, and the other half experienced as a really big puzzle game influenced by World of Warcraft. This game led Hanon (and me!) to decide not to hide most of the game as a surprise anymore, and led to the excellent Fair by Hanon in 2016.
Arthur DiBianca took IFComp by storm with Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box, a game that essentially needed two verbs: EXAMINE, and USE (and occasionally, LOOK). While it’s lower placing may not seem like much, most of the internet traffic to the IFComp servers was from people playing this game. Among others, it continued to fuel to Limited Parser movement.
Many authors continued their previous series of works, including Andrew Schultz, Marshal Tenner Winter, A. DeNiro, Mark Marino, Tia Orisney, Richard Goodness, Paperblurt, Michel Tomet, and Megan Stevens.
Cat Manning and Glass Rat both made their debuts, placed in the middle, and then produced really, really good Ectocomp games later in the year. Manning now writes for Choice of Games.
furkle released the largest twine game ever, up to that point, with SPY INTRIGUE. This massive game with intricate structure was obscured by the fact that (unknown to Furkle) its goofy opening humor and all caps reminded many of earlier IFComp troll games, and many people didn’t play past the opening scenes (included me at first, turned off by a vulgarity early on). The game received more recognition later with a Best Game nomination.
Victor Ojuel wrote a game with a brilliant concept but buggy implementation: Pilgrimage, which had each movement take you across countries. Ojuel took the reviewer’s advice seriously, and rocketed up the rankings next year with the popular Ariadne in Aeaea.
Katherine Morayati, Broken Legs author, returned with Laid Off From The Synesthesia Factory, an experiment in removing all parser errors from a game, so that the story flowed unimpeded. IFComp voters were uncertain about it, but XYZZY voters loved it.
Groover published another game this year, Targhairm, which involves you as the perpetrator of an medieval ritual involving roasting cats alive. Also unaware of the history of IFComp troll games, he was surprised to find that many people felt this was a troll game, while he had meant it as a sort of commentary on the nature of power.
This year had the first Inklewriter IFComp game, The Man Who Killed Time, which placed very poorly, a situation similar to Quest and Adrift.
This comp produced a whole new crop of authors that continue to write new games. Midnight. Swordfight. and Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box led the way for the limited parser movement, while twine games like Arcane Intern (Unpaid) and Cape showed the new diversity in hyperlink games.
Birdland was massively influential, spawning its own set of imitators. Cactus Blue Motel of 2016 is certainly influenced by Birdland. Open Sorcery seems influenced by Birdland, but it might be parallel development.
Only one comp left!