It’s never clear to me how one should construct these lists: favourites (including one’s guilty pleasures?), or some sort of canon, and if so how personal? Should one aim to be fair or representative, or just load things down with everything-every-written-by-my-favourite-author. In the end, this a bit of all that. And how to avoid the inevitable tendency to privilege the recent over the older? These are not in any particular order.
Zork I Marc Blank and Dave Lebeling.
I’d like not to, because it’s not even a game I particularly like or recommend (or could be bothered to finish). But it seems perverse to exclude it: in some way so much that follows is a homage or a reaction to this and, best or not, it seems in some sense fundamental.
Curses Graham Nelson
Another “dutiful” choice, but one I regret less. Nelson is central to the renaissance of IF, partly for his role in Inform (which exists in close symbiotic relationship to Curses) and partly for showing that “amateur” IF could equal, in craft, the best of the commercial era. We have moved well beyond it, and happily more or less grown past its rather clever-clever de haut en bas tone, but we stand on its shoulders.
Counterfeit Monkey Emily Short
What can one say: this combines a brilliant and consistently used puzzle mechanic with a solid story that is also, unquestionably, fun. It’s a fundamentally entertaining work with enough solid material to make it feel nourishing too, and technically advanced and polished in every way.
Hadean Lands Andrew Plotkin
I was in two minds about whether to include this, partly because it’s so recent and partly because (being so recent) I’m not yet sure what to make of it. Like Counterfeit Monkey it carries through a consistent puzzle mechanic on a grand scale, though I find it less satisfying because it feels much emptier, much more a puzzle vehicle than a solid story with puzzles. In the end, I’m not sure I ever really care what happens to the Retort. But I think it deserves its place here because of its technical virtuosity and depth, and because of the huge strides it makes in terms of game play.
Anchorhead Michael Gentry
Because how can you not love it? Granted, the story is fundamentally feeble, and some of the puzzles are tedious. But for creating a sense of atmosphere, and for the almost imperceptible skilful way in which the whole thing is put together, and for the overall sense of completeness and immersion, I don’t think anything has bettered it.
De Baron Victor Gijsbers.
One of the most fiercely intelligent, bravest, nastiest, least compromising games you can imagine. This is shocking in all the best or worst ways: shocking in the right way. Anchorhead gives you the frisson of a ghost story, but this is true horror, something which is prepared to look without flinching at a truly ghastly situation.
Spider and Web Andrew Plotkin
A one trick pony (well, perhaps, one and a third tricks). But what a trick! Others have said it better than I can.
Kerkerkruip Victor Gijsbers and contributors
From the relentlessly serious (De Baron), one moves the the purely ludic. Kerkerkruip is pure game, and notable (it seems to me) for “cracking” better than anyone else has a particular, seemingly obvious, deployment of IF in a purely fantastic combat setting and managing to get it right, and produce something that actually works.
Coloratura Lynnea Glasser
I hesitated over this one, because although I really admired it when I played in the Comp, I’ve not felt any desire to come back to it later, and I’ve wondered whether I’m rating an undoubtedly good recent game higher than it deserves. But I’ve relented, because it seems to me to do things which it’s hard to imagine any medium other than IF doing so well, and which as far as I can see no-one else has done in quite the same way in IF before. So I think on the grounds of that originality, despite having some reservations now about the way it is written, it deserves a place here.
Their angelical understanding Porpentine
Another hard choice. It’s absolutely clear to me that a list of this sort without some Porpentine would be wrong, and if space permitted I would put more than one on. But which to choose: the rawness of Howling Dogs? The brilliant gimmick of With those we love alive? Either could be justified, but I came back to Their angelical understanding for the simple but stupid reason that it touched me viscerally in a way that the others, much as I admire them, didn’t quite.
Endless, Nameless Adam Cadre
My pick for most under-commented-upon game of the last five years. Technically, it’s brilliant. As as a commentary upon the IF community it’s brilliant. It’s enjoyable on a number of levels, and it’s put together with quite remarkable craft and guile.
Coming Out Simulator Nicky Case
So this is a sort of a cheat, or self-indulgence, because I suppose I couldn’t really hand-on-heart justify inclusion here in any sort of public debate. But I found this game very touching, very true, very affecting. The “diary” game is a developing genre, and it’s star may burn out rather quickly because it could easily become a vehicle for maudlin self-indulgence. But I think it deserves to be represented here. For me it was a choice between this and Caelyn Sandel’s Cis Gaze (not on IFDB?), also an effective and affecting (and non-self indulgent piece) in similar vein. My choice here is partly personal, and partly reflects the fact that I like its distinctive presentation.
Photopia Adam Cadre
Another obvious one, I realise. But it’s celebrated for a reason and it’s not just that it did what it did first, but that it does what it does so well.
Rameses Stephen Bond
“It is implemented well-enough but it is not a happy story.” So reads one of the reviews on IFDB. If ever a reviewer managed both to get it absolutely right and to miss the point completely, it is Ms Millard. For me this is up there with De Baron and Photopia for the way that it takes techniques and conventions of IF and uses them not merely subversively (which could be easy) but positively to achieve something that could not be achieved in other ways. It’s not at all as fine as either of those other games, but it seems to me to be a basic text of “IF-as-story”.
Gun Mute CEJ Pacian
Pacian, for me, is a bit like Porpentine: I love his work, but it’s hard to choose one thing in particular, while difficult to justify multiple choices. In the end, I went with Gun Mute because it shows his lightness of touch, his refusal to be constrained by tedious convention, and his love of character and narrative with forward drive like a charging rhino. I defy anyone not to enjoy it. (Proxime accessit Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower, but that seems a far slighter work.)
Alabaster (many authors, herded by Emily Short)
Another, in my view, very under-rated game. Nobody has put more effort than Emily Short into making conversation work, whether in Galatea (a game that is justly celebrated but which I don’t get on with), or in her recent Versu work (which I was sorely tempted to include). For me, Alabaster juust works incredibly well as a system where conversation and story hang together in a satisfying way, which feels far more than the “proof of concept” in perhaps was.
Horse Master Tom McHenry.
I love games which deliver more than they promise, and this Horse Master does. Unlike most of the other games I’ve mentioned, this owes nothing to Zork, but takes it genes from other game play ideas altogether. Yet it manages, beyond question, to produce a remarkable effective narrative.
Violet Jeremy Freese
There really aren’t that many truly funny IF games: what passes for humour is all-too-often just rather adolescent snarkiness. But the tone in Violet is very perfectly judged, making it a lovely little rom-com of a game which is just what we need to lighten things up. For my money, far more interesting than Lost Pig which I find a rather dull box in an admirably fancy wrapping.
You Will Select a Decision Brendan Patrick Hennessy
Well, perhaps another funny one is in order. I like this because I think the writing is just perfectly judged, and perfectly judged comic writing is incredibly difficult to get right. It’s also all so thoroughly good natured, so cheerfully nostalgic. (Though I admit to feeling a bit bad at choosing this piece of comic writing in particular when there are others, such as Ryan Veeder and Sean Shore who also write excellently and in a similar register.)
Invisible Parties Sam Kabo Ashwell
I suppose alarm bells should be ringing here: it’s short, it’s recent, it didn’t win any comp, and I doesn’t break any major technical ground. So perhaps I am over-rating it. But it seems to do so much so well: the writing is excellent, the structure and pacing and delivery of backstory and story are just so, it has the courage to deal with recognisably human relationships and to get them right and it seems really fresh. So I think I can justify my decision to put it here.