Plundered Hearts (Amy Briggs/Infocom) – Probably my favorite of the Infocom age, with more plot, more active NPCs, and better integrated puzzles than the Infocom average. It pulls off swashbuckling romance better than pretty much any IF game I can think of (though, sadly, not as many have tried as I might like). It feels a bit player-unfriendly by modern standards, but with a bit of patience it still has a lot to offer even now.
Spider and Web (Andrew Plotkin) – One of the best story-and-puzzle moments in all of interactive fiction, in which the protagonist does something that is not only surprising and clever but also has a profound effect on the other major character in the game. People talk a lot about the puzzle design here, but often I think in the process they undervalue how much of its success comes from the puzzle-story integration. There’s something wonderful about solving this puzzle and getting a huge reaction out of the story.
Horse Master (Tom McHenry) – Compellingly gross, with a very effective switch on what kind of story it’s even going to be: it starts out feeling like a sim and winds up as a dystopian horror story about poverty and exploitation. One of the most viscerally powerful games I’ve played. Today I happen to give it a slight edge over Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long, Long Legs, which could also have occupied this slot, because in Horse Master I was fooled into thinking maybe I could make things come out well, whereas in MFLLL I pretty much always realized things were going badly. But on a different day I might go the other way.
Fallen London (Failbetter Games) – FL’s size and structure are unique, providing a network of stories that you can sink into and inhabit for months or years. The content ranges from silly to horrific to affecting. People have often talked about the possibility of shared-world writing in the IF space, but this is one of the few to actually pull it off, since FL’s contents and related games have been worked on by many authors over the years. (* Disclaimer: I’ve written for FL myself; otoh, my contributions are a drop in the ocean, and I was not involved in any of the original design.)
Endless, Nameless (Adam Cadre) – A severely under-discussed game when it came out, EN wraps a quite entertaining old-school puzzlefest up inside its own hint system, capturing some of the pleasure of really difficult old games while being substantially more accessible than they were. Content-wise, it asks a bunch of questions about the meaning of art and community and how communities can defend themselves from disintegration. It’s both a fairer play and a more nuanced piece of writing than Varicella, and it does more with its medium-bending aspects than 9:05 or Shrapnel.
ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (Porpentine) – it’s tough deciding between this one and the tactile, disturbing With Those We Love Alive, but I think this may remain my favorite of Porpentine’s work because the ending is so personal and accessible, in contrast with the filigreed bonework style of a lot of her other writing (gorgeous; likely to cut you if you handle it at all). The trick of characterizing the protagonist via reactions to an old-school game is also beautifully handled. But WTWLA is a close second, for me.
Solarium (Alan DeNiro) – This is masterfully horrific because, alchemy and superhuman characters aside, the scary thing it describes is true: there were fanatics during the cold war who did bring us close to destruction repeatedly, and who used the threat of nuclear disaster as justification for unethical experiments. It’s also a structurally inventive piece of choice-based fiction with very good prose.
Even Cowgirls Bleed (Christine Love) – A story about the personal dysfunction that undermines a relationship, told through a choice-based story with a bit of an arcade mechanic tucked in: you “shoot at”, and thus select, whatever links your mouse passes over, and at a certain point in the game this may become more difficult to control than you might wish. Compact, effective, and highly personal; and a rare example of IF in which the UI itself is a critical part of telling the story.
The Baron (Victor Gijsbers) – a game for asking difficult questions, this stretches IF in the direction of philosophical thought experiment, but in a very disturbing way. The innovation of asking the player for a motive as well as an action now seems relatively common (see “reflective choice”) but it was a novelty for the IF community at the time. But more than that, this game is — and remains — brave for being willing to ask questions about what we can forgive; about whether there are any categories of person whom we consider beyond rehabilitation; about what we owe to the most damaged and monstrous people. I don’t know the answers to these questions and I still struggle with them.
Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser) – Coloratura uses the possibilities of text to present a protagonist profoundly different from any human, and to play very effectively with the contrast between the alien’s perceptions and our own. It’s a gently puzzly piece of work, but its biggest draw is the exploration of this contrast, and of the difficulty even well-meaning creatures can have in communicating with one another.
Make It Good (Jon Ingold) – Very difficult, but with superb good puzzle/story integration. Characters pay attention to every little thing you do, and everything they notice matters; solving the story requires thinking deeply about the NPCs and their motives and probable reactions, then manipulating them to get the results you want. They seem to have their own inner life, purposes, and goals, to a degree very rarely found in IF. It’s not for nothing that the famously curmudgeonly Chris Crawford – who basically considers almost all of classic interactive fiction to be a huge waste of time thanks to its insufficient focus on modeling NPC behavior – grants Make It Good some space and respect in the latest edition of his book on interactive storytelling.
Worlds Apart (Suzanne Britton) – Worlds Apart features one of the deepest and most detailed settings created for an IF game: the author has considered history, geography, ecology, the personal backstory of various characters, and much else besides, then implemented every detail of every room with astonishing devotion. The plot structure is a little less satisfying, and the story ends a bit inconclusively, but as a place to explore and spend time, WA offers a truly extraordinary experience. (From the same era, it’s also worth pointing out Dangerous Curves, another piece that devotes really substantial effort to meticulous world modeling; but for me Curves was a bit underdirected and I was never able to finish it without a walkthrough.)
Anchorhead (Michael Gentry) – Anchorhead is the pinnacle of middle-school parser IF: there are still plenty of puzzles, but the shape of the game is determined by its story, there’s more interest in making setting cohesive and consistent, and NPCs get a more active and present role. For me it beats out its closest competition, Christminster, by having a gentler opening (Christminster’s first puzzle is famously underclued, which has probably prevented many would-be players from enjoying it) and a stronger sense of atmosphere.
Slouching Towards Bedlam (Star Foster/Daniel Ravipinto) – Play the game once to figure out what’s going on. Then realize that there are several possible ways of dealing with the situation – some available from the very first room – and replay to explore them. Slouching’s steampunk flavor seems a bit less fresh in 2015 than it did when it came out, and it has a few rough edges, but it blends together puzzle solving (what can I do? what is possible to do within this world model?) and moral decision-making (what should I do? what’s the best outcome for my character and for the rest of the world?) with unusual success.
Invisible Parties (Sam Ashwell) – the writing and the setting are incredible, and so is the relationship between the protagonist and the love interest. One of the things I love best about this piece is that, despite being a standard parser-style game, it pushes containers and supporters and inventory into near-irrelevance. Instead, NPCs are the most important thing in each room, and the key verbs (other than movement) are intellectual, social, or interpersonal: the ability to understand, to lead, to follow, to fit in.
80 Days (Meg Jayanth/inkle) – Grand, beautiful, polished, with lots of lovely individual tales that weave together over replays, describing a world full of very different people with a wide variety of individual concerns. I especially like the recently added Arctic loop, and much of the India content. Aside from its other advantages, it is one of the most truly replayable pieces of IF out there.
maybe make some change (Aaron Reed) – For many people, Blue Lacuna is the definitive Aaron Reed game and the obvious contender for this list. But as much as I admired the vast effort that went into BL, I also found its vision rather blurred; it was simultaneously trying to be deep story and Myst-like puzzle game, and it did so many simultaneous experiments that the design didn’t quite hold together, despite many individually triumphant elements. The pacing often let me down. Aaron’s other work is all over the map – in a good way, in the sense that he is one of the most formally experimental authors currently working in the field. I seriously considered 18 Cadence here, which is poetic and lovely and tactile to play with and which I enjoyed a hell of a lot more. But maybe make some change does something wonderful with the parser: it takes on the idea that the verbs we know, the actions we’ve been taught, constrain us in both thought and deed. It’s powerful, and so disturbing that I wasn’t able to play through it the first time I encountered it.
Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis (Adam Thornton) – Irreverent, goofy, immensely self-aware, not to mention sprawly and epic in a way that was becoming uncommon when it came out. It is about the playful, rude, lively Dionysian impulse in life, and it demonstrates that concept in a playful, rude, and lively way. The result is likely to be startling to some players, and I still wince to remember a particular scene involving STD treatment. But it is also full of delight.
Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom (S. John Ross) – This is an extremely funny game, but what really earns its spot on this list is the design discipline. Though it looks like a big sprawling thing, it has actually been scoped very carefully; anything unnecessary to the player’s experience is neatly stripped away, and everything that is necessary is robustly supported. S. John Ross has an absolutely clear vision for what he wants his project to do and to be. Add to this some first class feelies, and you have something extremely special.
Everybody Dies (Jim Munroe) – Jim’s characters are always a pleasure, and I especially enjoyed them here, in a tale of intersecting lives and intersecting deaths. It is also a superb demonstration of image dovetailing with text: Michael Cho’s illustrations appear at critical moments in the story, when something mystical is happening that does not easily lend itself to explanation.
BONUS ROUND!: games that don’t quite make it onto my best-of list, but which a) I remember as being pretty intriguing and b) rarely get mentioned around here these days. Inasmuch as this thread is about helping people find new stuff, maybe check out
Delusions (CE Forman) – A difficult and deeply eerie piece with multiple levels of reality, as I recall, and one of the first pieces of post-Infocom IF I played, after Curses and Jigsaw. I have no idea how it would stack up to modern expectations in terms of player friendliness and implementation, but at the time I was really impressed with it, both because of its complexity and for its darkness of tone; I was used to relatively playful material and wasn’t expecting this.
Kaged (Ian Finley) – Dystopian setting, strong atmosphere, a bunch of multimedia features that at the time were totally cutting-edge. I’m not sure how well it stands up now, but I remember it being pretty persuasive at the time.
Piracy 2.0 (Sean Huxter) – An IF Comp game from a few years back that suffered from a bit of bugginess, but has since had an upgrade. Its strength was a pleasingly flexible puzzle space and plot: from the initial space-piracy scenario, there were a number of different ways things could turn out depending on how clever you were at contriving solutions. People who like open-ended puzzly parser IF and a strong sense of freedom might be drawn to this one.
Nightfall (Eric Eve) – Eric’s work is always polished and often structurally ambitious; Nightfall stands out from some of the others because it provides a more directed and focused experience of an open world (vs. say Elysium Enigma where it’s possible to miss a lot) and because its central relationship is more thoroughly dramatized. (I needed to revisit my old review to remind myself of the details of what I liked about it: emshort.wordpress.com/2008/10/0 … nightfall/ .)