Participate in the 2015 Interactive Fiction Top 50!

In the future it might be interesting to ask voters to also list the first work of IF they remember playing and enjoying. It would be interesting to see if there is any kind of “anchoring” effect where players are biased towards enjoying the games that were released around the time they first started playing IF.

My list:

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: … nightfall/ .)

With still one week remaining, I’m happy to say that a few new lists have come in. Here’s the first:

I’m not sure Zangband really fits the “interactive fiction” moniker, but I don’t currently feel that any boundary-drawing on my part is called for. (If big numbers of not-really-IF votes start coming in, that might change.)

And here is the second:

And a current list of all games with 5 votes or more.

With 5 votes: Horse Master, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Savoir-Faire, Shade, With Those We Love Alive

With 6 votes: 80 Days, The Baron, Blue Lacuna, Hadean Lands, Make It Good, Varicella

With 7 votes: Kerkerkruip, Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis

With 8 votes: Anchorhead, Coloratura, Lost Pig

With 9 votes: –

With 10 votes: Counterfeit Monkey

With 11 votes: Spider and Web

With 12 votes: –

With 13 votes: –

With 14 votes: Photopia

And another list:

I don’t want to dismiss any of my last votes this time around, but I only had eleven, so here’s nine more.

First, the old eleven:
Spider and Web
Best of Three
The Firebird
Blue Chairs
The Act of Misdirection
Rover’s Day Out
The Baron
A New Life

And now some more. There will be a bit of strategic voting.

Counterfeit Monkey. Its scale and the well-thought out way that the puzzles are implemented and integrated into the world is amazing. I have some issues with a puzzle or two (generally where it switches to adventure-game logic rather than the wordplay mechanism), but overall a great achievement.

Ultra Business Tycoon III. I kind of want to vote for Myriad here but that would be an empty gesture so I’ll just put a note here saying Myriad is great, incredibly expansive for its size. Anyway, UBTIII. Impossible to ignore the things Porpentine has done with Twine, which have revolutionized IF over the last few years. This gets a huge emotional impact by moving back and forth between the retro game world and the real world. (I might have voted for Angelical Understanding or Skulljhabit but my browser eventually locked up on them.)

Calm. It took a lot of post-comp revisions to get to a really playable state but it does an amazing job of suggesting a world of possibilities and multiple paths through. Hmm, I’m realizing that I really value the sense of a big developed world in a game.

Taco Fiction. Modulo that bit that demonstrates why you need the describe what’s on scenery supporters rule, just a really superbly written story with great implementation. In a way a bit of a placeholder for “You need to play Ryan Veeder’s stuff.” (I still haven’t got around to Robin & Orchid which might merit this slot. Yeah, breaking my own rules. If you’re asking “Why isn’t X here?” it’s probably because I didn’t play it.)

Analogue: A Hate Story. Christine Love is amazing. This is a bit strategic since I want to vote for don’t take it personally, babe… but Analogue is getting the votes… actually I have enough room for don’t take it personally babe too, don’t I?

don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story. You’re not going to find much better writing anywhere in the IF world.

Walker & Silhouette. So charming!

You Will Select A Decision. Another for the funny & well-written pile. (If we have to choose one of the two I pick Girl Lost in Woods.)

…and last time I said I wanted to put on Pick Up The Phone Booth and Aisle so this time I will.

Hello all!

After thinking about my list for over a month, I finally got it done today! Most of the games were included in the previous Top 50, though I tried to mix and mash it up a little. I apologise for the lack of Infocom games as I’ve only started playing during the last 2 years and really had no time to try completing any of them, except for Zork 1. I also happen to have a tiny love for horror, so there might be more of these type of games in my list.

So here’s my list!

My top 20 IF games:

Anchorhead: What can we say about this game? It’s probably what horror stands for in Interactive Fiction. With a huge, open world full of plot and puzzles, this is the one game that has to played, though you might not be able to make the game winnable if you leave some items untaken in certain buildings.

Photopia: The first ever successful experiment in puzzleless IF’s leaves judges and players stunned with it’s brilliant and moving story. In a way, it shows that life brings you happiness whenever you go look for it.

The King of Shreds and Patches: Another Anchorhead-like game, bringing us a classic Lovecraft tale in the 1800’s. The plot, which is told in manuscripts and letters written by the NPC’s, is very interesting to observe and experience. Puzzles are a strong point in this game and is simplified with a great in-game hint menu.

Little Blue Men: The game is not what it looks like in the beginning. As explained by the numerous game genres (Satire/Horror/Science Fiction), it starts pretty normal in a typical man’s office, but quickly changes into a disturbing and strange world that tests our trust in each other.

The Warbler’s Nest: Just like Little Blue Men, this game starts out slow and quiet. But after your 10 moves, you realize that something is very, very wrong with your little hut. A great tale of psychology and how your mind perceives what is real and what is not. Has good horror elements too.

I-O: The thing that will probably attract players to try this game out is its minor pornographic material, but if you can look beyond that (which is a little difficult to do), you will find a unique world which brings out hopelessness within ourselves. It has plenty of endings too, which increases its replay value.

Curses: The first ever game created in Inform, Curses manages to show Inform’s efficiency to create a great game as long as you have a good plot and puzzles. One problem with this game is that its puzzles were complained to be too difficult, but I guess that’s also its strength too. With it’s long gameplay length, you will be spending a long time trying to finish this game. It will give you plenty of chances to discover it’s interesting story too.

Slouching Towards Bedlam: This game won the 2002 IF Comp in a landslide. It isn’t too much of a surprise as this game has a brilliant setting in an Victorian world, where machines overflow the streets like rats in a sewer… From the word ‘Bedlam’ in the title, you can guess that this game’s location is in an asylum. Expect less-than-pleasant events to happen there. Puzzles are a strong point in this game, though I had some trouble solving them, but the plot you get while attempting to solve them will make your efforts worthwhile.

Ad Verbum: No nick Nanny’s nappy! Ad Verbum, as you can guess from it’s name, is a homage to Nord and Bert, which features huge amounts of wordplay. Basically, there is very little plot in this story, but its interesting puzzles are enough to keep players playing this game. Every room has its obstacles to overcome. And just remember to keep your thesaurus next to you.

Galatea: I have never seen such a beautiful game in a very, very long time. Don’t worry about exploring all the rooms in a game and trying to complete all of its puzzles in a day; this game has none. Galatea features a very deep NPC for you to communicate with, to understand with. The amount of topics that you can bring up with Galatea is high, and the quality of writing is preserved though there is a lot for the author to keep track of.

Taco Fiction: Few games star you as the bad guy. And fewer games star you as a bad guy who doesn’t want to be a bad guy. Add a hilarious story into it together with challenging puzzles and you get a great result. Something not related to crime altogether. A walkthrough is recommended if you aren’t too good at solving there puzzles.

Lost Pig: The IF that kicked the entire genre back to live, Lost Pig is a amazing game which is perfect for newcomers to IF and is basically made by an author whose name ends with Humour. The entire story is full of comedy and has great dialog which tells the tale of you, a giant, trying to rescue a pig that has fallen into a gnome hole. Puzzles are simple and fair, though some thought is needed to find out what you have to do next.

Spider and Web: This game enjoyed by players so much until it was actually reviewed by PC Gamer themselves during its release in 1998. The beginning of the game hints nothing amazing or special, until you progress and find that you are actually a spy who was captured by your enemy and is forced to relive your previous hours during an interrogation. The main highlight of this game is its puzzles, which seem difficult at first, but after getting hints from the interrogator whenever you mess up and progressing through them, you will only appreciate how good the puzzles are.

Shrapnel: A very strange game released by Adam Cadre himself, it starts you out in a twisted and disturbing version of Zork’s White House. Things start becoming stranger after a few moves and then you will see that it’s no normal IF game. Somehow, Cadre manages to program a game in such a way that ‘Restarting’ the game won’t actually restart it and will bring you back to where you were and continues the game. Gore included.

Shade: There are some games which try to give you a good scare. Some tries to make you feel as if you are in danger during every moment. Well, Shade doesn’t give you any of that. It just messes around with your head, in your tiny motel room. This game starts out normal, like any other game, but slowly changes and breaks down into a completely different area. Being puzzles, it shouldn’t be much of a trouble to complete, as you only need to complete the tasks on your to-do list. Just remember to check the potted plant carefully.

Babel: The winner of the 1997 IF Comp, Babel pulls off a gold medal with it’s dark and gloomy atmosphere. The setting of this game is in a lab-like building, which really reminds me of Sevastapol in Alien 1. Exploring the rooms in the building are satisfying and interesting. Puzzles are not too difficult, as long as you explore thoroughly.

Rameses: This is the true meaning of puzzleless games. Basically a novel made to look like an IF game, Rameses tells your story as a guy who hates life and is a little insane, because too many unlucky things happen to you. Including the ‘Burn’ feeling too. There is very little interaction in this game, so expect to press ‘Z’ during most of your time playing this. Don’t worry, the plot is very well-done and makes it feel as though you are living in Rameses’ shoes. His pain shall be felt.

Losing Your Grip: Another great combination of story and puzzles, this is Losing Your Grip, a game where you explore a delusional world after eating an experimental drug in a nicotine rehab. Moving and exploring the world proves an interesting experience, though the puzzles are difficult, but solving them on your own will really bring the feeling of success and victory.

Theatre: One of the earliest Lovecraftian IF games released by someone other than Infocom, Theatre has the elements of a great horror story: a huge and empty theatre, strange apparations and mannequins, and the unsettling writing. Although it has its flaws (released in 1995, a time where parsers aren’t exactly as smooth as today), the story and history of the theatre will hook you until the end.

De Baron: This game starts as a typical fantasy tale, where you attempt to rescue your daughter from the evil baron. Only then as you play on, you will realize that this game is much, much more than it looks like. The truth about your world, as explained by the all-seeing-gargoyle, will turn this game around from a simple rescue attempt to something much deeper than that, something that you yourself are trapped in and is extremely difficult to escape from. The story is the best thing about this game. Remember to brace yourself for the end.

Thanks for sharing, people! And I had another list:

And yet another list. :slight_smile:

Got excited and then realized… one letter off. :wink:

I probably should check it with the voter, though!

Another list, this time a short one:

Seems an unlikely error. The beat/beet difference is, um, pretty prominent in Beet. I’m just amused.

I don’t feel like I have the breadth of experience necessary to choose a top 20, but I’ll submit my top 5 (well actually 6):

Violet - Might be the most polished game of any I’ve played. It’s got huge parser depth and interesting, difficult but fair puzzles. It never stops surprising with what’s going on outside the window or what amusing quip Violet’s going to make about your next action. It’s funny, but quite poignant. I felt a pretty deep sense of betrayal and dread performing a couple of the actions. The best one-room game and best NPC I’ve played.

Hadean Lands - My re-introduction to IF. I enjoyed every minute of the 20 or so hours I played this game. HL probably has the best overall puzzles of any game I’ve played: systems within systems within systems. Everything builds on everything else until you feel like you’re conducting a symphony to reach the final solution. A simply masterful piece of old-school-seeming IF.

Coloratura - This game has my favorite PC, almost no standard IF actions, and a conventional story told very unconventionally. I’d love to see a fan-fic retelling of Coloratura from the POV of another character. There’s also an emotional depth here that’s atypical of horror. (Is Coloratura horror?) I love this game.

Ultra Business Tycoon III - Somewhat similar in intent to Endless, Nameless, UBT3 reaches further, skewering many evils of contemporary capitalist culture with Porpentine’s glittering, grotesque, and glorious prose. But UBT3’s greatness is in its folding the game experience out into something deeply personal and intensely felt. This is the only IF I’ve played that left me with tears in my eyes.

Spider and Web - Not much to be said here: it was top of the list in 2011 and looks near there now. I only wish I could ever be as clever as this game.

and I must include:

Counterfeit Monkey - Ms. Short makes multiple solution/multiple endings work by harnessing a ludicrous premise, a solidly conceived history, and a dynamic setting. There’s no one thing this game does the best, but its exuberance and polish and imagination have to put it near the top of any list.

I don’t think I will have time to fill in comments before the deadline, so I’ll just post my list:

Spider and Web
Rovers Day Out
Slouching towards Bedlam
Sunset Over Savannah
Weird City Interloper
All Things Devours
Lost Pig

Classic: games that map the player’s ignorance to the protagonist’s state of mind (infatuation in Nightfall, stage fright in The Act of Misdirection, and amnesia in Babel); games like music boxes (Delightful Wallpaper, Distress, All Things Devours); games like funhouse mirrors (Deadline Enchanter, Rameses, Photopia) (and by “fun” I mean people throwing up).

Contemporary: games that hide the protagonist’s illusions behind the player’s goals (Robin & Orchid, Eurydice, Bee); games like rope ladders (their angelical understanding, rat chaos, The Statue Got Me High); games that blur together multiple realities (Raik, Ultra Business Tycoon III, Endless Nameless).

Coloratura: yes.

In no particular order:

  1. Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle
  2. Bee
  3. Shade
  4. Dual Transform
  5. Fail-Safe
  6. The Moonlit Tower
  7. The Gostak
  8. For a Change
  9. Lost Pig
  10. Exhibition
  11. The Statue Got Me High
  12. My Evil Twin
  13. Babel
  14. Ad Verbum
  15. Bigger Than You Think
  16. Castle of the Red Prince
  17. 18 Cadence
  18. Horse Master
  19. Solarium
  20. Trapped in Time

Thanks for doing this again, Victor. I was inspired to catch up on a lot of notable games I hadn’t gotten around to playing. Not all of them are listed below, but some are, and I feel somewhat less behind the times now. Notables I didn’t get to include Blue Lacuna, Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, Mentula Macanus: Apolocyntosis, Rover’s Day Out, Hunger Daemon, and Cryptozookeeper.

My top 20, and why:

  1. Spider and Web (Andrew Plotkin). One of the best puzzles ever, using a literary device from static fiction in a way that magnifies its power, but the rest of the game is just as good. Manages to make ths spy-thriller setting fresh; uses an array of gadgetry and makes it all readily accessible.
  2. Trinity (Brian Moriarty). Integrated the puzzles into the story in a way that was unusual in 1986. Not only are they (mostly) organic to the narrative, rather than set pieces, they reflect the themes of the game in a way that rewards careful attention. A few notable moments (arguably) introduced the idea of the player’s complicity in the plot.
  3. Varicella (Adam Cadre). Pitch-dark in tone, viciously difficult, but well worth the many playthroughs it takes to finish. One of the most vividly drawn PCs ever. Perhaps the most fitting ending in all of IF.
  4. Spellbreaker (David Lebling). Lots of good puzzles, a few brilliant ones, evocative and atmospheric.
  5. Anchorhead (Michael Gentry). There have been lots of Lovecraftian IF games, but this is the best. The mood builds gradually, and the writing is appropriately restrained; the puzzles are designed in a way that, for the most part, draws out the plot but doesn’t bring it to a halt. (The endgame, with some tight timing required, is an exception, but not egregiously so.) Well-designed storytelling that can be enjoyed even by those who don’t care for Lovecraft.
  6. So Far (Andrew Plotkin). More a mood piece than a narrative, but the mood is effectively done, and the puzzles reinforce the themes of the game. Some are a bit cruel, but they’re satisfying to solve.
  7. Counterfeit Monkey (Emily Short). A wordplay game that anticipates virtually everything you could conceivably want to try, and one of the more memorable takes on IF PCs. Tricky but fair puzzles, and lots of funny moments.
  8. Zork III (Marc Blank and David Lebling). The best puzzles of the trilogy (setting aside the timed event that makes the game unforeseeably unwinnable), the most consistently done atmosphere, and a sly subversion of the treasure hunt.
  9. Worlds Apart (Suzanne Britton). Extraordinarily deep worldbuilding, several well-drawn characters, and puzzles that serve rather than impede the plot.
  10. Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin). A quantum leap in IF design in the way it allows the player to shift between levels of abstraction and perform complex tasks encompassing lots of sub-tasks. As a game, it adopts a novel premise (an alchemy-powered starship) and thinks it through with lots and lots of care; some of the puzzles are a touch unfair, but most are clever and logical. The ending is a tad abrupt, and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but puzzling over what happened is part of the fun.
  11. Slouching Toward Bedlam (Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster). A novel and thought-provoking take on moral choice in IF.
  12. Metamorphoses (Emily Short). Notable for the depth of its implementation–in particular, there are devices that can transmute objects into different substances, and the game does a remarkable job of accommodating all the possibilities–and for the indirect way the story is told.
  13. Losing Your Grip (Stephen Granade). A long, difficult, rewarding game about introspection and self-discovery. The protagonist is exploring his own mind, and you’re helping him do it. Rewards close analysis.
  14. Coioratura (Lynnea Glasser). Another novel take on an IF PC; manages to be both horrific and funny, and to use an unusual mode of interaction in a way that’s creative and accessible.
  15. Augmented Fourth (Brian Uri). A funny sendup of fantasy IF with clever, not-too-hard puzzles.
  16. Lost Pig (Admiral Jota). The every-response-is-implemented game par excellence, and many, many laugh-out-loud moments.
  17. Sunset Over Savannah (Ivan Cockrum). Another mood piece, beautifully written, with difficult but well-hinted puzzles.
  18. Shadow in the Cathedral (Ian Finley and Jon Ingold). An outstanding blend of puzzle and narrative; manages to keep the story moving along without making the player feel railroaded. Atmospheric, with some nice tense moments.
  19. Wishbringer (Brian Moriarty). The first, to my knowledge, and the best IF game to deploy the nightmare-version-of-familiar-landscape approach. Lots of multiple-solution puzzles at a time when that wasn’t common. The puzzles are kid-oriented, but there’s plenty of sly humor.
  20. Jigsaw (Graham Nelson). A game of extraordinary scope and ambition; if it reach slightly exceeds its grasp at times, it’s largely because some of the puzzles are simply too hard to be considered fair. But there are enough good ones to keep this among my faves.

Since this is for a Top 50, here’s 30 more that just missed:

All Things Devours (Toby Ord): A single intricate time-travel puzzle, very satisfying to solve.
Babel (Ian Finley): Atmospheric trapped-in-the-lab game with puzzles that are just hard enough to feel like a challenge but not so hard that you’re likely to bog down.
Blighted Isle (Eric Eve): Another nice blend of puzzle and story that requires large-scale thinking.
Bronze (Emily Short): Clever, moody spin on Beauty and the Beast with some interesting puzzles.
Change in the Weather (Andrew Plotkin): Evocatively creepy little game about getting stuck in the rain; requires lots of playthroughs to get right.
Curses (Graham Nelson): Sprawling epic, jumping through time and space, about magic and family history. Again, some of the puzzles are more than a bit unfair; don’t feel bad about turning to hints or a walkthrough.
A Day for Soft Food (Tod Levi): My favorite POV experiment. You’re a housecat who finds catlike ways to get yourself out of some jams.
Dreamhold (Andrew Plotkin): Using different play modes, works as an intro to IF and as a satisfying puzzle-oriented game for more experienced players.
The Edifice (Lucian Smith): Three-part dramatization of civilization; the middle part, where you learn the rudiments of a new language, is the highlight.
Enchanter (Marc Blank and David Lebling): Exquisitely designed fantasy game.
For a Change (Dan Schmidt): e.e. cummings-esque prose; subtly evocative.
Galatea (Emily Short): The single greatest IF NPC.
The Gostak (Carl Muckenhoupt): A meta-puzzle of a game; the challenge is to decipher the language the game is written in, whose syntax (mostly) matches English but whose vocabulary mostly doesn’t.
Goose, Egg, Badger (Brian Rapp): Several ingenious meta-twists here that I won’t spoil.
Hunter, in Darkness (Andrew Plotkin): A cave-crawl, literally, that makes cave exploration an appropriately harrowing experience.
Inevitable (Kathleen Fischer): SF game with a well-implemented large-scale puzzle.
Infidel (Michael Berlyn): The game is fine, if mostly nothing special; the ending is a brilliant out-of-left-field move.
Janitor (Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn): You’re cleaning up after a fantasy text adventure. Lots of sly humor, and clever puzzles.
King of Shreds and Patches (Jimmy Maher): Lovecraft, set in Elizabethan London, puzzle-light and story-heavy. Impeccably researched, with a story that moved at something like a believable pace.
Little Blue Men (Michael Gentry): Twisted, gonzo workplace-from-hell game, on the surface; sly undermining of IF tropes if you look a little deeper.
Make it Good (Jon Ingold): Smart twist on the mystery genre. Underclued at times, but I loved the way the game pushed you into realizing what’s going on.
The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet (Graham Nelson): Zork homage and critique, with some smart puzzles and Nelsonian dry wit.
Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina (Jim Aikin): The ultimate unabashed puzzlefest.
Plundered Hearts (Amy Briggs): The first non-cipher PC (second if you count Infidel’s, but the development of Infidel’s PC was almost entirely in the feelies), and still one of the better ones. Probably Infocom’s best integration of puzzle and story.
Pytho’s Mask (Emily Short): Palace intrigue, with lots of well-developed NPCs and a versatile, usable conversation system.
Savoir Faire (Emily Short): Quasi-fantasy, set in 18th-century France but with incursions of magic. I liked the consistency of the way the magic system is implemented, and the effort expended on simulating difficult-to-simulate events (liquids, etc.) is second to none.
Shade (Andrew Plotkin): Mess-with-your-head IF has not, to my knowledge, been done better.
Small World (Andrew Pontious): Charming story set on a tiny planet, with a very funny NPC.
Suspended (Michael Berlyn): The ultimate resource-management game. Extremely satisfying to solve.
Violet (Jeremy Freese): Makes the parser come alive in a way I don’t think any other IF has attempted. Funny and thoroughly implemented.

(Can’t I fit Endless, Nameless, Delusions, Christminster, All Roads, Child’s Play, or Moonlit Tower in here? No, I guess I can’t.)

Duncan Stevens

Thanks, people! It’s the LAST DAY TODAY, do please keep posting.

I’m going to expand my original list a bit. Organising this topic has made me far more conscious of the number of highly promising games that I have not played yet, so take this list with a big grain of salt. I’ve already played one of the games I wanted to know more about – Creatues such as we – and it promptly made it onto this list. But here we go. (I’m also adding some games that I really liked and that I think deserve more attention than they’re getting, even if I’m not sure they’re “the best”. How can one rate a unique experiences like Being There or Leadlight? But they deserve some love and I’m putting them in my list.)

  • Anchorhead
  • Spider and Web
  • Photopia
  • Savoir-Faire
  • City of Secrets
  • Blue Lacuna
  • Make it Good
  • The King of Shreds and Patches
  • Alabaster
  • Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis
  • Creatures such as we
  • their angelical understanding
  • LASH - Local Asynchronous Satellite Hookup
  • Counterfeit Monkey
  • All Things Devours
  • Being There
  • Leadlight
  • All Roads
  • Slouching towards Bedlam

Here my last minute vote! 10 titles, in alphabetical order:

A Mind Forever Voyaging
Blue Lacuna
Counterfeit Monkey
Four in One
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The King of Shreds and Patches
their angelical understanding