Participate in the Interactive Fiction Top 50!

Interactive Fiction Top 50

Based on a discussion on the interactive fiction forum, I am organising a interactive fiction top 50 (or a top 100, or a top 20, depending on the number of participants and the distribution of the votes). You send in a list of your favourite IF games, I add those lists together and publish a “best of” list.

The aim is not to decide what the best IF ever is by majority vote – that would be foolish. Rather, the aims of the top 50 are:

  • To create a good opportunity for people to think about the best games they have played, and discuss their ideas on this topic with others.
  • To allow people to be inspired by what they see on other people’s lists.
  • To create a useful list of great games at which you can point newcomers to the IF scene.
  • If it is successful and we do this every few years: to create a way to track how the taste of the community evolves.

To make this work, we need your help. Please send us a list of between 1 and 20 interactive fiction games that you consider to be the best IF games ever made (or at least the best that you have played). The list can be posted at the IF forum or mailed to, where you replace “myfirstname” with my first name. Which is Victor. You can also email me if you want me to post your list on the forum (in case you don’t have/want an account). Here are the rules:

  • You can list between 1 and 20 games.
  • The order in which you list the games is not important. The total number of points a work receives is the total number of votes it gets.
  • You can list each work only once.
  • You can list multiple works by one author.
  • You can list your own works.
  • It’s up to you to decide whether a work counts as interactive fiction. As a rough rule of thumb, anything that is or should be listed on the IFDB is suitable. (Response to question: commercial games, including the Infocom titles, are fine.)
  • We are asking you to identify the best interactive fiction, not the most influential, most important, most innovative or most accessible interactive fiction. (But of course, if you believe that influence, importance, innovation or accessibility are important parts of being good, that is fine.)
  • The deadline for entering your list is 30 September 2011.
  • The organiser is allowed to participate. (It’s good to be making the rules.)

You don’t need to do anything except send in a list. However, the whole thing will be a lot more fun if you also post the rationale behind your choices in some public place.

I hope to see many of you participate!

From this point onwards, people will be posting lists. If you want to think about your choices without being influenced, do not read on. If you don’t, do read on.

End of “spoiler” space.

One thing that I quickly realised as I read through the IF Competition results and XYZZY Award Nominee lists, is how embarrassingly many of the most famous and beloved works of IF I have never played. I-0? Nope. So Far? Not really. Varicella? I never got very far. For a Change? Idem ditto. Worlds Apart, Shrapnel, Being Andrew Plotkin, Little Blue Men, Fallacy of Dawn and its sequels, Kaged? Never even touched them. I haven’t played Child’s Play and I still haven’t played The Shadow in the Cathedral, of which I am especially ashamed. And even games I have played, I often only half-remember. Blue Chairs… hm… vague recollections… wasn’t there a guy called Dante? How well do I remember whether Anchorhead was really good?

So obviously, the list I’m going to present now is grossly inadequate! But who cares, that will be the case for most of us, I suspect. So here goes, in order of year of publication. I decided to limit myself to 10 games, because that was an amount that forced me to make some hard decisions (which is good).

  • Anchorhead, Michael Gentry (1998). The puzzles, especially in the later part of the game, are too tough and unforgiving for me; I did not play Anchorhead without a walkthrough, and when I revisit it in the future I’m sure I will need to consult it again. This makes the game less appealing to me. But the atmosphere and the storytelling are so right that one perseveres. I choose my words carefully: I don’t care about the story (which is just some Lovecraft crap), but I care about the storytelling: the vague hints that gradually turn into certainties; the slowly rising danger; the very effective use of the main NPC; the way in which a tight story unfolds across a large map without the player being railroaded or led by the nose; all of that is expertly done. At moments Anchorhead may be tough going, but it is a classic of storytelling in IF – and that is a good reason to keep it in the canon, at least for now.
  • Spider and Web, Andrew Plotkin (1998). I have hesitated whether to choose Shade or Spider and Web, from among Plotkin’s games. Shade, with its slow revelation from the mundane to the horrific, is a beautiful piece of work. But in the end I chose Spider and Web, because it has the most brilliant puzzle in interactive fiction; and a huge part of its brilliance is the way in which the puzzle doesn’t just exploit the details of Plotkin’s fictional world, but the details of the medium itself. While the presentation and the difficulty of the game may feel pretty old school by now, everyone should play Spider and Web. Not because it is historically important, but because the central idea is very, very good.
  • Photopia, Adam Cadre (1998). I have written extensively on Photopia elsewhere. If the game’s claim to fame had been “wow, it makes deep points about free will”, or if it had been “it is so emotional, with that protagonist we really care for”, then it would not be on this list. But Photopia’s real claim to a place in the canon lies in its symbolic exploration of the theme of influence. I do not believe this exploration is particularly deep compared to what happens in good static literature; but it is deeper than almost anything that has been done in our medium. For now, then, Photopia belongs on this list.
  • Savoir-Faire, Emily Short (2002). I do not like difficult puzzle games (of the IF variety). Yet, somehow, Savoir-Faire managed to draw me in several times. I still haven’t progressed very far, but I have progressed far enough to feel a real sense of accomplishment. What is it that makes Savoir-Faire such a good puzzle game? It is not, I submit, the simulationist systems which Emily was very interested in around this time (an interest which I think she has mostly lost). Rather, it is a combination of good puzzles (difficult, but fair; not dependent on weird intuitive leaps; reusing established ideas) with a coherent setting (none of that Curses nonsense here) and a sense that you can’t really put the game into an unwinnable state (I’m sure you can, but it’s not a constant threat). This is perhaps the only hard puzzle games that I intend to return to until I have solved it, and of which I will never check out the hints or the walkthrough.
  • City of Secrets, Emily Short (2003). I have complained, in my analysis of Metamorphoses, that in many of Emily Short’s works, “we are doomed to remain strangers, always at a distance, always looking through the veil that separates us from these perfect, self-enclosed wholes”. There is something of this in City of Secrets, but much less than in many of Emily’s other games. In fact, the bodily weaknesses of the protagonist comes into play very quickly, and the neo-Platonic tendencies of Metamorphoses are disturbed by some good physical illness. Anyway, I digress. What makes City of Secrets a great work is the depths of its world building and the openness of the interaction. You are given a detailed and interesting environment, and can try to do many things in it. This does lead to some confusion now and then, and I would in fact be surprised if Emily herself could play through the game now, after eight years, without getting stuck. But there is so much ambition here, and so much of it succeeds, that we would do well to make the effort and enjoy this game.
  • Blue Lacuna, Aaron Reed (2008). For me, the easiest choice to make: Blue Lacuna is the best piece of interactive fiction written to date. It has vast world, a vast story, an extremely complicated NPC, a narrative that really changes depending on what you do, great accessibility features, a “story mode” for people like me, exploration of theme, and prose that is mostly quite good. Are there no weaknesses? Of course there are weaknesses, how could there not be – and to my mind, the greatest weakness is the choice to create a story out of weird SF, weird fantasy, and the atmosphere (and puzzles) of Myst. These ingredients don’t mix all that well, and the time and effort spent on their respective development stands in the way of a true exploration of the work’s main theme, which is the tension between love and individuality. But it is a great game nonetheless; an amazing leap beyond Aaron’s already very fine earlier games (Whom the telling changed, Gourmet).
  • Make it Good, Jon Ingold (2009). If Savoir-Faire is the best string-of-puzzles game, Make it Good is the best one-huge-puzzle game. It is difficult, but you should persevere, for the rewards are immense. They are the rewards of detective literature, not the rewards of high literature: the game doesn’t teach us anything about the human condition. But it surprises, it delights, and it makes us feel very, very smart after we have solved the case. Where Blue Lacuna tries to combine theme, exploration and puzzles, and probably doesn’t quite succeed in any of these aspects because of that, Make it Good knows that it wants to be a puzzle. And as a puzzle, I know of no piece of IF that is a greater success than Jon Ingold’s game.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches, Jimmy Maher (2009). If you want story, if you want flow, if you want to move through a game and be entertained, then The King of Shreds and Patches is the game you should play. Its story falls firmly within genre conventions (Lovecraft again), and its puzzles are quite conventional. The setting, Shakespearean England, is the game’s most distinctive feature. But what really matters is that all aspects of the game have been polished to a degree that has no precedent. The King of Shreds and Patches is our page turner, and one of the most fun games I know.
  • Alabaster, Emily Short and others (2009). A third game by Emily Short? What am I, some kind of fanboy? As a feeble defence, I will say that Alabaster made the list only at the last moment, when I decided to substitute it for Slouching towards Bedlam. But let us cast all defences to the wind: Alabaster is a very good game. Not only does it manage to create an interesting, believable and complex conversation, but it also manages to turn this conversation into a very weird combination of free-choice-gameplay and puzzle. There are no goals you have to achieve in order to win, and you can decide to try and achieve any of a lot of endings. But there is more: there is a lot of understanding of what is really going on that only repeated and puzzle-minded play will uncover; and it is only with the help of that understanding that one can make informed decisions about which endings are desirable. What are we to make of such a goal-less puzzle game? I do not know; but I do know that Alabaster is fascinating and a lot of fun to boot. (And in this later work, the neo-Platonic ascetic that I was so suspicious of in Short’s earlier games has vanished completely.)
  • Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, Adam Thornton (2011). The most controversial choice on my list, no doubt, since Mentula Macanus was both loved and loathed when it came out. There are those who see it as a work of cynical shallowness. There are those who believe the final scenes are disgusting depictions of rape. And then there are those who experienced Thornton’s game as a celebration of playfulness, and as an incredibly irreverent love letter to literature both static and interactive. It is not even satire, for there is nothing in its universe that it does not good-naturedly accept. Stiffy Makane enjoys everything and everyone, and we can enjoy the world with him. (This, by the way, is why it would not be in the spirit of the work to interpret those final scenes as rape.) And man, did I love that golden bough joke.

This, then, is my top 10. Worthy games are probably missing. But no non-worthy game is in it.

My top… 8.

I have other fave IF games - oodles of them in fact - but the names of most of them seem to escape me at the moment. But anyway:

  1. The Hobbit – Melbourne House (Spectrum)
    My all time favourite IF game from back in the days when they were called text adventures on account of being adventures with text in them. Wonderfully inventive game that was a pain to solve due to a maze (how could a maze feature in my favourite ever game, you might ask? Well, I don’t understand it either), randomised combat (ditto) and some remarkably tough puzzles. Bags of fun to play even after you knew how to finish it. And how many of today’s parsers could handle the things that The Hobbit could?

  2. Sherlock – Melbourne House (Spectrum)
    Another fave from the glory days of IF/text adventures. (No, I’m not just wallowing in nostalgia here. I do like some modern games, too.) Fiendishly difficult, set in real time (kind of, a five minutes per turn sort of thing) and a great game to spend several months trying to figure out just whodunit. Most times when I loaded this (yes, you had to load games back then, no double-clicking icons back in the 80’s), I didn’t even try and solve it, just wandered around trailing suspects and poking my nose in where it shouldn’t have been poked. And getting shot by Basil. A lot.

  3. The Big Sleaze – Fergus McNeill (Spectrum)
    Another from the 80’s. Yes, yes, I know. But this is damn good. Damn funny, too. I never did manage to finish it at the time, but years later I Googled the solution on the internet (shame on me), went back and solved it. Still worth playing after all these years, and far less of a hassle than it was in the day due to not needing to load the various parts of the game.

  4. The PK Girl – Hanadorobou
    For me, the best ADRIFT game ever written. Back when everyone looked down their nose at ADRIFT and wrote it off as the system you used if you weren’t clever enough to use TADS or Inform (no, I mean 2002. Not last week), this shook things up. A lot. What? An ADRIFT game that was well written? Not bugged to high heaven? Not written by someone in a spare five minutes during their dinner break? And the author even knew how to spell? This, for ADRIFT, was the turning point. Of course, it has its detractors (even amongst the ADRIFT community), but it came a well deserved 6th place in the IFComp that year which is certainly something considering most people back then wouldn’t touch ADRIFT with the world’s longest bargepole.

  5. Unravelling God – Toddwat
    And the second best ADRIFT game ever written. Ironically it came out at the same time as the best ever game and was entered in the same IFComp. What are the odds, eh? I played this one first actually, and sat there thinking “about time someone entered a really good ADRIFT game in the IFComp” instead of the previous ADRIFT entries which, while they may not have been total stinkers, certainly weren’t setting the IF world alight. Shame the author never wrote anything else (hint, hint).

  6. City of Secrets – Emily Short
    I’d heard good things about this game and was relieved to find that it lived up to the hype. Very professional looking interface (seriously, why aren’t more IF games written this way? A neat interface won’t turn a bad game into a good one, but it certainly helps a good game appear even better). I spent quite a while just wandering around and acting the part of the tourist before tackling the slight problem of actually finishing it. A modern classic.

  7. Luminous Horizon – Paul O’Brian
    I’m a sucker for super hero games and this is without a doubt the best one I’ve ever played. Miles better than Future Boy. This is an amazing game in which you can switch characters at will, and which character you’re playing really affects how the game pans out, as well as having descriptions appear different depending on who you happen to be at the time. Won the IFComp as well so clearly I’m not the only one who loved it to bits.

  8. Varicella – Adam Cadre
    I never liked Photopia at all. I played it after hearing what an honest to God masterpiece it was, finished it a while later and thought: is that it? The best IF game ever written? Hmmm… But then I played this little gem by Adam Cadre and realised that when people were singing the praises of Photopia, they’d clearly got it mixed up with Varicella. Obvious when you think about it. The one weak point was the game’s best ending, which seemed more like a bad ending from what I could tell, but up to that point it was sublime.

A difficult set of choices, I suppose, and I can’t claim my list of bests to be anything but idiosyncratic. Without any deep rationale here’s five.

Blue Chairs (Chris Klimas, 2004): A game about dreaming. And one rather deeply sad, at least by my interpretation. It goes a little off-puttingly goofy around the two-thirds point, as I recall, but the surreality of the events described supports the theme rather expertly (for the most part). One of my favorites.

The Primrose Path (Nolan Bonvouloir, 2006): Novel premise, clever writing, and some really neat mechanics makes this game stick out for me.

Chancellor (Kevin Venzke, 2005): I seem to recall some grumbling at the fake-out prologue, but the later scenes of wandering through an empty college dormitory seemed genuinely, evocatively creepy to me. It may’ve helped that I worked in very old dorm when this was released (managing a computer lab — ah, those were the days), and I could certainly imagine that place being frightening in the right circumstances.

Shade (Andrew Plotkin, 2000): Another contender for overall favorite work. (It occurs to me that I must have some predisposition toward the dreamlike. Take from that what you may.) An ingenious set of events — each on its own merely surreal — conspire to make the ultimate reveal that much more powerful. Plotkin’s a genuinely pretty good writer and the puzzles here are mercifully approachable. In my mind Shade is his best work.

Vespers (Jason Devlin, 2005): There’s a snobbish part of me that looks down on this game; the writing and especially dialogue just don’t fit the setting very well. But you know what? It’s a great piece of work nonetheless, tense, creepy, and haunting. I enjoyed this very much.

Here’s a very subjective list, which would no doubt look different tomorrow, accompanied by fragments rather than full-fledged justifications.

Enchanter – The early Infocom aesthetic at its height. Just a beautifully crafted adventure game, pitched at just the right level of difficulty.

Trinity – Still my all-time favorite work of IF, and one of the few with something to say about the times in which it was created. Today, when its historical moment has passed, it still stands as a perfect evocation of the days of the Evil Empire and The Day After. Beautiful writing, chilling imagery, yet still with intriguing puzzles. This one does well just about everything IF as a form does well.

Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It – Perhaps the most daring and unusual game Infocom ever released, this set of interconnected wordplay-based vignettes always makes me smile – both for the fun it has with language and for the sheer chutzpah of the whole thing. (But if you don’t have English as a mother tongue, stay far, far away)

Guild of Thieves – I’ve always had a huge soft spot for this sprawling old-school treasure hunt. It does nothing particularly innovative, but it does everything so well, then lathers on some great dry humor and a bunch of pretty pictures.

Timequest – Legend’s finest hour, this game sends you skipping around the world and through the centuries, solving a web of cleverly interconnected puzzles. Beautifully illustrated to boot.

t-zero – This game spoiled me for all future surrealistic games. Its world is hauntingly beautiful – rivaled in that respect only by the alternate dimension in Trinity – and slowly figuring out how everything works and why you’re there is the most sublime of pleasures. Also the best home-brewed parser I’ve ever seen.

Cosmoserve – A perfect evocation of the online world of the early 1990s, just before the World Wide Web changed everything. Should be required reading for cultural history classes of the near future.

Jigsaw – Curses is the more historically important of Graham Nelson’s two sprawling puzzlefests, but for playing I’ll take Jigsaw every time. When you aren’t wrestling with its puzzles, you’ll be surfing Wikipedia to learn more about the historical vignettes through which you travel. The reason I read Proust, and that’s enough of a recommendation right there.

Spider and Web – Still Plotkin’s finest hour, the best example of his genius for communicating story through gameplay, and for crafting puzzles that feel like artistic statements.

Aisle – While I accept them as a necessary phase in IF’s evolution, I’m not generally a big fan of the “gimmick” games that cluttered the late 1990s and early 2000s. This gimmick, however, really works. A heartbreaking portrait of loneliness.

Anchorhead – Still perhaps the most fully realized setting ever for an IF game. If it’s showing its age in a tendency to sometimes leave the player (and the plot) stuck in neutral, it’s nevertheless still a compelling experience, the most genuinely creepy game I’ve ever played.

Heroine’s Mantle – I just loved working my way through these action sequences one step at a time. Some of the pleasures of the platformer here – figuring out the right steps for success and executing them with perfect timing. And who wouldn’t like to be a superhero?

Slouching Towards Bedlam – Still perhaps the most fully realized attempt to give the player complete control of the story. Almost anything you might reasonably do is present and accounted for.

Sunset over Savannah – Another wonderful example of setting in IF. But this time it is a beautiful place that we visit, and it is described with a wistful sadness that almost makes me choke up to think about it.

Blue Lacuna – It sometimes strains a bit too hard to demonstrate its literary bona fides for my taste, but this game is nevertheless an awe-inspiring creation. Simply the largest and most ambitious work of IF ever – and its towering ambitions are largely realized.

Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom – Demonstrates that everything you thought you knew about IF design was wrong, not least that randomized combat can actually be pretty damn fun.

Aotearoa – I still can never remember how to spell it, but this game takes all the lessons of 30+ years of IF, adds a shean of beginner accessibility, and sends it off powered by the irresistible optimism of young-adult adventure novels. Plus, you get to name your pet monkey. How cool is that?

The Chinese Room – A great demonstration of the still underused educational potential of IF, this game makes you really engage with the philosophical ideas it conveys.

The Elysium Enigma – My favorite Eric Eve game, demonstrating everything he does so well: interesting setting, interesting plot, interesting puzzles. If nothing (except perhaps his still unparalleled use of the TADS 3 conversation system) stands out as amazing, the combined effect of the whole does.

Delightful Wallpaper – A minimalist Plotkin masterpiece that seems to guide you in the right direction by a sort of mental osmosis. At the end you’re left blinking and confused, as if you’ve just awoken from a dream, wondering how you figured out what to do and feeling like a bad ass for having done so.

And an honorable mention:

The Mulldoon Legacy – My apologies to Jon for not picking one his more “literary” works, but this monster just kept me tantalized, engaged, and entertained for so long that I couldn’t bear to leave it off the list.

[Changed Timezone to Timequest. Timezone, like most of Roberta Williams’s work, is of course a monument to everything you shouldn’t do as a game designer.]

Here are the nine games I feel mostly strongly about. It’s a pretty conventional list, I think. Looking over it, I wonder: did the medium peak in 1998?

Anchorhead - This out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft by a wide margin. The only horror game I’ve played which I found genuinely scary. The extended endgame is pulse-pounding.

Losing Your Grip - Powerful imagery, terrific puzzles. I came to this one via the spoof in Coke Is It!.

Planetfall - The first game I ever completed without hints, and the first game to provoke an emotional reaction from me. I was moved to submit a drawing of Floyd to the NZT for their cartoon contest (I didn’t win).

Rameses - Simultaneously one of the best and most perverse uses of the medium.

Savoir-Faire - The best pure-puzzle game ever made.

Spider and Web - Pretty much what Victor said. It always amazes me when I read bad reviews of this game. It is the most brilliantly-constructed game I have ever played, with the single best puzzle in all of IF.

Starcross - My favorite of Infocom’s library, and the game most likely to not show up on anyone else’s list. The robot mouse puzzle is one of my all-time favorites. Played it alongside my young daughter a few years ago, and she was motivated to draw a picture of rat-ants.

Sunset Over Savannah - A perfectly-made puzzle piece with terrific writing and imagery. I don’t think this one gets enough attention.

Varicella - Brutal, delicious and immensely satisfying when you finally come up with the right sequence.


All Things Devours. If the novel is the ideal vessel for conveying consciousness, interactive fiction (as a kind of game) is the ideal way to convey certain kinds of experience. All Things lets you experience what it’s like to defy the laws of physics. And in a fantastic puzzle, it gives you the opportunity to master them.

Rameses. Whose protagonist embodies the form’s limitations. The story could have been told in other media, and has been. But nowhere else can you feel it so keenly. Rameses deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award for “Best Use of Medium” – and consideration for best writing.

Nightfall. Not that love is blind; just that it’s pitch dark, and you can’t see a thing.

Babel. Expertly paced sci-fi thriller whose scenery is charged with implications. Your extrasensory awareness lets you reconstruct the story a step a time – and in a game about forbidden knowledge, your moves are no less dangerous for being retraced.

Deadline Enchanter. Torschlusspanik in the Z-Machine. Reads like a personal ad from another dimension; plays like a guided tour through the prison of self-consciousness.

Everybody Dies. Its dead-on depiction of real life is bracing; its transition to the afterlife is greatly eased by the illustrations.

The Act of Misdirection. This short supernatural tale thrusts you into the limelight, lets you find your legs, and then saws you in half.

Distress. Another tightly controlled sci-fi hellscape. Can things possibly get any worse? Well, yes, and the longer you play, the grimmer it gets. You’ll die repeatedly but, if you persevere, you’ll see your previous attempts fade into the background in a surprising and satisfying way.

Photopia. Inspiring still.

Delightful Wallpaper. The opening puzzle is so beguiling that it’s worth working out for its own sake. But when you realize – somewhere in the second act – why you’re here and what you’re doing, the mansion takes on a whole new significance. (Dual Transform steers a similar idea in a slightly different direction, but, to me, Delightful Wallpaper is the way to go.)

Hopefully the next time we do this I’ll have filled in some of my blind spots and will have no problem coming up with twenty. Already I’m inspired to take a look at everyone’s picks. I had plenty of games I felt I needed to get to; now I’ve got several I can’t wait to check out.

If you’re looking for the modern canon, I think it’s the games with over 50 reviews on IFDB, no matter how they’re rated. (And as you’ll see, three of my top whatever are in the bottom five of these games.) And I haven’t played a lot of it. Anchorhead? Just finished the first day. Infocom? Before my time. Varicella? The whole concept frightens me, because I’m terrible at puzzles. So, herewith, some favorite games of someone who should really be playing games instead of talking about them, listed in the order I type them in.

Photopia. No comment necessary.

Galatea. Ditto.

Spider and Web. This gets in practically for the framing device alone; it was one of the first games I played and way past my capacity, so I spent a lot of time just typing in the walkthrough. But still, it was amazing. And I did do some puzzle solving; in fact I almost got that one puzzle, except at the crucial moment

I forgot what meant “on” and what meant “off.”

Anyway, if not for these three I probably wouldn’t be playing IF.

Best of Three. In some ways the most satisfying game I’ve played; I went through, did what seemed natural, and what happened felt just right. Grant’s tea order is my favorite writing in IF, and when I went to look it up just now some of the parts leading up to it may have been even better. And why shouldn’t IF take on the subject matter of mainstream realistic fiction? Answer: More of it should, if it can.

Shrapnel. Real horror comes from what you do yourself, or what you have done. Another Cadre railroad game, much darker and nastier than Photopia, and effective with it. (Yeah, I like games that are about story, and also games I can finish. No apologies for that.)

The Firebird. This isn’t perfect; it has a couple bugs (one of which seemed to cancel out one of the more annoying aspects of the otter puzzle, though that sequence was the time I hit the walkthrough anyway). But it’s magical and funny and the puzzles are actually fun, and it does a good job of giving you multiple ways through the more open parts at the beginning. Also, it was a long game I could finish, and the hint it gives you for the maze is a hoot.

Blue Chairs. Art-damaged and I like it. Unapologetic about its fictional nature, about not giving you all the keys to its meaning, and about including details that point to something beyond the world of its story. We need more like this, too, so long as it’s good. (Chris Klimas has gone on to make flash games at Twofold Secret, which are highly recommended if you suck less at them than I do.)

The Act of Misdirection. Beats out “All Roads” for the linear game “what happened?” slot, partly because I have a little more intimation that what happened makes sense (even if we Cannot Comprehend Its True Form), mostly because the first scene is So Awesome. And the rest really is chilling. (No, I didn’t get the good ending.)

Rover’s Day Out. Another one that makes it on the strength of the first part. What can I say, I love winks to the fourth wall, at least when they’re done this well.

The Baron. Utterly powerful and compelling. It actually makes you think about free will and desire, and makes you feel the weight of your choices.

A New Life. This game has basically no business on this list. It’s impossibly difficult; I haven’t finished it yet, even though I’ve looked at the hints and a walkthrough and figured out a bunch of stuff for myself that wasn’t in either of them. And the reason I didn’t finish was because of what appeared to be a game-breaking bug:

I visited the dragon too soon, was told to go away and come back later, but when I came back it had disappeared.

And the hints – the hints seem like they’re some kind of performance art. At least two of them point you to puzzles that I’m pretty sure are unsolvable.

If anyone found a musical instrument, let me know.

Not to mention that you’re forced to stay in the gameplay area by the immutable force of the parser telling you you haven’t reached the ending yet. So why do I like it so much? Because it does such an amazing job of world-building. The connections you can draw between different parts of the game, even when they don’t help you solve any puzzles, give you a sense of a wider universe beyond these few objects that you can manipulate. Especially when they don’t help you solve any puzzles, in fact; it’s an escape from the airless IF world where everything has been placed there for you to use. Even the unsolvable puzzles in the hints create that impression. Plus, when I did figure something out, I felt smart.

OK, that’s a top… eleven. Not a very good number, but I reserve the right to remember something obvious that I forgot later.

Honorable mention: Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle. Come on, it’s awesome.

Well, even if this list is poor, i’m a relative newbie to IF and so the number of games I’ve played is not wide, so I will no doubt be tweaking my choices a little bit over the next month.

Photopia -1
Heartwarming. The game makes you care.

Blue lacona -2
Such an emotional work on so many levels. I don’t think the ambition has ever been equaled on such a scale.

Make it good -3
My personal favorite IF game ever. Yeah I know that’s saying something, but I’m quite a mystery buff. Best detective IF ever, and heck, the puzzles are not straggling either.

Spider and web-4
John le carre style narrative, brilliant ideas.

Babel -5
I know a Lot of people think babel is overrated, but after playing it, I think it’s overrated to call babel overrated.

All things devours -6
The only hard puzzle game I have solved without a walkthrough. But besides my personal situation, the writing is really stylistic, and the concept is explored in such a new awing way.

Anchorhead -7
Well, I’ll admit that I don’t like the game that much, ( mainly because I suck at puzzles) but this isn’t a list of my personal favorites. I found the difficulty of the puzzles detracted from the atmosphere a little bit, but all things considered, the writing is superb. I’ve never been in such suspense before, and the world was crafted with such a lifelike feel.

The blind house -8
Disturbing, but so unique in the games I’ve played

Legion -9
Hmmm… Maybe the most controversial game on my list. I thought though that the plot was so well explored, and really never tried before.

Worlds apart -10
Although not quite up there with Photopia and blue lacona on an emotional scale, it delivers high on the scale.

In my opinion the best Infocom games:

A mind forever voyaging

Well, let’s have a look at some of the ones I did not pick:
Varicella- this is a game I loathe more than any other game I have played. I played it a million times before I used a walkthrough, and the fact of the matter is, I found the puzzles pointless and ‘guess the author’ style.

Shade- Gosh you don’t know how much I wanted to put this on the list. One of my favorites but it doesn’t quite add up in the ‘best’ category.

Blue chairs- Uh… I didn’t get this game until somebody told me it was an allegory to dante’s divine comedy. Then I looked for similarities and it made even less sense.

I’m sure I’ve missed the most obvious choices, but hey.

  • All Hope Abandon by Eric Eve
    This is probably my favorite IF game ever. The integration of setting and theme in this game is very evocative, and several moments in the game really inspired me.
  • A Mind Forever Voyaging by Steve Meretzky
    One of only two Infocom games that I’ve won, and playing this game was a satisfying experience. It’s very well paced.
  • August by Matt Fendahleen
    Perhaps the least ambitious great game ever, but I feel that it’s still a great game. I love the classic high fantasy style. It pulls off being both a serious fantasy and a romance, two genres that I think are rarely portrayed convincingly in IF.
  • The Bible Retold: Following a Star by Justin Morgan
    One of the best-spirited comedies in IF, with great NPCs and historical interest. It’s the kind of comedy that doesn’t devalue its own characters or story just to be funny. Also a very well-designed game.
  • Blighted Isle by Eric Eve
    A great combination of a traditional map with many puzzles but great story and characterization. This game has the most fun and interactive NPCs I have ever seen. Well, with the possible exception of…
  • Blue Lacuna by Aaron Reed
    The main NPC wasn’t even my favorite part, even though he is awesome. This is probably the only IF I’ve ever played that I could imagine written as a prose, printed novel.
  • Distress by Mike Snyder
    The game has some cool meta techniques that I liked, with an exciting setting that seemed fuller than the short game actually was.
  • Floatpoint by Emily Short
    One of the most professional of the many science fiction games, in my opinion. One of the most interesting games I’ve ever played.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches by Jimmy Maher
    I never finished this game, because I found myself in an unwinnable state in the endgame and didn’t have the motivation to replay. That frustration aside, the portrayal of historical London is awesome… and the characters you meet… and the things the you can do…
  • Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home by Andrew Plotkin
    I like the austere mystery.
  • On Optimism by Tim Lane
    This competition entry is my favorite relatively unknown game. I’ve always thought that the reviewers have missing a theme that seemed pretty plain to me when I first played, and I’ve wonder ever since if that theme was really there.
  • Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin
    I still remember the thrills.
  • So Far by Andrew Plotkin
    This game captivated by young imagination and showed me the emotional potential of IF.
  • Theatre by Brendon Wyber
    A well-designed puzzlefest. My favorite of the horror genre. It’s takes itself just seriously enough. This was the very first game that I ever began to play, although I completed Wearing the Claw first.
  • Whom the Telling Changed by Aaron Reed
    My favorite Spring Thing game. I really like the mystery of the pseudo-prehistoric.
  • Wearing the Claw Paul O’Brian
    A delightful, humble fantasy. All in all, this is probably my favorite IF story, and it’s a very fun playing experience as well. The very first IF game I ever finished, when I was either 11 or 12 years old.

Judging by which games I tend to play over and over, they’re mostly Infocom games, except for Adventure. So:

A Mind Forever Voyaging
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Zork I
Zork Zero.

That being said, I also love a few games I’ve only played once or twice–but plan to play again:

For a Change
Lost Pig
The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet
Once and Future
Winter Wonderland (the one by Laura Knauth)

and a special mention for:

Pick Up the Phone Booth and Die!

I’ll play! Thanks, Victor, for getting this started.

Caveat: my IF involvement has been minimal for the past several years, so this is going to be heavily weighted toward older games. (In particular, I suspect, from what I’ve read, that Blue Lacuna, Chancellor, Make it Good, Everybody Dies, Cryptozookeeper, Deadline Enchanter, Distress, King of Shreds and Patches, Alabaster, First Things First, and Floatpoint would at least be strong candidates for this list, had I played them. And I have no good excuse for never having finished Bad Machine.) Hopefully that will be balanced out by newbies who never got around to playing older stuff.

My 20, in roughly this order:

  1. Spider and Web. Not much to add to what’s been said above, and elsewhere. The single best marriage of puzzle and story to date, in my view. and while the central device has been used in static fiction, its effect is magnified by interactivity.
  2. Trinity. Strong puzzles, engaging story, and one particular moment that (arguably) introduced the idea of the player’s complicity in the plot.
  3. Varicella. Viciously difficult, but well worth the many playthroughs it takes to finish. Perhaps the most fitting ending in all of IF.
  4. Spellbreaker. Evocative mood, difficult-but-fair puzzles.
  5. Anchorhead. 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. More a mood piece than a narrative, but the mood is effectively done, and the puzzles, while sometimes cruel, are worth noodling over.
  7. Zork III. 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.
  8. Worlds Apart. My memories of this one have grown slightly fuzzy, I confess, but I do remember extraordinarily deep worldbuilding, several well-drawn characters, and puzzles that serve rather than impede the plot.
  9. Slouching Toward Bedlam. Not sure moral choice in IF has been done better.
  10. Metamorphoses. 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.
  11. Losing Your Grip. It may not be the only IF game that centers on exploration of the protagonist’s own mind, but it’s the only one I know of that’s done it well. Not perfectly–I’ve never managed to make sense of some of it–but on the whole it rewards close analysis.
  12. Augmented Fourth. Somewhat underdiscussed on the IF scene, this one deserves to be better-known; it’s a witty sendup of/homage to the fantasy genre with not-too-hard puzzles and some genuinely hilarious prose. The opening scene, where the narrator is being tossed into a pit and mocked by some not-too-bright guards, is particularly good.
  13. Lost Pig. The every-response-is-implemented game par excellence, and many, many laugh-out-loud moments.
  14. Sunset Over Savannah. Another mood piece, beautifully written, with difficult but well-hinted puzzles.
  15. Shadow in the Cathedral. Linear, but takes advantages of the strength of linearity–a strong sense that the puzzle-solving is driving the plot–without making the player feel railroaded. Well-told story, with some very good puzzles and some nice tense moments.
  16. Wishbringer. 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.
  17. Jigsaw. Some of the puzzles are, in my view, flat-out unfair. But many are just right, and the scope and thoroughness of the thing keeps this among my faves.
  18. Small World. Another mostly forgotten game, this one from the 1996 competition. Clever, tricky-but-logical puzzles, and a very funny NPC.
  19. Shade. Some touchy event triggers, but still the best mess-with-your-head IF I can think of.
  20. Infidel. Lots of clever mechanical puzzles, and an ending that left me slackjawed.

Honorable mentions: Savoir Faire, Christminster, Delusions, Enchanter, City of Secrets, All Things Devours, Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina, Mulldoon Legacy, Dreamhold, Curses, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Galatea, Hunter, in Darkness, Change in the Weather, Suspended, Bronze, The Gostak, Ad Verbum, Moonlit Tower, Fear, Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me!, Babel, Zero Sum Game, Janitor, Lurking Horror, Rameses, Rematch, Little Blue Men, Plundered Hearts, For a Change, A Day for Soft Food, A Bear’s Night Out, Goose, Egg, Badger, Blighted Isle, Kissing the Buddha’s Feet, Lydia’s Heart, Violet, Maiden of the Moonlight, Ballyhoo, Djinni Chronicles, Inevitable, LASH, Pytho’s Mask, The Weapon, Insight, All Hope Abandon, The Edifice, Scavenger, Heroes, Child’s Play

Victor asked for a list of favorites, but I wonder if there’s value in considering what IF we think is objectively the “best,” rather than our subjective faves. My view, for what it’s worth, is that IF is usually “best” when it most successfully merges story and puzzle, as this medium can do that better than any other. I.e., puzzles that are fully motivated by the plot and organic to the story, not set pieces or “say, here’s a locked door, I will stop at nothing to unlock it” types–and advance the narrative rather than putting it on hold. Vividly drawn characters and settings are important too, but a novel can, I think, convey those just as well as IF can. (Admittedly, interactivity makes a difference in how one experiences characters and settings, but I don’t think we’re at the point where IF can clearly depict either better than static fiction can.)

Of course, the quality of the story matters too; a flawless game about going to the mailbox wouldn’t make my list. Telling a story that matters is important–and the way it’s told is just as important. The other way this medium improves on static fiction is finding ways to make the player’s role in driving the story give it additional power–complicity, in other words–and games that effectively use IF’s unique storytelling force should also be considered among the “best.” Relatively few games make much of this, but those that do are, in my view, particularly noteworthy.

For myself, I’d put most of my 20 faves above among the “best” in this sense as well, but not all. As fond as I am of Spellbreaker, for example, I can’t dispute that the plot is mostly absent, and it doesn’t motivate the puzzle-solving except in the most general sense. Trinity is better in that regard, but still has long stretches where there’s no obvious connection between the puzzle-solving and your ultimate goal. Smaller, more focused games like Child’s Play, Delusions, Djinni Chronicles, and Change in the Weather integrate the puzzles and story much more tightly. And while Trinity has a “complicity” moment, it’s just one moment; other games like Heroes and Bad Machine have done more with that idea.

(Sadly, I lack the time to replay all of my faves to reassess how successful they are on these metrics; I remember what I enjoyed about them, but not necessarily how well they motivate their puzzle-solving, say.)

Or am I just overthinking this?


Nice to take a trip down nostalgia avenue… I wonder if I can get these into order? No, probably not.

  1. Curses - While I don’t think I would ever really recommend this to anyone else, I had such an enjoyable time playing it that it has to be top of my list. I don’t think anyone has topped Graham here for his ability to turn interactivity into a conversation between player and game, with the successful solver providing the punch-line to so many jokes and having so many moments of real, intuitive insight. The puzzle of the romantic poetry book and the hedge maze are gems, that no-one would be allowed to get away with in the “real” world of games. Magnificent.

  2. So Far - Plotkin has always had a wizard-like ability to turn code into world; so that even though So Far is brutally difficult and so easy to break, it never feels inert. From the (unnecessary?) pole-licking to the monster-fight in the arena, So Far felt like a living breathing world in which I was the ghost, drifting from place to place. And the ending of this was alive. Wonderful – but again, very hard, and very hard to truly recommend!

  3. The Witness - Of all the Infocom games, this one was my favourite, because I actually found clues, I actually followed them up, formed hypotheses and eventually cracked the case. It took a lot of replay and a fair amount of luck, and when I played Deadline later I found it impossible, unforgiving, and over-wrought. But The Witness seemed just right to me - simple enough to be accessible, responsive enough to provide a narrative. A great game.

  4. Rimworld - (I think was the name.) In the early days of the internet, a few text adventures floated around, that have been largely lost. This one was a standard collection of plastic-purple-squares and plastic-purple-slots, but back when I played it, there were no walkthroughs, no forums, and no authors emails; so I wandered, alone and without help, through an empty alien world, and every discovery was my own. Games will never feel like that again.

  5. Ribbons - one of the Art Show pieces, full of connections that might or might not be meaningful. This one was great for me because it made me realise, finally, that interactivity is what happens inside the player’s head, and that what happens in the game-code to enable this interactivity is merely academic.

  6. Shrapnel - bonkers, devastating, and Cadre at the height of his powers, creating a seamless experience bristling with meaning and consequence. This game for me marked the absolute heyday of the indie community; when games were quick, dirty, but wickedly effective.

  7. Spider and Web - this almost doesn’t feature because, in truth, I didn’t enjoy playing one little bit. But the twist was fantastic, and the conversation system instructive, inspiring and, oh, yeah, really cool.

  8. Lost Pig - Lost Pig was great.

  9. LASH - I like all of Paul’s work, but this one felt the most solidly built and meaningfully executed.

  10. The Weapon - great sci-fi story, with a tight design and great pacing.

  11. Starcross - a masterpiece of puzzle design on a budget.

  12. Christminister - this one seems to get forgotten about, but looking back I feel like Rees’ invented an entire genre of pacing here: the game is so graceful in ensuring that your scope is always small enough to be playable, but your involvement just gets deeper and deeper. I like to think of The Shadow in the Cathedral as something of a design homage.

  13. Plundered Hearts - while not as tightly designed as some of its successors, PH managed to tell a real story and not let its puzzles get in the way, and that was a novelty in the Infocom games. And it was a great romp.

Honourable mentions: Deep Space Drifter, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, 9:05, Dangerous Curves, Slouching Towards Bedlam.

  • Adventureland: Sentimental. I keep going back. (I never played texty games until the 90s, but I used to watch my friend Kenny playing this).
  • Beyond Zork: My favorite of the Zork-branded games and the game I’ve completed more times than any other.
  • Leather Goddesses of Phobos: My favorite Infocom title and the game I’ve re-started more times than any other.
  • Plundered Hearts: My first real okay-gonna-sit-down-and-play-one-of-these-for-real games, hooked me with style.
  • Eric the Unready: My favorite non-Infocom commercial-era game, and on some days maybe my favorite work of IF overall.
  • Galatea: Even though that statue is a sourpuss.
  • Aisle: Makes me almost want to make my own gimmick game.
  • Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis: Modern game voted Most Likely To Make Me Jealous.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches: My very favorite Lovecraftian game. Plus it’s even now blazing new trails.
  • Lost Pig: I bust a gut.
  • The Shadow in the Cathedral: Textfyre, I’m sorry I doubted you (but it was Toresal’s fault).
  • Dragon Adventure: My favorite aimed-at-younger-folks game. Good for me, too.
  • Yes, Another Game with a Dragon!: Modern retro done so right it discourages me from trying.
  • I-0: I keep finding new angles and loving them all.
  • Rameses: Embodied all my modern-IF prejudices and still impressed the heck out of me. So, yeah.
  • Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom: As previously mentioned, this game demonstrates that everything I thought I knew about IF design was wrong.

In no particular order:

1 Savoir Faire, Emily Short. The best example of a very powerful design approach: concoct an interaction mechanic that is distinctive and engaging, that can be applied widely and modified into variations and otherwise elaborated upon, then build that mechanic deeply into your world, character and themes. It’s also got some immensely satisfying aesthetics. Its main flaw is that the difficulty curve is a little steep at the lower end; like a lot of people, I bounced off the opening section on my first attempt.

2 Spider and Web, Andrew Plotkin. This is the game that made me realise that text adventures could be literate, clever things. Yeah, That Puzzle is a doozy, but that never impressed me as much as the handling of the frame-story.

3 Varicella, Adam Cadre. What Cadre does best is to take really vicious nastiness and transpose it into a funny, larger-than-life, almost slapstick format without taking the edge off. Mechanically, it’s excruciatingly hard, the basic assumptions of the world make an unsatisfying ending inevitable, and it’s in sore need of multiple solutions.

4 Alabaster, Emily Short et al. If this didn’t exist then Galatea would have this spot. It’s the deepest conversational IF to date, it’s appropriately sinister, but at the same time it has that satisfying, Bujold-like feel of a conversation between two thoroughly reasonable people. Since this is a work of many hands, the tone is a little uneven in parts, but overall it’s excellent.

5 Violet, Jeremy Freese. One of the games that I have a dismissive reflex about, but which becomes a lot more impressive when I sit down and think about it. It has an extremely firm grasp on a lot of the things that IF does better than any medium: a world teeming with enticing and evocative objects, constraints on interaction defining the protagonist, play as a dialogue with the narrator. It doesn’t advance IF design in the slightest, but it employs established techniques to their limits.

6 Photopia, Adam Cadre. Shocking choice, I know. And yeah, a lot of this is because the balls-out cheap emotional manipulation worked. It’s still a brilliantly orchestrated sequence. The heart of it is not really about untimely death; it’s about distance, about the other person being necessarily just out of reach.

7 The Baron, Victor Gijsbers. Moral-question IF is extraordinarily difficult to pull off, and this is the best example that I know of. Takes the standard philosophy approach of interrogating a question by repeatedly reframing it, but does so in a way that works as a dramatic story. Wrenching even if you’re expecting the carpet to be pulled away.

8 Cryptozookeeper, Robb Sherwin. It didn’t strike me as strongly as did Fallacy of Dawn, but a lot of that was because I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Fallacy. It’s a night journey, sprawling and random and rich and dark and cheesy, it makes no sense in a huge number of ways, it has a heart of gold and a mind in the gutter, it’s Americana at its best. The usual things to talk about are Robb’s weirdly excellent prose, vibrant NPCs and off-the-wall imagination.

9 Anchorhead, Michael Gentry. A masterpiece of pacing and atmospherics. When I first played it I hadn’t read anything from the Lovecraft mythos, so my estimation of how it matches up is unreliable; my feeling is that it’s as good as anything in the mythos, although this isn’t an incredibly high bar. As with most Lovecraft, the climax doesn’t live up to the buildup, but it scarcely matters.

10 Worlds Apart, Suzanne Britton. A touch too new-agey for my tastes, and you get the distinct feeling that it’s not a complete story in its own right but rather an excerpt from something much larger. Nonetheless, strong, well-integrated puzzle design, strong setting, and an amnesia device that serves to help explore the character rather than an excuse to avoid doing so.

11 Bad Machine, Dan Shiovitz: fiendishly difficult, probably incomprehensible to anybody without a little programming background. About a decade since I played it, so possibly I’m viewing it through the rosy mists of nostalgia. Huge amounts of learning by death, though it could hardly be otherwise. Still: dark, atmospheric, clever puzzle mechanics.

12 Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, Adam Thornton. Again, I had a dismissive reflex about this when I first played it, but it grew steadily on me. Much of this is because the process of appreciating IF isn’t a fixed, author-reader experience; much of the fun of Mentula lay in looking up the references, reading the code, talking and thinking about it, reading other people’s reactions and analysis, and (ahem) drawing fanart and writing cheap rip-offs. Mentula invites this sort of thing by being self-indulgent and allusive, publishing its code (bringing the player closer to the authorial process), and using an open, fantastic-voyage structure.

13 Moonlit Tower, Yoon Ha Lee. Overwriting that works, rich symbolism and aesthetics-of-objects, a story more suggested than told.

14 Slouching Towards Bedlam, Daniel Ravipinto & Star Foster. Like Savoir Faire, this starts out slowly: when I played it in-comp I got the sense that something good was waiting in the wings, but didn’t manage to actually get to it. But on the second attempt, somewhat later, it really opened up. Probably the best, most deeply engaged steampunk I’ve seen. By which I mean that it’s genuinely interested in both the artistic tropes and the technology of the era, rather than treating it as a stylish gloss.

15 The Edifice, Lucian Smith. As anthropology it’s honestly pretty crap – nobody seriously thinks that horses went from wild to riding animals at a single bound – but it works as a stirring allegory, it has well-integrated puzzles.

16 Vespers, Jason Devlin. The best 9:05 Twist game I know, and a nasty little subversion of metagaming. And I’m all in favour of medieval fiction being bleak and horrible.

17 City of Secrets, Emily Short. I tend to underrate this one, partly because I tested it and partly because Emily has very mixed feelings about it. But even though the underlying story design has some problems, it’s full of beautiful details, the setting’s well-conceived and there are a lot of individual sequences that are very good indeed.

18 Gun Mute, C.E.J. Pacian. The interaction gimmick is really very effective, but this also does a lot of very strong, economical things with setting, characterisation and NPC interaction. It helps that I grew up on 2000 AD.

19 Blue Lacuna, Aaron Reed; 20 Make It Good, Jon Ingold. Both works that I know damn well deserve a spot on this list, even if I haven’t finished them and am not in a position to make a complete judgement.

Things that occurred to me while compiling these:

a) We really need to get better at endings. (I think this is a general problem with computer games.)

b) It’s really hard to think of genuinely good games that don’t seem totally obvious. Genuinely good IF games pretty much always make it into the canon? Which means that if you want to talk about interesting games outside the conventional greats, you pretty much have to deal with things that are mostly broken.

c) I am really not very good at articulating what I like about games.

d) The ones I was sure about cut off after sixteen entries; after that there were probably a dozen games that I think deserve to be on the list, but I couldn’t really distinguish between.

e) man, we are really not good at doing things that aren’t F/SF.

I should preface this by noting that my taste in games and puzzles seems to be somewhat out of the mainstream; the reason I like a game and include it here may reflect that. That said…

In no particular order:

The Gostak (Carl Muckenhoupt): I got turned on to this as a ‘knock-on effect’ of a discussion of linguistics, language learning, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In IRC. Don’t ask. The story isn’t much, the setting isn’t much; what makes it interesting is the process of discovering how that world works, and (for me) thinking about the thought processes involved in such discovery.

Ad Verbum (Nick Montfort): Again, not much story or setting there; it was more fascinating to solve the wordplay puzzles, which are quite different in style than those in Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail Of It. I’m also an ex-programmer, so part of it is wishing I could see the source for it, and admiring a jewel from a distance.

Adventure (William Crowther and Don Woods, subsequently modified by et alia): At this point, mostly nostalgia (it is the granddaddy of them all…), even when playing variants like HUGECAVE. It’s been years since I played an implementation that was limited to two words (VERB NOUN) for input, yet I still find myself slipping back into that ‘mode’ (GET BIRD. WAVE WAND. DROP KEYS. FILL BOTTLE. et cetera) when I play a variant of this.

Suveh Nux (David Fisher): Although different from Carl Muckenhoupt’s The Gostak, it draws me for much the same reason.

A Mind Forever Voyaging (Steve Meretzky): A fascinating premise, a well-done story. It really draws me in, every time I play it. Maybe someday I’ll finish/solve it.

> by @ (Aaron Reed): Admiration at such a minimalist game. Anything else one can say about it says more about the sayer than about the game. Which may well be part of the attraction.

Balances (Graham Nelson): Just because of its simplicity and the connection with Spellbreaker (which I never solved). A bit of relaxing fun every time I return.

Thinking this through, it’s depressing how few of the games considered “great” I’ve either not played, or barely touched. As such, I can only really come at this from the perspective of “which games did I play lots of and really stuck with me,” so some of them might not be all that “great”…

The Hobbit (Melbourne House): No, I never finished it; spent hours on end carrying people around on my shoulders, or having them carry me around on their shoulders; the parser here was pretty amazing. Probably the game that most made me want to make something similar.

Agatha’s Folly (Linda Wright): The other “good” Spectrum adventure game that stuck with me - the first part at least (I wasn’t as enamoured of the second half) is a very dense “examine absolutely everything” puzzler with plenty of storyline buried in there.

Honourable mention probably goes to “Bulbo and the Lizard King” (John Wilson), which I’ll admit wasn’t very good, but the only other Spectrum-era adventure that I clearly remember chunks of.

Curses (Graham Nelson): It’s a sprawling mess of a puzzler, but somehow better than Jigsaw - it never felt unfair, and I kept coming back to it to try and finish it.

The Legend Lives (David Baggett): Another sprawling game with puzzles that didn’t feel all that unfair, and a well realised setting (okay, a setting that was mostly a futuristic update from four prior games but it mostly stood on its own).

Lists And Lists (Andrew Plotkin): Okay, what’s this doing here? You could read it as a stand-in for Spider And Web, which I never finished but otherwise quite liked, but on its own merits, it actually does a good job of teaching something.

Anchorhead (Michael Gentry): Ah, that’s better - good story, great setting, well drawn characters, puzzles that mostly weren’t headscratchingly impossible.

Photopia (Adam Cadre): Lack of interaction didn’t bother me in the slightest in this one. Touching and well written.

Lost Pig (Admiral Jota): Hey, look, I have played a relatively recent game! Brilliant, just brilliant. Great characterisation, good writing, and very witty.

Well. That was short. To be fair, there are lots of other games I liked, but none that have stuck quite like these have. I could probably add honourable mentions for Humbug (Graham Cluley), Christminster (Garath Rees), Uncle Zebulon’s Will (Magnus Olsson), Galatea (Emily Short) and Spider And Web (Andrew Plotkin), but they didn’t quite have the same memorable impact that the list above.


Wonderful/terrible places to visit: Slouching Towards Bedlam, Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery.

Pioneering explorations of complicity and player/PC relationships: 9:05, De Baron, LASH, Rameses, Spider and Web.

Glorious experiments: Aisle, Shrapnel, The Gostak, Ad Verbum.

Deliciously surreal: Blue Chairs, Shade.

Well-crafted: The Warbler’s Nest, Delightful Wallpaper, All Things Devours, Gun Mute, Anchorhead.