some thoughts on IFComp

(Summary: I will be discussing the Muzzle Rule and the Parser vs. Choice issue.)

I want to discuss just a couple of issues that are central to IFComp. My thoughts have evolved on these since 1 October. First I should point out that I’m in most ways a newcomer to the IF community. I have been judging for a long time, but I never visited the forums or anything, and this year was my first entry (Koustrea’s Contentment). So I have no idea how much I can contribute to the conversation or how much has been said before.

After a few days of experiencing the authors’ forum, I became concerned about the general Parser vs. Choice situation. It’s certainly not out of control; this is much more a molehill than a mountain. But there is some bitterness here and there that I didn’t like seeing. The parser people (like me) don’t want to see their tiny place in the universe overrun by browser games that bear little resemblance to their Text Adventure forebears. The choice people openly gripe about a judging bias (or “preference”, if you prefer) toward parser games. My concern, initially, was that the IFComp forces parser people to judge choice games and vice-versa, because the occasional voter really does hate the other kind, which can result in needless spiteful scores. And I was shocked to see quite a few authors express something to the effect of “I have no interest in parser games. I don’t make them, I don’t play them, and I won’t review them.” I was thinking we should institute categories again, or just choose one kind or the other for IFComp.

I have changed my mind on all this. The Comp really doesn’t force anyone to judge any particular kind of game. Judges can and should steer themselves towards the kind of games they like. There has been a murmuring in support of adding more tags to IFComp entries for just this purpose. It’s a good idea. And this will become more important as the contest continues to grow, as it becomes less and less feasible to play all of the entries. I think it’s true, to some small degree, that choice games currently face a harsher grading curve, but it’s also true that the choice games are slowly taking over, and their influence on judging is not far behind. Then again, it won’t be long before some new kind of thing comes along. IF is very inclusive.

That’s why I decided that I’m fine with how things are on this issue. The community will handle this, and it already has in some ways by means of other contests like ParserComp and Spring Thing. I hadn’t heard of those before this year, but now I have–so that’s progress. I really have come to appreciate the IFComp as the big IF orgy/festival where all kinds of things are welcome: parser, choice, sketchy-looking Windows executables, and who knows what else; that has always been its beauty. Let’s continue to see them mix and mingle. It’s also important that the general public serve as the judges. I feel the IFComp is simply the proper venue for that, and it wouldn’t be the same otherwise. Let’s bring in newbie judges, too, and take whatever they dish out. Likewise, we must maintain the contest aspect, as opposed to simply being a festival. It’s just not as exciting without the Rankings looming, and everyone knows it. In fact, I’d really like to see more XYZZY-style awards given out during the Comp for things like Best NPC, Best Writing, and so on.

This all adds up to the IFComp being the most inclusive, wild, and attention-grabbing event in the IF world. The one where we can really try to draw in the outside world and accept the consequences. There is some concern that newcomers will play bad games and get turned off, but even worse is them not playing any games at all. And, even playing bad games may inspire people to do better, or to compare them to others, or to have fun shredding them in reviews. The IFComp is already the best venue for all this, and I’d like to see it reinforced.

Which brings me to my next topic: the so-called Muzzle Rule. As you know, bphennessy started the main thread about this and made the point that a whole lot of enthusiasm was being wasted in the authors’ forum, which had tremendously more activity than the public forum. That’s certainly a point. I was initially against changing the Muzzle Rule, but I’ve changed my mind, at least in a way.

Without getting too deep in this argument, I think the wisest course of action would be to lift (modify) the Muzzle Rule next year, on a trial basis, and see what happens. We’ll never really know otherwise.

There may be risks, but they don’t seem severe. And we would learn a great deal. I am not convinced that any of the envisioned adverse effects would actually occur (aside from the authors’ forum becoming a ghost town–that’s a given). I’m not entirely sold on the benefits either, but I’d like to find out. I don’t think we would be violating anything sacred by giving it a shot. It would be prudent, if this community is concerned with advancement, to explore all options. There’s nothing wrong with admitting we made a mistake and going back, either.

So, back to the overall theme of my discussion, I’d like to see the IFComp fill its de facto role a little better, carve out its place a little more. And, in response, I’d like to see other Comps carve out their places with more emphasis. The community could certainly use a juried competition with a fixed number of entries, no time limit, and pre-selected judges. Maybe that will be Spring Thing someday, maybe not. I’m really not even sure what is out there.

When these things fall into place, the issue becomes which events become (or “should be”) high-profile and get however much prize money from donations, but that will sort itself out, as we sort ourselves out.

That was an interesting post. It made me think more in depth about some of the issues. My first comp was 2013 (I hadn’t even heard about the Comp before then or had more than a vague awareness that there even was IF gaming online at all). From what I understand that was kind of a turning point year when choice games started to show up in strong numbers and take over the majority. I’ve also heard that the community and forums used to be much more harsh/unfriendly and they’ve mellowed out in recent years which might explain the growing popularity of the comp.

I’ve thought about what you said on the whole choice vs parser issue and I’m not really sure how I feel about it. I like the idea of having separate awards for “best parser” and “best choice”. I think this would satisfy most of the complaints on both sides. But I don’t feel especially strongly on this issue, I think it’s basically okay the way it is. Separate sub awards for best story, best puzzle, etc. would be an interesting twist.

The muzzle rule gets a little more tricky. From what I can tell, there are 2 separate but related points that people are debating. The first is that it could lead to one author having an unfair advantage over another because he’s better at self promotion/ has a larger social network/ etc. and he’d get more votes because of this and not because his game is actually better. I think what a lot of supporters of the muzzle rule fear is someone with thousands of followers posting something like “Here’s a link to my game, be sure to vote for me!”
The other issue is that a lot of authors wanted to be able to openly talk about their game with the voters while the comp is still going on. They want to comment on reviews and ask questions or get feedback in a more discussion-like setting.

I don’t think totally lifting the muzzle rule is a good idea, but how about some sort of compromise like authors are only allowed to publicly promote the comp itself but not their individual games? Like there would be only one pre-approved message that they’re allowed to post on their social media/wherever and it would be a general invitation to check out the comp and vote. There’s still some potential for a really popular author to have an advantage but this level of general promotion wouldn’t bother me and I think it could really help bring more awareness to the comp.
For the 2nd thing, I think that the authors should be able to talk freely in the public comp discussion board. Only in the public discussion board and private author board, not on any other site. Then if things get out of hand their posts can be moderated.

I also think that the judging period should be a little longer (unpopular opinion, I know). Having this many games put a huge strain on the reviewers and nearly all of the other writing comps I’ve participated in had a much longer judging period. Extending it by 2 more weeks would help people get through more of the ever-increasing number of games while still keeping it short enough to maintain most of the momentum. Just my 2 cents.

Like, dude… could we not?

I’ve written two parser games this year. One is one of the more traditional parsercomp entries; the other is a love letter to room and object descriptions.

And yet. And yet.

Having submitted a choice game, pretty much for the duration of the IFComp, I’ve been made to feel like some kind of foreign invader intent on trampling people. It doesn’t seem like it should be difficult for people to not make pointlessly divisive statements, but apparently the gatekeeping will continue until morale improves (or, I suppose, until the people who aren’t parser partisans get tired of the sniping and leave?)

If I go to the Twine forums, I expect to see a hell of a lot more support towards, and conversation about, CYOA. If I started talking about parser IF there, while I expect to be well treated, I do not think I’ll get anywhere - most people there are totally geared towards CYOA. It’s only obvious. You don’t go to a pet store to buy a guitar.

It makes sense that things are schewed towards parser IF in here, even if slightly - and that should absolutely be the case, IMO. I’ll never fight for the parser to be supreme, of course, or for CYOA not to have as much importance as the parser. What will happen will happen, and I have my own preferences. But this whole place came about because of parser IF, so some strong preferences towards parser IF should be expected.

And then, of course, we have trolls who openly attack one form or the other (usually CYOA). That is not allowed, period, and one user at least has been banned partly because of that.

My point… is that these things take time, CYOA has been gaining acceptance every year, but to expect - and strive for! - an where CYOA and parser IF are in equal standing is probably, if not unrealistic, then a long time coming. As for CYOA having more of a presence in than the parser IF, I don’t think it should happen, period - but I don’t think anyone is saying that, so that’s all right.

Mind you, ideologically speaking, parser IF should not have more of a presence than CYOA either. But again, considering how this forum came about and what brought these people together in the first place, it’s only natural. If it is wrong, then time will correct it, as time usually does. But these things can’t be forced without unpleasantness.

As for the author muzzle rule, there are many different points of view, and a huge thread about it, but what bothers me most is the idea of an author being able to respond to reviews saying “Hey, you didn’t see all the cool stuff I put in! I encourage you to try again, there’s a lot more of the game than what you saw”. Entries stand alone and fail or succeed on their merits, not the author tagging behind and pointing you towards what he wants you to see; if the game didn’t do that, the game failed, and would benefit from a post-comp release. I don’t want authors telling me I’m judging wrong when their games fail to clue me that, like in Howling Dogs, I totally missed the point of the game (and the game completely failed to let me know).

Then again, I’m not even comfortable with the mid-comp updates, so what do I know.

An advantage of this is that, if there were a designated place for author’s opinions, people who didn’t want to be influenced by them could just avoid that subforum.

Possibly authors could be allowed to link to their forum posts from other places (Twitter, for example) and say slightly more specific things (“This is a great year for IF Comp! Click here to find out which are my favorite sci-fi entries!” or whatever) as long as they don’t mention titles of particular games outside of the forum, or canvass for votes.

I do get the concern about it being a popularity contest. Consider the fact that some people in this community are very involved and connected in gaming circles. Others know barely anyone who is into gaming at all, let alone knows what IF is, let alone would seriously consider playing enough entries to be a judge.

(I’m not strongly invested in this either way…just thinking out loud.)

I’d be all in favour of the authors being able to openly discuss games in the general forum, and at least if someone starts saying “don’t vote for X game, it’s awful, vote for mine instead!” they can be warned about it.

Re the parser v choice debate, I suggested a while ago that they should split these into separate categories for the IFComp. I like both but they’re not the same kind of games and it seems strange to judge them in the same way in the same category. Splitting them would also allow games of a certain type to be judged against games of the same type as opposed to judging them against different types of games. On one level, both TV shows and films are the same kind of thing, but you don’t tend to find people judging them in the same way.

Not that I intend to enter the IFComp again, but I still think it would help to drop the muzzle rule and to separate the parser and choice games.

I haven’t been privy to any arguments that may have gone on the author’s board, but I thought that Jeremy’s post was explicitly coming out against gatekeeping.

I don’t even know what this gatekeeping is that he keeps alluding to. [emote]:P[/emote] I’ve googled its definition on Wikipedia, but still can’t understand how it applies here.

I don’t think splitting the comp would be positive. For one thing, because there’s half a dozen axes that people decide to be partisans about (puzzles/no puzzles, game/story, etc, etc), and of course we can’t divide the comp into divisions based on all of them. For another, because it implicitly discourages games that don’t conventionally fit into one or the other half – including, I think, nontraditional parser games like CMG’s output which I suspect find a lot of fans in the “choice” audience.

I was responding to the specific statement I quoted, which I thought was really uncalled for; it echoes a sort of constant low-level defensiveness some people who identify with the parser end of things seem to present. Interestingly enough, no OG member of the old r*if that’s still around seems to do this, as far as I’m aware.

yep. i believe the winning entry this year (Brain Guzzlers) was roughly 50% parser-based (exploration) and 50% choice-based (all conversations and action scenes).

I’d thought about that, too. There have been several games in the last few years that were sort of a hybrid between the two and you’re right that they wouldn’t really fit into either category.

Have the number of parser games really been dropping recently or something? Like I said earlier, I’m relatively new here and don’t know much of the past history of the comp, but I’d thought that the number of parser games were basically holding steady, they were just losing their majority as choice grew?

Every year on the authors boards there’s always some bias conspiracy theories but I think the muzzle rule was what was debated the most. Probably because there were so many entries and then that whole business with Emily is Away being DQ’d got people talking. For a comparatively small comp there sure was some big drama, but that just shows how passionate people here are. I do other writing competitions and a lot of the time the authors just throw their hat in the ring and check back again at the deadline (usually because they have thousands of entries and noone actually expects to do well). I’ll be really interested to see how many people enter the comp next year. I won’t be surprised if it’s slightly less or it stays steady around 50.

Well, I thought that statement was supposed to be something like “That’s how I felt at first… but I reject that sentiment.” It was part of the “bitterness here and there that I didn’t like seeing.”

I definitely agree that there has in the past been too much gatekeeping (in the sense of trying to draw boundaries so as exclude stuff, Peter) against choice IF. But I didn’t think Jeremy was endorsing the gatekeeping. I do think that some parser fans may feel as though the parser won’t be preserved and developed if we don’t try to make a space for parser games; but I think, and I think Jeremy thought, the place to make that space is not IFComp but perhaps in parser-oriented events like ParserComp. Though one might fairly point out that the winner has always been a parser game.

By the way, Jeremy, the reason you hadn’t heard of ParserComp before was that it only has happened the one time! I think that it was a lot of work for Carolyn and that if someone wants to pick it up that’d be cool. I have a great idea for a theme: Terminators.

Tia–looking at the graph here (under the first spoiler) there was a huge peak in the number of parser entries in 2011, which dropped pretty rapidly in 2012-3 and held steady in 2014. I think this year the number of parser entries was back up, though.

Oh, I see. Thanks for the clarification. It does make sense and I see where he’s coming from.

As far as the hybrid thing goes… if we’re going to include dialog options, they’ve been part of IF for quite a while now. And yes, it was surprising to have that brought up - it is, indeed, a definite “choice” moment introduced at specific times where the parser is simply inadequate.

I’ve said as much in another thread and I’ll say it again, maybe the best thing really is a true hybrid, harnessing the best of both worlds. But it seems that parser IF has already condeded this and made some steps towards it. Mostly in conversation, but hey, that’s the ONE BIG THING that’s always been a hurdle in parser IF.

I guess? It’s not totally clear. Maybe I knee-jerked, but I also wish people would be more vehement about rejecting those narratives since it’s not really a given that they are.

You did knee-jerk, but I don’t blame you. What he said was he felt that way once, but now he has changed his mind and he feels the opposite.

I just want to say that, as the only author this year with both a parser game and a Twine game in the competition, I’m glad they were in the same category.

I’d characterize myself as sympathethic to the idea of categorization; I don’t know that I’d say I’m an advocate for it, but I see the potential value. From my personal perspective, the way things are working now is fine; the current voter pool tends to like and reward the same kinds of things as I like. But I’ve been seeing a lot of frustration that more experimental games aren’t being more recognized, and I don’t really see that situation changing under the current system until generation shift completely changes the voting population. (It would be interesting to see the average age of a comp voter over the years–is it primarily the same cohort that played Infocom back in in the day, or has there been overturn with new people who just tend to reflect similar preferences?)

I thought this article from Emily Short was a really interesting perspective:

and part of why I thought that was that my experience is so different from her–the works she’s describing here don’t create the feeling of involvement in me that she describes experiencing. They basically feel, to me, indistinguishable from reading a short story. It’s hard to quantify exactly where the line is, where a still effectively-linear work like Birdland crosses the line into having enough complexity and interaction to evoke the feeling of taking part in a story, rather than reading a story, but it’s a line that’s there (and probably in different places for different people). I wonder if this is part of why people have such wildly different reactions to what Emily terms ‘dynamic fiction’ here and why it feels so out-of-place in the competition to some and not to others.

Part of the reason I’m not keen on a split of categories is that “parser” and “choice” doesn’t seem to cleanly make the split. Parser can be just as experimental and weird as choice; choice can have as much a world environment as parser (we didn’t see any go all-out this year, but last year one of the choice games was a straight-up adventure game with a verb list and so forth).

Gameplay genre is more than interface. Scarlet Sails is straight up a different gameplay genre from, say, Capsule II. We could keep subdividing to try to get “comparable” stuff and not ever get there.

Also also, parser and choice are not the only options; see for example Aaron Reed’s recent stuff. If we fossilized categories I think we’ll short circuit some of the experimentalism and cross-pollination that can happen (see Laid Off from this competition for an instance of what I mean).

Experimentalism won’t always score high. The Gostak sure didn’t, but it still is far more remembered than many of the other entries from its year.

I’ve definitely seen social media posts from this year saying “I’m not going to play any parser games in IF Comp because I hate parsers” as well as “I’m going to subtract points for having less interactivity” (re: “dynamic fiction”-type pieces).

Anyway, it was about 50/50 this year, on a pure interface level and disregarding subtler game-design stuff (which matters to me because what I hate is clicking, and secondarily not being able to save; e.g. being able to press keys to advance in Forever Meow was awesome). I agree that experimentation or lack thereof aren’t interface-specific at all (and The Gostak is totally one of my favorite games ever and an inspiration to the poor parched unyielding barrens of my noncreation).

Fwiw, I got into IF at the time when Galatea had its own web page, Emily Short’s website wasn’t, Baf’s Guide was still being updated, and at least one 24 Hours of Inform jam had already wrapped up. I don’t remember when that was exactly, but I definitely never played an Infocom game in my life (and in fact did not exist during Infocom’s heyday, if I have remembered the timeline correctly).

This year I played a number of parser-based IF Comp entries but only one choice game which was Scarlet Sails. This is not because I do not enjoy choice-based interactive fiction, it is because, thanks to the increased popularity of Twine, most of the choice games were simply unplayable for me because I am visually impaired and use screen-reading software which just cannot cope with Twine. I am glad that so many players and authors enjoy Twine, but I can’t help but feel excluded from a medium which had previously been accessible to me. I know that visually-impaired players probably make up a very small percentage of the overall IF audience but I am still sad to see trends in choice-based IF apparently moving towards a disregard for accessibility, especially since one of IF’s main attractions is it’s lack of emphasis on visual elements. I discovered text games in the early 2000s when I was about ten, it meant that computer games, which I had always longed to play like my sighted friends, were suddenly and wonderfully available to me. I’m sorry to sound so bitter but it really brought it home to me, while playing this year’s competition entries, that the future of choice-based IF may not be very inclusive. I think it might be worth taking this factor into consideration when wondering why some people stick to parser games when playing and voting for competition games, it’s not always stubborn partisanship. I should also note that some choice games are accessible and that not all parser games are, so this is mainly a rant about the increased use of Twine rather than a vendetta against choice games. Just before I wind this rant up I would like to say that I find Choicescript games extremely user-friendly!

Sorry for the long rant, I just wanted to express my perspective on this years contest.

That’s a good point, and, as a not-very-technical person, I wonder if Twine’s incompatibility with screen readers is something fixable? It’s funny to me that they don’t work, since they’re mostly just text (I guess I can see how time-based stuff and click-to-vary text could be hard to deal with) and I wonder how hard it would be to make them readable. Maybe someone who knows more about the underlying guts could weigh in?

(Oh, and welcome to the board!)