The future of IFcomp and IF (plus a list of boring tips)

This post is just a random spot for me add a few thoughts about the future of IFComp and IF. It’s mostly garbage, and ends with a big list of film directing tips mangled to apply to IF.

The future of IFComp is you! This community is so small still that any one person can have a major effect on its future with a lot of work, and a moderate effect on its future with a little work. Here’s how you can contribute:


Entering IFComp with a polished game is good for everybody. At this point, it is still possible to start a big Twine game and have it ready by IFComp (with a lot of work each week). While it would be technically possible to start a big parser game (Lost Pig and Shade were finished in about a month), they require much more work. As an extreme example, Adam Cadre claims to have spent 15 hours a day on Photopia for 6 weeks, for well over 500 hours of total work (my games have only taken 150-250 hours of work, but they are not as detailed as Photopia).

So your best bet if you want to enter now is to pick a nice, small concept and polish it as much as physically possible. Short but very polished games tend to make the top 10, while long buggy games fill up the middle of the pack.

If you’re already working on game, it’s still better to polish it than do anything else with it. Bugs will sink a game’s placement more than anything else you can do (outside of openly insulting the player).


Jason McIntosh has called this year the year of the review, and I hope so! Reviewers help everyone. With so many games available, a lot of people look up the reviews first before deciding what to play.

For the authors, though, reviews are much more. For those who haven’t entered, the author’s have a special private forum where they can discuss the comp. Each year, the primary topic is ‘Are there any reviews? What reviews have you found? Who’s reviewing?’ The reviews are like candy. If some random person mentions an IFComp game in a one-sentence YouTube comment, the authors are all over it.

Prolific reviewers like Emily Short, Christopher Huang with his Breakfast Reviews, Sam Kabo Ashwell and Paul o Brian have shaped the comp by their detailed responses over the years.

But you don’t have to be already famous to be influential. Billy Mays took IFComp by storm last year with his Billy Mays reviews. While most people won’t have the energy to review every game, it doesn’t matter: authors can’t get enough of feedback on their games.


The Colossal Fund only needs $1643 more to be full! If you’ve been following this series, you know that many of the biggest movements in IF in the last 20+ years came from IFComp, and that it regularly produces some of the best free games ever. Cash prizes encourage seriously good works. So if you want to buy the maximum amount of good IF per dollar, this fund is a good idea.

If you can’t donate cash, consider donating something else (that’s what I did). The weird prizes can actually be really sought after. Ryan Veeder made plush dinosaurs as prizes for Veedercomp (as well as cash), and everyone loved them (I still have mine). You could contribute ‘a bobble head shaped like the author’ or original feelies from an old infocom box or theme music for a game and so on.

The future of IF

Where is IF going now?

A more interesting question might be, where should it go? As I reviewed these IFComp games, something stood out to me. Traditional parser games borrow from static non-linear media, like puzzle books and mazes, while later parser games and hypertext games borrow the most from books and short stories.

The most successful games, though, seem to borrow a lot from film and screenplays. Adam Cadre was a film student, and it shows in his games. Photopia especially places heavy emphasis on scene transitions and script-like dialogue. Being Andrew Plotkin is heavily influenced by Being John Malkovic. All Roads and Taco Fiction could be easily adapted to screenplays. Howling Dogs’ opening quote and the timing of its choices is film-like. Birdland is essentially a screenplay in format. Both IF and film have settled on the ‘about 2 hours long’ format for expression.

I think the inherently dynamic nature in film is implicit in the dynamic nature of IF. I think that IF could really benefit from thinking in terms of scenes rather than rooms (which is clearly what the creators of Inform 7 intended, and many authors have done, but which hasn’t trickled down all the way).

What do I mean we should take lessons from Film? Here’s some advice for directors from with my thoughts on how IF authors could benefit from it:

(numbering is off because I’m selecting from a bigger list)

2 – Shooting Comedy Scenes – Peter D. Marshall

“Nothing can kill a comedy scene quicker than the lack of pace. The pace of comedy needs to be faster than drama – but not so frantic that there is no time for reactions. And never over rehearse a comedy scene – use rehearsals to block out actor movement, then turn on the camera and see what happens!”

In IF, this is good advice; a lot of comedy games end up beating a dead horse over and over again with ‘whacky’ humor. Keeping scenes short in comedy is useful. As for ‘turning on the camera’, it can help to just see what beta testers do and code responses for that.

3 – Page Count vs Camera Set-Ups – Peter D. Marshall

“When you look at the 1st AD’s call sheet and see all those scenes and pages you have to shoot each day, remember: it’s not the page count that matters as much as the number of set-ups (shots) you
have each day.”

I’ve seen a lot of people brag about their word count, but some of the best games have small code (Slouching Towards Bedlam needs only 30k or so). There’s always someone each year bragging about making a building with 600 rooms. What really matters is the number of scenes you have.

6 – Work Expands with the Time Allotted – Peter D. Marshall

"In a TV Series, you should know what scenes you want to spend extra time on (more coverage or more time with the actors) and which scenes you will shoot quickly (to make up for the longer
scenes). Give the 1st AD this information so he can help you out in the schedule.

Remember, if you are shooting a low-budget movie or a TV Series, it’s “Gone with the Wind” in the morning and “Duke’s of Hazzard” in the afternoon!"

IF games balloon up like crazy, especially your first one. It’s useful to remember what you want to spend the most time on, especially now with IFComp only 2 months away.

8 – Learn to Balance Your Scenes – Peter D. Marshall

“Every script will have scenes that are not necessary; scenes that have nothing going on; or scenes that are only for character development. But if they haven’t been omitted, (by the producers or writers) you still have to shoot them. The trick here is to not spend a lot of time on these scenes – just shoot them fast and get onto the next one.”

How many people have wasted a week implementing a house with working toilets, sinks, towels, etc.? Are you writing a scene where the character has to find his keys, unlock his car, open the door, enter the car, close the door, put the key in the car, turn the key, release the brake, shift to reverse, and press the gas? Unless your game is ‘driving simulator’, don’t bother!

9 – Character Objectives – Peter D. Marshall

"Actors and Directors have to come up with as many objectives for a character as possible. A character’s objective should be something that will engage the other characters in a scene; it should create it’s own obstacles; and it should be something the actor can believe in and commit to.

But there is one important rule to remember when choosing objectives for a character. An actor can only play ONE objective in a scene! Always ask yourself “What is the character’s need in this scene?” and then make sure the actor plays that objective!"

Having each character in each scene have one objective is great advice. One of the worst things in a parser game is an NPC with several roles and an ASK/TELL conversation system where there’s one magic topic that will work (for instance, if there’s a mostly deaf blacksmith who’s also your aunt, do you talk to her about your family, about the lost hearing trumpet, or about your brother running away? A very good game can implement all of these, but a smaller game needs hints about where to go).

10 – Advice on Making Short Films – Peter D. Marshall

"My name is Luciano Bresdem, I am from Brazil and I have made some short films. I would like to share some directing tips that I have learned.

For me, the most important part for a director is knowing the script: structure, characters, space, plot,… You should know the material that you have in your hands. Second thing: You should know what you want to say with this film – if you don’t know what you want to say, you will lose the control over the material, actors, and crew. And the last thing: You should find the ways to say what you want to say. Discipline and organization are important here. Make a list, in detail, with every aspect of the production (Performance, Location, Direction of Photographic, Sound,…) and remember that “there’s no unimportant decisions in filmmaking”."

Planning is essential in writing an IF game. Structure, characters, space, plot. I always write an entire skeleton game, and then flesh it out over several cycles. A lot of good writers will outline the whole thing on paper and then crank out one perfectly polished scene after another until it’s done.

12 – A Quote from Frank Capra – Peter D. Marshall

"Here is one of my favorite tips – and it comes in the form of a quote from the legendary director, Frank Capra.

“There are no rules in film making, only sins. And the cardinal sin is Dullness.”"

That’s true; playing through most of the old IFComp games, I came to fear the middle third of the games the most: the vast wasteland of mostly competent but slightly buggy boring games. As others have mentioned before, there are a hundred games where you get coffee at work, or fix a broken spaceship, or have to fetch objects for (or to defeat) a snarky wizard. The bottom 1/3 at least tends to have more original ideas, and the top 1/3 is great.

15 – Directing for an Audience – Peter D. Marshall

"As a director, it’s important to properly gauge the length of time the viewer needs to digest the information in a scene. (the greater audience involvement, the more successful the film)

Remember, an audience will accept as pertinent almost anything portrayed on the screen, even if it seems to make little sense. (If it’s there, it must be for reason.)"

This applies to text dumps, clearing the screen, and those obnoxious games where the author is really excited about worldbuilding and has little footnotes everywhere that explain the game world in detail but are unnecessary.

16 – Actors Should “Do” Rather than “Say” – Peter D. Marshall

“When working on your script, and when shooting on the set, make sure you have the actors “do things” rather than “say things.””

If you look at great NPCs, they tend to have a lot of actions in addition to dialog. Replay Photopia, Galatea, or Birdland and see what the characters are doing.

17 – Developing Small Character Roles – Peter D. Marshall

“Any character in a script that is worth keeping is worth developing. Allow the smaller roles to have offbeat remarks or unique bits of action to make them memorable.”

This applies directly.

23 – Why study the history of film? – Wikipedia

“Films are cultural artifacts created by specific cultures, which reflect those cultures, and, in turn, affect them. Film is considered to be an important art form, a source of popular entertainment and a powerful method for educating, entertaining or indoctrinating citizens. The visual elements of cinema gives motion pictures a universal power of communication.”

This quote explains why film is useful to study for IF authors.

24 – Why study film theory? – Wikipedia

“As the new art form of the twentieth century, film immediately and continuously invited theoretical attempts to define its nature and function. Mostly as a result of film’s own inferiority complex as the youngest of the arts, the impetus for much of early film theory was to gain a degree of respectability.”

Ditto for IF.

25 – Is there an actual definition of making a movie? – Peter D. Marshall

“Here’s the one I like the best: “Making a movie (or documentary) is the art of visually telling a compelling story with believable characters.””

This could be a good definition of IF: the art of textually telling a compelling story with believable characters.

26 – The 5 Steps to Creating to Scene Transitions – Peter D. Marshall

"Making a movie is not just about the scene you are filming now. As a director, you need to know these five steps to creating scene transitions:

  1. The scenes that come before
    2).The scenes that come after
  2. The last shot of the scene before
  3. The first shot of the next scene
  4. The TRANSITIONS between all scenes"

This also applies pretty directly to all IF.

1 Like

I have a question for Comp authors: Must this feedback be in the form of public reviews, or are private responses almost as much appreciated?
I have set out to judge every Comp from 2004 to the present. My voting record is spotty at best, but I frequently email a few authors with my thoughts right after playing. On the other hand, I have done very little in the way of public comment.
Is doing this sort of thing privately rather than publicly helpful, or just frustrating?

Speaking only for myself, I can say that private feedback is totally cool. It gives that “personal” touch. :sunglasses:

I wouldn’t use the words “random”, “boring”, or “garbage”. You write some of the most well thought out, informative, and interesting things on the topic of IF.

Also, I would add:



Play Testing

to that list of ways you can contribute.

First off…THANK YOU for all the amazing reviews you do, mathbrush - especially this series. Utterly fascinating.

Regarding reviews: Private reviews are extremely welcome. I suspect most people would prefer them (to public reviews), for two reasons:

  1. Seeing our IF baby’s flaws exposed for all to see is painful (even more so than simply seeing them, which is also painful).

  2. If you contact people privately about their games, they are more likely to be able to respond (most of us are afraid to even say ‘Thank you’ for reviews while the comp is running… although we are usually SO grateful).

Having said that, receiving reviews is not an easy thing and you as a reviewer may receive an unpleasant reaction (anger, denial, explaining all the great stuff you missed, begging you to reconsider your opinions, arguing endlessly with you a la internetting). So that’s a risk for you, which is increased by sending that private review (imho).

Personally, I like any and all reviews (including negative public ones, because I believe all publicity is good).

I will sometimes contact an author if I write a somewhat dismissive review with more specific information why I did so, and I’m always more than happy to discuss things privately when authors contact me for detail as long as they’re not just angry about it. It’s always better to discuss cordially in private rather than fight with a reviewer/author publicly. Even the most vitriolic reviewer has something genuinely helpful to say when I contact them and thank them for the review and ask what I could have done to make a game work better for them if it’s not specifically clear from the commentary.

As always, whenever anyone provides feedback, the worst thing one can do is reply with a point-by-point defense against the critique instead of either evaluating the problems and fixing them or politely accepting and ignoring if it truly isn’t valid. Constructive criticism and feedback is a gift to an author. There’s nothing worse than getting berated for pointing out problems…especially if commentary/testing/feedback solicited.

Thank you for writing the series! It was fun to revisit the old comps, many of which I’d forgotten, and to read about the ones I’d missed. You did an excellent job capturing trends that were not obvious (at least to me) except in hindsight.

Thanks for writing this series, it’s very thorough and has a lot of insightful reflections about the different trends in IF. You’re absolutely right that some of the most popular IF have a filmic quality: less about navigating simulated spaces and more about embodying a character in a scene.

Private feedback is very helpful, especially with a transcript if the technology allows it. Often some of my best ideas come from “Hey, could you try this?” or just someone writing

  • implement this
  • you missed a chance for a cool pun

My general rule of thumb is to write: “Hey, I really liked X, Y and Z. If you want to re-release, it would be neat to fix/add W. Here’s a transcript. (Add note if I’d like to look at it again.)”

Public feedback can be up and down. People can either censor themselves too much or try to be too clever. It’s tough to write a good even review. And if it’s 8 years after a game was written, people may not wish to be dragged through mistakes they made and moved on from long ago. That’s not to say you should ignore a game’s faults. Achieving the right balance is tough. I still think the best reviews don’t try to be too lyrical and say “This worked for me. That didn’t.”

One thing if you want to review/send transcripts from previous years: it’s more useful for authors if you play the updated version. I’m -still- trying to close the door on my 2012 entry–changing a few rooms and providing alternate ways through a puzzle.