What are defining games, stories, or moments in IF?

I have a podcast about how people use computers and I want to make an episode about the IF community, specifically indie and amateur IF from the 1990s onward (i.e. not Infocom).

(My podcast is at https://hamster.dance/podcast/ in case you want to know more about it.)

I want to crowdsource this question: what, for you, are defining/seminal IF works? What moments in the evolution of the community have been pivotal?

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  • “Ditch Day Drifter” demonstrated that a development system available to hobbyists, TADS, could create games on a par with Infocom.

  • “Curses” did the same for a development system, Inform, which was free.

  • “Anchorhead’s” competence and Lovecraftian appeal attracted interest from those outside the hobby community.

  • “Arrival” was the first polished game with sounds, music, and illustrations since Legend Entertainment.

  • “Spider and Web” reminded a community that was talking about puzzleless IF that puzzles were story in IF.

  • “Metamorphoses” was an early simulationist game by one of the most prolific designers and essayists in the community.

  • “Hadean Lands” demonstrated that enough interest in IF remained to fund a large game from a notable amateur designer.

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I agree with those already shared.

I’d say that ‘A Change in the Weather’ was perhaps the game that really influenced authors to make literary/story-focused games, even before Photopia which took it to full focus on the story without many puzzles.

Galatea of course really affected conversation.

Rameses isn’t talked about a lot now but generated an enormous amount of discussion for its complete lack of agency.

Slouching Towards Bedlam was perhaps the first game with real player agency resulting in very different endings. Emily Short talked about it a lot when it first came out.

In recent years, Lime Ergot inspired a lot of limited parser games.

If you’re doing non-parser games, Howling Dogs popularized Twine in IFComp and My Father’s Long Long Legs helped with public recognition of the format. Choice of the Dragon kicked off the last 10 years of Choicescript games.

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Counterfeit Monkey (2012) is one of the rarest of IF pieces that takes such full advantage of the text parser that it creates an experience impossible in any other medium or format.

Also, I would say Inform 7 gave authors more on the “writerly” side than the “coderly” side the ability to create adventures of technical quality equal to Infocom. This made possible due to the fact it compiles source text that is easy to write and read in natural (almost! with caveats!) English directly to Inform 6 code.

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Strong agreement with what everybody above has said – the one point of emphasis I’d draw is that if you’re considering doing a broad look at IF, the rise of Twine and choice-based games feels like it dwarfs pretty much anything else. While there was obviously a lot of evolution of parser IF in terms of production, design, and the community, the trajectory of that evolution is much more predictable and incremental by way of comparison.

In terms of other games that might be worth thinking about:

  • Pick Up the Phone Booth And Die pioneered a sort of anarchic, one-joke game that I think still has some resonance.

  • Gourmet to my mind pioneered farce as a valid IF genre.

  • There are many many IF/CRPG mash-ups – I’m not sure which were the first, or frankly whether any have been fully successful, but looking at some examples like Reliques of Tolti-Aph or Kerkerkruip (I am sure I misspelled that) could be fun.

  • Speaking of Victor Gijsbers, De Baron was influential in pushing anti-heroic, or even straight villainous, protagonists.

  • The wordplay subgenre of IF is also a fun one, and traceable from Nord and Bert to Ad Verbum to Counterfeit Monkey.

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You did not!

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I think the phrasing of this question is a bit ambiguous. Are you interested in games of historical importance to the IF community, where the game changed the course of a (still rather small, even today) community of IF creators? Or are you instead interested in really great IF games worth sharing with your listeners? Or are you interested in games that sparked a lot of community discussion?

If you’re “just” looking for great games, you’d do well to just hit up the IFDB Top 100. (Beware, this page takes a minute to load. Just be patient.) https://ifdb.tads.org/viewlist?id=k7rrytlz3wihmx2o

Many of the greatest IF games of all time, games at the very top of the IFDB Top 100, were unprecedented when they launched, and widely praised, but nobody really followed in their footsteps either. Here I’m thinking especially of some of the largest and most technically complicated works of IF, where the cost of following in their footsteps would be extremely high.

I would include these games on the list of great works that did not change the way everyone else made IF:

  • Counterfeit Monkey
  • Anchorhead
  • Hadean Lands
  • Lost Pig (specifically the way its parser could handle pretty much any crazy idea you’d throw at it, making it particularly approachable for newbies)
  • Blue Lacuna (I really wish this had changed everything… its parser innovations woulda shoulda coulda made it into Inform’s standard rules)

Each one of those games could have kicked off a whole genre of games following in their footsteps (letter-remover games, auto-completing recipe games, generous-parser games), but didn’t.

By comparison, each game that did change the way we built IF was usually the game that launched an IF platform. This isn’t necessarily the platform’s first game, or even the first “real” game (as opposed to a technology demo), but, as I like to put it, the first “admirable” game for that platform, the game that made people say, “I really like this game, and I would like to make another game just like it. How did the author(s) make it?”

For those, I would point toward these:

  • Deep Space Drifter kicked off TADS as a platform
  • Curses! kicked off Inform
  • Encyclopedia Fuckme and the Case of the Vanishing Entree kicked off Twine as a platform (also howling dogs)
  • Choice of the Dragon and/or Choice of Broadsides kicked off ChoiceScript and Choice of Games (also Choice of Robots)
  • Sorcery! and/or 80 Days kicked off Inklewriter (and Inkle), which later became Ink (also The Banner Saga)

All of these games were well received, but IMO none of them are the very best each platform has to offer. (It would be rather depressing if the game that launched a platform was the best game anyone could ever make on that platform!)

As for kicking off discussion, I’d point to Depression Quest (one of the major flashpoints of Gamergate in 2014), howling dogs, De Baron, Photopia, Rameses, Aisle. See also the IF Theory Reader particularly “10 Years of IF: 1994-2004.”

Probably the biggest historical turns in the community’s discussion coincide with changes in the way we communicate:

  • the formation of rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction on Usenet in the '90s: lots of aspirations toward academic literature (e.g. “Crimes Against Mimesis”). There was a lot of reviewing, and a lot of flame wars around those reviews; because it was Usenet, it was impossible to ban trolls. Perhaps as a result of Usenet’s structure and affiliation with universities, I think there have been fewer canonical IF Theory articles written in the 20 years of the 21st century than there were during the Usenet period. By “canonical” I mean must-read articles that the whole community was familiar with. (More stuff gets written nowadays, but there’s no particular article that everyone has read; the self-described “academics” are now a much smaller portion of the community.)
  • the formation of intfiction.org in 2006: It took a while to get going, but it became the central hub for IF discussions post-Usenet.
  • IFDB in 2007: IFDB became the repository for IF reviews, but in the style of IMDB; these reviews were mostly not in any sort of conversation with each other, unlike the Usenet days.
  • the addition of a Code of Conduct to intfiction.org in 2014: It’s not a coincidence that this was the same year as Gamergate, forcing the community to decide what it stood for, who would be welcomed, and who would be banned.
  • switching from phpBB to Discourse in 2019: Discourse hugely expanded the toolkit available to moderators, including the ability for ordinary users to flag a post before moderators take action, preventing brushfires from becoming flame wars.
  • the formation of IFTF in 2016: IFTF now hosts and organizes this forum (as well as the NarraScope conference, IFComp, the IF Archive, and Twine development). The community is now supported by a dedicated non-profit.
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Whew, glad my rule of thumb (“it has more r’s than you think. No, more”) succeeded!

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I forgot to mention “John’s Fire Witch,” whose brevity inspired the IFComp.

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Genuinely shocked that nobody’s mentioned In the End.

Memory is fuzzy, but I’d say it was Jigsaw that really kicked off Inform as a platform for ambitious, Infocom-scale games. Curses was ambitious, but Jigsaw demonstrated that Inform (5/6) was a reliable system for more than the game it was built around.

After Jigsaw we got Theater, Spiritwrak, So Far, Christminster, Windhall Chronicles, and the rest of the “early Inform” wave.

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It’s also worth mentioning SPAG, sub-Q, and other shorter-lived online zines about IF.

Also not joking when I say that I’m not sure there was a single more defining series of moments than those which took place decades before the first mainframe was built: when Lewis Carroll was putting pen to paper.

Not only is there an astounding amount of directly-lifted-from-Carroll games peppered throughout IF’s history, but the scene itself has always been lousy with his imagery and “vocabulary.”