XYZZY 2017 Nominees Discussion

I was planning/hoping to eventually sit down and write some feedback or reviews for the games I’d been going through for XYZZY voting that I’d missed before, but oh no voting’s started already, so instead I’ll just post some brief thoughts here for a bunch of them.

If anyone else (?) wants to discuss XYZZY nominees or voting, they can also do that here if they wish.

These’ll be written like you’ve played them already, and I’m rattling these off, so I’m not balancing positive/negative traits or anything like that like I’d normally try to, I’m just pointing out stuff that stuck out; sorry! Imagine me complimenting the writing for all of these, because they’re all good to great on that front, and I appreciate all the hard work that went into all these games.

Will Not Let Me Go: Great. Strong writing, clear-eyed. The apartment scene is extremely well done. I did feel like I was able to predict what scenes were going to come up later, and how they’d play out, but I’m not sure if that’s a valid thing to even dock points for. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections sort of also deals with this topic, but the characters in that book felt, to me after a while, tinged a bit artificially, like ponderously built stages that keep having to be torn down and rebuilt three times, for every character it follows. (His autobiographical essay My Father’s Brain felt warmer and more sincere). WNLMG doesn’t have that, because it treats its characters with more respect I felt. It’s a game about small decisions, but they loom large, about how much you’re willing to let go, how much you’re willing to lie towards normalcy… I wonder about the mid-paragraph stops, and if they communicate the right thing, because reading and stopping and clicking those seems too passive for me to feel like that felt like mimicking forgetfulness. Best writing, I was thinking I’ll nominate it for. Best PC also?

Known Unknowns: I really admire how the Episode 2 party is written, with how it circles and staggers and shifts over time, and if I could nominate just that for an award, I would. The characters are likeable (except the ones that intentionally aren’t). I had a similar issue with Life is Strange episode 2 in this, which is: in Episode 1 there was a semi-urgent mystery set up, then the characters don’t do anything about it in favour of doing other Stuff! There are three story threads basically, with the newspaper, the relationship drama, and the raccoon, and they sort of don’t wrap up together at the same time, so there were dips in episodes 4 and 5 which didn’t feel completely smooth. The char profiles are great. Best writing?

The Wand: I was so satisfied with getting the first ending, that I never really delved into the secret part, even after I saw the public discussion thread for the game mention it. The puzzle in the tower already felt like such a great capper. A recent article did make me think of this again:–487156.phtml. Is it a good idea to hide a portion of your game? It seems like a really cool idea, but I also really wouldn’t have even thought of exploring further without the thread. The puzzles I already encountered are already so great, and clever… Like the pantry one as well. After the first ending, I didn’t feel like I needed more, or more of a challenge. Best puzzles, probably.

Voyageur: The descriptions are vivid. But it generally feels just a bit empty and aimless. The descriptions tell me these are very populated planets, but it still feels isolating, and that could be a cool effect, but it doesn’t seem quite intentional. The crew and the factions both indicate that there are stories behind all of them, but there isn’t much of that in the game, nothing to unlock or interact, with either. Since I got a bunch of the crew around the same time, I have no idea what exactly some of them do gameplay-wise even, outside of being unhappiness carriers. I stopped trying to strategize the trading aspect after a while; the pirates made the goods feel immaterial, and the expeditions felt like the real money-makers. I wasn’t sure what I was working towards, even once I stumbled onto an alien device. The procgen text is very well done. There’s a framework here, the bits of story writing are well done too, just wanted more of that. There’s an update coming for this though.

The Wizard Sniffer: I really admire the puzzle design in this. The pail puzzle in particular? It’s not really difficult, but it’s like: you find this object in the courtyard. There’s a callback joke there, if you’d already examined Ser Leonhart closely. You poke at it, can’t do anything with it yet. You keep going. Later, in another area, after solving several other puzzles, there’s this obstacle. And you have to think back to the item that was just a joke item before. And you have to have explored the second area a bit as well. And you bring the item, use it, and it removes the obstacle while also subverting your expectations by not doing it the way you expect it to. Also, there’s the part later where you’re choosing to leading several different people around, which was very fun and well implemented. I’m voting for best puzzle, and maybe the squire for NPC. Any hey, maybe best implementation.

Going Down: I like the interface for this a lot, and how its used. Because… It forces you to wait. And anticipate. And it mimics you, in the elevator, eye glued up at the floors ticking down, afraid to look around you. There were some parts where I wasn’t sure if it was a bug or part of the disorientation of the game itself. I think there might’ve been more to do, on the stairs, with the key… But it was too much, I had to get out! Most innovative?

I also have no idea what to vote for best technology!

After having run out of time to really explore it last year, I came back to A Beauty Cold and Austere to explore for XYZZY nomination purposes, and am really enjoying it so far: it reminds me a bit of Chinese Room, in that it’s teaching some classic concepts but in a way that feels satisfyingly game-like. Some viable best puzzle candidates here, in my opinion.

Known Unknowns offers some excellent NPCs; Brendan’s character writing is fantastic.

Mama Possum might be something to consider in the writing / characters / setting space.

As a sort of sleeper hit, I liked the NPCs in Inpatient: A Psychiatric Story. It takes a chapter or two to reach them, but then there are a good number of different patients and doctors and nurses to socialize with, each of which has a specific character arc over a few days. The variety of personalities and some of the twists make the story much better.

I think Vorple 3 came out last year, after asking other people on Twitter.

Harbinger had a story with a lot of momentum, and it kept me intrigued as I read.

American Angst was a release last year that had really sophisticated multimedia.

But the game that stuck out the most to me in a lot of areas was Eat Me. It’s rich, edible setting and wide variety of characters, together with its complex narrator NPC and detailed inplementation, filled up a lot of my ballot.

Finally, just a shout out for Tuuli and Dancing With Fear for great settings and great PCs.

Charlie the Robot for Best Game, Best Writing, Best NPCs, Best Multimedia. I keep meaning to write an IFDB review for it, but I’ve been swamped. This game didn’t get the love it deserved during IFComp. It’s understandable why. The characters are nasty and the story deals with nasty subject matter. Not for everyone. Not by a long shot. But it’s great.

It’ll be a crime if The Wand doesn’t win Best Puzzles. And it should win Best Individual Puzzle too, for learning the Cycle, but I doubt most people even know about that, since it’s hidden.

Right, I should also mention stuff I played and gave feedback for already.

A Beauty Cold and Austere definitely makes sense for best puzzles.

Absence of Law for best implementation?

Apparently Weight of the Soul is ineligible since it’s incomplete, but it’s got great story and writing, and I hope it does get finished eventually.

I couldn’t get through Charlie the Robot, but it seemed well done.

Actually… is there anywhere where it actually lists a common set of criteria for each category? I remember voting TAKE in 2016 for best story, and being surprised when it was nominated for best writing instead. (I thought what really stuck out was structure more than wordcraft)

10pm for multimedia and innovation. Its pictographs were much more effective at conveying emotion than I had expected.

Thaumistry’s implementation was very strong (not surprising, for a commercial game).

Eat Me for writing. Several other games last year have strong writing, but in my opinion this one is a notch above all the others.

Same with Fred Strickland in Will Not Let Me Go as Best PC. Other games have strong PCs, too, but the way the game makes you feel what Fred is experiencing will I think make him hard to beat in this category.

The characters in the The Owl Consults deserve some mention, but I had trouble deciding whether Amelia and Dirk are PCs or NPCs. Technically, you’re playing as the Owl, and you (as the Owl) give orders to Amelia and Dirk, which makes them NPCs. But during the game it sure feels like you’re playing Amelia and Dirk as two separate PCs.

And I agree with craiglocke about the settings in Tuuli and Dancing with Fear. Both are unique and richly drawn.

CMG, I’d be curious to hear why you loved Charlie the Robot, if you get a chance to write that up. I didn’t get along with it myself, for reasons I would ascribe to craft as well as to subject matter, but I’d be interested to hear the counter-argument.

Arc Symphony:
I added this and LOCALHOST to IFDB, so I suppose few other people here have played it.
Arc Symphony is supposed to be a fake JRPG released back in the 90s. The twine game takes place on a usenet newgroup dedicated to it. The UI is absolutely, pretty amazing. There’s been more format-breaking Twine stuff out there, but nothing as just straight up nice to look at that I can think of. The story? It delves into a particular brand of intense fandom. You’re just a random forum-goer, reading through the threads, and choosing to respond how you like. Which is basically a choice: do you respond with snark, or kindness? It does a pretty excellent job approximating just the feeling of participating in a forum where where the only common thread is a common interest that brought you all together, all these walks of life colliding in a kaleidoscopic morass, and then seeing the glimpses of differing backgrounds and upbringings and attitudes that might occasionally shine through. What it could’ve done with is a feeling of maybe just… seeing through one of the threads to more of a conclusion; It’s sort of a snapshot in time which is really cool, but it doesn’t really seem to resolve, so much as end. But I might’ve missed something. But the UI? Amazing. I’m voting this for best multimedia.

Mama Possum. Great setting. Character voices come across clear as day. Jangly banjo music seems a bit speedier than the speed of what I was reading. Do most twine games have by default a subtle fade-in fade-out? It snaps in very quickly here, and that made the text feel like, I’m not sure, unnatural, like e-booky? The text all also had to be very spare, because it has to fit in the windshield of the mech interior (it’s very nice UI art), but uses that well. Interface felt perhaps a bit hunt-the-continue-button; because it never taught me what the buttons did, it was just a matter of clicking whatever button was lit up next on the dash. I think I would’ve liked to learn a bit more of this world, and that’s a good sign, because the backstories and character relationships are quite strong. best writing maybe.

LOCALHOST. I played this today. I think for certain people who have any interest in cyberpunk or AI, this will be right up their alley. I found it harder to get fully engaged. Briefly: you are tasked with talking to AIs and convincing them to let you wipe the hard drives they reside on. You can talk to them, ask them about their past, cajole and lie and befriend, and each AI has distinct personalities and moods and motivations to unearth. This is thematically quite rich, and the conversations flow and detour in interesting ways. The UI here is almost skirting into VN territory, reminding me of VA-11 Hall-A. It also feels a bit static, and the text crawl feels a bit languid, but I suspect if I was more into the whole cyberpunk setting and just grappling with the moral quandaries offered up, it’d be less noticeable. And for those people, the story and writing offer up a lot of depth to dig through. You have to be an active participant in the narrative to make this work, but it rewards that. I’ll play through again some time, definitely, because I’m pretty sure there’s a lot I didn’t encounter. And if you love it, I suspect you’ll really love it.

1958: World, setting, characters are all very ambitious and cool. I think I had to adjust a bit, because it took a while for me to realise that the story structure wasn’t a present day heist with some illuminating flashbacks, but that the flashbacks were the story, her story of how she came to get to her current life. Viewed along the first spectrum, the present day scenes felt sort of choppy and the flashbacks didn’t really tie into anything in the prior scene, so I was confused for a bit, but viewed as the latter it structurally makes more sense. I like how DANCE is such an important action in this. I think the dress puzzle I was stuck on for a bit because there were descriptions (initial appearance I think they’re called?) of both a band and the host in the room and I thought they were part of the solution but they’re not, which I found interesting just because… that’s an assumption I think I carry, which is if they’re separate from the room paragraph then they must be important at that moment, right? But maybe that’s not always right. (Also, there was a month gap between playthroughs of that part, which probably played a bigger part in my getting stuck at that point). best story, or best PC?

Harmonia: One of the most polished and easy to broadly recommend stories of the year. Themes are v. strong, I’ve seen them discussed elsewhere. So: the story’s set up obviously around a missing person mystery. But that’s not the story that Abby the protag is going through for the first half. Following her, we get a story of her struggles acclimating to the academia setting: the campus, feeling over her head, looked down on, etc. When I was going through the class book excerpts, I was engaging them as foreshadowing, but from Abby’s POV, she’s just reading through them to get caught up for her class, right? And you can’t really engage those on Abby’s level, either, really, because she doesn’t comment on the excerpts. The story knows you know the professor’s disappearance is important, but Abby’s story takes its time getting there. The second half though starts accelerating really quickly. The female student starts dumping clues on you, and there’s a ticking time-bomb of that underground exhibit (or something? I played this a while back honestly so details fuzzy) that I never got Abby’s sudden urgency towards. The student ends up being very important to the ending which was a bit out-of-the-blue (she felt more just like an earnest clue dispensary, not a story anchor). I don’t think I had a real pull towards either choice at the end, but I remember the second-to-last-or-so paragraph of the one I picked being amazingly well written, basically tying the whole thing back together thematically in a bow. Best… writing?

Eat Me: So the question is, is this a shoe-in for best writing, or should I also balance out considering the less showy writing in other games? The descriptions for everything is so rich and decadent… So every time I entered a room, it was X and EAT , for everything I saw. The responses though all felt like roughly the same length of two-three sentences, and the writing style never lets up, so everything hits the same high point and thus everything lands sort of similarly. I did end up skimming after a while. Even the big score changing actions are like two-three sentences broken up with continue key presses. It’s all endlessly inventive though.

As would make sense for this, I have way too many best writing nominees.

I can’t really do it justice right now, but the biggest thing that sticks out to me is probably the structure. There’s nothing conventional about it, it’s impossible to map how you think the story will progress, but it hits every beat exactly right. Especially the ending where Charlie approaches you before the launch. That final note is so indirect, and also perfection.

I love the vacillation between the “proper” prose chapters and the quizzes. You think you’re meant to identify with a character, then you’re yanked elsewhere and realize you never were. You’d made false assumptions coming into the game, and the game destroys them. You think you’re not playing as anyone, you’re just an omniscient reader, then suddenly it dawns on you, you are indeed a character. For now. Until the game yanks you away again. It’s constantly juggling all these plates. None drop.

From the outside, the story looks like it’s filled with tropes about office drones and “are robots people?” and whatnot, and it is, but then it rips them to pieces and reassembles them into something utterly bizarre. There are plot twists that redefine the whole story, over and over again, and the best are executed with exquisite subtlety. Not even presented as twists. Readers might actually miss them! Appropriately ironic, since the game puts on a show like it’s going to be in-your-face about everything. That’s an act. You have to really pay attention to details.

Some of the humor didn’t work for me, but sometimes it landed with bull’s-eye accuracy. The more absurd it got, the more I liked it.

The writing in general is great. It’s got rhythm. When I first started playing, I had some pretty big doubts, but after a few screens, I realized how well it was written and was on board for the rest. Not just on board. I was drinking it up. I’ve played it three times now.

Despite its crass surrealism, it’s also got a tender, vulnerable core. It reminds me of SPY INTRIGUE in that way. All its screaming bells and whistles try to drive you away, try to get under your skin, but they’re like a defense mechanism. Inside, it aches. But unlike SPY INTRIGUE, it’s not about catharsis. It’s an angry game. It’s trying to boil your blood, to move you to action.

Unfortunately on the technical side, it had a rather nasty bug where the buttons were misbehaving. Just downright broken when the comp started. I couldn’t even finish it. Eventually the author fixed that, but with the subversive story already driving some players off, this bug certainly didn’t help.

OK, soooo I didn’t get to this puzzle because I’ve been saving the second half of the game (and part of that is I have to go back and relearn all the combinations), but I thought getting into the garden would be a good Best Individual Puzzle nominee. It’s not complicated but it’s a superb aha! moment and it’s completely fairly hinted. (Not that I discovered it until I read some commentary about the game after playing it and thought, “There’s a garden?”)

See, the genius about learning the Cycle is, it’s a puzzle that envelops the whole game. It is the whole game. A gigantic master puzzle that builds upon and unifies all the other puzzles.

I’m a sucker for puzzles like that. It’s one reason I love Riven so much.

I think we have some of the best writing in IF during 2017 in the hands of a single person: Isak Grozny. Really, I’ve not seen IF worded like this. dripping with the waters of Sheol and The bitter drop. Although this last one is early access, so I don’t know if it counts for the awards.

What are people thinking of voting for best NPC?

I figure that category and best individual puzzle are going to be the most divergent since they’re fill-in-the-blank.

I haven’t decided yet, but I was considering the games that had strong characters in general and cross-referencing with the IFDB poll (, and I found it interesting for two of them, the poll had votes for different NPCs than the ones I would’ve chosen for their respective games. For Wizard Sniffer, there were votes for Leonhart and Tristian and I would’ve considered Squire Tuck, and in Known Unknowns I would’ve considered Kaz’s sister Anja (or Annette the witch!) over Kaz. That got me thinking about what criteria people were using to vote.

I think for me I thought that Leonhart was fun, and the game doesn’t work without him, but he’s also one-note (as is appropriate for his role!) and I more enjoyed seeing the Squire’s reactions to the same interactions in contrast. I think that might just come down to which foil you appreciate more. Tristian meanwhile doesn’t play as much a role in the actual gameplay or flow of story for the most part, even if he is more heartfelt. And the Squire I feel has more of an arc than either of them.

Kaz meanwhile, is your ultra-likable best friend and plays a major role in the story throughout, but I liked the roiling relationship you have with their sister a bit more.

I tried to nominate both Tristain and Robbit from The Wizard Sniffer, but apparently you can’t nominate two NPCs from the same game. Tuck would be my third choice.

Aren’t there separate “Best NPC” and “Best NPCs” collective?

Huh. Do you know if this is intentional, or a bug?

The code for all the other drop-down fields prevented you from voting for the same game twice. It was probably an unintended consequence, because it’s hard to code different fields individually like that. Did you leave a note in the text entry field?

I personally voted for Olivia and the reason why can be expressed in three words: specific Fraggle Rock.

Ha! That part made me laugh out loud. I also loved the French teacher.

Now that I’ve played it, clearly Sherbourne is the best NPC. His rapport with the students “gives me life”, and I am “extremely here for” his pedagogic skills. And the resolution of his arc is “fire”. Forget Yanny and Laurel, it’s Marc!