XYZZY Awards 2011: nominations open

Voting is open in the first round of the XYZZY Awards, which honour the year’s highest accomplishments in IF. In the first round, you can nominate (almost) any game released in 2011; the top four in each category will go through to the second round. The first round of voting will end on February 10.

The categories are Best Game, Writing, Story, Setting, Puzzles, NPCs, Individual Puzzle, Individual NPC, Individual PC, and the new-ish categories Implementation, Use of Innovation, Technological Development, and Supplemental Materials. You do not have to vote for every category, so please submit your votes even if they’re incomplete.

It would be great to see discussion about the games you think should win. Some years back I did a set of thinking-out-loud XYZZY-oriented reviews for the second round, and found it a really valuable process; I would be super happy if people did similar things. I’d particularly encourage discussion of deserving games that were released outside the major comps and may not have received as much attention. Every year, people don’t vote because they feel that they haven’t played enough games to have a valid opinion. Anything you can do to help overcome that – suggesting games that might be worth playing, talking about your choices – is a Good Thing.

The list of games, compiled by the stalwart David Welbourn, is at list is as comprehensive as we could get it, but as IF continues to branch out into different corners of the web, it becomes ever more difficult to account for everything. If you know about any games that are missing, please tell us, point us to where we can find 'em, and we’ll fix it as quickly as possible. (Releases that are not intended to be complete – open betas, Introcomp entries – don’t count.)

Here are the games that stood out to me (said the blind man describing the hippogriff).

  • Pale Blue Light deals with the gulf between writer and reader, between one generation and the next. Appropriately, it’s full of fine writing.
  • maybe make some change spilled out of the virtual machine and onto the web, adding to the repertoire a new technique: sensory assault. At the same time, the game owes much of its effect to the courageous writing underpinning the collage.
  • Though I struggled with the House of Fear’s final puzzle – painting your way to freedom – in the end I enjoyed performing such a symbolic gesture. The game as a whole is well-furnished with fantastic images. (And the photos are nice, too.)
  • I’ve only seen enough of Cryptozookeeper to nominate its cover for best feelie, but the game sounds colossal, like Blue Lacuna with better jokes.

Judging by the examples I played, it was a good year for Speed IF:

  • In Starborn, the narrator’s weightless existence is underscored by the gameplay; until the final dose of gravity, there are no obstacles and no friction. I’m not sold on keyword-driven games, but Starborn’s story fits the form to a tee.
  • The Mysterious Ocean Tower raises a number of provocative questions: Can murder be an expression of love? Do we ever truly know what’s best? And have the squidmen formed an alliance with the molten warriors of the Marianas trench? By the time you reach the bottom of the tower, the setting has been so vividly sketched that you could easily picture a game ten times as long. And I’d put forth Peyton Cross, the game’s dashing anthropologist, as one of the year’s more memorable NPCs.
  • To solve Indigo’s central puzzle and escape the tower, you have to uncover an ingenious mechanic.

Competition highlights:

  • Taco Fiction provides funny responses to pretty much everything.
  • Just when you think you’ve breezed through it, Six throws you a curve. Demi’s map of the park is adorable, but don’t get the wrong idea: that park is meticulously implemented.
  • Several games explored the question, “when is it okay to change the rules?” Among them: the generously implemented It; The Binary, stripped and streamlined; and The Play, perhaps the most entertaining of the bunch. Ninety percent of good writing is putting the right characters together in a room.
  • If by “best game” we mean something like “best overall,” then there are plenty of choices. But for “best puzzles” – which might translate to “most fun” or closest to some Playtonic ideal – there are only a few games that come to mind: Six, Kerkerkruip, and, for me, Escape from Santaland. Having deduced the identity of the third reindeer, I was dumbfounded when the game didn’t respond. I had been so sure I was right. Then with a flash of insight I realized my mental model was backwards and, reversing my previous deductions, was rewarded with “a little chime … somewhere to the east … either ‘Ha-a-a-le-lu-jah!’ from Handel’s Messiah or ‘Fi-i-i-ve Go-o-o-ld Rings…’”
  • I wanted to take Beet the Devil’s puppy with me into the next several games.
  • Tuned for repeated plays, Kerkerkruip is capable of surprising you long after your first look at the dungeon. To mention just one example: if you attack the thunderbolt-wielding sorceress while wearing plate mail, you’re insulated from the worst of the damage; the mail acts as a Faraday cage. The game’s introductory material is worth noting as particularly comprehensive, including a PDF overview, an in-game manual, and an instructional video mini-series, which starts by teaching you how to pronounce the title and ends with the author facing down his own creation.
  • Cana According to Micah’s cast includes some well-drawn NPCs (and here I’m thinking more of John the Baptist and Mary of Bethany than Little Orphan Anna or the ancient mariner).
  • Sentencing Mr Liddell could have been disastrous. A surreal train ride with echoes of Lewis Carroll? Yeah, no thanks. But it took me by surprise, grounded as it is by the protagonist’s family. I’m leaning toward this one for best NPCs.
  • Calm takes place in a classic sci-fi setting peopled with memorably creepy NPCs: the brain-damaged vicar and the self-proclaimed queen.
  • Many reviewers found The Guardian maddeningly vague, but I enjoyed absorbing the story as I crossed overland. (The story, as I understand it, goes something like this. Willing to do anything to rejoin your lost love, you’ve given yourself over to the workings of an enchantress. But it turns out that your love has died, and the enchantment only binds you to his tomb as a guardian wraith doomed to relive your loss for eternity. “Would you like to RESTART, RESTART, or RESTART?”)

And from the Spring Thing, which took me all summer to get halfway through:

  • Alabaz probably won’t win “most innovative,” but it’s a massive work with lots to recommend it. I particularly liked the cooperative puzzles: discovering the pipe brush, for example, or working with Trig to steal the spirebird’s egg.
  • Bonehead makes the most of a terrific true story, successfully putting the player in its character’s shoes (or cleats as the situation requires).
  • Wetlands paints a picturesque setting and then gets out of the way, trusting in its quiet pondside village to draw the player in.

And here are the technical achievements that come to mind: TADS 3.1 introduced networking features, with Parchment-style online play as only one possibility; Hugor revitalized Hugo on non-Windows machines; Quest 5 took the system forward with a leap that looks (from an admittedly great distance) analogous to the leap from Inform 6 to Inform 7; and finally, Curveship supplemented the world model we’ve been refining for decades with a model of narrative, a new space to explore.

I’m still thinking about what to actually vote for. What have I missed? What shouldn’t I miss? Who were your favorite characters? Which puzzles made you feel like a genius?

I doubt we’ll see them all in the running, but since they don’t seem to get played as often as some other formats, I thought I’d go through the categories and suggest one possible ADRIFT entry for each. These don’t reflect how I will vote and I don’t expect anyone will vote on all of these.

Best Game: Cursed. This game was a labour of love, and its writing and craft clearly show that. I think it deserves this nomination.
Best Writing: Cursed. See above.
Best Story: Back Home. It’s unfortunate some implementation issues might have prevented less adventurous players from experiencing this creepy piece.
Best Setting: The Crooked Estate (Am I allowed to suggest that? Does that disqualify me? My personal vote for Best Setting is going to Marius Mueller’s “Blue”…). Maybe not a great game, but the point was more to provide a place to explore and be vaguely creeped out by. I like to think it succeeded in that, but maybe I’m deluded.
Best Puzzles: Cursed. Each puzzle had a different possible solution based on the player’s form.
Best NPCs: Return to Camelot. The NPCs in this game may not have been the most deeply implemented, but they reflected the feel of the game and gave it a certain charm. The author also used a different technique for greeting NPCs which eased interaction.
Best Individual Puzzle: “Putting out the fire” in How Suzy Got Her Powers. Deceptively simple, this puzzle has multiple solutions and is implemented so smoothly (even working in a non-standard verb naturally) that one might not even think of it as a puzzle. Reflective of good modern game design.
Best Individual NPC: “Sam” from In Memory. An NPC almost entirely defined by user input and interpretation.
Best PC: Mangiasaur. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t incredible to play a game where you play as a dinosaur from hatchling all the way to becoming deified, fire-breathing terror. Take that, human PCs!
Best Implementation: In Memory. Considering the way this game was made, both its breadth and depth of implementation are impressive.
Best Use of Innovation: Seek and Enjoy. The author hid puzzle clues and messages in the game’s audio using backmasking techniques.
Best Technological Development: ADRIFT Web Runner. ADRIFT is now playable in-browser! Huzzah!
Best Supplemental Materials: ??? (Did any ADRIFT games have supplemental materials/feelies this year?)

Well, that’s it for my list of suggestions and thoughts for ADRIFT games at this year’s XYZZY Awards. It’d be nice to see some ADRIFT games up in the running, even if they don’t win. Thoughts, questions, comments?

Hopefully you’ll get out there and vote, no matter what you vote for.

1. The deadline for the first round is coming up. February 9 will be the last day of voting. If you’ve been hemming and hawing about your nominations, it’s time to finish them up and get them in. If you’ve nominated in a couple of categories but couldn’t think of anything for the others, then please please come back for a second try. (You can change your votes at any time, remember.) If you’ve been thinking ‘eh, this is too difficult, I’ll just wait for the second round’ then it’s time to sack the hell up. If you’re thinking ‘gosh, I don’t want to vote because I can’t vote for my own game and I’ll just be reducing my chances of being nominated’, it’s time to get over yourself. Did I miss anybody out? Oh, right: if you’re thinking ‘what use is my one little vote against the vast political machine that is the XYZZY Awards’, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

2. ClubFloyd will be playing nominated games during the second round of voting. If you’ve only played a few of the nominees, become a more educated voter. ClubFloyd is held on Sundays at noon Eastern, in the Toyshop in ifMUD, and will be playing nominees on the 12th, 19th and 26th of February (though if you want to play some IF collaboratively, Floyd can be used at almost any time). Priority will be given to games that haven’t already been played on ClubFloyd. (Floyd, of course, can’t reproduce graphics, music or multiple-windows shenanigans, so we’re vaguely wondering about livestreaming or something of that kind for games that don’t fit the model.)

3. Lucian Smith and myself are thinking about putting together a pseudo-official reviewer panel to write some closer stuff about the nominees, once they come out. Two points:
a) While the reviews wouldn’t have any direct effect on the results, it’s possible that people might consider this a shameful travesty that would besmirch the impartiality of the awards. (“If I was nominated and got a bunch of bad reviews and then I didn’t win, I’d be pissed.”) Thoughts?
b) If we do this, would you like to supply reviews? Since reviewing everything could be a pretty hefty workload, you might want to sign up for just a few categories that particularly interest you.

If you are in need of reviewers, I can help.
Let me explain. I’m not into it straightforwardly (although I’d like to) because of lack of time. I don’t know how many games I can play/review. And, of course, I don’t know if I’m ABLE to do serious reviewing.
I can commit to it if the community is in need. I won’t (don’t think I won’t) if it’s just for the fun of it 'cause I’m a bit frightened by the thing.

Let me know.

You could commit to just a single category, if you’d like, which would be four or five games. That might also help worries about your ability to review things, if you pick a category that you’re more interested in and can talk in more detail about.

I wouldn’t call it a need, exactly; the XYZZYs will rumble along quite fine without this. It’s just a cherry on top (hopefully one of those really good black cherries soaked in gin). I don’t want anybody to read or write reviews purely out of a sense of duty to the community, or nothin’. If a sense of community spirit is what you need to get yourself to do something that’s also fun, great; but if you expect it to be a dutiful slog, there are far more productive dutiful slogs in the world.

I don’t fear the duty. I fear the fact I may not be good enough at it. But I like your suggestion.

A body of reviews alongside the awards seems like a great idea: all too often with IF reviews it’s difficult to decide what the relevant class of comparison should be, because different games typically have different aims (beyond a general if not universal expectation to entertain). Being able to compare games in a category with other games of that category gives an excellent grounding for comparative criticism.

Further, I’m so down with the idea of reviewing a category that I’m typing this whilst standing on my head. Urm… I don’t expect it particularly, but I do have two eligible games up for nomination, so I’d be happy to write in any category I don’t get nominated in (this shouldn’t be much if anything of a preclusion).

Yeah, the IF community being what it is, I wasn’t planning on confirming any assignments until the nomination phase was done and we could be sure that people wouldn’t be covering their own games. Should The Cavity of Time earn the torrent of last-minute ballots that I fully expect to arrive over the next few days, I will of course recuse myself from all applicable categories.

Thanks for this. I did try out Mangiasaur, thanks to your mention of E.V.O. at IFDB, but I kept getting misleading responses to misunderstood commands. I’m never sure those errors aren’t my fault for not using the official interpreter. Which is one of the things I liked about Cursed: Nick anticipated that many of the judges would be using SCARE, and he went the extra mile to explain the consequences. I’ll probably continue to put off The Crooked Estate and Seek and Enjoy until I can experience them as intended, but for everything else, I’ll have to start using the WebRunner. (“Play Online” links at IFDB would be awesome. Can anyone add them? Or do they require some behind-the-scenes provision?)

And in Mangiasaur I eventually got into character. When the game ended I wanted to keep eating, to gobble up the scenery itself, as in the last levels of Katamari Damacy

Gin-soaked reviews? Count me in. Probably for just one category, in case the relevant nominees turn out to be, like, Cryptozookeeper and Cursed and Mentula Macanus and The Lost Islands of Alabaz. But as for which category, anything’s fine.

A little over a day to go for the first round. Quite a few categories are really close, so every vote counts. Also, if you don’t vote I will KNOW and be dreadfully disappointed.

[eyes dart fearfully]

Oh, Ghalev. You work so diligently to record your principled abstinence from beauty contests, I’d be more disappointed if you had voted.

Oh my, I hope it isn’t mistaken for a matter of principle. It’s entirely aesthetic, I promise [emote]:)[/emote]

And the XYZZYs are different … they’re not a comp, so even aesthetically I think they rock. Even if I just plain forget to participate most of the time, on account of being a dork (my other problem is that I’m slow, and I often don’t play a new game until it’s two or three years new, at the newest …)

The nice thing about the XYZZYs vs. comps is that, being first-past-the-post rather than ratings-based, they tend to be more about voter enthusiasm than broad acceptability. I like comps, they’re valuable things, but the XYZZYs are where my heart is.

Yeah, understood. I average about 5-10 years late to most media offerings. Try to make an exception for IF, but it’s still hard to knock that average down to less-than-a-year.

(turns to address audience) Nonetheless! If you’ve played just one game this year that you feel deserves some kind of recognition, you’re qualified to vote, and doing so is your sacred if annoying duty. (exit, pursued by bear)

I get weird errors when I try to submit my vote. I’ll mail it to the organisers and hope that that will suffice.

Of course, according to voter enthusiasm, the greatest writers of the 20th century are Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. (I also find the list hilarious because, apparently, in the English-speaking world you can get away with saying “100 best novels” when you mean “100 best novels in English”. Or maybe you can’t get away with it, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen it.)

The XYZZYs are, indeed, somewhat vulnerable to this kind of thing.

Although, luckily, our community does not seem to have attracted hordes of objectivists. [emote]:)[/emote]