So, the 2013 XYZZYs are well in the rear-view mirror, and I’m considering some changes for next year. I’d like to hear what the community thinks. There are three big issues that I can see.
Revise our What Counts As “Interactive Fiction” standard.
At the moment, we have a policy for ‘what is IF’ that basically combines ‘I knows it when I sees it’ with ‘broadest plausible interpretation.’ That’s… workable for us, but unclear to anyone on the outside. Here is a possible alternative:
The question is: are we at the point where this is a consensus?
The exception among recent nominees is the graphic adventure Dominique Pamplemousse - which is by a strong-name-recognition author, got lots of press outside the IF world and a decent amount inside it, yet only got a nod for Supplemental Materials (for which see below). Of course, it was also a commercial release, which typically doesn’t help. But a bunch of IF people were willing to Kickstart it but not nominate it for awards, which suggests to me that while people liked it, they were at least unsure about whether the Awards was the place for it.
I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, the text rule is a good deal clearer and simpler than our present set of standards. On the other hand, I’m not yet totally confident that this reflects the consensus, and I’m unconvinced that it’s a complete definition. (ASCII roguelikes are not IF. Arguably they’re not text-based either? There are probably examples I haven’t considered.)
Shift the focus of Supplemental Materials
Supplemental Materials receives the fewest votes of any category in the first round, and usually gets a very apples-and-oranges set of nominees. My feeling is that this is a strong signal that it needs reforming into something more readily grokked.
I think that Supplemental Materials was essentially crafted to target, or at least place an emphasis upon, feelies. The trouble is, feelies are sort of a nostalgia item - in an age where IF is almost never distributed as physical media, and to people who never imprinted upon the Infocom unboxing experience (disclaimer: me), having content that’s outside the game itself is something of an oddity. A really cool oddity, sure, but not what you’d call a core element of the craft.
True, it also covers things like Aaron’s book. But that’s not a category of thing that we get multiples of in a year. People don’t ever nominate shorter works, like reviews or theory writing, or infrastructure things like websites. The pool of things that are a) truly ‘supplemental’ and b) of sufficient prominence to be worth nominating is always really small, which is one reason why people reach outside the strict meaning.
The other reason is that there isn’t a category that’s plainly targeted at in-game multimedia, fancy text effects and layout - particularly with the shift towards web, those are more commonly-used than feelies. So the category gets used for that.
My initial proposal is that we change the category’s focus to Multimedia & Presentation, and make it a drop-down menu category rather than a text-entry one. That still includes feelies, but puts a bit more emphasis on things like art, music and layout.
Change Best Individual Puzzle
This gets the lowest voting of the Best Individual trio, and throwing up the IFDB poll over the course of the year didn’t change this significantly.
I think this is more a matter of the kinds of games getting made. Big, set-piece puzzles used to be a regular element of interactive fiction; but this has not been the case for some time. It’s not just that puzzles are no longer a required element of games: it’s also that puzzle-focused games are less likely to build up to a single standout puzzle, a puzzle end-boss, a meta.
Looking back at the winners over the past five years or so, I see a lot of situations where interactivity provides a great rush for the player, but most of them are not really reliant on being awesome puzzles so much as they’re awesome moments of interactivity. Creating the meat monster in Coloratura and surviving the fall in Bigger Than You Think are cool because they’re transformative moments that are deeply reliant on interactivity, but as puzzles, as most of the world understands the word, they’re pretty trivial.
I can already hear the ‘But…’ Let me pre-empt some things. I do not believe that the composition of the XYZZY categories has any real effect on the kinds of game that people make. Having a Best Individual Puzzle category has not led to a wealth of standout puzzles, and changing it would not lead to fewer of them. The fact is that people struggle to nominate things in this category, even when there are major puzzle games to choose from. (And before you get paranoid, there’s no question of scrapping Best Puzzles: that’s a healthy category.) Also, any response that starts out by bewailing the decline of the puzzle game will get some serious side-eye.
So my proposal - which I am not wedded to, and has some obvious flaws, but I’d like to hear what people have to say - is to change it to Best Moment of Interactivity, or some more elegant phrasing thereof. I think that picks out something important and deeply valued by the community, and includes everything that should go into Best Individual Puzzle, while broadening the field enough to breathe some life into the category.
Take, for instance, That Moment Everyone Goes On About in Counterfeit Monkey. It’s not great as a puzzle, really - certainly no more so than a dozen other puzzles you’ve done already. But as a moment that only works because it’s interactive, a lot of people got super-excited about it. It would also be a lot more suitable for a lot of the kinds of interactivity that choice-based games deal with: again, many of these are either non-puzzles or not very good as puzzles, while being powerful as uses of interactivity. (I think a great deal of talk at cross-purposes is the result of people using one word to cover two different things.)
I’m not as confident about this change as I am to reforming Supplemental Materials, so I’m very interested in hearing other views on this. Perhaps Best Interactive Moment isn’t a sufficiently transparent concept.