XYZZY Category Revisit

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.

For what it’s worth, I made a big push to get the post-comp release of Faithful Companion done for New Year’s in part because I was hoping to get nominated in this category.

Best Moment Of Interactivity feels kinds of meh and undercharacterized to me, and also feels like it would send things toward one- to three-move puzzles and away from longer or more complex set-pieces insofar as they exist; things like the optimization in Captain Verdeterre, the taco in Shuffling Around (I understand that this got two votes in the first round but I thought it was worthy), the hat mystery for sure, the goggles in Byzantine Persepective, and the instructions in Rover’s Day Out can’t be boiled down to one moment, I think, unless it’s the moment when you realize what’s going on; and that’s not even necessarily a moment of interactivity.

Maybe one thing that hurts this category compared to the other Individual ones is that it’s harder to individuate a puzzle than a PC or NPC. This year there didn’t even seem to be any consensus about what puzzle Ultra Business Tycoon III had been nominated for (Brendan Patrick Hennessy, who put it on the For Your Consideraton poll, had a completely different puzzle in mind than the one I thought of). If that’s the problem, I don’t think switching to Moment of Interactivity would help.

I don’t know how to categorize things either–one puzzle or overall puzzles. That’s because, as Matt said, there are the puzzles that build up, maybe with nothing tricky but they’re still satisfying, and there are the puzzles that have a-ha moments. However, individual puzzle/overall puzzles do seem to overlap.

It actually was a finalist for the 2012 XYZZYs. But I agree that there’s a definite use and need for multifaceted puzzles. They don’t have to be tricky, but I do like the feeling of having done more than follow instructions, whether that presents itself slowly or all at once.

If I had my way, I’d give separate awards for abstract puzzles and hands-on puzzles, because I see them as two different things. But I’m biased because of the sort of games I write (I still see myself writing text adventures and not interactive fiction) & I confess, I can’t think of a decent name for such categories.

I dunno. I also feel that, even though I got nominateed for individual/overall puzzles, it felt–duplicated.

Fairest tough challenges? Most realistic/immersive puzzles? These seem more different than best individual/overall puzzle, but they don’t -fit- as awards.

Maybe the solution isn’t to replace Best Individual Puzzle with Best Moment of Interactivity (or something similar), but to make that an additional category? If there’s a category that covers certain things that currently seem to fall into Best Individual Puzzle by default because there’s no other category that could account for them, maybe that allows both for acknowledging the kind of moments you’re talking about and frees Best Individual Puzzle up to apply to puzzles in a more “traditional” sense of the term?

As for the definition of IF, rendering it as something like “video games based around text” seems to me to be almost the only way that What If Is can be encapsulated in a nutshell for people outside, or who don’t work primarily from within, the IF community. I don’t even use the term “Interactive Fiction” when talking to non-IF-playing friends about it, because that requires me to explain just what in the hell I mean by that, and when I finish the explanation they always go, “Oh, you mean text adventures.” Without being really clear that what we’re talking about is a text-based medium, Interactive Fiction just sounds like a pretentious synonym for “video game” to most people.

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I agree with both of these, and I’d also like to suggest a yardstick for identifying IF in edge cases.[b]

Can you convert the game to a pure text format without significantly altering the gameplay?[/b]

(By “pure text”, I mean “containing no graphics or sound”.)

Throwing two examples on the table:

Dejobaan’s Monster Loves You ( is a choice-based narrative game with significant random elements. In Monster Loves You, the graphics augment the text, rather than substituting for it. If you converted it to a pure text system (say, Twine), you would lose the charm of the graphics, but the game’s core experience would remain. Therefore, Monster Loves You is interactive fiction.

Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy ( is also a choice-based narrative game. But in Mass Effect, non-text systems (especially combat) are much more front-and-center. To convert Mass Effect to a pure text system (say, Twine again), you would have to remove significantly more game content from Mass Effect - enough that it would stop feeling like Mass Effect. Therefore, Mass Effect is not interactive fiction.

This yardstick would also address the roguelike question. Take Nethack: it uses ASCII symbols, not as words, but as graphical substitutes. If Nethack were converted to a pure text format (where ASCII characters could not be used as graphical substitutes), the gameplay would change dramatically enough that it would stop feeling like Nethack. Therefore, Nethack is not interactive fiction.

I agree with that for the most part, but the “graphical substitutes” point is a bit tricky–my favorite puzzle in Enchanter, for example, relies on a crude ASCII-art in-game map, but the puzzle itself feels like interactive fiction rather than a graphical game.

If people are having a hard time nominating and voting for BIP entries now, then pulling some away into a new category will make it worse.

Yes. What I’d like to do - to delve into abstraction - is find the nearest clearly-phrased concepts to BIP, identify the concept that’s one notch broader than BIP, and use that.

Best Single Moment of Awesome

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Maybe just “Best Moment”?

I agree with this argument against “moment”. I like the idea of broadening from puzzles though. How about something like “best interactive sequence” or “segment”? It would allow for nominating things like single conversations or exploration scenes as well as puzzles.

Maybe it would tend to exclude puzzles that are spread throughout the whole game but don’t make up the greater part of the game (and so can’t just go in under best puzzles). You might want a guideline that says it’s ok to nominate these.

  1. I’m unclear on what problem you’re trying to solve by defining IF. You say that the community definition is “unclear to anyone on the outside,” but what are you hoping to gain by being clearer to outsiders? More participation? That’s certainly not the first thing I’d do to make the IF community (or even the XYZZY awards) more popular.

  2. Instead of “Best Moment of Interactivity,” call it “Best Scene.”

Uh, there’s a particular moment?

Yeah, thinking about it now my suggestion doesn’t really make sense. I thought it would be something that addressed the ambiguity of what ends up counting as a puzzle, but missed that the bigger issue is that there aren’t enough things to vote for in the category even accounting for that ambiguity.

Best Use of Interactivity? Or is that too broad?

It might not be the first thing you’d do, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea, and it’s one within maga’s capacity and authority.

If we’re difficult for outsiders to understand and connect to, they might show up, but they’re far less likely to stay and become part of the community. Making the XYZZY rules transparent is a good thing.

Yeah, I don’t see how being more clear about the medium we’re concerned with will hurt participation, and I’d guess it would almost certainly improve it.

dfabulich, I’m actually kind of confused by your comment the more I think about it. Why don’t you think being clearer to people outside the IF community about what IF actually is would increase participation in that community?

The issue here isn’t about making it popular; it’s about making it transparent and fair, rather than opaque and arbitrary-seeming. So perhaps rather than ‘outsiders’ I mean ‘marginal members’: people who are interested in things within the greater IF orbit, but not particularly invested in the community history of a particular tradition. I’m less interested in promoting the XYZZYs, per se, than I am in making it more transparent to IF or IF-related people who are aware of them anyway.

My personal preference for defining the term has always been ‘well, it’s an evolving cluster-concept based on a body of work, some typical features and an ongoing history of usage. In the mid-1970s…’ and so on. That has the advantage of being a pretty good representation of a complicated reality, but is of rather less utility when you need a straightforward answer for ‘is this game eligible for this event?’

The moment - or sequence, really, because they can happen in close succession rather than together - at which limits are removed from the letter-remover. This involves a couple of puzzles, but they’re not standout puzzles; the exciting thing is that a whole new set of possibilities open up before you, possibilities which (you were previously led to believe) would never appear in the game due to sanity constraints.

I have the same issue with this as with “Best Moment”; what if the puzzle isn’t a scene? This would exclude the nominees from Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder and Threediopolis (as well as Byzantine Perspective), which is a wholesale redefinition of the category. Maybe that’s what we need, but I think it’d be a shame to lose puzzles like these from the nomination.

How about just tack on something to the existing name, like “Best Puzzle or Scene”? That would keep the puzzle nominations but allow puzzleless scenes that have the same feel as experience a good puzzle.

That seems very apples-and-oranges.