The Interactive Fiction Competition 2016

I’ve been an avid follower of the IF comp for about five years now, have judged in the last few (you can too!) but have never blogged about it before. As the competition’s HUUUGE this year, I thought it only fair I pitch in by reporting back on at least enough to match IF.org’s judging criteria (five entries).

First of all, a few extra notes on my judging methods:

  1. I replayed as long as said replaying fitted within the allotted 2 hrs judging time, but only if I felt said replay would have an impact on my opinion on the game.
  2. I judged quite harshly on typos and even harsher on bugs, just because there are so many entries and so many are really great, it seems the only fair way to separate between some of them.
  3. I’ve used the scoring system as outlined by IF.org.
  4. I used the games page’s shuffle feature to randomly pick my five games, but may come back for more if I get time before judging closes.
  5. I’m trying to avoid major spoilers, but there may be mention of some story details, so if you want to go in completely cold, don’t read any further.

Anyway. ONWARD!

All I Do is Dream by Megan Stevens

Format: Twine

No of playthroughs: 1

I found “All I Do is Dream” a rather odd experience overall. There’re tantalising glimpses of some interesting characters here, namely the protagonist and her housemate…? ..girlfriend? …relative? Evie. I’m all for ambiguity, but I felt like I needed at least a few more hints to have some kind of understanding of the protagonist’s situation and what her motivations were. Most of the choices weren’t things I’d want to do in real life, never mind in a game (Wash the curtains or tidy the closet? My my, how you spoil me!), and while I think this was intended to reflect the character’s own lack of motivation and her disatisfaction with her life, it felt rather heavy-handed, and didn’t make me feel compelled to click on.

I couldn’t work out where the title fitted with the story, as it didn’t seem that the protagonist dreamed at all, either metaphorically or literally (not that that’s a problem really, but the title set up my expectations for some kind of dreamy, surreal, Porpentine-esque experience and this was not that). Speaking of metaphors, there were some rather odd ones in use here, which spoiled my enjoyment of the narrative. For example: ‘crumbs and grease floating on top like the Columbus’ (used to describe a sinkful of dirty water) stalled me completely for a moment as I struggled to get my head around it.

I suspect the intention of the game was for it to loop, but with certain information carried over, but the link to achieve this was broken, so it ended rather abruptly for me.

Rating: 3/10

The God Device by Andy Joel

Format: Twine/Sugarcube

Playthroughs: 3

Within the first few scenes, this put me in mind of a Dan Brown adventure, and that was a feeling that never really went away. That’s not a criticism – it ripped along at a fair old pace, and many of the choices felt exciting, although this was undermined a little by the game’s own blurb which described some of the choices as ‘meaningless’. We all know in IF that some choices are technically meaningless, but this description undermined the game before I’d even played it!

The fast pacing created a sense of urgency throughout, but it also resulted in some of the endings seeming rather rushed (all the ones I encountered, in fact). I liked Tanya as a protagonist, but most of the supporting characters were rather flat, and the dialogue was pretty clunky. Rochelle in particular would have benefitted from greater character development.

The scoring system was a nice touch and encouraged me to replay to try to improve my score, but I feel this would have worked better alongside a restart button, as I had to click quite a way back through my browser to explore other branches, particularly in my more successful playthrough.

Rating: 6/10

Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles by Hippodamus and Company

Format: …Twine?

Playthroughs: 1 (but with a couple of backtracks & a restart to check mechanics)

The prologue to this appealed to me – beautifully written in a really interesting faux Ancient Greek style. The opening proper has a wonderfully disorienting quality that matches well with protagonist Zephyra’s struggles to course-correct her crashing spaceship. As the oxygen levels drop, Zephyra’s perception of reality becomes hazy and she experiences strange visions and a lengthy flashback that forms the remainder of the game.

Here the pace drops off and the game becomes more sedate, although I still enjoyed this initially as following the activities of the strange woodland creature was intriguing. As this slips on into Zephyra’s everday life, it becomes a little more mundane, and I was becoming tired of her company by the game’s end. That said, the world building is excellent, with the thriving spaceport and busy fishmarket feeling very real and alive. (I’m also a sucker for being allowed to buy a blue alien monkey and have him as my constant companion.) Unfortunately the quality drops off with the tempo and the ending is riddled with typos, some of which disrupted my reading experience.

I liked the basic structure of the game – the chapter breaks created a natural flow, and the epigraphs contributed well to the tone, setting and themes. However, the sudden switch of POV at the ending didn’t work for me, particularly given the epilogue and the overall narrative frame of this being Zephyra’s flashback. Obviously the ending isn’t really the ending, as this is part of a larger series, and this did enough to make me curious to see where the story goes next.(It seems kinda like Ulysses 31. Please say it’s like Ulysses 31!)

Score: 7/10

SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD! by Xalavier Nelson jr.

Format: Twine

Playthroughs: 1 (but will probably play again)

First thing’s first, I loved this, so just follow the link above and play it, ok?!

All right, so you play predominantly as a bear, but these scenes are interspersed with dialogue-heavy exchanges between a trio of human characters, Bailey, Jonathan and Carla. In another game, so much dialogue might be a problem, but here it’s snappy and funny and every character has a distinct, believable voice. (As believable as possible, given the circumstances, anyway.)  This game makes great use of Twine’s newer functions, such as timed text and animated words. Sometimes this is for comic timing, others for suspense, or to give a scene a more tactile quality, but it’s always thoughtfully deployed.

The POV shift towards the end to fit in a new character almost works – I think if the concept of her had been introduced earlier, it would have been completely fine, but as it is, seems a little sudden. That said, the writing is so good throughout, it’s easy to forgive small slips like this.

I was expecting this to be a fun, silly story, a text version of Goat Simulator, perhaps. And it is fun and silly – there are bear puns galore and I laughed a lot.  But it’s more than that, too.

It’s a story about trying to live up to (or get away from) familial expectations, of forging new friendships and digging deep to find some self-belief. I’m not ashamed to say I had a tear in my eye at the end and it wasn’t all down to laughing at the Archer-esque finale. You need to accept your bearhood as soon as possible and play this game.

It’s bear-utiful. (I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.)

Score: 9/10

Fair by Hanon Ondricek

Format: Inform

Playthroughs: LOTS (I lost count)

In Fair, you take the role of a science fiction writer tasked with judging a school science fair. This basic premise sets up two of the main game aims: selling your books to make enough money to cover your rent, and talking to and examining all the science fair exhibitors and exhibits so you can award prizes accordingly.

This was the only game from my random selection that I felt I needed the full 2 hours of judging to get everything out of it. It’s incredibly complex both technologically and narratively, and I’m pretty in awe of that. NPCs have their own lives and activities and go about them regardless of what you do in the main story. In fact, the third aspect of game play derives from working out what they’re all up to. (I had figured out a grand total of none of them at the end of my play time).

Dialogue is good throughout, and all the characters feel very real and indivualistic. My only difficulties were fairly typical of most parser games – I wasn’t always sure how to proceed, and found some of the commands and methods of distinguishing between characters rather unnecessarily wordy and therefore cumbersome to type (much like that sentence). In fact, I had to turn to Sam Kabo Ashwell and Emily Short‘s reviews looking for hints, as I felt I was missing something rather major. (I was.) This would have really benefited from either a walkthrough, or a more detailed hints list, as many players will probably miss out. Although, as SKA points out in his review, there may be some meta story going on here, with exhibitor Amber’s comment that: “It’s funny & it’s fun, and everyone is good, but I don’t think everyone around here will get the point. It’s a little too meta for this crowd.” seeming like strong evidence to back up his case.

Score: 8/10

So, there you have it. That’s my five for today, but I may be back with more if I get time before the comp’s close. If you only have time for one of these, pick Bear Dad, it’s rad.

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