Sunday, February 27, 2011

2010 in IF

Assuming that the Wikipedia editors know their English, the title of this post should be correct idiom, weird though it sounds to me. Anyway, with the XYZZY Awards awarded, it seems as good a time as any to look back on 2010, both for the scene as a whole and for me personally.

Interactive fiction itself

On the one hand, 2010 was not like 2009 -- nothing came out that I loved as much as Blue Lacuna, Make it Good, The King of Shreds and Patches and (to a lesser extent, because it was so much shorter) Alabaster. On the other hand, we did see a large number of good games. For evidence, just look at the IF Comp: places 14 to 16 are Leadlight, Gigantomania and Under, in Erebus, each of which is really good. Thirteen games placed above them. And many good games appeared outside of the competition.

What were the highlights of 2010? The following list will be an eclectic mixture of games that everyone loved, games that I loved, and games that I think have not received enough attention.
  • Looking at the XYZZY awards, one might get the impression that the only game to matter this year is Aotearoa. Of course that is not true, but it is very fine game: a boy's adventure story with great animal NPCs and so much polish you can shave in it. (I voted for it in the categories Best NPCs and Best Setting.)
  • Hoosegow is a puzzle game that jumps into Wild Western absurdism with two spurred, stinking boots, and thrives. The puzzles are a bit too 'classic' for my taste, but there is some excellent help material that will get you through -- which it totally worth the effort. (I voted for it in the categories Best Writing and Best Implementation.)
  • Rogue of the Multiverse is a wild ride that takes us from standard exploration to a weird abstract mini-game, and then continues with action sequences, romantic plot twists, and anything else it can throw at us in the space of an hour. Not necessarily deep, but fun, and it's crowning glory is Dr. Sliss, who is this year's Violet. (I voted for it in Best Game, Best Individual NPC and Best Use of Innovation, though I'll admit the latter category didn't contain any of the games I wanted to voted for.)
  • Want to see the perfect escape-the-locked-room game? Look no further than Fragile Shells. It doesn't transcend the genre, it doesn't expand it or give it a twist; but it certainly perfects it. (I voted for it in the category Best Puzzles.)
  • Perhaps this year's largest game was One Eye Open: the splatter horror wasn't exactly to my taste, but it is easy to like this game for its ambition and the care lavished on it. Up there with the cream of the crop.
There were a lot of other good games, obviously -- I'm just giving you the highlights. I'm not done yet, though. I have saved the best for last. Or at least the most special. The next three games are the ones that made the biggest impression on me, even though I can see why they might not win the XYZZY for Best Game:
  •  Gris et Jaune: this evidently unfinished competition game had a better setting and story than anything else that came out this year. The bizarre and yet believable protagonist; the odd mix of the mundane and the magical; the detailed attention to its source material; the suspenseful plot -- Jason Devlin, you must bring us another release of the piece! Please? (I voted for the game in the Best Story category.)
  • Breaking many of the received maxims of IF design is seldom a good idea, but Gigantomania made it work often enough to astound me. Its failing are as obvious as its successes, but if there is any 2010 IF game that we must think about as designers, this is it. Sitting behind my computer with a chess board, playing out the Pearl of Wijk aan Zee, even as I was navigating through the mind of Stalin... it was an experience I have not yet understood. (I'm planning to write a SPAG Specifics about this game; but no promises.)
  • Finally, Being There was hardly a game at all, but it was one of the most joyous pieces I have ever come across. Or, as I said in my IFDB review: this is a game where when you see a soccer goal, you can type "play soccer" and the game responds with: "You play soccer with an invisible ball... you score!" How cool is that?

This list does not include the weird white-space piece of Adam Thornton: I played a short part of it and almost died laughing, but I am under the impression that there will be a more full and official release in the future. If I'm wrong, I'll have to revisit it.

Then, we have the list of shame, which is the list of potentially good games that I have not yet played. This list was quite long a week or three ago, but I managed to play through quite a number of games as the second round XYZZY deadline came nearer. Right now, the only game I know I still have to play is Mite; and perhaps I need to spend some more time on Following a Star and getting someone to give me a walkthrough for Allein mit Kai. I'm probably missing out on some other games simply because they haven't come to my attention.

In other news, this years has seen the usual gradual improvement of the authoring tools and interpreters. I am pretty excited about GLIMMR, which I haven't explored yet but looks very cool on paper.

2010 also saw the German IF scene get a huge boost, with a website, newsletter and Inform 7 translation all being made or improved; and quite a number of German games were released. That's good news, because the scene did seem to have died a few years ago.



Interactive fiction and me

After three years of not releasing anything, 2010 was a relatively productive year for me. I released three games (The Art of Fugue, The Game Formerly known as Hidden Nazi Mode, 'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus), an update for Figaro, and the Inform ATTACK extension with extensive documentation. This is not fully satisfactory for me, since none of those games were the "real thing", if you understand what I mean -- the first is not really IF (since it contains no fiction), the second is a rather slight game originally made to make a debating point, and the third was mostly a test and experiment. The "real thing" still lies in the future. But getting the extension out, experimenting, and getting some of my more tangential ideas out of my mind by getting them into code, well... that's all bound to help, right?

(And I did finish my PhD thesis, so that may count for something. After months of delays that I could do nothing about, it has now finally been sent to the committee. I also finished some non-interactive fiction I was working on. But still... I always feel like I could be so much more productive... and it never really happens.)



Interactive fiction and you

So, what were your highlights of 2010? Feel free to put them in the comments or write them down on your own blog (in which case you might want to post a link in the comments). I'd love to hear from you -- not in the last place because this may help me find out which games or developments I overlooked.

8 comments:

  1. Congratulations Dr. Gijsbers! Or soon-to-be, I suppose, if you still have to defend.

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  2. I discovered interactive fiction existed in late 2010. Hip deep in learning Inform 7 now. I'll let you know how 2011 goes.

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  3. Congratulations on finishing the thesis! I know what you mean about the productivity thing. I just have so much I want to do, and it all seems to get done so slowly.

    I thought 2010 was a bit of a disappointing year, to be honest. After a banner 2009 and all of the excitement surrounding PAX East, there was no big surge in games or new authors and/or players that I could see. I have to say that, while PAX certainly energized the faithful, I'm not convinced it did much at all for IF outreach. We'll see what happens this year.

    But it was a very strong Comp. Not to take anything away from Aotearoa, which deserved its Comp win and its XYZZY performance, but I think this year was more a case of the quality of the average entrant being remarkably better than of the very best game or two standing out as unusually good. But given the choice between a couple of amazing games and a lot of dreck or a whole lot of pretty good games, I'll take the latter. It seems a much healthier trend for the community as a whole.

    And then we had the Jay Is Games thing at the beginning of the year, which also produced some very good work. Unfortunately, and unlike 2009, there wasn't that much to speak of in between, other than Plotkin's (small) game.

    IF needs more works -- more really good works, more average works, and more works outside the Comp -- to really thrive. The community needs to dramatically expand. 2010 is evidence that that hasn't really happened yet.

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  4. You're more productive than you give credit for, Victor - I for one am looking forward to your review of GET LAMP in the next issue of the Dutch-language magazine nY...

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  5. This is a bit off-topic, I guess, but some of my most memorable IF experiences of 2011 so far came from playing old games, Blue Chairs and The Act of Misdirection. (I'd forgotten that I hadn't played them in 2010.) This is partly because of my Parchment fetish,

    One game from the JayIsGames comp that I really liked and no one else seems to have much noticed was Critical Breach. The puzzles in one section are a bit clunky, but after playing through to both endings (and it's very short) I realized it's doing something pretty interesting; the PC seems frustratingly generic at first but there's a reason for that.

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  6. Thanks for your comments.

    Matt: let's not get ahead of ourselves. The committee has to approve of the thesis, and then there will a defense. I'll let you know. ;)

    Jimmy: I see what you mean, but isn't it a little bit unrealistic to assume that successful outreach in 2010 will equal more authors in 2010? Writing IF is a lot of work, and you can't start coding up a great game without first spending some time playing the great works. I suspect it is a bit too early to judge whether the current outreach projects are bearing fruit.

    But, yes, we need more works.

    J.Z. Herrenberg: Thanks, but that artcile was written in 2011, not in 2010. :) Also, it will not actually be a review of Get Lamp, but more an in-depth look at some of the experimental literary stuff you can do with IF.

    Matt: Critical Breach? I'm putting it on my wish list.

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  7. "It will not actually be a review of Get Lamp, but more an in-depth look at some of the experimental literary stuff you can do with IF." Even more interesting, then!

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  8. Interesting synchronicity here. I just found out about IF through a friend, literally a couple days ago, and then found your blog by coincidence exploring a blogroll completely unrelated to IF.

    So far I liked Make It Good; Shade; and The Affliction.

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