When the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition came around, the indie IF scene in rec.*.int-fiction was well-established, and me in it. By that time, I’d written a game, written lots of reviews, and become a regular in newsgroup conversations. The groups themselves had established clear dynamics, with authorities, troublemakers, helpers, jesters, you name it. The community even pulled together a massive April Fool’s joke called Textfire, a fake IF sampler from a fake IF company. Comp98, though, brought us all up to a new level.
It kind of blows my mind to reread my reviews from that year, knowing the future as I do now. I’d love to tell my 1998 self that decades on, I’d hike in the Grand Canyon with one of the authors, see the sights of Austin with another, collaborate on a game with a third (for a company created by a fourth), and so on. I have relationships with some of these folks going way back to those formative days, thanks especially to the IFMud, founded the year prior. One Comp98 author even became a professional game designer, scooping up a bunch of BAFTA awards a few years ago.
The competition itself had by this time evolved its own set of tropes. Rybread Celsius was one of these, a surprisingly beloved figure with a cult following I never quite grasped. Another was the prevalence of Inform, followed closely by TADS, alongside the “first attempt” and homebrew games that appeared in every comp. The competition itself had become an institution by this point, inspiring lots of mini-comps throughout the year — Chicken-comp, the IF Fan Fest, etc — and these in turn fed into the main competition.
My own reviewing style reached maturity this year, settling into the format I kept for the rest of my comp reviews: basically three paragraphs and a score. Sometimes more, if the mood struck, but my comp reviews had evolved from basically filling out a form to writing a little mini-essay about each game. I more or less took my Comp97 review format, got rid of all the bold headings, and massaged those categories (plot, puzzles, prose, technical writing/coding) into the rest of the review. The artificiality of the headings still sticks around to some extent — sometimes I can see myself going out of my way to cover each base — but my voice was getting more natural the more I wrote.
I also evolved in my approach to spoilers. Where tons of my Comp97 reviews had spoilers in them, always flagged with big capital letters, I managed to mostly avoid them in the Comp98 reviews. There are a couple of exceptions, where a point I was making really demanded a concrete and accurate example, but more often I’d file the serial numbers off the game’s specifics so that I could provide an example that fulfilled the spirit of my point without giving away any of the goods.
Finally, I worked to keep in the front of my consciousness the fact that this is an all-volunteer endeavor, done by enthusiasts who should be rewarded for their enthusiasm wherever possible. I tried to find something to appreciate even in games I really hated, or at least offer some constructive criticism for how the next one could be better. It didn’t stop the occasional flame, but that was reserved for when I felt like a game really should have known better.
I originally posted my reviews for the 1998 IF Competition games on November 16, 1998.