Photopia was a meteorite. It landed, and changed everything. I would argue that it was Adam Cadre’s 1998 comp-winner that moved interactive fiction out of Infocom’s shadow once and for all. In a swift, brilliant stroke, it proved that IF could be popular and artistically successful without puzzles, without linear time, and to some extent without meaningful choices. Assumptions molded by IF’s commercial history melted away in Photopia‘s light.
That change had a huge effect on the 1999 competition games. In my reviews I found myself referencing Photopia the way I used to reference Infocom, as a benchmark that set expectations for both authors and players. That year’s comp was full of Photopia-alikes, most of them pretty unfortunate. It’s a bit reminiscent of how in the comics world, the excellent landmarks of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns set off a 15-year wave of “grim and gritty” superheroes, from authors and editors who thought those books were successful because they were dark rather than just both dark and successful.
Photopia was also a high-profile breaker of formal boundaries in IF, but it was far from the only one. 1999’s comp saw formal experimentation blossoming in lots of really interesting ways, and in reviewing the games I found myself evolving a terminology for how to talk about aspects of IF that the games were teaching me to understand. For instance, this year is where I started talking about levels of nouns. Quoting from my review of Hunter, In Darkness: “In this terminology, first-level nouns are those nouns that are mentioned in room descriptions. Second-level nouns are those nouns mentioned in the descriptions of the first-level nouns. Third-level nouns are in the second-level noun descriptions, and so on. The deeper these levels go, the more detailed and immersive the textual world.”
Unfortunately, this year also saw a wave of buggier, more broken games. Where Comp98 had 27 games, Comp99 had 37, and much of the difference was made up by substandard clunkers that were turned in before they were ready for public consumption. My opinions about this got shriller and shriller the more of these games I had to endure.
I was fully invested in contributing to the world of IF criticism at this time, so much so that I had become the editor of the SPAG webzine shortly before the 1999 competition. I’d continue in that role for about six years, collecting reviews and essays, and publishing issues more or less quarterly. My biggest annual IF effort and commitment, though, remained the competition. I wrote these 37 reviews in the space of six weeks, and although there was a fair amount of chaff, finding a great game still thrilled me like nothing else.
I originally posted my reviews for the 1999 IF Competition games on November 16, 1999.