In the beginning, there was the 1995 IF competition. This competition had but One Rule: all entries must be winnable in two hours or less. The competition has gotten grander and more complex since then, but it has remained a competition for short games, not Curses-length epics. Somewhere along the way, though, the One Rule got mutated a little. I quote from this year’s rules: “Judges must base their judgement of each game on at most the first two hours of play… Authors may write a game of any length they desire, but should keep this rule in mind when determining the length of their entry.” This rule has been in this form, more or less, since 1998. Still, the competition has remained oriented towards short games.
There are some obvious reasons for this. For one thing, it takes less time to write a short game. The more objects, locations, NPCs, plot points, and such you cram into your game, the more work your game will be to produce, at least if you want to maintain a reasonable level of quality. I would argue, however, that there are other reasons to keep long games out of the competition. From a judging standpoint, I don’t feel comfortable evaluating a game unless I’m reasonably confident that I’ve seen most or all of it. If A Mind Forever Voyaging, for instance, were to be entered in an IF competition, I know for certain that I wouldn’t have an accurate picture of it after only 2 hours of play. I felt differently about Zork III before and after the Royal Puzzle. I could go on, but you get the idea. Consequently, the ratings given to a large game don’t really reflect the game as a whole, just its beginning sections. Also, it’s really comparing apples to oranges to put something like Worlds Apart up against something like, say, Winter Wonderland. Even if two games have a similar tone, or similar puzzles, or a whole raft of other similarities, length does matter. Ahem.
Nowadays though, the competition has become, to use a worn-out but apt phrase, a victim of its own success. Authors enter anything they write into the competition just because it’s so high-profile and receives so much ink (or electrons, or whatever.) They figure that even in the worst case, they’ll get a whole bunch of people playing and writing about their game, so why not enter it? I feel a rant coming on about this. The first part of my rant is directed at authors. Look, people, entering a game that is too long (or too buggy, or too poorly proofread, or otherwise inappropriate for the competition) is an abuse of the judges’ time. The feedback and recognition you get this way are ill-gotten.
Moreover, I would contend that especially in the case of overlong games, you’re not really benefiting that much, because whatever recognition and feedback you get are only based on the first two hours, not your game as a whole. You created an entire game, but if it’s just one of fifty entries, and it’s quickly apparent that two hours ain’t gonna cover it, not by a long stretch, how many of those players do you think will return to your game? How many people will see and give you feedback about the other three-fourths of the game that they didn’t get to during the comp? How much are you really benefiting from all that comp attention?
And while I’m on the topic, let’s move to the second part of my rant, which is directed to the community at large. Listen, I love the competition. It’s one of my favorite things about the IF community. But let’s face the problems that it has. The magnetism of the competition, the idea that it’s the best place for every game, is something we all need to work harder to address. Do your part. Release a long game (or a short one) outside of the competition. Write a review of a non-comp game for SPAG or XYZZYNews. Participate in things like the IF Review Conspiracy and the IF Book Club. Most importantly, post post POST about non-comp games. Make a commitment to post a reaction to any non-comp game you play. It doesn’t have to be a review. It doesn’t have to be thorough. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be smart. It just has to be done, because if it doesn’t get done, the authors who don’t abuse the competition will end up losing out, and that’s not right. So please — do it. Your efforts will benefit yourself and everybody else in the IF community.
Just to be democratic, the third part of my rant is addressed to myself, and people like me, people who write long, thorough reviews of every comp game. We are part of the problem. I recognize that consistency is important to us, and that’s why we devote more or less the same amount of space to each comp game. However, there can and should be limits. Don’t even play games that have catastrophic bugs, let alone review them. Any attention those games get contributes to the perception that it’s better to release a buggy game in the comp than a polished game in the Spring. We must work to prove that this perception is fallacious and untrue. As for overlong games, review them if you feel you must, but don’t feel obligated to spend much of the review talking about the game itself — spend it instead on some adjacent topic like the problem of inappropriate games in the competition.
I mean, for god’s sake, Unnkulia X is 865K! The thing is only 45K smaller than Once and Future! It’s freaking huge! Yes, it’s fairly well done, implemented with care and only a few lapses in English. (There’s a lot of unfamiliar diction, which I assume is attributable to the author’s first language being something other than English, but most of these alien word choices are rather refreshing instead of jarring.) Of course, I only got 60 points out of 300 after two hours, so these assessments are based on what I have to assume is the first fifth or so of the game. If it were the whole game, I’d probably give it about a 9. Considering it’s a fifth of the game, I think that works out to about a…