Some notes on IF Competition reviews

From 1996 to 2004, I reviewed almost every game submitted to the IF Competition. There were a few exceptions, though:

  • My own games, for obvious reasons.
  • The games for which I was a beta tester: Mother Loose and All Roads. Both of these games were excellent, but I didn’t review them since I felt like I’d influenced them.
  • The 1996 game Promoted!, which required the OS/2 operating system to run. (Though it has since been ported to Inform.)
  • The 2000 games Infil-Traitor and Happy Ever After, which had known bugs that required recompilation before the games were viable. I’m a bit persnickety about playing games in the state in which they were submitted on the deadline day, and I viewed those games as ineligible based on their initial brokenness.
  • The 2001 game Begegnung Am Fluss, which was in German.
  • Games written by newsgroup trolls (defined by me as people who have made multiple, unprovoked, personal attacks on newsgroup regulars), which I didn’t have the ability or inclination to review fairly.

Everything else, though, will be showing up here. I’m going to add every review as its own post, even though that will sometimes make for some pretty short posts, especially for reviews from the earlier years, before I came into my full superverbosity. My reason for this is that I’d like to be able to link directly to a review, rather than an anchor tag on a page full of reviews. I’m planning to add pages here that index all the games both by comp year and overall, and it will be way easier if each review is self-contained.

I’m also going to be leaning heavily on the wonderful Interactive Fiction Database, which contains a comprehensive catalog of interactive fiction works. For each game, I’ll provide a link to its IFDB page, and anytime I reference a game I’ll link to IFDB, just as I have above. I would love it if these posts can bring attention to some of the wonderful IF of the past. (Or even some of the dire IF of the past, if that’s for some reason what you fancy.)

Like much of >INVENTORY, my approach will be a bit experimental, and I expect to learn and iterate as I go. At the very least, I want to indicate which year’s comp contained the game, who wrote it, how it placed, and what score I gave it. A note about my scoring — although competition scores are always submitted as integers from 1 to 10, my own reviews add one decimal place to that score, because I often found that I wanted to express a bit more nuance. A high 7 feels different (to me) from a low 7… y’know? For the purposes of my submitted scores, I’d always round up on .5, so for example that lowest possible 7 would be 6.5, and the highest possible 7 would be 7.4. I also made it my practice to stop playing after two hours, whether I was finished or not, and base my score and review on that two-hour (or less) experience.

One last thing — from 1997 onwards, the competition game package came with a tiny little program that would provide you with a list of the games in randomized order. Like most judges, I can’t help but be influenced by the order in which I experience things, and playing the 1996 games in alphabetical order by title may have unfairly influenced some scores. Consequently, I always played the games thenceforward in a random order to eliminate that bias.

I will be posting my comp game reviews in the order I played them. As time went on, that sequence became a journey in itself, and reviews of later games would be influenced by reviews of earlier games. Never fear, the site will be searchable, and I’ll provide pages which list the games alphabetically.

Introducing >INVENTORY

I started writing reviews of interactive fiction games in 1996. I think it’s only old people who start stories with, “In those days…”, but apparently the shoe fits, so in those days, the IF community was small, cohesive, and centered in a couple of Usenet newsgroups: rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction. For those who weren’t there, newsgroups were essentially discussion forums, consisting wholly of text — posts and threads. “Arts” was about creating IF, and “games” was about playing it. (“Rec” meant “recreation” — there were various top-level hierarchies that… you know what, it doesn’t matter.)

The text-only medium of newsgroups was perfect for text adventure aficionados, and while they thrived, those groups were the fertile soil from which sprung many of the pillars that support even today’s IF scene: Inform, TADS, the IF Archive, and most importantly for my purposes, the Interactive Fiction Competition.

The comp, as it was affectionately known, started in 1995 as a way to spur the creation of more short IF — see in those days most authors were trying to ape Infocom by writing long, puzzly games that would have fit nicely onto store shelves in 1985. The comp changed that, dramatically. Kevin Wilson, founder of the comp, gave it just one rule: every game had to be winnable in under two hours. The first year saw 12 games entered. The next year: 26. And it took off from there.

Opening screen of Andrew Plotkin's A Change In The Weather

A Change In The Weather, winner of the first IFComp, Inform division

I was on fire for IF in those days. I couldn’t get enough of the newsgroups, the games, the languages. I spent my nights immersed in learning Inform, creating little worlds and gleefully walking around in them. The competition was the perfect opportunity for me to actually finish one of these virtual puzzleboxes and send it out into the world in hopes of feedback. That first attempt was called Wearing The Claw, and while I find it rather cringey to look back on now, it did at least land in the upper half of the 1996 comp — 8th place. And boy did I get a lot of feedback on it!

In those days, you see, there was a strong culture of feedback in place, and the comp helped that culture grow explosively. Tons of people would review the comp games, and as an author, you could get a cornucopia of input that would help you understand where you went right this time and how to do better next time. It was invaluable, and I wanted to be part of it, so I reviewed every 1996 comp game.

Then I reviewed every comp game (with a few exceptions) every year all the way up through 2004, which not coincidentally was the year before my son was born. I also wrote reviews of various other IF and IF-adjacent games, and spent several years editing a text adventure webzine called SPAG.

For a couple of decades now, those reviews and writings have been housed on the personal web site I created back in the 90s with my trusty copy of HTML For Dummies. However, my crystal ball tells me that this web site’s days may be numbered. It lives on a legacy server at the University of Colorado (where I still work), and nobody is super excited about hosting old student websites from the 20th century anymore. Plus, those old reviews are absolutely festooned with dead links and ugly typography.

Enter >INVENTORY. This blog will eventually house all my writing about IF, including every comp review, every IF-Review entry, every XYZZY Awards solicited review, and everything else I can think of. >SUPERVERBOSE will remain my primary blog, and new writing about IF will go there as well as here, but >INVENTORY, as its name suggests, will house the exhaustive trove that currently lives on my old web site.

As time permits, I’ll be transferring comp reviews into this blog, where they can be searched, indexed, googled, and so forth. Once that project is done, I’ll start on all the other IFfy stuff I’ve written over the years. It’s quite possible I’ll append some of it with reflections or current thoughts as the mood strikes me.

In my first innocent post to rec.games.int-fiction, I called myself “a major devotee of IF.” While many other passions have laid their claims upon my time, that fire still smolders inside me, and I look forward eagerly to revisiting the many happy hours I spent with IF games and IF arts. As with everything I write, I hope it proves enjoyable and/or useful to somebody else out there too.