IF Comp 2008: Violet

Yeah, screenshots totally don’t work with Interactive Fiction, do they?

The IF Comp 2008 awardsresults were announced a couple of days back. It’s… well, I don’t pretend to be anything other than a casual observer of gaming’s one true art-subculture, but seeing their yearly competitions is something which always makes me happy, even if I barely touch any of the actual games. That said, I was following Emily Short’s takes on the entrants, and given her rep, I wasn’t surprised that her three stand out games ended up comprising the top three (Albeit not in her chosen order). Namely: Violet, Nightfall and Everybody Dies. I’ll try and give the two runners up a proper play in the next few days, but here’s my take on the victor. It’s really rather neat.

The competition gravitates towards Short-IF. Basically, you don’t judge a game on more than the first two hours – so people specifically trying to enter the competition work within those boundaries. Which suits me fine, as that short piece structure is what I tend to find most interesting about the genre – relatively-rapid, deliberate experimentation – and, since the games are such a length, leads to me experiencing more of the results of those experiments.

Violet is like that. It’s also enormously accessible – the parser is really generous, it introduces more unusual commands when you try to do the, it’ll re-do moves up to a point if a step re-sets them all and its active hint system is comprehensive- and softly emotive. In terms of narrative tone, it perhaps trips into being a tad saccharine for my tastes a couple of times, but considering it was looking at heading into bleakness for bleaknesses sake, I suspect its author – Jeremy Freese – made the right decision. Generally speaking, its emotional moments are terribly well judged, not least in its most striking and memorable narrative quirk.

Its told in the second person. Rather than getting your character describing what happens when you try an action, you get your girlfriend narrating its effects. What’s wonderful about this is its using Interactive Fiction’s technology to precisely simulate the phenomena of a person in your head, of knowing what someone would say even if they’re not there. It’s an idea both beautifully conceived and excellently executed – the details of the relationship as they gradually come to light have the ring of truth to them. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the author has either drawn from life or friend’s life. If not, he’s applied an novelist’s eye for detail.

(And randomly, I realise that the narrator is the mainstream’s conception of SHODAN as applied to an Indie IF game. But that’s another essay, y’know?)

The story is a one-room game with a simple concept. You’ve promised your girlfriend you’d write 1000 words of your grad-student dissertation before coming home. But can you manage it when everything in the place is trying to distract you?

It’s a good question. It lead to me experiencing the strongest game/life confluence since my first plays on the Sims. I’m sitting in my room, avoiding finishing off a review of Luke Haines’ Autobiography by playing an Interactive Fiction game about a guy trying to work out how to finish a piece of a similar length and is trying to do everything to overcome his procrastination. Whilst playing, I certainly found myself questioning my relationship with my girlfriend, shall we say, and that recognition turned into open farce as the scenario escalated. I felt. I laughed. I enjoyed. You can’t ask much for that from a game.

Perhaps the biggest compliment for Violet: the second I finished it, I sat down and rather than obsessively refreshing forum threads, I tied off the Luke Haines review and went out to hang with my good lady.

Admittedly, we played Left 4 Dead.

You can download Violet from here, but you’ll need some manner of interpretter to play it. I think this one will work. Or you can take comment-thread Ryan’s advice, and play it in-browser here. Damn you, comment-thread Ryan. You are full of clever.


  1. Oddbob says:

    How is the autobiography? :)

  2. Satsuz says:

    I really should get around to playing this year’s entrants. My interests will swing over into “GIMME STORIES” mode soon enough, I guess.

    If it’s any use to anyone, I really like the multi-interpreter Gargoyle. It does nearly every type of IF game file format, and is highly configurable to use all of your sexiest fonts. It doesn’t do much with fancy games that use multimedia elements, but those are in the minority anyway.

  3. Ryan Ingram says:

    There’s an in-browser version on casual gaming site JayIsGames

    (I’m not affiliated with them in any way; one of my friends posted the link on his blog.)

  4. dhex says:

    being married to a grad student is so much fun that i simply cannot imagine how much fun playing grad student: the interactive fiction must be.

    report: it is like stabbing a kitten in the heart.

  5. Klaus says:

    report: it is like stabbing a kitten in the heart.

    That is quite possibly the most tragic thing I have read in months. I feel sad now.

  6. Rosti says:

    I was unnerved to find a jiggle command whilst I was procrastinating (and in the game – I should really be sleeping now). Doubly so now I’ve found a use for it…

    Also, I’d forgotten the joys of IF – ta muchly.

  7. Bobsy says:

    I still cannot get into IF. I try! I really do! But I just end up getting into rather uncivil arguments with the parser.

    My problem, I think, is that I don’t like being restricted by such basic strings of text as my input.


    – is just not me. I’m more:

    > Hey, you know what? I’ve had it with this goddamn parrot. Let’s just start shunning him from now on, okay?

    (which invariably leads to:)

    I’m sorry! I didn’t understand that!

    > What’s not to understand? We’re ignoring the parrot. Deal?

    I’m afraid I don’t know how to “What’s not to understand? We’re ignoring the” the PARROT. Type HELP for a list of commands.

    > Oh no, I refuse to be bound by you, parser.

    I’m sorry! I didn’t understand that!

    > Okay whatever. Forget the parrot for now. What’s going on with the waxwork of Marie Curie? What’s the deal there?

    I’m sorry, I don’t know how to “Okay whatever. Forget the parrot for now. What’s going on with the” the MAGIC SINGING CURIE PORTAL. Type HELP for a list of commands.

    > Magic suh-whaaaa? Where the hell did all that come from?

    Your torch has gone out!

    > Ah shit.

    It is very dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

  8. realmenhuntinpacks says:

    will give it a shot, got into IF recently (my anti-next-gen backlash continues to drag me to ever more luddite-esque levels of deprivation)

    for anyone who hasn’t tried the medium PLAY ANCHORHEAD
    …the best I’ve ever played, and transcends the genre. For a game with no graphics the visual memories are astounding, the atmosphere will absolutely sweep you away. Seriously, play it.

  9. Kieron Gillen says:

    Bobsy: You are your younger sister who tries to control videogame characters by throwing the joypad around.


  10. Bobsy says:

    You bastard.

    No, it’s not that. I just invariably treat IF as a two-way process. If the game gets to be that verbose and elegant in its prose, then so should I. I don’t see why I should be treated as verbally crippled when we could be equal partners in this texty charade.

  11. Kieron Gillen says:

    Have you tried this one, by the way? I’d give it a shot. The way the responses work really do guide you towards doing the right thing. Your GF telling you the exact wordings of something, etc.


  12. realmenhuntinpacks says:

    as an interesting side note I am obsessively reading and posting here whilst a half finished essay on the christ-punching cotton industry sits out of view.

  13. Bobsy says:

    I gave it a brief and entirely unfair go. I started swearing at it pretty damn quick because it wouldn’t let me scream my face off.

    This is why I love the concept of MS Paint Adventures. Having a real live person pulling the strings makes all the difference, especially if a given puzzle is stupid and you just want to smash it to pieces.

  14. Bobsy says:

    Also, I get over-annoyed when the game has go at me for getting the syntax wrong. I take it… a bit personally I think.

  15. dadioflex says:

    I used to play IF back when we just called them adventure games. My favourite of all time was probably Lurking Horror, but I liked a lot of the early Level 9 stuff as well.

    Violet is probably the first IF I’ve played to completion since Lurking Horror. The difficulty and length was just pitch perfect for me. The IF equivalent of Portal, if you will.

    Of course it helps that I’m not in work, supposed to be writing my NaNoWriMo novel (which is a pile of crap) and consequently perfectly happy to pound nonsensical sentences into a parser.

  16. Jon says:

    So far Violet is pretty good, I’m currently scratching my head and trying to think of how I can put a key somewhere where I can then not retreive it from…..

  17. Kieron Gillen says:

    That was one of them which made me turn to the HINTs after a few really dodgy plans.


  18. Jon says:

    I’ve had my fair share of dodgy plans, I’ve lost 3 times already and I’m now at the stage where I am walking myself through the problem in my own room… ¬_¬

  19. Rob says:

    I absolutely love the nouns this one comes up with to address the player’s character: “crunchie”, “cheese nip”, “wallaroo”, “teacake”, “plucky wombat”, and on, and on. Worth playing just for that.

  20. Jon says:

    Latest dodgy plan foiled. I’d share but to some saying something that didn’t work could still be a spoiler.

  21. Bob Arctor says:

    Too long, gave up. Didn’t care enough. If it was freeform enough that I could go out there and hit Julia…

  22. dhex says:

    That is quite possibly the most tragic thing I have read in months. I feel sad now.

    imagine how i feel. someone made my wife into a videogame character and made me a girl!

  23. Down Rodeo says:

    Aw, that was so nice :)

    I’ll check out the other two as well, but I’m really happy now.

  24. Jon says:

    Had to resort to the hint for getting rid of the key, feel so stupid for not seeing that.

  25. solipsistnation says:

    That was pretty awesome.

    I have suggested that my wife the grad student try it out. She said “Oh good, just what I need.” But she’s a big text adventure fan from way back, so I hope she does…

  26. roBurky says:

    That was very good. And very funny.

  27. Riff says:

    Here is the master list of reviews for all the games in the competition.

  28. Zephyrtron says:

    Wow. Violet really is staggeringly good.
    That’s about as close to feeling like games can elicit the same emotional response as films, books or comic books that I’ve come to… well, ever.
    I’ve done no work today just playing with this, but it all seems worth it.

  29. Zephyrtron says:

    Also… possibly the best ever evocation of a credible and affecting relationship in any form of media/creative stuff I’ve experienced in *years*.

  30. Jon says:

    I’ve just finished Violet and well, I feel a little bit cheated. The pen puzzle I would never have got to without using the hints. And I feel that highlights a systemic problem with IF, it can essentially become a game of “Guess what the writer was thinking when they wrote this!” and you will probably be forced to resort to hints which for me, removes the satisfaction of finally finishing the game. [Can IF even be called games? Do you play them or read them? I suppose those are questions for another time…]

    I’m not sure if you could even have a freeform IF, the time spent writing every possible outcome or solution to every puzzle would be a mammoth undertaking. And this rigid linear path makes IF all but unreplayable. I really like the idea and nostalgic feel of IF but some of the implimentation really needs work.

    Perhaps I should write one…. Anyone know where I’d start?

  31. Theory says:

    This was going really well for me, then it was ruined by needing to look up a hint. Violet’s puzzles can be solved in any order, but the walkthrough gives you all of them in a big old list that I had to scroll through, reading in the process solutions for the puzzles I hadn’t encountered yet (thankfully, there weren’t too many left at this point).

    Everyone Dies suffered the same fate when I couldn’t work out the exact syntax needed for the final line. What else could “on the [spoiler removed]” possibly mean? Grr.

    Hopefully Nightfall will be a success from start to finish. Not that the others weren’t superb as well. :)

  32. Zephyrtron says:

    That’s a shame Theory, since you can just ask for hints in game… I thought even the hints were well written, revealing but satisfying still.

  33. Fede says:

    The in-game hints were great but not perfect. I had no idea where to find a lighter for example :)

  34. David Fisher says:

    Perhaps I should write one…. Anyone know where I’d start?
    There is some information about writing IF here: link to jacl.game-host.org:8080

    … and if you felt like trying another one room game:
    link to jayisgames.com

    David Fisher