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IF Only: IF Comp 2016

Biggest festival of the IF year

My friends: IF Comp 2016 is now open.

If you're new to interactive fiction, you may not be familiar with the IF community calendar, so let me quickly explain why you've arrived at the best time of year.

IF Comp is an interactive fiction competition that has been running continuously for twenty-two years. These days, it accounts for a hefty percentage of the new freeware work released each year: dozens and dozens of delicious brand new games, dropping in all at once on or about October 1. A lot of greatest hits from the past debuted in an IF Comp at some point: Photopia, Shade, Lost Pig.

Last year's IF Comp was in my view the best competition to date — over fifty games, spanning a wide range of game styles and writing tools, including some particularly quality works such as Birdland, Cape, Map, Midnight. Swordfight., and Brain-Guzzlers from Beyond!

This year, IF Comp 2016 opened with 58 entries, the largest selection of new games in its history.

The presence of all these great new games is only part of what makes IF Comp exciting. It's also a time when the IF community comes together to comment, review, and give feedback. That feedback is sometimes brief or silly, occasionally harsh, but it typically includes thoughtful commentary on the new work as both narrative and game. The fact of this festival where everyone is playing and talking about the same games is part of what gives the IF community its critical depth.

And now you're invited, at whatever level of involvement you like. You can play any of the games for free. Browse through the list of work and pick something that takes your fancy. If you play at least five games, you can sign up as a judge and submit scores on a scale of 1-10, and help determine what wins. If you want to go deeper, you can read community reviews as they come out: ifwiki links to review sites where you can find coverage. And, of course, you can write reviews yourself. (JOIN US, JOIN US.)

I'll be continuing to cover IF Comp here through the rest of October and early November, but I'll start now with a few selected suggestions from the new batch.

Screenshot from The Queen's Menagerie

The Queen's Menagerie (Chandler Groover, semi-choice) is a puzzleless Texture piece that invites the player to explore the feeding ritual of the queen's monsters. There's no challenge to the piece, but you're deciding how and what to feed to the various beasts: Texture with its drag-and-apply verbs makes this feel like a more effortful and tactile experience than simply clicking on links would have done. You get to really spend some time with these creatures and their appetites.

The screenshot here probably gives you a good sense of whether you're going to enjoy this: if you don't like the prose and the imagery and the atmosphere of decadent darkness, Menagerie is not for you. As a general rule, I would skip with extreme prejudice any game that tried to use "I ween" in character dialogue, but Menagerie does pull this off. Groover has a gift for surprising dialects and baroque choices.

And: "Sir Manfred divorces his grip from his weapon." I love this sentence. It conveys so much more than "Manfred lets go of his sword hilt." The knight's been holding on tightly, and even now, he doesn't really want to let go. It gives us not just the moment of action, but what led up to it and what follows from it. Though this is not a long piece, individual passages of prose are doing a lot of work.

Dark, short, suitable for Gothic tastes, good for 10-15 minutes of play. Probably not for small children.

Screenshot from 16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds

16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds (Abigail Corfman, choice-based). Abigail Corfman is the author of Open Sorcery, a big, satisfying Twine game about magic and firewalls (really). 16 Ways... is a puzzly Twine game in which the protagonist is one of a Buffy-style vampire-fighting gang. When you encounter a vampire without the rest of your usual backup, though, you'll need to figure out how to get rid of the unsavory thing, using only goods and products available in or around a fast-food restaurant.

There are at least sixteen ways to kill the vampire, and some non-killing endings as well, which makes this piece a very branchy puzzler with a lot of possible outcomes. As with Open Sorcery, 16 Ways... also offers the player some insight into the private lives and the different world views of its characters. The initiating premise might be Buffy-esque, but 16 Ways..., unlike any Buffy episode I can recall, introduces at least one character whose power against the vampire is based in genuine religious faith. Other people do wield crosses and holy water as though they're just magic weapons; but not everyone thinks identically.

I don't want to over-egg this: the primary experience of 16 Ways... is an amusing, slightly snarky puzzler with a lot of different possible solutions or failure states. But the humane attitude towards its characters is very welcome.

I've played this to several endings, which took me about half an hour; I may well come back and try for more. Not too dark, sometimes funny, but with moments of real feeling as well.

Screenshot from Fair

Fair (Hanon Ondricek, parser-based). Ondricek has a history of writing games with a lot of procedural complexity, where numerous non-player characters are moving around on their own and there's a great deal to keep track of. From previous years, Transparent (a haunted house story) and The Baker of Shireton (a satirical riff on MMOs) provided plenty of interesting activities for the player, but were too overwhelming to really complete (at least for me) in the two hours allotted for IF Comp judging. Still, those pieces had a lot going for them — like the Baker of Shireton's funny autogenerated stories, and the evolving landscape of Transparent.

Now Ondricek is back with Fair, which shows a lot of the same strengths but in a more compact, competition-friendly form. The premise is that you are a fairly liberal science fiction author brought in to judge a school science fair in a conservative district: one of the first events is that the principal welcomes you and asks you to pray for the person who usually judges these events, as he's out sick.

There are several different ways to approach playing the game (try to offload your unsold books? explore the fair? make a serious attempt to judge the science, or focus on interviewing the students themselves?). Any individual run-through isn't likely to be all that long, at least not until you've discovered one of the game's key mechanical secrets.

I got tolerable outcomes from my first couple of plays, but it wasn't until I'd come back three or four times that I really started to feel like I understood all the characters and their interlocking agendas — as well as the best possible outcomes for my protagonist. It's a story in which you can not only set your own goals, but also come to different moral stances on those goals: in one playthrough, I discovered an option I considered pretty repugnant, and in the next, I discovered a motive that might notionally justify taking that option. And happily, the game is structured so that by the point I felt like I'd solved the major challenges, I also felt like I'd extracted all the story content I was looking for.

One little clue: It's sometimes worth examining things more than once; SEARCH doesn't have the same effect.

Sunny and entertaining with a good bit of satire; took me around 75 minutes to play as many times as I needed to.

Screenshot from This is My Memory of First Heartbreak

This is My Memory of First Heartbreak, Which I Can't Quite Piece Back Together (Jenny Goldstick, Stephen Betts and Owen Roberts, choice-based). This one is definitely on the story end of the spectrum: we're shown beautifully illustrated vignettes from the life of a couple. There's nothing we can do to change what they say to one another, how they feel about one another whether they stay or go; but at the end of each vignette, we can pick one of several props and see another vignette evoked by the same prop.

It's a mechanic that captures the unreliable and allusive nature of memory. Static from an airport loudspeaker reminds us of static from a car; the sound of a slamming door recapitulates another slam at another time. There's quite a lot of content, too, enough to spool through the memories several times without seeing the same vignette over again (though if you happen to land on something you've already seen, the Skip button will move things along for you).

It also invites us to navigate thematically rather than through the chronology of the plot — a technique that's comparatively uncommon, though not totally unknown, in IF.

Emotional, elegant; I played several times over the course of about 30 minutes, but might well return for more.

[Disclosures: Emily has not to the best of her knowledge met any of the 2016 IF Comp authors mentioned here. More generally, Emily Short is not a journalist by trade and works professionally with various interactive fiction publishers. You can find out more about her commercial affiliations at her website.]

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Emily Short