Emily Short on Best Individual Puzzle

Emily Short is the author of Best Puzzles winners Savoir-Faire and Counterfeit Monkey. She assists in maintaining Inform 7 and is one of the leads on the character-centric IF system Versu. She blogs about interactive storytelling at emshort.wordpress.com and can also be found at meetings of the Oxford and London Interactive Fiction Meetup.

The 2013 Best Individual Puzzle finalists were Threediopolis, Chemistry and Physics, Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, Faithful Companion, Coloratura and ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III.

As I was writing this, I found myself repeating some of the same explanations and concepts in multiple reviews. So, at the risk of making this as much an essay as a review set, I thought I’d start by enumerating some features that I think make a puzzle particularly memorable:

Extent. Does the puzzle provide a significant amount of gameplay, and (equally important) does it stay fresh throughout? There are plenty of puzzles that require many turns to solve without being intellectually satisfying: 15-puzzles, straightforward mazes, towers of Hanoi, and all their equivalents are generally frowned on in IF because the bulk of the player’s effort goes into applying a solution algorithm rather than into discovering what that algorithm should be. On the other hand, puzzles that can be solved in a single move may feel a bit lightweight unless that move requires quite a bit of thinking first.

Explorability. Does the puzzle respond well to failed attempts at a solution? Is it fun to work on even before it’s solved? Is it a good toy as well as a good puzzle? If the player doesn’t immediately understand how the puzzle works, is the implementation responsive enough to help her learn what to do? Suveh Nux is a classic example of the highly explorable puzzle, offering the player lots of entertaining Easter egg rewards for playing with the mechanic while simultaneously helping her more thoroughly understand what the magic syllables do. An entertaining narrator can also improve puzzle explorability: the personality of Grunk in Lost Pig adds charm and humor to the exploration moves required in that game.

Surprise. Does the puzzle require a significant mental leap or a change of perspective to solve? Does it leave the player with the sensation that the world means something different than she expected, like the key puzzle in Photopia? Or does it require assembling diverse bits of information from different sources, or extrapolating further implications of clues learned earlier, like the most famous puzzle in Spider & Web?

Ingenuity. Is the puzzle complex enough that it leaves the player with a sense of mastery afterward, having put together a way through such a difficult terrain? This sounds like it means the same thing as “is the puzzle really hard?”, but with sufficiently good design it’s possible to make a puzzle that leads the player gradually through the learning necessary to implement a fiendishly complicated solution. There are exceptions, but high-ingenuity puzzles most often appear either a) towards the end of a puzzle game with a lot of easier preliminary puzzles, or b) in games that are meant to be replayed a great deal. The Babel Fish puzzle from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a classic high-ingenuity puzzle, as is the core puzzle of Rematch.

Originality. Does the puzzle present a challenge of a type that hasn’t been seen before, or hasn’t been seen in this genre? Or, alternatively, does it subvert the expectations associated with that puzzle type? Sliding a mat under a door to catch a key poked through from the other side is an ingenious puzzle — it’s just also one that has appeared many times in the IF literature and now qualifies more as a chore than a puzzle, at least for experienced players.

Fairness/accessibility. Is the puzzle consistent on its own terms? Does it avoid making the player read the author’s mind? Does it offer multiple solutions, or allow for partial successes? Does it avoid requiring esoteric knowledge from outside the game that only some players are likely to possess? When the puzzle has been solved, does it retrospectively make sense?

Structural integration. How does this puzzle fit into the overall puzzle design of the game? Is it a first introduction to an important new mechanic or ability, promising a wealth of entertaining gameplay to come? A capstone requiring the player to have learned from a number of earlier puzzles first?

Narrative integration. Is the puzzle thematically relevant to what is going on in the game? Is it a natural fit for its setting? Does solving the puzzle require the player to acquire or demonstrate an understanding of what is going on at the narrative level? How high are the stakes for solving it? Is the player rewarded for the solution with a key event or important new story information? Solving even a simple puzzle can be a powerful moment if it constitutes a critical transition in its story. Make It Good is possibly my gold standard for narrative integration, with puzzles that teach a detailed understanding of the story one is trying to resolve.

I’m by no means proposing this as some sort of scoring system or checklist. It’s exceptionally rare for a puzzle to demonstrate all of those qualities at once, and they’re not equally desirable in all contexts. Indeed, some of these values are typically at odds with one another: it is not easy to make a puzzle that incorporates both explorability and surprise. A puzzle with high narrative stakes and long extent can also be tricky, because tense narrative moments often need to be timed. Puzzles in choice-based games often have an easier time with accessibility than parser games (no guess the verb!), but a harder time achieving surprise (options are enumerated!). Etc.

Rather, nominees in this category showcase the diverse ways that a puzzle can succeed.

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XYZZY Reviews Standards, Public Draft

As part of an effort to  tighten up the post-Awards review panel, I’ve drafted some standards. They’ve been through a private edit, but before we commit to them for next year it’s worth putting them up for public comment.

The alternative title of this might be The Rights and Responsibilities of the In-Depth Reviewer; if you needed to condense those to one line, it’d be ‘to be diligent and to be honest.’

(In other news, I’m also considering alternate titles, since ‘Reviews’ might give the wrong impression. ‘Analyses’ has been suggested, but though accurate, that’s kind of a clunker.)

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How We Need to Fix Things

OK. I’ve had a run to burn off my fighting mood and a walk to get my brain working, and here’s where things are going.

When I started the Pseudo-Official XYZZY Reviews, a couple of years ago, it was strictly a side-project. It ended up on the Awards site, but it was off in a little corner and didn’t feel as if it was part of the main thing. It was my first year helping out with the Awards, and I didn’t want to rock the boat too hard. The Reviews were to a large degree an attempt to encourage the kind of IF writing that wanted to see more of; as far as recruitment goes, I just made public posts asking if people wanted to participate. I got a lot of responses and didn’t turn anyone away, even if their work didn’t fully meet the expectations I had for the project, because those were just my expectations, and who am I to make demands, right? While the results were decidedly mixed, nobody cared all that much, because it was all bonus.

The next year, things got changed around: instead of putting out a general call, I headhunted known-quality reviewers, preferably with category-specific expertise or interests. This worked way better, both in terms of the raw number of responses and in how consistently the reviewers were able to match the expectations I had for the event – which were still articulated as an informal list of rough principles. In a last-minute decision based on the realisation that doing it the old way was stupid, the reviews got adapted to blog format, moved to the front page of the site and rolled out slowly, rather than getting dumped en masse in one gigantic plain-HTML page.

This year… was mostly treated like last year again, apart from doing a bit more to promote it. That was an error, partly because ‘business as usual’ often tends to mean ‘let things slide’, and partly because the thing’s nature was changing even if I wasn’t.

The response to the last post has made it clear that a bunch of people who are not me have taken on some of those expectations. Which is great news (please! go and write similar things in other venues! I want your essay on representations of power in early Cadre!), but it means that now I have to take the job of fulfilling them more seriously. So, it’s probably time to drop the Pseudo part, acknowledge that this has become an established component of the Awards, and start treating it as such. What does that entail?

  • In the short term, I’ll be bringing on another writer or two to take a second pass at Individual Puzzles. Individual Puzzle is an inherently tough category to tackle. In an ideal world, 2+ reviewers per category serve as the safety-valve for when a reviewer reacts strongly against a work. In an imperfect one, where we will often be unable to ensure that level of coverage, we obviously need other mechanisms. This is a stopgap, not a long-term solution. (And it will, for reasons that I hope are clear, take a little while.)
  • We’ll be drafting a document laying out in detail the expectations for what the reviews should be, so that both the people writing and reading them are given a clear picture. We have some informal lists of goals and mission-statement-ish things right now, but they’re not really something you can work to. The final result will not satisfy everybody, but it will at least give us all a concrete point of reference.
  • The event will probably move to later in the year. Initially, the idea was to have the reviews form part of the same event, more or less, as the ceremony. That’s more fun, but it inevitably loads all the socially-hardest work of running the Awards into the same time-period, so it’s not really compatible with giving the Reviews the degree of attention they require.
  • I’ll be looking into a system of sub-editors, or peer review among writers. More eyes on a thing makes for better results. I don’t want my volunteers working alone in the dark, and alone I am not able to give them all the support that they should have.
  • A name change. The Pseudo bit is a caveat, basically, and if that doesn’t fly any more then it’s just deadweight. It’s been pointed out, too, that ‘reviews’ may suggest the wrong emphasis.

Let me be absolutely clear. I’m not blaming Lucian for this: he worked to the standards he was given, ran into some honest bad luck with his games, and ran into a deadline. Any failure here is mine, and I apologise for it.

Finally: my volunteers produce giant piles of quality work. They’re talented people with other commitments, who have agreed to do a challenging job with rewards that barely count as for exposure. If I’ve asked them to participate, that means I value their labour and trust their ability for the task. Please keep this in mind in your responses.

Lucian Smith on Best Individual Puzzle

Hi!  I’m Lucian Smith, and back in the day (that day being a Tuesday in 1997), I wrote a puzzle that ended up winning that year’s XYZZY Award for Best Individual Puzzle: the language puzzle in The Edifice (which also won Best Puzzles and that year’s IF Comp).  Since then, I’ve mostly dabbled or collaborated on the writing games end of things, but I’ve stayed involved in the community mostly through hanging out on ifMUD–my most recent significant contributions are probably hosting the XYZZY award presentations there, and writing the occasional reviews such as this one and the same thing last year.

As before, I’m not going to worry about spoiling the puzzles nominated here, and will be assuming that you’ve played the entirety of all the games, or at least that you’ve played all of the games you want to before reading this review.

All my transcripts of the transcriptable games are available at https://drive.google.com/#folders/0B71r5kLs3FliRkMzVW5JdWtkNTA. As a side note, the lack of transcriptability for the CYOA games continues to be a horrible deficiency in the system, and I’m frankly astonished that any system can have lasted this long without it.

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Dannii Willis on Best Technological Development

Dannii Willis is the maintainer of Parchment and a developer of Kerkerkruip. He hopes to one day produce a work of IF himself, but for now his creativity seems limited to the ones and zeros of technology.

The finalists for Best Technological Development were adv3lite, Twine 1.4 and Versu.

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Joey Jones on Best Use of Innovation

Joey Jones is the co-author of philosophy romp The Chinese Room, and Calm, a post-apocalyptic tea-drinking simulator. Interested in pushing the boundaries of parser fiction, he was behind the meta-fictional IFDB Spelunking and is currently working on a much expanded re-release of the adverb-only blank verse game, Danse Nocturne. His interests include literature, foraging, and the abolition of paid employment.

The Best Use of Innovation finalists were Trapped in Time, Final Girl, 18 Cadence, Sorcery!, Ex Nihilo and Castle of the Red Prince.

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Jenni Polodna on Best Puzzles

Jenni Polodna has written one interactive fiction game; it is called Dinner Bell and people seem to like it fine.  You can read her loud opinions about competition games and other things at pissylittlesausages.wordpress.com, if that seems like a good idea for some reason.

She and Ryan Veeder also have a podcast called Clash of the Type-Ins (Ryan’s idea) where they play IF games over Skype with the people who wrote them.  You can find it at rcveeder.net/clash.

The finalists for Best Puzzles were Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, Coloratura, and Threediopolis.

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Emma Joyce on Best Setting

Emma Joyce has written a handful of small IF games, one of which once won a contest by virtue of being the only entrant. She has also written a number of reviews for IF games, including some of last year’s semi-official XYZZY reviews for the Best Story nominees.

The Best Setting finalists were Choice of the Deathless, Horse Master, Robin & Orchid, their angelical understanding and Coloratura.

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Katherine Morayati on Best Writing

Katherine Morayati is the author of Broken Legs, which took second place in 2009’s Interactive Fiction Competition and was nominated for several XYZZYs, winning Best NPCs and Best Individual PC.  By day and by night, she writes about music (as Katherine St. Asaph, which is a long story that involves Steps) for a whole bunch of places. She promises she will finish another game soon.

The Best Writing finalists were Coloratura, their angelical understanding and You Will Select A Decision.

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Joey Jones on Best Implementation

Joey Jones is the co-author of philosophy romp The Chinese Room, and Calma post-apocalyptic tea-drinking simulator. Interested in pushing the boundaries of parser fiction, he was behind the meta-fictional IFDB Spelunking and is currently working on a much expanded re-release of the adverb-only blank verse game, Danse NocturneHis interests include literature, foraging, and the abolition of paid employment.

The finalists for Implementation were Trapped in Time, Depression Quest, their angelical understanding, Coloratura and Robin and Orchid.

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