Category Archives: 2013 Reviews

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 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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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 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, 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

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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Carl Muckenhoupt on Best Puzzles

Carl Muckenhoupt was the creator of Baf’s Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive, one of the first websites devoted to IF during the 1990s and the ancestor of IFDB. In 2001, he wrote The Gostak, one of the more extreme experiments in IF. Today, he works as a programmer for Telltale Games.

The Best Puzzles nominees for 2013 were Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, Coloratura, and Threediopolis.

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Iain Merrick on Best Technological Development

Iain Merrick discovered the IF community back when Curses was the hot new game, was a hotbed of discussion and the IF Archive was on, and he’s been hanging around ever since. He wrote an HTML-TADS interpreter called HyperTADS and a Glulx interpreter called Git, which seemed like a good name at the time. And no, he hasn’t finished writing Tourist Trap yet. Right now he’s working with Steve Jackson and inkle studios to bring their Sorcery! gamebook series to Android.

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

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