Aaron A. Reed has been attempting to be innovative with his interactive fiction for more than a decade, with occasional successes: his IF game Blue Lacuna has been widely admired by the community, and his IF-like-things 18 Cadence and Prom Week have been nominated for awards at IndieCade and IGF. He is the current organizer of the annual Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction. His latest game The Ice-Bound Concordance merges explorable text, a complex NPC, and a printed art book driven by augmented reality.
Caleb Wilson has written interactive fiction such as Lime Ergot, Starry Seeksorrow, and Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow, and has published non-interactive fiction in Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and other journals. He is currently working on a project for Choice of Games about an 18th century musical virtuoso.
Setting is one of my favorite things about IF. It has two meanings to me.
First, it’s the world where the fiction takes place. The four nominees for Best Setting all take place in interesting worlds, so I’ll write a bit about that.
But secondly, and this is what distinguishes a lot of IF from static fiction, setting is the world model: the nature of this created place you can roam around, comb over, backtrack through, and explore. Even without much of a narrative at all, you can still enjoy poking around a well-made world, whether it’s built of a grid of connected rooms, or links, or routes on a spinnable globe.
A simple definition of IF is fiction that includes mechanics: rules that determine how you experience the story. Taken this way, the world model of an IF is a big part of its mechanics: how the setting is laid out and what you can do there, what it feels like to navigate the world, and how this affects the narrative or gameplay. In general games are at their strongest when their mechanic matches their theme: I find that these four games all match mechanics to theme in interesting ways.
Yoon Ha Lee is the author of the IF The Moonlit Tower, which placed 4th in IF Comp 2002 and won the 2002 XYZZY Award for Best Writing. He also authored the StoryNexus game Winterstrike for Failbetter Games. His short story collection Conservation of Shadows came out from Prime Books in 2013, and his fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. His space opera novel Ninefox Gambit is forthcoming from Solaris Books in June 2016.
Joey Jones is a writer of text games including Andromeda Dreaming and Danse Nocturne. Co-author of the weird-fiction puzzler Sub Rosa in IF Comp 2015, he is currently working on a long-form ChoiceScript game set in the 18th century underworld.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai created the IGF-nominated stop motion musical extravaganza, Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” (XYZZY Award winner, Best Supplemental Materials), and is also responsible for The Play (XYZZY Award winner, Best Story), Impostor Syndrome, and Life Flashes By. They are currently in graduate school at UC Santa Cruz, where they are working on an intentionally awkward computer-assisted interactive theatre performance with audience participation.
The Best Story finalists were Coloratura, Horse Master, Solarium and ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III.
Yoon Ha Lee is the author of the IF The Moonlit Tower, which placed 4th in IF Comp 2002 and won the 2002 XYZZY Award for Best Writing. She also authored the StoryNexus game Winterstrike. Her short story collection Conservation of Shadows came out from Prime Books in 2013, and her fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues.
The Best Writing nominees for 2013 were Coloratura, their angelical understanding and You Will Select A Decision.