A Change of Venue?

For many years, the winners of the XYZZY Awards have been announced on ifMUD. In a community that mostly exists online, there’s immense value in bringing people together into the same virtual space to celebrate the best work being done in the field. Festivals need a sense of event, and the ceremony is a big part of what makes the XYZZYs fun.

But ifMUD has its problems as a venue. First and foremost, as a piece of tech it was already outdated and eccentric back when I first joined the community fifteen years ago. That fit right in with the heart of the parser-IF ethos – that an artistic community centred around an outmoded, economically unviable form could remain vibrant, innovative and productive. But it also means that, by modern expectations, its UI can be kind of a pain in the ass for many people to learn.

Second, ifMUD is as much – or more – a social community than it is an interactive fiction enthusiasts’ forum. Many of the ifMUD regulars don’t maintain much of an active interest in interactive fiction any more – they’re there to chat with their friends. Because it was built by its users, ifMUD has been steadily customised so that it fits their needs very well indeed, both in terms of technical affordances and in terms of culture. But this inevitably means that there are a lot of people whom it doesn’t suit at all (which isn’t a slam on ifMUD’s culture: it’d be true of any established social circle). This has always been the case; there was never a time when the whole IF world consisted of MUD regulars. But it’s a lot more true now.

Back in the day, the interactive fiction community was rec.*.int-fiction, and ifMUD was its social wing; it was a natural choice. But the growth and speciation of interactive fiction over the past five years mean that there really is no central IF community any more; there’s no truly neutral space.

So on the whole, using the MUD for the XYZZYs feels sort of like holding the school play in the auditorium at the local Elks. That’s fine, if you live in a town small enough that the Elks is the only place with a suitable auditorium, but it’s still a tiny bit awkward to shuffle through the wood panels and past the bar-room and underneath the regrettable taxidermy, while the old boys who just wanted to have a quiet whiskey with their buddies semi-ignore you. If there are better places to hold the ceremony, we should take a really good look at them.

So the question is: is there a better venue? What would a better venue look like?

As a start, here are the features that are non-negotiable:

  • Text-based. We’re a text game community. Text is the water we swim in.
  • Easy to use. There’s no sense in moving away from the MUD for ease-of-access reasons if the new platform isn’t a substantial interface improvement. (That means no IRC, for instance.) That probably means something that’s natively browser-based, for a start.
  • Free access. The XYZZYs don’t have a budget, and we certainly don’t want anyone to have to pay to attend.
  • Unlimited attendees – and still allows for clear communication when there are lots of people in the room. (In practice, I suspect we’ll always have substantially less than 100 attendees, but in principle I don’t want anybody to be turned away.)
  • Moderation tools. If someone shows up and acts like a jerk, we need to be able to issue warnings or show them the door.
  • Channels, or something like them. A way to distinguish the main action of the ceremony – talk from the presenters and the people accepting awards – from applause and conversation among the audience. (It’s no fun showing up to a party unless you can chat with the folks you meet there – but if everybody’s at maximum volume, it’s chaos.)
  • Some of these need to be private, so that the organisers and presenters can coordinate.

Things that would be nice, but that we can allow some wiggle-room on:

  • A simulated, customisable environment. Part of the fun of the ceremony is the fiction of a shared physical space.
  • No advertising. Ideally, it’d be something that could be set up on a personal server (perhaps the one ifMUD currently runs on, even), so that we retain ownership over our own space rather than camping out on the sufferance of some corporation’s cloud.
  • Transcripting: the ability to record the ceremony. Honestly, I don’t know how necessary this is; the past couple of years I’ve kept transcripts of the ceremony in case anybody asks for them, and nobody has. The role of the XYZZYs as a form of public record is served by the actual award categories, their finalists and winners: recording the ceremony is a footnote.
  • A way to pin certain information – in particular, a list of the winners as they’re read out, because otherwise latecomers ask about it every five minutes. In the past couple of years, I’ve mostly shifted this role over to the Twitter account, but something built-in would be nice too.

Is there anything else that needs to be on that list? Are there any extant tools or spaces that would obviously fit the bill?

2014 Awards results

The winners of the 2014 XYZZY Awards have been announced. Congratulations to all our winners, and many thanks to the many people who make the XYZZY Awards possible. I’ll be taking a short break before getting to work recruiting post-XYZZY analysis writers.

Without further ado, the results!

Best Game: 80 Days (inkle, Meg Jayanth)

Best Writing: With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

Best Story: 80 Days (inkle, Meg Jayanth)

Best Setting: Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin)

Best Puzzles: Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin)

Best NPCs: Creatures Such As We (Lynnea Glasser)

Best Individual Puzzle: the sequence of time-travel in Fifteen Minutes (Ade McT)

Best Individual NPC: the Empress in With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

Best Individual PC: the PC in the uncle who works for nintendo (michael lutz)

Best Implementation: Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin)

Best Use of Innovation: Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin)

Best Technological Development: Twine 2 and Inform 7 6L02 (tie)

Best Use of Multimedia: 80 Days (inkle, Meg Jayanth)

Awards ceremony this weekend

The winners of the 2014 XYZZY Awards will be announced in the usual ifMUD ceremony, held in the Grand Auditorium on April 26th at 12 noon US-Pacific / 3 PM US-Eastern / 8 PM UK. (The results will also be announced over Twitter: @XYZZYawards.) Please join us to celebrate the best IF of the past year.

To get to the Auditorium, go south, then east from the Long Hall. (The Long Hall is east of the Lounge.) The Auditorium doors don’t open until just before the ceremony.

You can vote through April 24. The XYZZYs use the same login system as the IF Comp, and the Comp site has changed around. Your IF Comp account will still work fine for voting, but if you want to make a new account you’ll have to register over at the IF Comp site.

You can also log in with an existing account, and then vote over here.

2014 XYZZY Awards finalists

First-round voting is complete; congratulations to all our finalists!

The XYZZYs use the same login system as the IF Comp, and the Comp site has changed around. Your IF Comp account will still work fine for voting, but if you want to make a new account you’ll have to register over at the IF Comp site.

You can also log in with an existing account, and then vote over here.

The finalists for the 2014 XYZZY Awards are:

Best Game

Best Writing

Best Story

Best Setting

Best Puzzles

Best NPCs

Best Individual Puzzle

  • Finding the treasure in More (Jason Dyer)
  • Sequence of time-travel in Fifteen Minutes (Ade McT)

Best Individual NPC

Best Individual PC

Best Implementation

Best Use of Innovation

Best Technological Development

Best Use of Multimedia

Some guidelines for voters to keep in mind:

  • Anyone may vote, and you can vote in both first and second rounds. One ballot per person.
  • Authors may not vote for their own work.
  • While we’re happy for you to talk up the XYZZYs, canvasing for votes is strongly discouraged, either for your own game or on behalf of others. It’s fine to talk about the XYZZYs – but if doing so results in a flood of voters all voting for the same game, those votes will be discounted.

Second-round voting will close on April 25th at 0:01 US-Pacific.

2014 XYZZY Awards, first-round voting open

The XYZZY Awards, honouring the best interactive fiction of 2014, are open for the first round of voting, whittling down hundreds of IF releases to a shortlist of 3-6 nominees in each category. Voting is open, so if you love interactive fiction, please consider taking part! (Your vote is especially important in the first round.)

Apologies for the slightly discombobulated login this year: the XYZZYs use the same login system as the IF Comp, and the Comp site has changed around. Your IF Comp account will still work fine for voting, but if you want to make a new account you’ll have to register over at the IF Comp site.

You can also log in with an existing account, and then vote over here.


Some guidelines for voters to keep in mind:

  • Anyone may vote, and you can vote in both first and second rounds. One ballot per person.
  • Authors may not vote for their own work.
  • While we’re happy for you to talk up the XYZZYs, canvasing for votes is strongly discouraged, either for your own game or on behalf of others. It’s fine to talk about the XYZZYs – but if doing so results in a flood of voters all voting for the same game, those votes will be discounted.

First-round voting closes April 5 at 0:01:00 US-Pacific.

Ineligible Games for 2014 Awards

We’re about done with compiling the list of eligible games for 2014. In line with previous years, and the interests of transparency, I’m also going to list the games which are listed on IFDB but were ineligible (and if I’ve done so in error, please let me know.)

In addition to an IFDB listing, a game needs to meet some minimal standards to be eligible for XYZZY voting:

Exists, in a form accessible to the general public. IFDB gets a certain number of entries from games which the author only plans to make, or which were only ever hosted in one place and are now gone. Neither are eligible. (It is often difficult, in practice, to distinguish one from the other.) A quick search is sometimes done if it seems likely, but we can’t exhaustively track down every game – so if you can do so, we’ll be happy to reinstate them.

This means that Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone – released as ephemeral, but archived in various places – is eligible, but Ultimate Quest, a commercial work no longer available, is not. Entries ruled out for apparent non-existence include:

The Conversation I Can’t Have, Morgan Rille
Cuttings, nahuel denegri
Escaping a Nightmare, Wolly Wombat
Fire Safety Simulator, Luckyskull2
Normal Forest By Day, Dark Forest By Night Lepak, Vo, Lee, Thomack
Halloween, Tom Pod
He Grabbed a Hammer, Timothy Butcher
Hell’s Basement, Simon Leek, Peter Laskin
Hello, Nathan, TheSuperiorRealms
The Hunting Trip, whoshotjfk?
Into a mind of madness D.B.T.
La Source De Zig, Benjamin Roux
Lana’s Return, steter90
Landing in Nigeria, Nnamdi Christopher Iroaganachi
Match Made in Steel, aarthur9
Outbreak Day 2 : The journey begins, Andre Berthiaume
Postponing Destiny, Lindsey Gregor
Rhino Cyborgs, Rhino Cyborgs
The Sacred Staff of Deck Koji, ‘Dr. Al Gore’
Saturday Night, Eric Brasure
Second Destiny, Anonymous
Sir Gawain, Tasha McCartney
transgresion181288, luis sanchez
Ultimate Quest, Emily Short
Under a Mountain, niinik
Worst Day Ever, tynichole
You Can’t Go Out For A Cigarette In Space, Justin Hurst

Released as complete in applicable year. Each work only gets one shot at the awards, so we prefer to wait until they’re ready for it. This is an increasingly indefinite category, so we mostly rely on cues from the author for this. If an author describes the game with words like ‘alpha’, ‘beta’, ‘demo’, ‘unfinished’, ‘intro’, ‘test’, ‘under construction’ or the like, or if it’s an Introcomp release, we take the author’s word for it. This doesn’t apply to episodic works released as separate chapters.

Ports, updated versions, and re-releases are considered to already have been released, and are not eligible. Adaptations, remixes and translations are. (Again, this is something of a rule of thumb. Jim Aikin’s 2006 game Last Resort, considerably expanded and renamed Lydia’s Heart, was deemed eligible for the 2007 Awards.)

Bear Creek, Part 1, Wes Modes
Chalk Circles, Paul Jessup
The Night and Stars, Jufry Ananta
Scaffold 22, MoLoLu
Sigmund’s Quest, Gregor Holtz
Find the Gold: An Easy-To-Read Adventure, IFforEducation
SpirI7wrak, Otis T. Dog
Dark Unknown Planet, Mark Eaton, Barrie Eaton

Interactive fiction. This is a highly nebulous term for which we have not yet adopted a tidy standard, largely on the grounds that the communities we serve haven’t either; for now, we use best judgement, and apply sparingly – really only for hapless authors who have wandered into IFDB without any context, or for the eventuality that someone puts in a joke entry for Call of Duty. No games were rejected under this standard this year.

Best Supplemental Materials is now Best Use of Multimedia

Back in 2010, the XYZZYs changed up the awards roster, creating (among other things) the new category Best Supplemental Materials. Based on community feedback, the award was specifically crafted to focus on material outside the work proper – predominantly feelies and books.

There are some historical reasons for that focus, but these don’t seem as relevant to games being made now. In an age where IF is overwhelmingly distributed by download – which has been the case for over two decades – feelies are inevitably a little anachronistic. A really cool anachronism, to be sure – but it’s tough to justify as the centre of a category, or to expect that they’ll appear in a wealth of games each year.

As such, the award has always been a little bit uncomfortably apples-and-oranges. Nobody would really deny that Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 was deserving of the inaugral 2010 award – but at the same time, its competitors included a teaser image for the as-yet-unreleased Counterfeit Monkey – nice work, to be sure, but odd to weigh on the same scales. Supplemental Materials has had the lowest first-round voting of any category; I think this indicates that it’s confusing and doesn’t quite fit with what’s needed. Some voters have used it to vote for in-game art, which – as was the case with Best Use of Medium before it was split in two – suggests a need that wasn’t being clearly addressed. And text-entry always presents a problem about how specific or general a nomination should be.

So this year, we’re renaming the award Best Use of Multimedia and making it a drop-down choice rather than a text-entry one. (We’re conscious of the irony that this bold, forward-thinking word choice puts us into the bright new era of 1997.) The award covers all aspects of media used by a game, beyond straight text within the game itself: sound and graphics, presentation and fancy text effects, feelies, tie-in novels, whatever. This does exclude work in the IF sphere that wasn’t tied to a specific game – though if Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 was released today, you could still justify it under Sand-dancer.

Stay tuned for the first round. (We are running behind a little this year, for which I apologise.)

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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