Author Archives: Katherine Morayati

I’m Your Forgotten Past: The Dubious History of Interactive Film

By Katherine Morayati

Mention “interactive fiction” to someone of a certain age – too young for Infocom, too old for whatever they’re calling “millennial” today — and you’d be forgiven a little skepticism. You might know 1995 as the year hobbyist IF sprouted from near-barren cultural ground, but they might know 1995 as a particularly dubious time in interactive entertainment. A lot of things were converging: the mass-mainstreaming of the World Wide Web, the sudden feasibility of sophisticated graphics and video on everyday personal computers, the now-quaint lack of irony regarding anything futuristic. In short, interactivity was the new hotness, and everyone wanted it. Historical sites could be “explored” via CD-ROM recreations that invariably resembled Doom levels. Musicians yoked all sorts of PC-based frippery to their albums. (Among the auteurs who bit: Prince, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel.) Huge amounts of effort – much crass, some genuinely good – spent on what would become obscure, if sometimes fascinating, ephemera. (Let it be a cautionary tale for those repeating history.)

But the Holy Grail was, and perhaps is, interactive film. Video games, after all, have aspired to cinema since the technology advanced enough to make such aspirations feasible; arguably, modern blockbuster cinema aspires in the other direction. Each field tends to think the other is easier than it is. But the leap from choose-your-own-adventure books to film – even short film – is particularly difficult. What can be conveyed in writing with a couple dozen words and imagination serving as cast, crew and designer is exponentially more difficult (and time-consuming, and expensive) in film. And all this assumes a single-player experience – how does this translate to a movie theater without devolving into Twitch Plays-style bickering?

Enter Interfilm, which signed a deal with Sony to outfit more than 40 theaters with a proprietary joystick rig that allowed audiences to vote for where they wanted the film playing to go. The idea wasn’t exactly novel. Interactive theater had been done; 1985’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an unfinished Dickens novel, allowed the audience to vote for the desired murderer, romantic pairings and secret identities, oddly reminiscent of the same year’s adaptation of Clue. (For an IF-world take on this, see Dietrich Squinkifier’s Coffee! A Misunderstanding.) Interactive film, too, had been attempted as early as 1967, with the Czechoslovak World’s Fair entry Kinoautomat. All these were comparatively well-received. So what went wrong? Intra-corporate bickering, perhaps; a failure to recall history, littered with short-lived “immersive” gimmicks like Emergo, Percepto, Illusion-O, Smell-O-Vision…; or most fatally, a level of pandering to the 18-34 male demographic resulting in such noteworthy cinema as robot grossout-revenge flick Mr. Payback, which Roger Ebert (perhaps foreshadowing his later stance on games?) called the worst film of 1995. It’s a movie with the rare distinction of being so bad, it’s literally unwatchable; when your film relies on proprietary, brick-and-mortar robo-sadism installations, that’s not gonna translate to YouTube even if someone wanted it to. And its counterparts, Adam West vehicle Ride For Your Life and blow-shit-up excuse Bombmeister (stymied by a certain incident in Oklahoma City), have also disappeared, save for their trailers.

The exception is 1992’s I’m Your Man, released on DVD during yet another renaissance of the idea, Tender Loving Care and Point of View. (The idea seems silly, but so did reviving 3D, right?) The film can still be found used, for those with morbid curiosity, questionable senses of humor, friends with both, and no aversion to the seller slipping up and sending a Leonard Cohen film instead. It so happens that I am all of these things. (If you are not, the intro can be watched online.)

The most striking thing about I’m Your Man is, despite its tropiness, the utter lack of cynicism on the creators’ part – especially given Hollywood’s habit of prospecting every new technology for potential revenue streams and places to stake fan properties. The making-of video is stunningly earnest; everyone except the composer, who cheerfully admits his mediocre work-for-hire, everyone talks about the film in the breathless, uncontained voice of the true believer. In interviews, the creators admitted to fantasizing about satellite versions. Someone who probably is Bob Bejan – because who would impersonate someone on something this niche? – went so far to post an Amazon review of the DVD: “…As stupid as it looks, we spent A LOT of time thinking about it. To be totally honest, a bunch of us who were there are still thinking about it. … There is little question that we were ahead of the curve.” The subject: “Interactive narrative is HARD.” The score: 4 stars.

“Ahead of the curve” may be a little generous. The plot of I’m Your Man is thin, the standard love quadrilateral between the villain, the MacGuffin, the woman and the flirt. Jack, a hapless would-be audience stand-in whose main personality trait is being bad at flirting and, thanks to Kevin Seal’s VJ background, evoking a wry Carson Daly; Leslie, a transplanted Elaine Benes type and the actual audience stand-in; and aforementioned Richard, who is played by The Master from Buffy. There is action of sorts, but it’s either seconds-long gags or questionably filmed, somewhat appropriative fight scenes. There is urbanity, via a self-consciously pretentious gallery opening; there is humor, of the dubious one-liner sort. There is sexual tension, of a sort, but it’s mostly goofy and unsuccessful skirt-chasing or the kind of self-serious seduction (“Let’s dance… while we talk”) that’s all but disappeared from pop culture. It’s played for laughs, but with juuust enough plausible deniability that it is intended to be serious.

What, then (besides snark) would compel someone to watch this thing? Well, interactive narrative is indeed hard, and a lesson is always useful.


An axiom of interactive fiction: branching paths exponentially increase the amount of writing one has to do, not to mention the number of variables and plot points and world state the writer and simulation has to keep up with. Now imagine all that, with shooting. Little surprise, then, that I’m Your Man branches in name only. The entire structure fits on the back cover of the DVD and is a standard friendly gauntlet. Most of the primary plot events are fixed; the only choice is whether to watch them or leave them to exposition. What actual plot choices exist rejoin the main storyline relatively quickly. The effect is something of a Rashomon narrative: the story happens, and your main decision is who to follow through it.

Critics did not like this. (“This experience is not like watching a real movie … it is more like rooting for a basketball team,” wrote Caryn James of The New York Times.) Yet there’s something to the idea; filmmakers might be limited by shooting costs and logistics, but writers have no such limitation. You can get more plot and characterization mileage from 60 or 120 minutes than you can from 20. With this sort of branching you can avoid two choice-structure pitfalls at once: the railroading of the traditional gauntlet, the uncontained sprawl of the time cave. And you can get a lot more mileage if your assumed audience is not the kind of 13-year-old proto-bro who’d be found these days in the audience of Suicide Squad. Imagine something like Photopia rearranged chronologically, but with a choice of whose story to follow. Or perhaps something like Exhibition drawn out into a full-length story. (Both these examples are parser-based, but if anything this would be an even better fit for choice, less constrained by an object model.)


A side effect of the aforementioned bro-focus (brocus?) is that every narrative tends toward wish fulfillment. Consequences are irrelevant. Failure is abhorrent. Tragedies don’t happen. Every choice must somehow demonstrate how virile and awesome the PC, and by extension you, are. I’m Your Man follows this model. Most choices result in victories of some sort, however improbable: sudden feats of pepper spray, out-of-nowhere ninja moves. No matter how little game Jack has – a would-be flirtation scene finds him boasting about how, ah, fast he can get stuff done — Leslie can eventually acquiesce – it’s harder, and fits the story less, to make her not. There is no “bad ending,” no failure state; the player chooses which character achieves a “victory,” executed in-story via deus ex machina twist. The implications for CYOA writers are obvious.


Most negative reviews of interactive film have a curious, near-phallic fixation on the joysticks used, making what I’m sure seemed the obvious leap to video games, and their apparent inherent dudeliness. Technology has advanced considerably in the 20+ years since, but it’s still not quite possible to make the decision process physically seamless. There will always be an inescapable physical sign of gimmickry at work.

Interactive films addressed this by making whatever implements exist part of the story. (I’m Your Man does it via campy tutorial-style intro.) But perhaps it’s best to do the opposite. Put another way: a compelling story goes much farther than a villain who breaks the fourth wall to inform the audience that, if they don’t make their choice fast, their seats will dissolve into acid. Or, as it were, their computer.

Issue 64: Letter from the Editor and Call for Submissions

The IF world, like most artistic fields, is seasonal, and as in music and (to an extent) film, August is a slower month, full of what David Rakoff called “the opposite of hanging out.” If fall and spring are full of new content, awards and the occasional conference or two, late summer is that in-between season, one that looks languid on the surface but conceals a lot of hard work. Dozens of authors, as you read this, are preparing competition entries for the September deadline, or solidifying commercial pitches, or — for those really ahead of schedule — getting their work playtested.

If you’re like me, you’re taking a lot of breaks from being hard at work for such edifying pursuits as playing Minesweeper ripoffs and looking at online auctions for swing coats. But if you’re not like me, you’re using that time to read Issue 64 of SPAG — one I’m especially proud of!

For Issue 64, we’re taking an especially broad view of interactive fiction and its connections, both obvious and not, to other fields. This issue features the dubious, beyond-spotty history of interactive film, the evolution of storytelling in hidden-object games, and the applications of parser games to artificial intelligence research. Of course, we’ve got plenty of more traditional coverage as well, including a Specifics entry on Caelyn Sandel’s episodic piece Bloom and an interview with Brendan Patrick Hennessy, whose Birdland flew away with an entire gaggle of XYZZY Awards, as well as other, less forcedly metaphorical praise.

After you’re done reading, perhaps you’d like to contribute to our next issue? Issue 65, like this one, has no formal theme (as we’ve seen, these things tend to come together organically), but as always, welcome are:

  • SPAG Specifics on stories of your choice. These are less traditional reviews and more in-depth critical pieces on how a particular piece does what it does.
  • Interviews and/or reviews of figures in the IF world and/or adjacent to it, defined broadly.
  • Live coverage, if you live in an area with a significant live interactive fiction presence. This can range from exhibitions to conference coverage to performances to whatever the world dreams up. (Free pitch idea: if you’re a reader in the Toronto area attending the 2016 Wordplay Festival in early November who is not me, I’d like to hear from you.)
  • Essays of any kind. The more unexpected, the better.
  • Basically anything you can think of related to interactive fiction will be considered!

As always, I welcome pitches by and about women, people of color, LGBT and otherwise underrepresented writers. Also: there is payment commensurate with standard online writing rates.

Send pitches to There’s no deadline, but I’d love to hear from you! In keeping with our rough quarterly schedule, Issue 65 will likely arrive around late fall or winter. (What this means for you: anything related to 2016’s competition entries is probably best suited to #66.)

Thanks for reading as ever! We hope you enjoy this issue, and send us the makings of another great one.

Top Threes: Brendan Patrick Hennessy, “Birdland”

(Top Threes is a recurring interview feature in which we ask authors and other members of the interactive fiction community to talk about their favorite things, in their work and others’.)

Birdland cover art

Brendan Patrick Hennessy’s Birdland, his second competition entry, swept the 2015 XYZZY Awards with a near-record-setting six awards (second to Matt Wigdahl’s Aotearoa in 2009), including Best Game, Best Writing and Best PC/NPC. (Inspiring the following totally trivial but also totally adorable stat: 2015 is the first year the PC and NPC awards went to both halves of an in-story couple.) Since its release the game’s inspired an official epilogue, near-universal glowing praise and countless fan-works.

In keeping with our tradition of interviewing top XYZZY and competition finishers, we asked Hennessy to share his top three…

SPAG: …works of IF that inspired you?  

BPH: 1. Bee by Emily Short. I love it. It’s so wonderful. My favourite from Short’s entire oeuvre probably. It was the first time in the IF world I’d ever really encountered such a well-realized coming-of-age story with such a clearly defined protagonist, and it just totally blew me away. There’s so much about how it’s structured that really resonated with me and that I ended up trying to incorporate into my own work. The way it’s so clearly broken down into scenes, the mechanical cycle that propels the game forward, the sheer size of it. It’s just so good and I really hope a properly working version of it reappears one day.

2. Skulljhabit by Porpentine. It’s actually kinda hard to pick out just one Porpentine game, because pretty much every game of hers did something to expand my ideas of what IF in general and Twine specifically could be. But there was something about Skulljhabit. Something that really grabbed me, some vibe that I often catch myself trying to replicate in some small way, and I’m still not 100% sure what it actually was. Was it the setting? The tone? The opacity of the underlying systems? The deft use of randomization? Perhaps it was just the phrase “Correctly written by the Skull Commissioner”, which will be lodged inside my head until I die.

3. 80 Days is so damn good it makes me weep and I’ve played it like seven times. The fact that something so massive and so engrossing was created by actual living human beings is a source of constant inspiration for me. “A handful of regular nice people created this masterpiece just by working hard and being good,” my brain reminds me. “What’s your excuse?” And I’m like, “uh”

…of your favorite/least favorite YA books of the “truckload” you read while researching Birdland, as you shared earlier?

1. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. This is the one I completely fell in love with. It’s an astoundingly beautiful novel about growing up gay in rural Montana in the 1990s. And it goes places. Whatever heights you imagine are beyond the reach of YA, this book hits them.

2. A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner. So the classic queer story cliche, right, is to just kill a character as some kind of tragic punctuation mark. But this book takes death as a starting point and turns it around into a story that’s really precious and sweet. It’s about moving on from loss in an unfair world and that’s an idea that’s much more compelling than “HEY YOUR LIFE IS MISERY AND EVERYTHING IS SAD FOR YOU.”

3. I’m not going to throw shade on any specific least favourites, but I will say that all the worst ones I read made the same cardinal mistake of trying to literally impersonate teenage speech patterns. This is completely impossible and no adult will ever accomplish it.

…scenes or material left out of the final Birdland cut?

1. The campfire scene was originally going to have even more endings than the dozen or so that are in the final game. This included an ending where you explicitly came out of the closet to Bell, and one where you actually kissed her at that point in the game. I think in the scene they both would have been really sweet moments but from a broader story perspective it was still just too soon to give Bridget that moment. The other thing was that those branches were going to be behind tough statistics checks, but it was really jarring to have that mechanic intrude on that scene. It’s supposed to be a quiet moment where you’re letting your guard down, and inserting “ERROR YOU ARE NOT TENACIOUS ENOUGH” just completely kills that vibe entirely.

2. I cut an entire day from the game for pacing reasons. Most of the daytime stuff still wasn’t finished but I did have the seventh dream planned out. It was going to be an Indiana Jones style thing. To this day I mourn the loss of the phrase “The purpose of the archaeologist is to arrest the rise of fascism in Europe?”

3. The original ending was on the last day of camp and it had a great moment where all the counselors are back to normal and they’re all confused that camp is over so soon. Like, “Oh, is it just me or did camp feel exactly five days shorter than normal this year?” “Weird, I was going to say it felt four days shorter.” There was also a nice little goodbye with Mackenzie in there where she tells you to follow her on Instagram because she posts “weird pictures of clouds and normal pictures of weird clouds.”

…scenes or moments in Birdland you’re most proud of?

1. There’s a branch in the beach scene where if your melancholy is high enough you can actually break down and cry a little bit about your whole situation. I like how that branch plays out in general, but my favourite thing about it is that it’s a reward that the player has to earn. Like, the mechanic in this scene is: If you raise your stats and play the game well enough you unlock the ability to cry. I don’t know — there’s something I really like about that as an approach to having emotions in a game.

2. I was very happy with how the detective dream turned out because secretly I viewed it as a kind of do-over for Bell Park, Youth Detective. It actually has a much more complex structure than that original game, and as a result it’s a lot more fun to play around in. Weirdly I think it’s also more satisfying as a mystery story, even though it follows dream logic and doesn’t have a “real” solution.

3. That college student dream has so many amazing moments. The bird plan being derailed by hormones, Bridget’s huge out-of-nowhere rant about what it feels like to have a crush on someone, the gibberish poem that you recite in English class. And possibly my favourite little detail of all, the dream logic stage direction: “(You finish your beer and toss the bottle over your shoulder. It flies off into space.)

…TOTALLY OFFICIAL pieces of Birdland canon?

Officially I decline to answer this question because all canon is illusory. But unofficially here is a 100% canon summary of Liz’s post-Birdland experience:

2015 LIZ: Huh, why do I get such an overwhelming feeling of joy and excitement when I think of my lesbian friends in a relationship? Guess it’s because I’m a really good ally and absolutely no other reason besides that.
2018 LIZ: oh.

…works that missed out on XYZZY nominations you think voters should check out?

1. Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World by Jedediah Berry. This one slipped under a lot of radars I think since it came out in the middle of IF Comp, but it was a phenomenal piece of sci-fi with lots of interesting and evocative worldbuilding, and some really effective use of music/styling. I loved it. (See also Kevin Snow’s Beneath Floes for a really good Use of Multimedia that didn’t get its due.)

2. Scarlet Sails by Felicity Banks. I actually almost didn’t include this one in here because I was just assuming it had been nominated. But somehow it just missed out, which is a shame. The setting is rich and the adventure is rollicking and the whole thing just captures the feeling of perpetually on the edge of horrible piratey disaster.

3. The ClickVentures. All of them. Clickhole is one of the most consistently funny sites online, and their CYOAs are bizarre and brilliant. My favourite one is probably Can You Survive Seeing Grease on Broadway? (Which is technically a 2016 release, but whatever.)

Also, since we’re on the subject of comedy I’m going to give a bonus 3a shoutout to Bill Belichick Offseason Simulator. Jon Bois is too damn funny for this earth.

…things you want to write IF about someday?

1. 4th-century Chinese history. You ever read about the Sixteen Kingdoms? That shit is unreal.


3. Long-term I would kind of like to maybe just go full Degrassi and write some kind of big sweeping seasons-long Canadian teen soap opera. I think that would be a lot of fun. I think that would be the complete and utter end of me as a human being.

…pieces of advice for IF authors?

1. aaaaaa



[EDITOR’S NOTE: The author may be being a bit modest here. Further (excellent) advice can be found here, for those interested. Also, aaaaaaaaaaa.]

Issue 63: Letter From the Editor and Call for Submissions

Hello! At long last, Issue 63 of SPAG is upon us, at quite a prolific time IF events-wise — the XYZZY Awards just opened first-round voting, and a new crop of quite good IF works are available via Spring Thing. We’ve been at this IF thing for over a decade; we’ve come a long way from a spate of IF content in October then nothing. May it continue to flourish.

First, a little disclaimer about this issue. As many of you know, I was an entrant in 2015’s comp with Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory2015’s comp also saw an unusual amount of inter-author discussion and collaboration, and I’ve since come to consider many of my fellow entrants friends. Therefore, I’ve made the difficult decision that it would be a conflict of interest for SPAG to review the comp, as has been traditional in previous years. (To my knowledge, this situation has not previously come up for several years, if not a decade.)

That said! Spring Thing 2016 is now upon us, and CoI-free! Therefore, I’m soliciting reviews of Spring Thing entriesBack Garden and otherwise; as always, extra points for succinct and/or diversionary takes.

As always, I’m soliciting pitches as well! There’s no formal theme this time around, but always welcome are:

  • SPAG Specifics on stories of your choice. This issue features a Specifics entry on Slammed! by Paolo Chikiamco and Choice Of Games, but be more  (Issue 64, for instance, will feature an entry on interactive film.) (To be clear, this includes IFcomp entries. Except maybe mine. Unless you really want to.)
  • Interviews and/or reviews of figures in the IF world and/or adjacent to it. I define this broadly; if you’re wondering whether someone counts, it can’t hurt to get in touch!
  • Live coverage, if you live in an area with a significant live interactive fiction presence. This can range from exhibits, to conference coverage, to performances.
  • Essays of any kind. The more unexpected, the better.
  • Basically anything you can think of will be considered!

As always, I welcome pitches by and about women, people of color, LGBT and otherwise underrepresented writers.

Send pitches to There’s no deadline, but I’d love to hear from you! ETA for Issue 64 is late summer to fall.

In addition, SPAG is also seeking an artist! This primarily entails cover art — you can see past examples in back issues — but if you have something else in mind, I’d love to hear from you about this as well.

(Payment for all of the above can be negotiated.)

Thanks for reading as always! I hope you enjoy this issue.

Safeguarding Your IF Voting From Animal Attack

By Ted Casaubon

Last year, sci-fi fans were appalled to discover that the nominations for the 2015 Hugo Awards were dominated by a small but disgruntled and well-organized minority of the voters called the Puppies, who publicized a slate of candidates and voted mostly in lockstep. Almost all the Hugo nominees are unread by me, but the consensus was that the Puppies’ picks were motivated by racial and gender bias (at least in the case of the larger of the two Puppy factions, the Rabid Puppies) as well as a preference for the old-fashioned where plots are concerned. Some important categories didn’t have a single nominee that wasn’t drawn from the Puppy slates, leaving many voters with nothing to mark on their ballots but “No Award.” The sci-fi community quickly began debating voting reforms to stop the Puppies from repeating their victory in 2016.

Does the IF community have anything to learn from the sci-fi fans’ electoral strategizing? Are IF awards like the IF Comp and the XYZZY at risk of a similar raid by canines, alligators, or their evolutionary descendants?

In one sense the IF awards look even more vulnerable than the Hugos. The WorldCon organization requires voters to pay at least a $40 “supporting membership” fee to submit a Hugo ballot, but voting for the Comp and XYZZY awards has been free to anyone in the world whos willing to register on a website. That means it would be easier to coordinate a bloc of voters who otherwise wouldn’t vote at all. For the most part, open-voting IF awards’ obscurity has kept them secure. But history has shown that on the Internet, an angry mob can materialize overnight, and an IF game isn’t necessarily too small a target to attract trolls’ fury. And IF awards have few enough voters that even a small effort may prove statistically significant.

The XYZZYs have a somewhat vaguely-defined rule against voting blocs. Traditionally, entrants are given this guidance: “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.” For the 2011 XYZZY awards, Choice of Games reported that they effectively overwhelmed the voting with a single blog post encouraging their fans to vote for an eligible ChoiceScript game that year. (In a further affront to certain segments of the traditional IF community, the game that received the flood of votes was about zombies.) That year the XYZZY organizers threw out every ballot that didn’t vote for at least one game not written in ChoiceScript, and another game was crowned the winner. (To their credit, 2012’s post was scrupulous to avoid even the slightest inkling of a repeat.)

The IF Comp’s corresponding rule on bad-faith voting, adopted before the 2014 Comp, says that every judge who rates a game should make “a good-faith effort to actually play that game as intended” and the organizers “reserve the right to disqualify any ratings that appear to have been submitted under any other lcircumstances.” However, there’s no guarantee that there’ll always be a way to distinguish bloc voters’ ballots from everybody else’s, or any way to reconstruct what the result of an election would have been if an undesired “flood” of voters hadn’t happened. (This makes everything murky; last year’s comp saw rumblings of the fact, or perhaps coincidence, that every Twine game in the 2015 comp, without exception, received two 1/10 votes.)

I wish to apply a very, very light touch to this sort of negative enforcement,” IF Comp organizer Jason McIntosh wrote. “One of the best aspects of the IFComp is the annual array of very thoughtful reviews that all sorts of people write and publish. Some of these have, in recent years, begun to appear in high-profile commercial media. I would certainly not wish to conflate audience enthusiasm — resulting, I hope, in audience growth — with Sad/Rabid Puppies-style, bad-faith bloc voting!”

There is a limited release of post-Comp voting stats that allow fans to speculate about whether there was any unfair pattern in the ballots. McIntosh also pointed to the longstanding requirement for judges to rate at least five games as an important safeguard against “thoughtless ‘drive-by’ votes, or even well-intentioned votes where a person read a high-profile glowing review of a game, played it, and then did nothing else — which might prove imbalancing to the comp overall.”

One unique feature of the XYZZYs seems to give them an advantage over the Hugos in diluting voting slates: the XYZZY website lets each voter nominate only a single work per category in the nominating round. That means it wouldn’t be possible for a bunch of prospective ballot-stuffers to copy-paste a slate of games from a blog and turn that same slate into the entire second round list of nominees. It would at least demand a certain minimum amount of logistical effort for the bloc voters to coordinate their votes to make sure each entry on their slate scored over the threshold.

A proposal that’s been thrown around for Hugo voting is to allow a limited number of anti-votes in the nominating round. The IF Comp essentially has anti-votes already, because you can assign games you don’t like a “1.” For the XYZZYs (like the Hugos), there’s such a long tail of eligible but unworthy works each year that it wouldn’t be feasible to anti-vote for all of them. So, the only value in allowing anti-votes would be as failsafe against voting slates: when you hear that some person you don’t like has created a slate, you anti-vote for everything on it. On the downside, anti-votes would create a new weapon for trolls to wage personal vendettas and target quality works for political reasons, and the XYZZYs would have to join the Comp in awarding an annual Golden Banana of Discord.

A more interesting alternative was proposed in a discussion about the Hugos on Quora. The idea was to use “reweighted approval voting” in the nominating round, which would mean that after the candidate with the most nominating votes was placed on the nominee list, an elector who voted for that candidate would get only half a vote for deciding the second entry on the nominee list. If the elector voted for both of the first two candidates who made in on the nominee list, then the elector would get only a quarter of a vote for deciding the third nominee, and so on. Reweighted approval voting has the benefit of diluting coordinated voting blocs, but it also encourages tactical voting. If you’re confident your preferred candidate is the front-runner, you have a disincentive to vote for that candidate, because by doing so you dilute the votes that you could have used to decide who became the second nominee, the third, and so on.

Then there was the long discussion on Making Light that ended with another proposal inspired by the idea of diluting ballots that have votes for more than one front-runner. It uses a “single divisible vote with least popular elimination” system that asksgood-faith voters to divide up their vote among (ideally long) lists of potential nominees, and then whittles away the list of finalists by removing the least popular ones first and reassigning their share of the vote to the other candidates that shared the same ballots with them. In theory, the good-faith electors’ voting power will end up concentrated behind only the most popular entries on their longlists, while the bloc’s voting power will remain diluted if all the entries on their voting slate are about equally popular. Still, the good-faith voters may face a dilemma because if they nominate too many works, they’ll have no way to express a preference between them, and works with broad but lukewarm support might become the finalists.

The voting systems described above are all intended to ensure that a minority bloc doesn’t thwart the will of the majority. But the reality is that a majority voting bloc could be just as harmful to the integrity of an IF award, if it was the result of a raid on the polls from outside the community. The only real way to prevent that would be to limit who gets to vote. A time-tested way to keep out undesirables is to use Academy-style voting like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys, or a critics’ award like the Golden Globes. But it’s not easy to keep track of the membership of an academy, especially when the award organization is a few volunteers working for free. An IF academy would present particular problems because there’s no clear definition ofwhich works count as “IF,” and it’s almost certain that technological changes are going to expand the world of IF in unexpected directions. The enthusiastic ChoiceScript supporters were seen as invaders by the IF community in the 2011 XYZZYs, but with Creatures Such as We taking second place in the 2014 Comp and Scarlet Sails taking 7th in 2015, they probably wouldn’t be considered such outsiders today. Without knowing which works are IF, it’s hard to say whos a part of the IF community, and still harder to form an electorate that includes all of those people while keeping others out. No electoral system can be perfect, and the more disagreement there is about whose interests the system should serve, the more challenging it’ll be to craft rules that make the outcome feel legitimate to everybody.

SPAG Specifics: Paolo Chikiamco’s “Slammed!”

By Hugo Labrande

I am a really, really big wrestling fan. When I was 3 I loved the Bushwhackers (… yeah) and the Undertaker; I rediscovered wrestling 15 years later (still love the Undertaker) and was hooked for a long time. It’ll come to no surprise to you, then, that I think Slammed! is a really good game – but even if you don’t like wrestling or think it’s stupid, you should give it a shot: it is long, exciting and well-written.

In Slammed!, you play as a wrestler, learning the ropes at an independent federation and hoping to be noticed by the big federation, where a former friend is having some success. There are about four main love interests, two of whom are obvious and the others less so. All these are nicely integrated with the story, which is laudable. The game branches at the end, where you have three potential outcomes; my first playthrough took me about four hours, which is long for CoG.

Otherwise, Slammed! is mostly linear, with lots of immovable parts; the plot is exciting, but even the bad events are largely unavoidable, and what choices and stat changes exist are used to color your playthrough or reach optional side-quests or achievements. One coup, though, is how the game brings narrative tension to matches. After all, wrestling is “fake,” in the sense that the outcomes are predetermined and also the matches themselves to different degrees. If the game replicated this, the only choice you’d have in the ring is whether you deviate from the script, which would be boring (and would get you fired). To get around this, the game uses the concept of “shoot wrestling”, which is a real wrestling phenomenon: the matches become more like fights, albeit ones that still use wrestling moves and ensure nobody gets hurt too much. This makes fight scenes actually unpredictable — there are twists you don’t see coming — adds tension and suspense, and makes you able to lose.

All the scenes of Slammed are short, and all the moments feel exciting. There’s also a nice variety of normal scenes, flashbacks within interviews (with reflective choice points that build your character); but you also have blog posts from a blogger (Internet fans are a huge force in today’s wrestling, and the tone is well-emulated) and scenes described via the show’s “screenplay”, which both make the moment feel big (“the masked man stares down from the top of the steel cage”) and are nice thematically (wrestling is acting, and you get the perspective of the audience). Slammed is even complete with a promo video that hypes your final match, which is epic and feels exactly like WWE promo videos. In fact,, everything in the game feels exactly like wrestling. The writing does a good job at introducing wrestling terminology, though it gets a bit carried away in the end, where terms like “crucifix powerbomb” are used without having been fully explained. But the worst that can happen is that you have a harder time visualizing the moves: you will not hopelessly drown in lingo in this game. There are a few throwaway references, like names or achievements (“bah gawd!”), or stuff that is mentioned in passing (“dangerous workplace behavior”); it’s not shoving it down your throat, but if you’re in the know, you’ll notice and smile. The in-ring names of the wrestlers all sound convincing, and some clearly riff off real-life wrestlers; the in-ring personas are very plausible (the Angels, the Lawmakers, Harley and Quinn), as well as the storylines in which they are involved, which (just like in wrestling) can be pretty ridiculous. The situations are inspired by real events (“sell like it’s 2005”) including references to reality TV, a road the WWE has been going down for the last few years. And nothing feels like a copy-and-paste job; rather, you the author creates an convincing alternate world that sometimes (like with the character of Madison Rio) I wished was real.

I have of course a few criticisms – or rather, letdowns. First of all, the fact that the game is extremely linear means it is focused on a single perspective, which is that mainstream American wrestling (to be clearer, the WWE) is the best, and the ultimate goal is to be #1 there. Now, the WWE might be the place to be for a lot of wrestlers – and indeed, in the last couple years a lot of successful independent wrestlers have signed there. But this ignores the different cultures of wrestling, which constantly influence each other and enable wrestling to reinvent itself. For instance, there’s barely a mention of Japanese wrestling, which is just as excellent, and where lots of wrestlers (including famous North American ones) trained and had great careers before coming back to North America. Including branches that highlight those possibilities in the game might have made it richer, and made for a first half that is much less linear.

The other major letdown that I have is about how the game reacts when you play as a woman, as is Choice Of Games’ house style.Playing as a female wrestler will give you the same opportunities and the same choices, except a particular one near the end, which doesn’t show up for male wrestlers. Otherwise, the only difference is the pronouns, and a misogynist character’s attitude towards you — that’s it. As a fun escapist game, a power fantasy, this is in a sense awesome – it is just as easy to rise to the top of the company and kick the (male) champion’s ass as a woman. On the other hand, doing this feels like it’s dodging a major issue, which is that wrestling (and especially mainstream wrestling) has a terrible attitude towards women. Women in wrestling are largely used for titillation, as sex objects or objects for other men to fight over, sometimes hired purely on looks with minimal wrestling training, are given exploitative matches and characters that range from the cold bitch to the psycho, and contend with certain male wrestlers’ attitudes on stage and backstage. There are a lot of great female wrestlers who are legitimately amazing (SHIMMER, Manami Toyota, Awesome Kong, Phoenix, Stratus, etc.), and they do get some amount of recognition — but nevertheless, there is a glass ceiling. So, when the worst thing that happens to you as a female wrestler is that one character, clearly written as an asshole, says women are weak or can’t count but he’ll still give you a chance, that’s a gross simplification. And when the game explains, in one paragraph, that “the company’s shows were misogynistic once, for two months, but they thought it was bad and they stopped”, when your game is otherwise so on-the-nose, you’re obviously refusing to engage with the problem.

It would be hard to try to talk about all that in the game – or worse, to put all those obstacles on the female route and none on the male route (although that would for sure make for interesting commentary). But if you refuse to talk about it, you avoid some interesting questions. How do you become a female wrestler? How do you train? Who agrees to put you in their show? What’s your in-ring persona like? What storylines can you create? Do you only fight women? How do you break the glass ceiling in a system dominated by men determined to use you as eye candy? Do you get breast implants or do you insist they take you seriously because you sure can wrestle? Or both? Of course, this is more difficult to design, because the male and the female routes become quite different; and it involves dealing with social representations one might not have lived through. But what’s the alternative? I’m worried that it means that, ultimately, using the argument “you can play as whoever you want” when it doesn’t actually make any difference, feels either like a cheap pronoun-substitution trick or like escapism (“you can have the same privilege as straight white cis males! Maybe a few assholes won’t like you but you can still win as easily!”). It’s a tough call, and they went for what appears to be the safe option, which I think is a shame.

For what it’s worth, the game is quite transparently written as escapism – you become the biggest wrestler, you win it all, and the other problems don’t exist (and there are so many in wrestling: your body breaking down, painkiller addiction, alcoholism and other addictions to be able to cope, repeated concussions, loneliness and relationship rifts caused by being on the road 300 days a year, getting old and having to retire away from the spotlight, or being unable to do so, etc.). For other CoG games, it’s not a big deal; but for wrestling, where the problems are painfully apparent and have broken into the mainstream (Hogan steroids scandals, Benoit killings, Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and even institutionalized racism and sexism), leaving them out completely didn’t really feel right to me. Nevertheless, Slammed! succeeds at its main goal, which is to be an awesome game about wrestling: the author is clearly very familiar with the wrestling world, and manages to reproduce this in a world and a story that feel true.

You Are An Online Clickbait Satirist. Can You Hack It In The IF World?

By Katherine Morayati

It’s hard to out-wacky a field whose acclaimed titles include The Gostak, HIGH END CUSTOMIZABLE SAUNA EXPERIENCE and Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me and whose recent works include Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World, The Epic Ass-Kicking Quest For Awesome Glory and GROWBOTICS, but it’s been done in quality and quantity by one author, or rather house: ClickHole, which released a whopping 20 games eligible for XYZZY Awards in 2015 via its ClickVentures vertical. (IF works are eligible if they are complete, publicly available and listed on IFDB.) They’re not the first comedy writers to attempt IF – others include Rob Dubbin, Robb Sherwin, and even people not named Rob – but they are ,lately, the most prolific.

The XYZZY eligibility list, of course, collapses nicely to a dozen or so stories when finalists are announced, but it’s easy to imagine at least one of these in the running. ClickHole produces one game per week – a breakneck pace by IF standards. Like ClickHole’s more traditional writing, they range from reflexively meta (Get The Whole Online Experience By Trying Our Internet Simulator) to ripped-from-realtime (You’re A Germ! Can You Make Bruce Springsteen Sick Enough To Cancel A Concert?) to self-conscious weird Twitter horror (The Mysterious Shadows Of Skullshadow Island), but always geared toward mass appeal. Only their presentation – mobile-interface stylings on dialogue options, achievements to unlock – gives them away as non-hobbyist works. And as one would (should?) expect from a professional media outlet, they are well-written, immaculately polished and gussied up with all the design resources of the modern digital studio – and all the priorities.

Everything on ClickHole walks a fine line: ruthlessly satirizing online clickbait while itself serving as viable clickbait. The Onion, after all, is a major publishing entity that also produces sponsored content – generally with a sheepish dismissal of the thing it has deigned to publish – and comprises an in-house advertising agency whose clients include EA, Hilton and Dove. (Currently, ClickVentures run alongside sponsored posts for Totino’s Pizza Rolls.) Clickhole may target a snarkier-wiser audience than Buzzfeed, but their core goal is the same: to produce #content at #scalable #volume, to drive shares, clicks, engagement and everything else you’d hear on the biz side of any other digital outlet, and to grow an 18-34 audience.

The process of growing that audience can be politely described as flailing upon the early Web and rehauling anything cool or gimmicky you touch. The resurrection of the BBS-staple GIF has been well documented to the point where it’s possible to forget that “animated GIF” once connoted Geocities. The Facebook-courting part of the Internet is aglow with what are basically Quizilla quizzes – whether user-generated (read: free) like the first ones, or professionally designed for maximum lead generation and data collection. And yes, among all these were choose-your-own –adventure games – when I was growing up, my main outlet was the thousands-strong archive of collaborative stories on the since-rebranded, but there were others. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal candidate for clickyfication than CYOA, if you think like a suit – it’s a genre whose association among the masses is kitschy ‘80s nostalgia, which calls for lengthy, attentive engagement from audiences, and that is designed to produce large amounts of clicks.

And indeed, this is exactly how ClickVenture was founded. The genre “descends from a format, the slideshow, that’s a pretty useless format that I think almost everyone finds frustrating,” ClickHole lead writer Jamie Brew told Wired. “It’s typically used online to delay the presentation of information that any normal person would want immediately. We basically said, what can we do to make these enjoyable?” This repurposing isn’t unheard of – Twine, for instance, grew out of the more generalized wiki framework TiddlyWiki, and Choice Of Games grew out of the code and principles of the old C64 game Alter Ego. And like most authoring systems, ClickHole found itself grappling with the same problems IF designers have for decades. Slideshows, after all, have no world model and very little ability to affect variables behind the scenes, restricting ClickHole (at least for the moment) to simple lightly branching narrative. You can watch it happen in real time, almost. Early work The Mysterious Shadows flirts with parser construction – one branch prompts you to go NORTH or SOUTH, capitalized as such – before abandoning it for a more typical deadly gauntlet; later works are often punctuated solely by the little emotional quips (“capiche? Capiche”) popularized in Twine by Porpentine and others.

Indeed, whether by coincidence, by constraint (there are only so many lightly branching concepts, even for the most creative among us) or by being suffused in the same influences – writer Jamie Brew is a fan of Michael Lutz, and comedy writers and Twine designers share more than a few Twitter followers – a lot of the ClickHole adventures come off as alternate-universe takes on the hypertext canon. Can You Find The Mole In This Spy Organization? is a mildly more sedate version of the comedy half of SPY INTRIGUE. Can You Keep Up a Conversation with Your Dad? is like a goofy, atopical take on works like Conversations With My Mother or Coming Out Simulator.Games like You’re A Grocery much Store Delivery Boy. Can You Deliver A Pound Of Ground Beef To The Astronauts On The International Space Station? parody the deliberate gender-neutral PCs (and subsequently maximized audience? Like everything ClickHole, it’s hard to say) of both commercial IF and more social-justice oriented hobbyist works. Build Your Ideal Boyfriend  is a toy like the IF-adjacent game Boyfriend Maker. The list goes on, and becomes more sophisticated: a comedy machine becoming ever more efficient.

It’s not a perfect machine, mind. At their most derivative, ClickVentures come off as endless lightly spun versions of You’re an X, Can You Y? or, worse, the exact sort of tedious, stingily dispensed paragraphs  Each ClickVenture is the work of one author, but ClickHole’s writing team is overwhelmingly male – much unlike the current slate of IF authors – and entirely in-house; perhaps as a result, certain entries read like Oglaf-via-fratire. And like everything clickbait or clickbait-satire, ClickVentures are subject to online publishing whims and trends; for every successful quiz concept there’s an unsuccessful rubbable GIF. But unlike the work of countless, best-unnamed corporations-come-lately who dabbled in IF as a fun new gimmick, ClickVentures actually function as solid, enjoyable diversions. As Wired describes it, we’re all “watching comedy writers become unintentional game designers.” Lots of us can say the same.

Issue #62: Letter From the Editor and Call For Submissions

Good afternoon! We’ve wrapped up what has proven to be an unusually historical month for IF:

  • The XYZZY Awards, for the first time ever, were dominated by commercial IF, notably Meg Jayanth and Inkle’s excellent steampunk piece and Best Game winner 80 Days. Ever since the beginnings of the hobbyist IF boom, authors, readers and observers alike have speculated about whether commercial interactive fiction would ever resurface, let alone become as half ubiquitous — and financially viable — as it was during  the ’80s. For years, people have argued that this day was approaching, slowly; several commercial publishers have come and gone, and increasingly come and stayed. And while commercial IF might not yet be a financial heavyweight (though it must be said that the creative economy is an entirely different thing in the 2010s than the 1980s), the past year has proven that for the first time in decades, it’s competing at the highest levels of acclaim.
  • Going back in time a bit: what’s the first IF game ever written? Many of you likely answered Adventure — not so! Wander (1974), one of many mainframe games previously thought lost, was recently unearthed from the crumbling world of digital history, and soon after added to Github and compiled for Windows and Linux by the French IF community. Tantalizingly, it’s not merely a simple dungeon crawl like Colossal Cave, Zork or even Hunt the Wumpus, but includes a tool for prospective writers to create “non-deterministic fantasy stories” of their own. The spirit of collaboration is not a new thing; it’s baked in from the beginning.
  • While we at SPAG are loath to call ourselves as historic as either of the previous, we are publishing our first issue in some time! And though I’m biased, I think it’s a great one. We’ve got a new online presence. We’ve got not one but two covers, both by J. Robinson Wheeler, and they deserve to be seen in high-res; check them out here and here. We’ve got plans to roll out SPAG in several new forms, from plaintext to a printable magazine, over the new few weeks and months. (Want to help? Get in touch!)

    And last, but not least, we have pieces on each of the issue’s themes:


  • Hugo Labrande, “>JUSTIFY, HEIGHTEN, SAY YES: Interactive Fiction as Improv
    IF is often described in theatrical metaphors — scenes, stages, props. Labrande makes a case for IF to be considered specifically as improvisational theater: a collaboration between performers and audience, working in tandem rather than at odds, to produce the idea that anything can happen.


  • Marius Müller, “Poetry Is What Gets Lost in Translation: notes on translating PataNoir and Sunday Morning
    As prizes for several successive IFcomps, Müller offered translations of winners’ work from English into German, and the authors that chose the prize presented interesting challenges: a wordplay-based detective story, a historical Victorian epic. The process, and the resulting product, falls somewhere between preserving the original meaning and collaborating on an entirely new work.



The cornerstone of each issue of SPAG, we have capsule blurbs as well as long-form reviews of the spring’s major releases, including:

And last, but not least, we have our…


ShuffleComp is nearly upon us, and we are looking for reviewers! Same idea as always: capsule reviews, quick and snappy, like a three-minute pop song. (Musical accompaniment optional.) We are also particularly interested in SPAG Specifics on the spring’s offerings, and especially the Spring Thing Back Garden — though, as always, we’re open to whatever you have something to say about!

As for longer-form pieces: befitting the news, the theme for issue #63 is WANDERING! As always this is semi-optional; interpret this as strictly or as loosely as you’d like — let your mind wander, if you will. If you need inspiration, some ideas might include: exploring story worlds, delving into IF developments around the world, in real life and on the ‘Net; wandering through the far reaches of what IF can do, or the history of what it’s done in the past; and hey, of course, there’s always the game itself.

As always, send all pitches to, along with a brief bio of yourself, and writing samples if you prefer. Also appreciated: a rough sense of word count (see the pieces in this issue for a guideline) and an estimated time of completion (aim for June or July).

We highly encourage submissions from experienced IF critics as well as newcomers, and we are particularly interested in pitches by women, people of color and others who are under-represented in IF writing. However, all are welcome, including those who have previously expressed interest in writing for the website.

Thank you for reading and keeping us alive all these years! Let’s make #63, and the issues to come, just as strong.

SPAG Specifics: The Writer Will Do Something

Whenever I read the seemingly unkillable complaints about modern IF and its “uninteractivity,” I’m plagued with flashbacks to 1998. (Boy, I hated 1998. I had helmet hair.) 1998 was the year of Photopia, a near-universally acclaimed work of interactive fiction in which nothing you do will derail the crushing inevitability of the plot one inch, which is of course the point. Two years later came Rameses, a more brutal, polarizing sort of work, and its detractors delighted in pointing out that you can type WAIT dozens of times and let the narrative shuffle you listlessly through the motions without any intervention or initiative on your part — not that much could pierce through your inner defeated stubbornness. Which is, of course, also the point. To many of you I’m recapping oft-recapped history, surveying the long-dried battlefields of flame wars better off forgotten; and yet “uninteractivity’’ keeps appearing fresh, always an accusation of ineptitude and accidental failure, never deliberate or a deliberate point.

I was reminded of all this mess after reading Matthew S. Burns’ excruciatingly entertaining Twine piece The Writer Will Do Something. You’re employed by the AAA developer of ShatterGate, a Frankensteinally unwieldy shooter, as the lead writer of the latest sequel — a job you know you have no business doing. It isn’t imposter syndrome; you’ve neither played the previous games nor have any real intention to, and the current entry is a thicket of lore you can barely hack. You are as imposter as they come — and yet you’re no more an imposter than the rest of your team, a motley assortment of hopers, no-hopers, middle managers and babysitters talking and pacing through a morning meeting about the game’s inevitable prospects: “unambiguously catastrophic.” What follows are several hours of circling around cold opens, cinematic opens, Dark Souls, “visual quilts,” doodles on whiteboards, guns with swords on them – and absolutely no real progress.

Needless to say, most people with game dev experience are probably fighting off their own flashbacks, but you certainly don’t need that experience to appreciate the disaster. As someone who used to work on the production desk of newspapers, I felt a certain sad kinship with the poor harried audio tech who rushes in mid-meeting from Greenland – the nickname of the audio department, cold and distant: why can’t you tell <s>audio</s> copy about things that affect copy? (The audio tech, it should be noted, is female, which contributes to a certain subtext throughout the piece; while the PC’s gender is never mentioned, the way they’re continually talked over, around and past resonated with entirely too many stories from my female colleagues, not to mention myself.)

What The Writer Will Do Something isn’t, exactly, is fun. It’s funny, certainly – Burns is a good enough writer that it’s worth going through each path just to extract every last quip– and thoroughly polished, but it’s also an exercise in calculated frustration. None of your choices matter; the difference between a courageous action and a weaselly cop-out is entirely in the PC’s head. Keep your head down? Doesn’t matter. Stand up to your coworkers’ various haranguing? Doesn’t matter. Attempt the classic “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, you’re cool, fuck you I’m out?” Nobody even pays attention. The story has three endings, all of which drop like (and are accompanied by) a horror-movie audio sting and none of which seem to have much correlation to anything you’ve said; I’ve gone through about a dozen times now and I’m still not convinced they’re not random. You quite literally cannot win. And it doesn’t take too much searching to find people’s complaints about this, which derail quite readily into complaints about Twine and interactivity in general.

Your first clue should be the overwhelming quality of the work, the snappiness of the writing, the polish of the design (I like to think it’s a little joke about the pecking order that the audio is particularly effective); this is not an amateur’s product. Your next clue, and really your last, should be the title: the writer will do something. Much like (again) Rameses, which devotes a significant portion of its runtime trapping the PC in a not-quite-two-sided conversation with his friend (“friend”) rhapsodizing about the free will the player consistently fails to have, Burns milks the game-dev arguments for every drop of comedy and dramatic irony and the choice-based medium itself for every drop of vicarious pain. Take one passage toward the middle of the game, after a couple protests have gone nowhere and after your boss delivers what sure looks like an ultimatum:

Your mind is a bright, glittery cascade of thoughts. Unfortunately, you’re not able to isolate or hold any single one of them. Everything in your head is water. Making a decision, in this room, has too many implications.

What follows is another choice point: three decisions, every implication and worry and possibility laid out in your head. The entire thing is over 500 words, and it’s rendered in text that scrolls faster than even the quickest reader can keep up with. As the prose goes on it gets steadily angrier, more earnest, closer to a grand statement – but you probably won’t get that far on your first playthrough, as before you can keep up, the screen advances to:

“I vote cold open,” says Shawn, before you can speak.

Mike nods. “Yep. Agreed. Cold open.”

Troy says, “Okay, done. Cold open. Next issue?”

(The final nail into the reader: everything in the story up to this point was about how sucky that cold open was. Wait, no, one more nail: the remainder of the story is… more discussion of the cold open. Ultimatum, my gunsword.)

It’s among the most maddening uses of macros I’ve encountered lately. It breaks most of the rules of player friendliness and accessibility and satisfaction that are endlessly hashed over in the plot; it undermines its own writing — the point of which is to get to be read, right? And yet it’s as much a setpiece as any elaborate puzzle or intricately designed object; it immerses the player totally and viscerally in a setting and feeling, in this case mind-searing bureaucratic frustration. In real life, that’d be, well, mind-searing; conveyed by fiction, it’s high praise.

SPAG Verdicts: ParserComp, Spring Thing

Read on for capsule reviews of both major comps this spring.


An Adventurer’s Backyardby lyricasylum

In Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), lunch comes in cans marked “FOOD.” An Adventurer’s Backyard, by lyricasylum, could very easily be served in a box marked “TEXT ADVENTURE.” It’s set in what seems to be an upper middle class home — there’s a fairly extensive backyard, naturally, plus a patio and a balcony — with treasures littered here and there. Some are just sitting in plain sight, while others are in containers we must open. We gather the treasures, and the game ends.

At its best, a game like this, even if it had no ambition beyond a simple treasure hunt, might try to give the player a sense of place or history or wonder, or even just try to generate a laugh. But AAB has been written with an absolute-minimum aesthetic; we’re in a regular house, where everything is described in purely functional terms, in no more than a sentence or two, perhaps with an adjective like “nice” or “tasty.” It feels like the game was assigned to the author as a task to be gotten over with. There are a few implementation issues, too, most of which involve a cat whose collar we need. This becomes a puzzle only because we need to guess the syntax. I had to resort to the ADRIFT debugger to solve it.

This is probably a first effort, and as such, it’s perfectly serviceable and something to be proud of. To the author I would say this: Put more joy into it. Even a simple treasure hunt can be made
entertaining if it’s clearly a labor of love. — Sean M. Shore

Chlorophyll, by Steph Cherrywell

Steph Cherrywell has fast become one of the best new IF writers, and if you want to know why, here’s the very first response I got:

“She’s a lovely shade of jade green, with a cascade of lush foliage tumbling down her back.”

Now that’s a character description. Specifically, it’s of your mother, a plantlike alien scientist (a premise reminiscent of the equally good Coloratura); you’ve accompanied her on a mission to a research base, but after an accident, you’ve got to get things running again — and save her life. Though this is not exactly an underexplored plot, and the puzzles are largely IF comfort food, Cherrywell’s world-building makes it both fascinating and thoroughly lived-in — the base, for instance, is made for photosynthetic life, with sunlocks where airlocks would be, topiary salons and water bars you’re too young for, chlorophyll acne; the detail goes far beyond the cosmetics. The piece gains added gravitas from something that is underexplored in the genre: one of the most genuinely moving mother-daughter relationships I’ve seen in IF, and certainly in parser. — Katherine Morayati

Delphina’s House, by Alice Grove

Child-friendly magical realism is a well-trod parser-IF trope, the medium inherently containing a certain amount of childlike wonder; I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Here, you are Delphina — ahem. You are Delphina: Adventurer to Distant Worlds, Weaver of Stories, and Maker of Mud Pies; and you’re all outta pies, so distant worlds and story-weaving it is. Along the way, Grove touches on some other much-loved IF tropes: twinkly imagery, parallel Alice in Wonderland worlds and objects that travel between them, molten glass and starstuff. — Katherine Morayati

Down, the Serpent and the Sunby Chandler Groover

A competition called ParserComp is naturally designed to attract games that demonstrate the strengths of traditional IF. One entry that fits the bill is Down, the Serpent and the Sun, which takes advantage of the ease with which parser games can establish a sense of place, compared to more choice-based fare.

The place in question is the internal anatomy of a giant feathered serpent god, which devours the player in the first few turns. Starting in its mouth (we’re swallowed whole, thankfully), we can journey down through its digestive system, taking the odd detour into other organs. Elaborate descriptions of gory innards, half-digested corpses and eldritch architecture abound, but the amount of text between each command is relatively restrained and the author’s commitment to the apocalyptic tone sells it – even if at first it might seem a bit much for a game where one way of losing is to emerge too soon from a snake’s butt. The puzzles are pleasantly straightforward (at least to reach one of two similar endings), making this a nice game of exploration through an atypical and grotesque setting. — C. E. J. Pacian

Endless Sands, by Hamish McIntyre

The risk with comps like these is that games will have unexpected synergies. Sometimes it’s funny, as with Introcomp’s Scroll Thief and Soul Thief this comp’s Terminator and Terminator Chaser. Other times… let’s just say it probably didn’t help McIntyre at the start that I played this, with its kidnapping plot and Vampire Queen involvement (“Ugh, what a bitch. You can’t believe you thought she was hot.”) after Sunburn. That is all.

More charitably: Endless Sands is a standard adventure-puzzler (you’ve been stranded by the aforementioned Vampire Queen in a desert you must escape), set in a standard desert atmosphere, with all the expected desert landmarks: cacti hither, oasis yonder, sand, dunes, Pyramid of Doom expanses, boy howdy, that sure is some sand. The tone, meanwhile, is dry as the atmosphere, and varies from effectively sarcastic (“Congratulations! You have successfully murdered one of the few living things around here!”) to over-bro. Solidly implemented — the watch is a nice touch — but perhaps a little parched. — Katherine Morayati

Lockdown, by Richard Otter

Okay, look. Parser games have a certain functional language that’s almost impossible to unwrap from around the code. You can try, but for a comp for smallish games it becomes a Phantom Tollbooth-esque pointless task. That said, there are times you really should try not to use it, for instance, when you find yourself emulating the dry objects-and-locations rundown for sentences like this, among the first a player sees: “A receptionist is lying on the floor.” Or: “You take the silver necklace from the body of Rachel.” And definitely: “She has been shot several times in the chest. She is carrying a notepad.  She is wearing a white shirt and a blue skirt.”

As it turns out, this is somewhat the point. The character is a sociopath (of the somewhat unfortunate variety characterized primarily in terms of DSM diagnoses) and a murderer — the exact character type, in other words, to be so clinical in his narration. However, the writing’s insufficiently polished, the puzzles too cookbook and the actual narration too much of the “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” stripe to give the author the benefit of the doubt. — Katherine Morayati

A Long Drinkby Owen Parks

A noir! In IF, this sets high expectations — about half of them set by Make It Good — but I’m deep enough into working on a noir of my own (quite different than this) that I’ll go with it. Unfortunately, implementation bugs of the sort that’d have been caught on the most cursory copy edit and a little too slavish adherence to the hardboiled monologue style make the drink rather weak. – Katherine Morayati


Oppositely Opalby Buster Hudson

Witches! Competitions (called PotionComp, a broad chuckle of a gag)! Bratty PCs! Many, many references to Wicked! Alliteration! Hint cats! This is the goofy-fun game of ParserComp,  and in a certain mood, there’s nothing you want more than some good goofy fun. While the premise suffers slightly from its proximity in release to that other potion-assembly puzzle game, and while the PC’s voice often veers too far away from “pleasantly bratty” to “annoyingly faux-gonzo” (ED. NOTE: AUTHOR IS RESPONSIBLE FOR BROKEN LEGS / IS PERHAPS A BIG OL’ HYPOCRITE), it’s both a delightful caper and a big ol’ hint-cat hug to one of the deepest-ingrained nostalgias of parser IF enthusiasts: the spell-collecting Enchanter sort of game.

Also, I might not have mentioned: There’s a hint cat. There. Is. A. Hint. Cat. Who provides hints in catlike fashion, and generally improves everything by its presence, as cats do. And for once the author didn’t forget to implement >PET CAT. I swear I’m going to write this in for the next XYZZYs. — Katherine Morayati

Six Gray Rats Crawl Up the Pillow, by Boswell Cain

Six Gray Rats describes itself as a “gothic vignette,” which is key; you’re a foppish aristocrat who, as foppish aristocrats do, has taken a stupid bet from a court buddy: spend the night in a haunted Renaissance house, get mad cash florins if you come out alive. Mouldering atmosphere abounds, both in the house itself and the cod-Renaissance memories that the player may explore parallel to the story, and is mostly the point; what puzzles there are are standard IF fare (though, to be fair, equally standard of the haunted-house genre), and what story there is is largely backstory.

The author’s clearly put quite a bit of polish into this piece — take the cover art, or the custom inventory menu, which implements the PC’s many memories as seamlessly as anything I’ve seen. However, a few minutes’ worth of poking reveals unimplemented objects and some unfortunately placed default language (supporter descriptions in Inform can be tough to customize, but even the most cocksure, blase superfluous man would note a certain bit of death in more horrified fashion than “On the armchair are a dusty, desiccated corpse…”); what’s there is great, equal parts evocative and dryly satiric, but whether due to the nature of this genre, which is almost always better more rococo, or the past few years’ worth of juicy parser games, I found myself wanting more. Still, not a bad place to spend a night. —Katherine Morayati

Sunburn, by Caelyn Sandel

Sunburn bills itself as a “social justice horror story.” You’re a woman who turned down a man, Paul, for a second date; unfortunately, that man was the one-in-a-you-never-really-know-how-many who reacts violently, locking you in his office to die — because you’re also a vampire, who will die if exposed to sunlight, and he knows it. But just as readily as Paul can use your vampiric nature to threaten you, you yourself can wield it for your redemption — a standard supernatural trope, and a satisfying one. There’s a neat interconnection to all the pieces: the sort of man who would lock a woman he dated in his office to die would naturally carry a weapon, and the sort of villain who would appear in a vampire story would naturally use weapons like crossbows; and the fact that, supernatural element aside, this sort of  man enacting this of sort of violence is very much non-fictional does raise the stakes of your standard locked-room scenario significantly.

That said, Sunburn suffers a bit from its scale. Its premise is solid and the work starts menacingly enough, an endlessly looping serial killer tape in a room so barren as to be inescapable; but the fact that escape takes roughly two and a half puzzles soon undermines this. It’s plausible that a man like Paul would be so in love with the “brilliance” of his plan that he forgets to take the damn key off the windowsill, less plausible that someone with the resources to pull it off would have such a non-descript office, with such little security. The puzzles are remarkably well-clued, but there could stand to be about twice as many; what setpieces there are — the fire crystal, the reactive paintings — were striking and memorable, but almost seemed like missed opportunities to raise the entire environment to that level. Specifically, there are hints that you need to feed on someone to regain your strength and bust the place up, but besides the final confrontation, you never get a chance. A lot of these missed opportunities have to do with revenge. My first instinct was to throw the audio player into the fire and destroy dude’s voice WITH FLAMES. The default response — “Futile.” — though it perhaps works in a resigned way, was somewhat underwhelming. Similarly, I wanted the final confrontation to last more than one turn — though maybe it’s fitting that this guy and his crossbow go down so quickly.

(A final note, not so much a critique, but a remark on one of the endings: perhaps it’s the timing of the piece, but the idea that an audio recording would convince the police to listen to a member of a group they’re already disposed to hate seems… disproven lately, to say the least. There are hints in the writing that this reading is intentional; yet the standard IF victory banner, “you have brought a murderous, entitled misogynist to justice,” doesn’t seem ironic.) — Katherine Morayati

Terminator Chaser, by Bruno Dias

Easily the most impressive presentation of the comp, in design and in accessibility; the decades of parser innovations that’ve come about since the 1980s are… largely not in evidence in ParserComp, which makes them ever more welcome here. The story itself is a traditional IF-SF blend of base exploration and corporate machinations, indebted to Babel and Delusions and such; though it shares some of the weaknesses of those works — the backstory is engaging but somewhat ham-handed in how it’s doled out, “suddenly a thought strikes you” stuff. Still, the reason this is such a stock premise is because it’s generally effective. — Katherine Morayati

Terminator, by Matt Weiner

(No relation to Terminator Chaser. Hoo boy, is there no relation.)

In a sense, every ParserComp game makes an argument for some aspect of traditional parser, and Terminator‘s element of choice is clear: the elaborate puzzle setpiece. You’re exploring a crashed spaceship (again); the trick is, you don’t explore it yourself. You control it by remotely controlling several scouts and drones, giving them commands from safety. By now you’re either reaching for the nearest pen and paper to map and plan, or reaching to close the tab. And while as a coding exercise this is near-virtuosic, you’re… kind of either inclined toward this or you’re not. I’m also not sure IF is the best medium for this; sometimes with puzzles like this the lack of sight is the point, but after a while one longs for some coded-in, preferably graphical diagram. Hell, the premise doesn’t even have to be a video game; me, I scratch my “command individual units in turn-based fashion IN SPACE! itch about once every six months with Space Alert.

But then, I’m a Story Person. — Katherine Morayati


Doggerland, by A. De Niro

In the early years of parser IF, it was stereotypically obligatory for most games to have a maze. In the early years of hypertext fiction, it was equally obligatory for most stories to be structured as a maze of poorly-explained internal links for the reader to wander through without guidance. It may be time for a theory of hypertext fiction design that rejects the device of making links out of words that have no more than a metaphorical or suggestive association with the target passage. I’m not going to prescribe that it should never be done at all, only that maybe it should be disreputable in the same way twisty-passage mazes are disreputable in parser IF, and authors who do it should feel obligated to preface their work by explaining how they “put a really creative new spin on the idea.”

The reason I bring this up is that the links that determine which branch of Doggerland the player ends up following are labeled pretty obscurely. In fairness, Doggerland is far from the worst offenders among hypertext games with user-unfriendly navigation. It’s not organized as a web that you can get lost in forever, as in old Storyspace hypertexts like Patchwork Girl and Afternoon, but it reminds me of them. Like them, Doggerland feels very Modernist and “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” It’s not actually possible to lawnmow through all the passages of Doggerland in one playthrough (it branches a couple of times and disables the back button), but it still feels like you’re supposed to. The choices you make only affect which parts of the story you read, not the outcomes of the events in the story. There never seems to be any reason to choose not to see any particular part of the story, so the choice-based structure mostly feels like an obstacle. It makes me wonder what Doggerland would look like with a design philosophy of total ease of comprehension, like something Edward Tufte or Chris Ware would endorse, presenting its entire text and the structure of all the links between its ideas at a glance on a single page.

The game uses mouse-over to reveal changes in the text, and as the author’s comment points out, that creates problems for mobile devices. But also, it was irritating for me because I’d get some new text by hovering the mouse arrow over something, then naturally I’d want to try to click the new text, but the new text would disappear before my mouse arrow got there because I’d moved it away from whatever part of the screen was causing the new text to appear. It’s especially a problem that the text you can never reach with the mouse is the same color (red) as the text that’s supposed to be clickable. It was a little like Whack-a-Mole, which wasn’t what I was looking for when I started a game tagged with the genres “poetry autobiography.”

The text itself is good. It’s chilly and surprisingly brief. Spoiler: it’s a personal reflection in which childhood and the past exist by the banks of frozen lakes and seas, which in a future of global warming will all be submerged as warm rains come and melt the ice. It’s selective in its detail but not too opaque. Maybe what bothered me about the presentation was too much reliance on design concepts intended for games that are supposed to conceal things from the player and create challenges. I don’t think Doggerland is trying to do those things at all. — Matt Carey

Mere Anarchy, by Bruno Dias

Mere Anarchy is a vibrant and attractively presented storygame about a revolutionary cell infiltrating the enemy, parcelled up in a magic wrapping. Though short, it is packed with vivid and concrete imagery. Magic and politics is a potent mix. As in The Invisibles or The Illiminatus! Trilogy, esoteric trappings (ritual magic, alchemy, kenning etc.) are matched with radical politics as the player takes on the role of a vengeful anarcho-wizard in a fight against the establishment/magocracy.

The primary form of interaction in Mere Anarchy is the ability to define incidental aspects of the experience. There’s the illusion of gamist trappings with health and sanity stats and optional items, but there doesn’t appear to be any failure states: the options just open up different branches to the same conclusion. Ultimately, the interaction is a means of pacing: player autonomy isn’t exercised through changing the course of the story, but rather by varying what gets presented. Fortunately, the different prose snippets are rich enough to still reward the player for their small choices. — Joey Jones

Ruiness, by Porpentine

With Ruiness, Porpentine is again expanding the design vocabulary of interactive fiction. It’s a powerful idea to use the interface features of Twine to create a limited menu of verbs that players can use to navigate through the whole game, including anticipating what actions are going to be possible in a new scene before they get there. Twine is about limiting the verbs for interacting with IF (not to mention throwing out the indirect objects, adjectives, and adverbs), which can be a great thing because it means it’s easy to make a single-purpose interface that fits the content of a particular story, but that requires hardly any effort for the player to learn. Porpentine is probably the best Twine author at exploiting this potential, creating an innovative new interface with nearly every game she releases.

Like Porpentine’s recent works Skulljhabit and (with Brenda Neotenomie) With Those We Love Alive, Ruiness is structured as a series of locations to be visited over and over at different times. This time, instead of a single strongly-defined protagonist, there’s a character creation feature the player has to use to make a series of adventurers who journey to each of the locations in the game. I appreciated this experiment, but before it was over I felt the gameplay was limiting me to lawnmowing through a clearly defined range of possibilities to see all the text in the game. Even though the game makes the adventurers’ travel sound arduous, there’s no apparent disadvantage to sending each character to every possible location. If you assign every characteristic to only one of your characters (as opposed to creating a new character for every permutation of characteristics, which would be very tedious), almost all the text you see in the game will be unique and there won’t be any need for you read the same passages over and over. Still, you’re not really given the chance to for the sense of discovery that comes from finding non-obvious possibilities in the game system or the sense of agency that comes from story-changing decisions. That is, unless there was a puzzle that went entirely over my head. (I’m aware that something hidden can be found through the text input box, but as far as I can tell it’s really just an Easter egg). The only ending I found was a bold departure from the rest of the story, but it was so enigmatic I didn’t recognize it as a “winning” ending, and I spent a while going back over the same locations vainly searching for another way forward.

The world the player characters explore reminded me of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag, but the vague prose made me feel I was getting a fairly dim glimpse of the world compared to what I’d expect from a fantasy novel. Characters aren’t named, and when they speak, their dialogue isn’t directly quoted. Some passages made me think the history and inhabitants of Ruiness’s world might be deeply consistent and thought-out, but some features like the “Skullipede” and “Lizardhorse” that can be chosen as player characters’ steeds felt more like evocative words thrown together in hopes the player’s imagination would fill in the blanks. Going into detail about the wide world of Ruiness probably would have required several times as many words and far more effort than making the game in its current form, so it may not be fair to call Ruiness flawed just because some of that detail is absent. One of the classic uses of Twine is to make a “game that’s a sketch.” But as Porpentine stretches Twine into a vehicle for more refined interaction design, I hope we’ll see how much more fleshed-out her storytelling can become. — Matt Carey

Sunrise, by Lucky Sun Scribes

Firmly in the visual-novel genre, the choice in this game is between two romantic partners. One interesting feature is that rather than having to choose between equally compelling options, the protagonist must side with either the manipulative creep that they still have confused feelings for, or a kind-hearted but smothering idealist. Some effort is put into making either choice narratively believable, though it’s not entirely clear why she ultimately has to be with either of them.

Sunrise plays to the strengths of the medium, presenting its long internal reflections and non-interactive dialogues with very stylish audio-visual elements; of the music, Abel’s theme is a standout piece. There’s a surprising twist at the start of the second act which breathes life into the story and the expressions in the protagonist’s portrait during this act are utterly delightful. The diesel punk theme, while informing the strong art direction, isn’t particularly developed. While setting deeply informs the reasons the player might choose one partner over the other, the specifics of the kingdom are only lightly sketched. — Joey Jones

Toby’s Nose, by Chandler Groover

Toby’s Nose puts you in the role of Sherlock Holmes’s dog, in one of those familiar mystery-summation scenes, where the detective assembles the suspects in a drawing room and announces who done it. In this case, Holmes still needs assistance from you in identifying the culprit. The game immediately put me in mind of Simon Christiansen’s great spoof of this sort of scene, Death Off the Cuff but Toby’s Nose didn’t work quite as well for me.

Most of the game consists of smelling every noun mentioned in the text to try to pinpoint the suspect. Not just the visible objects — everything. The ABOUT text indicates that you’ll be able to remember important scents in your inventory after you’ve smelled them, but doesn’t make clear that you can remember smells from other locations, from before the start of play.

The author cites Lime Ergot as inspiration, and the influence of that game is clear. Smelling a noun opens up other nouns, which in turn open up others. It’s possible for one noun to open something like a dozen new smell-targets, which might be a bit overwhelming. The vast majority of these will be irrelevant for the mystery, but they are generally very well-written and evocative. In principle, one should be able to lawnmower through all the scents, take careful notes, and at the end, arrive at an inescapable conclusion as to the guilty party. I couldn’t, or at least didn’t. It’s likely a failing on my part that I couldn’t solve the crime from the clues, but ultimately, it didn’t matter. The game allows you to accuse a suspect (via BARK AT) with no evidence whatsoever; indeed, you can do so with the first action after Holmes finishes his opening exposition. If you’re right, job done. If not, well, UNDO and try someone else. I suspect this is intentional on the part of the author, or he’s not too worried about it at any rate. Solving the mystery is in some ways not the point; rather, it’s to take a leisurely olfactory tour of the world of Holmes and other mysteries (referenced in the footnotes). Whether this works for a given player is a matter of taste. — Sean M. Shore

A Trial, by B Minus Seven

At first A Trial appears to be set out with the trappings of an adventure game (cardinal directions, situations that feel like puzzles) and the prose has an artificiality which hints at a writing constraint (though if there was one, it wasn’t obvious). It turns out, after all, to be an open ended explorative piece with embedded stories and extensive and well-attributed excerpts. The individual vignettes vary from the engaging to the obscure, and as interesting as the undertaking was, if there was a deeper structure holding the disparate threads together it wasn’t readily apparent. — Joey Jones