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A List of My Twenty Favorite Works of Interactive Fiction
2019-08-03 · by Anya Johanna DeNiro
Every four years, Victor Gijsbers compiles votes for the Top 50 interactive fiction games of all time. The aggregate is certainly compelling reading—if nothing else, to get a baseline for what might be considered “canon” (however loose) for a field that is, especially in recent years, coming from wildly disparate sources. Moreover, it’s worth noting how shifts in games occurred from 2011—right on the advent of Twine—to 2015, and I imagine those differences will be even more pronounced in the 2019 version.
If you want to participate yourself (and you should!), visit the thread on the Interactive Fiction forums.
For my own list, obviously it’s an impossible task to narrow it down to a mere 20. There were definitely about 40 or so games in the mix, and I know there’s somewhat of a weird gap in this list in the mid-2000s, even though tons of great interactive fiction were being produced then. But the games that have stuck with me the most—in that liminal space between “favorite” and “best” that exists in everyone’s head—have been emotionally resonant, generally full of high stakes (which may or not be directly tied to player choice), and full of razor sharp language. The prose doesn’t have to be beautiful, per se (though it often is) as opposed to intertwined with the expressive aims of the story and the interaction.
Galatea by Emily Short (2000). One of the first games to show how conversation, and a laser-like focus on a singular aspect of a narrative, could create a work that pushes into a deep sense of pathos. The work is also angry, right behind the scenes, and this makes the prose cut.
Shade by Andrew Plotkin (2000). Claustrophobic and tornadic. This game has remained one of the best “I’m in my apartment” games, and I would be remiss if I said terribly much more than this.
Vespers by Jason Devlin (2005). The atmosphere of dread is palpable in this work set in a medieval monastery, but the real horror comes with the interaction—and division—between player and character.
The King of Shreds and Patches by Jimmy Maher (2009). A game that seems bigger than it actually is (and it’s already plenty big) by the rich use of history, stagecraft, and Lovecraftian mythos.
Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis by One of the Bruces and Drunken Bastard (2011). Spectacularly obscene (seriously), it’s a comic journey through the ancient world that nonetheless, despite its crudity (or maybe because of it) has a ton of heart.
Kerkerkruip by Victor Gijsbers (2011). I’ve put more hours into this work of IF more than any other. A tightly constructed roguelike flawlessly realized and replete with the pulpish—but not overbearing—language that makes this work so well.
Bee by Emily Short (2012). Created in Varytale, this game is sadly not available anymore, but it’s one of Emily Short’s absolute best. It created a series of recurring “beats” of story that worked perfectly to show both the slow passage and cyclical nature of time in the life of a spelling prodigy in a highly religious family.
howling dogs by Porpentine (2012) (Twine). It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of howling dogs on the history of interactive fiction, but besides that, it’s a wonderful game to play, full of dark pleasure and heartbreaking prose.
Horse Master by Tom McHenry (2013). You have to get your horse ready for a competition. Sort of. Horse Master actually caused me to write my first review on the Interactive Fiction Database. It’s Hunger Games meets Black Beauty—and far, far scarier and weirder than I’m making that sound.
SABBAT by Eva (2013). This work divided many people’s reactions with its gruesome depictions of body horror and ritual magic. But more than anything, what has stuck with me about SABBAT is its deep sense of gothic loneliness that gets transformed into power, from a character who was not particularly powerful. And the choices it gives the player to achieve that power to topple capitalism are high-voltage and visceral indeed.
With Those We Love Alive by Porpentine (2014). This game takes the tightly wound focus of howling dogs and unspools it into a world with a rich, disturbing sense of place.
Creatures Such As We by Lynnea Glasser (2014). This work, created in ChoiceScript, about a tour guide on the moon is a romance in all senses of the word. But more than anything, it’s a close, haunting examination about why we love games and what games are able to give us. Fittingly, there are no clear answers to this.
80 Days by inkle (2014). A sprawling, fully imagined steampunk panoply, 80 Days decolonizes the text by Jules Verne and makes it a rousing adventure about travel, power, and who gets to tell whose stories.
the uncle who works for nintendo by Michael Lutz (2014). Sleepovers can be scary even in the best of times, but add in a dose of gaming creepypasta, and you come up with a deeply unnerving game about girlhood and friendship.
Hollywood Visionary by Aaron Reed (2015). A ChoiceScript game that is equal parts fun (who wouldn’t want to run a studio in the Golden Age of Hollywood?) and mournful (in which you have to deftly choose how much you want to push the envelope with your professional and personal life in tightly constricted systems). Perfectly suited to the ChoiceScript form and, as with all of Reed’s work, the writing is sharp and impeccable.
Known Unknowns by Brendan Patrick Hennessy (2016). This game absolutely broke my heart and stitched it back together again. With a huge, diverse cast filled with unforgettable characters, Known Unknowns is more than a ghost (raccoon) story: it’s about teenagers finding their own identity, with a choice-based structure that captures that roller-coaster at every twist and turn.
Open Sorcery by Abigail Corfman (2016). As the title suggests, magic and code go hand in hand in this game. The worldbuilding, the pace, and the characterization are all so vivid and tightly balanced that once you finish you can’t but help to play it again.
Will Not Let Me Go by Stephen Granade (2017). Chronicling a man with Alzheimer’s, Stephen Granade uses subtle but powerful text effects of Twine to create a deeply human portrait of grief, remembrance, and loss.
Doki Doki Literature Club by Team Savato (2017). Without saying too much, this visual novel breaks open the form and lets loose a Pandora’s box of mayhem. If this were merely an experiment in disruption, it would have its place, but it would not be a masterpiece. Instead, it fully realizes a complicated, at times troubling relationship in a way that, in spite of everything, is exceedingly human.