IF Riffs: An IFComp Postmortem

2018-02-27 · by PJ Anthony
tagged Blog / Interviews / Opinion

Welcome to something new at sub-Q: IF Riffs! We hope this will become a recurring feature where a question will be posed to several members of the IF community on a particular topic. Our first blog collects some thoughts on IFComp 2017 by the top five winners. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments or to tag us on Twitter @subQmag. We’d love to hear from you!

IFComp 2017 Postmortem:
What went right? What went wrong? What’s next?

The Wizard Sniffer by Buster Hudson, 1st place IFComp 2017

Buster Hudson writes interactive fiction. Whether this is a good thing has yet to be determined, but so far he hasn’t received too many complaints. His works include “Oppositely Opal,” which placed 2nd in 2015’s ParserComp, “Foo Foo,” which Ryan Veeder liked a whole lot despite the awful title, and “The Wizard Sniffer,” which won 1st place in the 2017 IFComp.

What Went Right?

The Wizard SnifferThe Wizard Sniffer received plenty of praise, so I suppose I got more right than I thought I would. Overall, I’m most happy with the quality of the writing. I can’t help but remember Sam Kabo Ashwell’s review of Oppositely Opal, and I believe the exact quote about my writing was “this is fine, I guess”, and I for sure wanted to do better this time around. My goal for Sniffer was to capture a faux-medieval feel that lets the humor shine through. I spent so many hours rewriting and rewriting. Taking that time has really helped me to improve my craft.

What Went Wrong?

I think I over-estimated people’s tolerance for wandering around a large game map. I could feel the frustration coming through the transcripts I read. I enjoyed the large castle in Emily Short’s Bronze and wanted to provide that same sense of space, which I think I succeeded in doing, but perhaps IFComp wasn’t the best place for it. Especially with 78 other entries competing for players’ time! I also needed to telegraph that Tristain was a drag queen more strongly, as enough players were confused about Tristain’s chosen identity. I believe now that addressing his identity directly and using her/she pronouns (as most queens prefer when in drag) is more appropriate for the story.

What’s Next?

I’m not really sure. Right now I work full-time, teach yoga part-time, and am taking three classes online this semester to try and finally earn a degree, so I don’t have much time for writing. I definitely want to finish a post-comp release of Sniffer. My personal goal is to release one interactive fiction work per year, and I’d really like to try for something commercial, but that may need to wait until after school is done.


Eat Me by Chandler Groover, 2nd place IFComp 2017

Chandler Groover has been writing since he was little. He started writing games when he discovered Twine through Porpentine. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. “Toby’s Nose” and “Midnight. Swordfight.” are two of his most popular. 

What Went Right?

Eat MeA core goal I have is to write parser games that are easy to play for people who’ve never tried any before. Eat Me has simple mechanics. You only need to use a few commands, and you never have to guess what to type. I’ve read comments from players who said it was the first parser game they actually beat, which means it’s doing something right.

I’m happy with the concept too. In order to work, it has to be a text game with a narrator.

What Went Wrong?

“It’s too gruesome” is the game’s most common criticism. From one perspective, that means it’s less accessible than I had hoped. From another, it’s a selling point. Interactive fiction can venture into weird territory that you’d almost never find in the traditional literary or gaming worlds. Eat Me has disturbing moments, but I wouldn’t tone them down.

What’s Next?

Hardland, which is a project I’m really excited about. It’s being developed by Mountain Sheep through Steam Early Access, and I joined their team last year to work on writing and narrative design. The next release is going to be big. It draws elements from adventure games and open-world RPGs, but there’s nothing else out there quite like it.


Harmonia by Liza Daly, 3rd place IFComp 2017

Liza Daly is a software engineer, digital artist, and technical leader. She was CTO at Safari Books Online and the founder of an influential publishing technology consultancy. She is active in a number of experimental digital art communities, including interactive fiction, Twitter bots, and machine-learning-based art. She is currently working at the Democratic National Committee as a Staff Engineer. 

What Went Right?

HarmoniaI was trying to tell a fairly complex story—multiple timelines, both real and fake documentary material, about feminism and class issues and scholarship—and I was worried it would all be a long muddle and too much to read on screen. In fact it seemed that everyone understood the story just fine and nobody complained that it was confusing or that they gave up partway through.

People also responded really well to the user interface and have even made efforts to try to emulate it in other IF systems; that’s super flattering.

What Went Wrong?

I think I overcompensated in trying to keep the story short; I didn’t want to overload the reader with too many characters or misdirections but the consensus was that the twist and antagonist were far too obvious. On balance I probably could’ve kept some mystery without losing people.

Another sacrifice I made for clarity was to make the narrator, Abby, a bit thin on characterization. I really grew to love the protagonist in Stone Harbor and many readers did too. I missed that feeling while writing Abby and in retrospect I should’ve taken more time to develop her character. I didn’t care as deeply for her as I should’ve and I think that came through in the writing.

Lastly, in the research for this project I found myself inspired by these early utopians—no matter how ill-conceived their experiments were, these were people who genuinely believed in building the future they wanted to see. I think I could’ve injected more of that hopeful optimism into the antagonist and made her a richer and more sympathetic character.

What’s Next?

Both Harmonia and Stone Harbor were written with a custom hypertext framework, and my goal there was to explore three dimensions of interactive storytelling:

1. Stories that feel very much like traditional fiction, but that inject a sense of participation apart from outright “choose your path.” This was Stone Harbor.
2. Stories that full make use of the modern affordances of the web browser, visually and experientially as well as textually. This was Harmonia.
3. Stories that are fully mutable across more than just one dimension of linear time—not just “what do you want to do next,” but stories that can really shape-shift.

So, I’m working on that last one. As a narrative it’s less ambitious than either of the first two; this is likely to be a Spring Thing entry, perhaps even Back Garden, but I think it should be fun!


Will Not Let Me Go by Stephen Granade, 4th place IFComp 2017

Stephen Granade is a physicist, speaker, and writer. At his day job, he works on sensors for robots. In his spare time, he gives popular science talks about Pacific Rim and runs hands-on science demos for kids. He’s also a long-time writer of interactive fiction. He thinks science is awesome and should be accessible to everyone. He believes entertainment and education can complement each other. He loves creating things and wants everyone to take part. He’s also more addicted to the rule of three than he maybe should be.

What Went Right?

Will Not Let Me GoThe story’s reception. My expectations when I entered the competition were the emotional equivalent of the shrug emoji. Will Not Let Me Go is long, somber, non-genre, and puzzle-free, the kind of work that’s traditionally a hard sell in the competition. Raygan Kelly on The Short Game podcast best summed up the reaction I expected: “Here’s another Twine game that will make you sad!”

But Raygan had an overall positive response, as did a lot of people. Reviewers engaged with the story and gave thoughtful and pointed feedback. I placed 4th in the competition—much higher than I’d expected.

The UI. While Will Not Let Me Go works hard to help the player’s confusion match Fred’s, I didn’t want to cut the reader completely adrift. I altered the contrast between text and background to help readers know where scenes occur in Fred’s life. In scenes before his disease has progressed, the story’s background is white, the text black. As his faculties diminish the background grows darker, the text lighter. That way readers have a sense of where each scene fits in the story timeline. I also added a progress bar so that readers knew how far into the story they were.

What Went Wrong?

Plot-level branching. Will Not Let Me Go has some choices that affect the plot, but most people didn’t realize that because of how linear the work is. I didn’t ever suggest that your decisions had any effect, so they might as well not have, and there weren’t enough branching choices or closed-off options for it to matter.

The length. Multiple beta readers suggested trimming the story. I tried. It turns out I am terrible at this. I combined two characters in a scene into one. I eliminated several short scenes. When I was done, I’d only removed about 10% from the story. Ideally I should have removed one more scene, but the best candidate, the armchair aerobics one, was one of the few upbeat scenes in the middle of several heavy ones.

What’s Next?

I’ve been focusing on traditional fiction, finishing up a novel and editing it for submission. Now that I’m done, I’m not sure what’s next! I told a friend I didn’t have more ideas for IF. On the way home, my brain helpfully supplied four new ideas.


Absence of Law by Brian Rushton, 5th place IFComp 2017

Brian Rushton is a mathematician living in Tacoma with his wife, their son, and two cats. He first discovered IF by downloading Frotz on an iPad in 2010, and he’s enjoyed playing since then. This is his third time entering IFComp. Most of his published games are in Inform 7, but he’s working on several choice-based projects right now.

What Went Right?

Absence of LawMany reviewers said that the game was very user-friendly. With a list of suggested commands, it was easier to implement responses to almost everything players would try. I was also aiming for a certain feeling of nostalgia for older games, and several experienced IFComp reviewers said they enjoyed finding the references to previous IFComp games.

What Went Wrong?

The game was centered on the puzzles, and the puzzles were cobbled together as references to past great puzzle games. As such, it suffered from a lack of focus, and from busy-ness. A lot of people felt overwhelmed by everything that was going on, and expressed skepticism about the overall plot line. Also, the humor fell flat for more people than I expected. Finally, I think the addition of in-game music and font styling bloated up the download file and contributed to the feeling of ‘this is too much’.

What’s Next?

I’m currently trying to finish up my Introcomp game, Sherlock Indomitable, in time for Spring Thing. After that, my next project is finishing the prize I handed out at IFComp, which is a parser game set in the world of The Owl Consults. It’s fun to work in an established world, especially one as vibrant as The Owl Consults. Beyond that, I’m working on some small commercial projects which should be coming out late this year.

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