IF Retrospective: The 2006 XYZZY Awards

Content Warning: Colonialism, Misogyny, Racism, Childhood sexual assault

I used to diligently keep up with “interactive fiction”, a game category that used to mean the same thing as “text adventure” but has broadened over time. At one point, it mostly included parser games (where you type things like TAKE DEVICE and EXAMINE VISTA) but is now also commonly used for hypertext games (Twine games and choose-your-own-adventures) and similar works. These days I see this sort of game often described as “text games”, which seems a fine enough label. I’ve fallen out of the habit of keeping up with the genre, and I’d like to get caught up.

The most well-known IF awards competition is, appropriately, the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, or IFComp, an event initiated in 1995 with the express intention to encourage new works of IF. The IFComp, however, is focused on works which can be played in two hours, there’s a tradition of well-known authors using pseudonyms, and it only collects games submitted newly to the Comp. That means it’s not quite comprehensive in the way I’m looking for.

The actual premiere in-group awards competition for IF is the XYZZY Awards, a relatively obscure ritual mostly open to dedicated practitioners of the medium. It tends to have nominators, nominees, and voters that are super-dedicated to text-heavy works that are in conversation with the canon of parser and hypertext works that were historically discussed on the Usenet group rec.games.int-fiction. Yes, this is a community so old that it’s defined by a technology that was obsolete by 2005 or so.1

When I look at the XYZZY Awards, the last year that I remember playing most of the winners was 2005, although that was helped by how that year’s awards were swept by Jason Devlin’s “Vespers”, which won four of the ten categories. I also remember playing “Mystery House Possessed” by one of my personal favorite authors, Emily Short, which won Best Use of Medium in that year. That means that, in my quest to catch up with the past decade and a half of IF, I’ve chosen to start with 2006.

Best Game and Individual NPC: “The Elysium Enigma” by Eric Eve

“The Elysium Enigma” is a game by a relatively new (in 2006) author, Eric Eve, a theologian at the University of Oxford. There’s a notable amount of theological themes in IF in general, maybe prompted by its intensely textual nature and the tendency for it to focus more on abstract imagery than violence and spectacle.

This was a fun game! It plays around with some conventions of the form: you have a multifunction device which lets you analyze technology, get emergency help, be violent, generate light, or ask someone for exposition. This means that you’re immediately empowered in ways that most IF protagonists are not. On the other hand, it contains some truly archaic and contrived puzzles, such as one where you need to find a fishing rod, hook, and bait in order to get a fish to give to a cat to make it get off of a crate.

Indeed, there are a lot of crates, drawers, and cabinets in this game. As this was the first work of IF I’ve played in a while, I’d forgotten how much the world model of these games encourages thinking of the world in terms of containment: doors and containers and pockets and such. There’s an entirely unnecessary system for automatically putting objects into your pockets so you have the room to carry what is still a preposterous number of items.

The game’s politics in general feel rather stodgy. The shuttle pilot is described as of “oriental extraction”; even in 2006 this phrasing would have seemed a bit dated, and doubly-so in a sci-fi setting where the characters are not all born on Earth. Perhaps she’s from the eastern part of the galaxy. The main (award-winning!) NPC Leela feels rather exploitative; I was immediately suspicious of her wide-eyed innocence, and while the plot reveals hidden intention behind her persistent waifishness and such behavior as bathing naked in front of you, it still feels rather sleazy to me.

There are times where I am super reminded of the awkwardness of parser disambiguation, where there are, say, three doors in the room and typing “open door” doesn’t just open the closed one. I suspect that some of this is intentional, such as this situation that highlights the pervasive iconography of empire:

> x eagle
Which eagle do you mean, the eagle on your belt buckle, the eagle on your tunic, the eagle on the flag, or the eagle on the wall?

> wall
It’s a large heraldic eagle, of the same pattern as the one on your tunic, that represents the might of the Empire and the authority of the Aquila dynasty who rule it.

On the other hand, the game seems a bit naïve regarding its geopolitics (astropolitics?). While the local occupied colonists are clearly displeased with their situation, the author’s notes at the end say, regarding the Empire, that “although far from perfect, it is basically a benign institution.” I felt the whole way through that my protagonist was not a good person and that the Empire was in the wrong, and I’m concerned that the game doesn’t agree.

Best Setting and NPCs: “Floatpoint” by Emily Short

I played this one back when it came out! For this discussion I skimmed the ClubFloyd transcript facilitated by Jacqueline Lott. Short has consistently been one of my favorite IF authors. I’m discussing this one next because it, like “Elysium”, involves an agent of empire coming to a backwoods planet to make tentative contact with the locals, with express instruction to avoid causing waves and implicit encouragement to disregard that instruction.

Unlike “Elysium”, this gives the locals a culture beyond “xenophobic primitives”. You don’t speak the language, you don’t understand the social conventions, and you don’t feel as in-control as the protagonist in “Elysium”, who can get an info-dump from an NPC at any time. The protagonist has religion, backstory, and relationships.

It’s definitely a game about differing viewpoints. Different characters tell you to do mutually exclusive things; there’s a device that recontextualizes recordings in moods like “STORY” or “SCIENTIFIC”, giving dramatically different readings of the same events; the locals are categorized into some sort of genelines; and much of your actual information about the setting and backstory is filtered through unreliable summaries in personal logs.

As is typical of Short’s work, there are some virtuosic implementations of complicated objects, including the contextual recording/playback device, there are multiple endings with none being presented as unequivocally “correct”, and many things are left intentionally vague or unexplained. I like this one a lot.

Best Writing, Puzzles, Individual Puzzle (Navigating the mansion), and Individual PC: “Delightful Wallpaper” by Andrew Plotkin

Plotkin is another of my most-favorite IF authors, but I didn’t play much of this at the time. The individual puzzle it won an award for is a complex maze, of sorts, that is made at all feasible by a notepad that automatically records information you’ve uncovered about how doorways interact. I had to restart the game and make a map to feel able to navigate the house, and even then had to poke through the published source code to figure out one bit. A key part is that sometimes a doorway will make something happen once, and sometimes it will toggle something every time it’s traversed. It’s a good puzzle in the Plotkin style, but one that would have been improved by some more of the automatic time-saving stuff included in his later Hadean Lands.

I actually prefer the second puzzle of the game, which takes up the second half; the conceit is that your (award-winning PC) is an Edward Gorey author figure, metaphorically exploring the setting to establish an archly sensational sequence of deaths in a terrible family attending the reading of a will. This involves consulting your notes in the form of incomplete couplets, with clues to be teased out from the poetic sketchwork. It works! It’s also not saying particularly much; some of Plotkin’s work is pretty deep, but this one is just an excellent Gorey pastiche.

This highlights something odd about the XYZZY Awards: since the entrants are (almost?) universally text games, there are several text-related award categories that sound blurry. Best Writing, here, is specifically about the prose itself: descriptions of scenes and actions. And the writing is very clever and charming, but doesn’t really seem to be doing much beyond being a pleasant backdrop for a pair of tricky puzzles.

The PC themself is fine. There’s some fun characterization on how they’re flatly aghast at the canoodling going on at the party, and they certainly have a whimsical voice. They’re not particularly a character, though, as much as a sort of narrow archetype. Regardless, I enjoyed embodying them!

Best Story: “Tales of The Traveling Swordsman” by Mike Snyder

At first I was skeptical of where this story (from veteran IF insider Snyder) was going. The prose is kind of belabored: you come from a town named “Homesdale”, you’re inexplicably unable to speak the language of the people you’re purportedly saving, and there’s an eerie quality to the descriptions that is honestly a bit disorienting, to the point that most of my trouble with puzzles involved not noticing an important object in a sea of cardinal directions. Luckily, the walkthrough is detailed and offers gentle hints before outright stating the solution.

Playing further, I found further evidence of an upcoming twist: the initial meadow, described as like “green fleece”, is later echoed by the rug in the ship captain’s quarters. You’re repeatedly dealing with strange animals and moving bits of rubbish around. The reveal, when it comes, is pleasant enough but does end up taking what was a serviceable but pretty low-tension plot and stealing it of any remaining import.

I wonder if this perfectly lovely but not narratively-complex game won Best Story in part because it strikes a good balance between accessibility and effective storytelling. “Floatpoint” is far more my style, but it also is for a certain sort of reader. “Swordsman” is pleasant enough for everyone without being alienating… unlike the final winner from this year.

Best Use of Medium: “The Baron” by Victor Gijsbers

This is a challenging one that I played at the time and am not inclined to replay. Best Use of Medium is the prize generally assigned to games that push the genre forward, and was eventually split into Best Implementation and Best Use of Innovation in the 2010 awards. In the case of “The Baron”, the award is more about its very earnest and rather well-told story with a troubling meta-move.

There’s no good way to discuss “The Baron” without revealing that it’s about childhood sexual assault, and specifically about the psychology of the abuser. The story explores how perception of abusers as “monstrous” deflects them from taking actual responsibility for their actions, and it provides for a wide array of player choices over the course of the game, including encouraging replay. This results in a pretty difficult emotional experience for the player.

Gijsbers is a Dutch academic philosopher, and I think this game shows a great deal of care and nuance. It’s his first published IF work, as far as I know, and is a hell of a splash to make. Gijsbers seems very interested in making confrontational games (he later released a project called “The Game Formerly Known as ‘Hidden Nazi Mode'” that explores cryptofascism and the dangers of closed software). “The Baron” could have gone very wrong, but I think it’s a success.

In looking back over a decade later, this one feels a bit blunt, maybe in part because this sort of writing and design has filtered out into more conventional games and general games discourse. The idea of a game that reveals a dark secret underlying its story is well-established in our now-post-Bioshock and –Nier era. Additionally, its focus on the interiority of an abuser to the exclusion of his victim’s feels like more of a problem to me now than it apparently was for most players at the time of release, based on reviews. Still, this game is solid, and serves as a good peek into where the IF world was sitting in 2006.

Final Thoughts

The 2006 finalists weren’t too surprising to me, which makes sense, as this is a year in which I actually played several of them. I’m looking forward to venturing into less-familiar territory. I don’t have a strong timetable for this adventure of mine; thank you for joining me! Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts.

Show 1 footnote
  1. The current home of IF discussion seems to be the Interactive Fiction Community Forum.