Tag Archives: Interactive Fiction

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.

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

Hadean Lands

Map screen of the iOS version of Hadean LandsI’ve been playing Hadean Lands by Andrew Plotkin, a parser-based interactive fiction game that I backed on Kickstarter in 2010. It was just released; almost four years is a long time to wait for an IF game, but with this game’s complexity I can understand what took so long.

The game is an exploration of alchemical processes. It follows the tradition of steampunk and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, among others, by examining a society in which a form of magic exists from a speculative fiction perspective: it’s set on a “marcher,” an alchemical spaceship, where you are a mysterious “swabbie” after a mysterious accident. At the same time, it’s a stunningly well-implemented work of IF programming.
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The Bryant Collection Released

Right on the heels of my last release, here’s my April game, The Bryant Collection. This one is a bit of a cop-out; it’s not actually my game. Instead, it’s a translation of someone else’s work into interactive fiction.

An excerpt from my release post on RGIF:

A few months ago, I found an old strongbox at a garage sale. The box was full of papers written by a woman named Laura Bryant. The majority of the stuff in the box was a collection of what she called “story worlds.”

These story worlds are akin to interactive fiction or roleplaying games; they’re designed for one player and one mediator who serves as the parser or the game master. The earliest date on a story world in the box is 1964, which means these works predate Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, Dungeons & Dragons, or Wesely’s Braunstein. The Bryant Collection contains the five stories that I found the most interesting and feasible to convert to IF:

  • “The End of the World” is a story about lunch.
  • “Morning in the Garden” is a story about dealing with annoying people.
  • “Tower of Hanoi” is a rather interesting little puzzle, but not what you think. It came with a sort of feelie in the strongbox, which is included as an IF object.
  • “Going Home Again” is a story about growing up.
  • “Undelivered Love Letter” is a story about airports.

Download The Bryant Collection.

For more information, including links to interpreters that will run the game, see the game page.

The Interactive Fiction Genre

In my last podcast, I didn’t even bring up interactive fiction, which suffers from genre staleness as much or more than other types of games. If you have a text game, you’re almost guaranteed that you’ve got a nonviolent, turn-based game where you solve puzzles in a game with a specific sort of world model. Sure, there are a few exceptions: C.E.J. Pacian‘s Gun Mute, Robb Sherwin‘s Necrotic Drift, and Adam Cadre‘s Lock & Key, to name a few. But by and large, interactive fiction is cerebral and derivative of the seminal works: Colossal Cave Adventure, Zork, and Graham Nelson’s Curses.

Where is the interactive fiction that simulates colonizing space? Where are the text games that have the same playful feeling as Katamari Damacy? Why are text adventures always either puzzle-filled exploration games or highbrow, slow-paced stories?

I’m being a bit cruel, I think. But I still can’t think of a single piece of interactive fiction that I’d pick up and play for fun after finishing it once. There’s no gameplay to most IF except puzzle solving and figuring out what happens next. A good friend of mine once pointed out that in interactive fiction, you never really do stuff.

I’d like to see that change.