IFComp '16: Review Notes

The Interactive Fiction Competition is once again upon us; the deadline for submissions is today, in fact.

This year, I’m busy. But I did promise I would make an effort to review some of the games. As is tradition, before we see the list of comp games, I thought I should take a moment to go over my approach to reviewing these, partly to set expectations, and partly because no collection of comp reviews is complete without a self-important essay talking about the correct way to write reviews.

Practical Considerations

I am writing impressions, not full reviews. Unless I’m really taken with something, don’t expect 2000-word rundown of what it’s about. I might group some pieces into smaller roundups of capsule reviews, even.

I am probably not going to get through the entire comp. The number of entrants last year was huge, and unless an enormous drop-off happens this year, it’s unlikely I’ll have the time to go over everything.

I am doing this in no particular order. If your title or blurb really grabs me I’ll probably get to your thing first, but otherwise I will be playing things in a random order.

I will be following the two-hour rule for judging, but I won’t guarantee it for reviews. Which is to say, if I want to keep playing past two hours, I’ll mark down a judging grade for your piece and get back to it, and review it after I feel like I’m done with it.

As a final side note - I might be covering IFComp elsewhere as well, in which case I’ll be forgoing writing about certain games in here in favor of that, though I will probably go back and write some additional notes to cover stuff that I didn’t think was valuable in a review aimed at a more general public.

Grading Considerations

Review scores are bad, but I think a grade is useful for summing up how I feel about something, especially for people who don’t want to read the full review because they don’t have the time or want to go in blind. So I’m going to be putting grades into one of three categories:

  • Exceptional: this piece is an instant classic that everyone should play;
  • Recommended: this is a good piece doing interesting things;
  • Not recommended: this piece is either significantly flawed, or doing something that will only appeal to fans of a particular subgenre.

There are four additional categories that I don’t really expect to encounter, but want to bring up ahead of time for the sake of thoroughness:

  • Broken: I wasn’t able to view most of the content of this piece, or the effect was seriously hampered, because of technical issues; ie, I wasn’t able to really play this. I’ll probably just write that as a side note to another review.
  • Objectionable: This piece seems to espouse, support, or normalize a viewpoint that I find deeply objectionable (eg racism, misogyny), which for me overrides its technical or literary merit, if any. I might write at length about it, or I might not, but the bottom line is I wouldn’t recommend it to someone without a very large caveat.
  • Category Error: Even though I promote a fairly broad definition of interactive fiction, this piece doesn’t seem to belong here.
  • Won’t review: For some other reason, I can’t or won’t review this, for instance if it’s exclusive to some platform I don’t have access to.

Philosophical Considerations

I am not interested in how well something meets the (sometimes-arbitrary) trad-if standards of whether something is interactive enough, polished” enough, or IF enough. Instead, I’m interested in what a piece has to say, and how effective it is in saying it, in terms of its content and interaction. I’m not interested in re-litigating whether dynfic or hybrid IF are interactive fiction (they are), but I am interested in whether a particular story benefits from a given format. I’m not concerned with the (somewhat calcified) standards of world model architecture that have been extremely prevalent in criticism within the IF community over the years, but I am interested in the ways the parser, trait-based narrative, and cybertext toolkits can be semantically productive.

This isn’t to say that I am giving traditional parser games a free pass on mimesis” or whatever, but it does mean that things which are deliberately deviating from this construction will be evaluated on its own terms, and understood in those terms.

I’m particularly interested, these days, in procedurality, prose generation, narrative systems, and dynamic fiction, so you can expect to see a little more attention paid to these subjects or to pieces that give me an excuse to write about them. This isn’t to say that I like those pieces better; just that they happen to fall under my current theoretical and critical priorities. Particularly, I’m looking forward to seeing what people do with hypertext interaction, which seems to fall quite well under the IFComp’s purview.

Personal Considerations

I took part in the IFcomp last year, and I know it can be a bit of a harrowing experience. I know that it can be a twitchy tug between feeling like you haven’t gotten the attention or recognition you merit, and feeling blown out by too much scrutiny. So it’s absolutely not my goal to shame anyone for the work they put into the comp in good faith, which is why I’m trying to stay away from stack ranking people. Yes, some pieces are going to stand out, and some are going to not succeed. But it’s not my goal here to snark, or to act as a gatekeeper of who is worthy of being in the space.

This is, secretly, the real goal of the rating system: I might give some pieces little more than a sentence and a rating. I’m not sure if that is a good balance to strike between staying totally silent about something because I don’t have anything too positive to say, and writing a full-on negative review (and I reserve the right to write negative reviews if I think they would be interesting or useful). But I’m not trying to turn anyone’s creative failure into entertainment, here, which I think is the standard you have to apply. At the same time, I do want to at least mention every game I get around to playing.

Above everything, I implore authors to remember: Your value as a person is totally orthogonal to your creative success. This is not a competition to determine how much you matter or how good you are.