I always write about interactive fiction. At least, I think I do. I certainly treat almost anything gamey as a form of interactive fiction. But what about the capital-I-capital-F genre of Interactive Fiction?

I have a vague feeling that the annual IFComp has crept into my awareness before this year, but this is certainly the first time I’ve played any of the entries. When I played these very current IF games, I realised I’d had some seriously misplaced preconceptions about the whole genre.

The rest of this post lists some of my discoveries. Maybe I’m an idiot for not realising this stuff before, but well, OK, I’m an idiot.


IF is text games, and text isn’t an accident

Before now, when I thought of interactive fiction, I didn’t necessarily think of text. I thought IF was just — I don’t know — anything, I guess. If it told a fictional story, it was fiction. And I thought text games were only made these days either because somebody just fancies retro stuff or because somebody can’t make complicated games with graphics and stuff. I was wrong on both of those.

First, IF, from what I can tell, is just text games. It’s fiction as in literature. It’s fictional writing — that you read. All the games I played in IFComp were primarily text-driven. Whenever you try to pin down any genre you find exceptions, but from what I can see, this is IF’s main trait: text.

Second, text isn’t chosen for its retro aesthetic, or as an unwanted substitute for technologies that are beyond the designer’s ability. Text is there on purpose, because text is brilliant. I even write fiction as a hobby. I know writing is brilliant. But somehow I didn’t put all this together.

So the IF genre is text games, where people use all the power and excitement of writing to create worlds you can interact with — worlds built with, and full of, the passion and reasons and meanings of thoughtful writing. (Notice I didn’t even mention stories there.)


Not just adventure game ebooks

And if you’d asked me about text games specifically before I looked at IFComp, I’d have said there are two kinds: text input adventures like The Lost Frog or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style branching story book affairs.

In fact, text games are a great many kinds of things. I played something a little like the text-input adventure — but with a point-and-click interface, graphics, and music (and more sophisticated themes than misplaced amphibians, as important as those are) — in Krypteia. I played something a little like the branching narrative story book sort — but made of passages dynamically responding to previous player actions, and concerning much more grown-up fantasies — in Creatures Such As We. So the two types I’d thought about were sort of there, but I had massively underestimated them. And there was so much more.

I played a game presented entirely as a corporate website and intranet in Alethicorp. (“Haka” was scarily like my actual job, though…) I played a minimalist and explicitly systematised “slot machine poem” in Begscape. I played an “interactive instant” in Enigma.

A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but pictures sometimes carry a burden of specificity that words don’t. Words are free to explore the vague and the abstract, then fluctuate fast into the concrete and the precise. I just mentioned five games made by individuals that explore the nature of interactive entertainment with wilder inquisitiveness than can be found in any other genre I know of. Two kinds indeed.


You don’t have to slog through amateur fiction

An obvious consequence of the above revelation is that you’re not just reading narrative prose written by amateurs — another of my preconceptions. As a sometime fan of amateur fiction, I know that’s not always rewarding. But the huge range of formats available to text game writers means that walls of self-indulgent prose don’t need to come up. I certainly didn’t see any in the handful of games I tried. Even the couple that featured extensive prose were, I thought, very accomplished in their writing.

Hayao Miyazaki said of a new manga project in a recent interview, “I wanted to put a lot of  effort into it, ignoring costs, like a hobby.” Hobbyism is a creator’s dream. That’s what I saw in these IFComp games: care, passion, pride, and high standards. The result is amateur fiction that’s not worthy and tiring: it’s exciting and inspiring.


It’s all in the second person

There simply must be examples of text games that aren’t written in the second person, but all the ones I played were. I don’t really have anything to say about that, except that given the huge variety and invention apparent in the entries, it just made me wonder. Maybe it’s been done. Maybe it simply doesn’t work very well to use the first or third person in a text game. I don’t know. Just an observation.


IF games are really good games

The most important thing I learnt was that IFComp.org is just a fantastic place to go and play some games. All are free; most are playable in a browser.

What’s more, the voting on the 2014 comp is finishing very soon — 15th November. I strongly recommend going to play a few games because they’re fun, but you should also cast a vote, because it’s a way to support the competition. This is clearly a fantastic way to encourage creativity in game design.

Here are the games I played:

  • Krypteia by Kateri (which introduced me to IFComp)
  • Enigma by Simon Deimel
  • Creatures Such As We by Lynnea Glasser
  • AlethiCorp by Simon Christiansen
  • Begscape by Porpentine
  • HHH.exe by Robot Parking
  • Zest by Fear of Twine

I’ve dipped into some others, too, and hope to finish them before the 15th. Then roll on IFComp 2015!

(Check out the browse page for more of my writing.)