The 17th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition

by Mr Creosote (2011-10-13)

You believe Text Adventures are a dead genre? Died with the 1980s? You couldn't be more wrong! What you're thinking about is the commercial death of the genre. There is still a thriving scene of enthusiasts of continue to write such games. This makes perfect sense not just because of the validity of the genre itself (movies did not kill books), but also because what other kind of game could one person write on her own anyway?

The central hub and occasion to publish new games is the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, a contest held since 1995 which encourages authors to write short games (playable in two hours). This restriction is not just a good idea for authors (nobody has got enough free time to write a game of truly epic proportions); it also means that the players' investment is small: Even if you pick a real stinker, what have you lost? At most two hours of your life, most likely less.

2011 marks the 17th incarnation of this competition. 38 games have been entered. The competition website provided any registered user with a randomised suggested order to play the games. This seemed fair, so I followed that. Let's see what we've got!


- Not all of the games have been reviewed. The reasons for not being reviewed are stated for each such game below. This is not necessarily a statement about (lack of) quality. Unreviewed games can be found through the competition website.

- The reviews are written for prospective players, not authors. The reason being that, believe it or not, there is a life after the competition is over; there might still be people interested in these games and therefore, reviews should be as timeless as possible.

- If an author wishes to discuss his or her game, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line.

- The ratings give to games here are not the ratings I have submitted to the competition. First of all, the scale is a different one. Second, on this site, games are rated on a absolute scale (i.e. compared to every other game there is – as far as this is even possible). In the competition, rating games relative to each other (i.e. the best game gets a 10, the worst game gets a 1 and everything else goes in between) makes much more sense. Ratings of 2 and above equal a recommendation.

- Being reviewed implies I have rated the game in the competition. Not being reviewed does not imply that I have not rated the game. Don't worry, though: I have not rated games I have not played at all.

- I've played the newest version of the game available at the time it came up on my random list.

The Games


Played, finished & reviewed.

Awake the Mighty Dread

I played it for almost an hour, but I couldn't make head or tail of it. Total implementation mess. Important objects are not listed in the room descriptions and also not otherwise discoverable. Other items simply disappeared after picking them up. The dream/wake logic never made any sense. Didn't finish the game, it needs a complete re-implementation from the ground up, in my opinion.

Dead Hotel

MS Windows game.

Andromeda Awakening

Played, finished & reviewed.

This one finished 17th, i.e. too low in my opinion. It is very likely that the heavy-handed writing style got in the way of a higher placement.

Fan Interference

This is a game about Baseball. I know absolutely nothing about this sport. I mean nothing. The author even acknowledges this problem by providing very helpful custom commands to query the game about someone's identity, rule explanations and definitions of objects. My greatest respect for implementing all of that! Nevertheless, it was not enough for me. When I'm forced to look up every second term thrown at me by a game, it is no fun.

Professor Frank

Played, finished & reviewed.

Finished 34th – seriously, it wasn't that bad!

Cold Iron

Played, finished & reviewed.

Finished 15th – very overrated. Unbelievable that this one managed to score this much higher than, for example, The Hours (my favourite pick this year as far as pure storytelling games are concerned).


Played, finished & reviewed.

Tenth Plague

Played, finished & reviewed.

Ted Paladin And The Case Of The Abandoned House

Played, finished & reviewed.

Cana According To Micah

This is the retelling of a biblical story. The alias 'Rev. Stephen Dawson' and several other factors indicate that this will be a piece of fundamentalist Christian propaganda. The first few turns of the game did not disspell this concern (quite on the contrary). I will not be playing this. For all I know, it might be an amazingly implemented game, but quite honestly, I think the chances of it getting my blood boiling in a negative way are much higher. I'm not taking this chance.

The Hours

Played, finished & reviewed.

Sentencing Mr Liddell

Unlike some other reviewers, I have no moral qualms about hitting a piglet (which really represents my two-year-old daughter) in a game. The game's message seems to be quite clear from the start: The protagonist is a horrible person who has alienated his wife and his mother. Even in the first few turns (the interaction with the wife), there was basically no way for the player to behave rationally: I (the player) wouldn't have the slightest idea why I'd rather spend time with my annoying uncle than my mother, my wife and my daughter. Then, I entered a surreal dreamland with some not-so-subtle metaphors (the piglet...) and hints about my mother never having loved me, sibling rivalry during childhood etc. One unmotivated puzzle and a couple of pages of text later, I morphed into the next dream sequence. By that time, I had simply lost interest, though. This one is not breathtakingly bad, but it provided me with no hook which made me want to explore it further.

Ship of Whimsy

Played, finished & reviewed.

Death of Schlig

Played, finished & reviewed.

At 26th, this one also placed relatively low. Maybe too over-the-top.

Escape From Santaland

Played, finished & reviewed.

Fourth place. Congratulations, I wouldn't have expected such a non-pretentious, carefree puzzle game to score this well with the general public!

The Guardian

I finished this, but I will not be reviewing it, because it is not a game. There is no interaction. As such, there is no place for it on a website about games. I was actually quite surprised to find a sequel of Vestiges in the same competition. OK, maybe that is unfair – Vestiges was 10 times more interactive than this. On the other hand, The Guardian is not nearly as buggy. I'm not a literary critic; if I were, I'd call this unengaging and probably pretentious.

Playing Games

Played, finished & reviewed.

The Binary

Game requires constant online connection & Javascript.

The Elfen Maiden: A Comedy of Error Messages

Played, finished & reviewed.

Since I read a couple of other reviews since I wrote mine, I feel compelled to say something else about this game. Some reviewers have voiced the concern of this being homophobic since the protagonist sees it as a potential disaster if his “master” Jason Watts goes on a date with another man (assuming that person to be a woman). Let me quote from the game itself (right at the beginning, quoted from the first version of the game; emphasis mine):

If Watts had shown any signs of being homosexual before this point, this would not have been a cause for concern. As it was; however, you have every reason (stored safely in the backup hard drive) to assume your master is an admirer of the fairer sex.

Later, the narrator even ponders:
For a moment you entertain the idea that Jason might be bisexual - Gary looks like an active and interesting guy, and he would bring some much needed ambition and organization into Jason's life. Not to mention that then you wouldn't have to call off the date.

So the protagonist, the narrator and, by proxy, the game and the author make absolutely no judgement on different sexual preferences! The character around whom the game centres, Jason, just happens to be a heterosexual male, as clearly stated in the game's introduction. So it is already “homophobic” to have a central character who is heterosexual these days? Talk about taking political correctness too far.

My #1 pick, but placed only 10th. The politically correct fraction striking back?

Return to Camelot

This has apparantly been written in ADRIFT 5 which the Open Source interpreter SCARE cannot run. There now seems to be an official Linux interpreter, but that is distributed as binary only and it depends on Mono (with all its patent issues). Sorry, but these are too many unknowns concerning trustworthiness of the software surrounding this game.

The Myothian Falcon

QUEST is yet another MS-Windows-only system. There is an “online” version of the game, but that requires Javascript and (logically) a permanent Internet connection.

Taco Fiction

Played, finished & reviewed.

This one won the competition. A well-deserved victory, it was one of my favourites, too.


Kerkerkruip, if my dangerous half-knowledge of the Dutch language does not fail me, simply translates to Dungeon Crawl. It is the attempt to make a Rogue-like game in the Inform language. There are a couple of Rogue-likes covered extensively on this site (like Telengard and Ancient Domains of Mystery), but you'll notice none of these reviews have been written by me. There is a good reason for this; that being that role-playing games are my least favourite game genre. I tried my best playing Kerkerkruip, but I just suck at these games. I then watched the videos the author kindly provided and watching someone competent play turned out to be much more fun than playing myself. This seems to be well-made in general. What I'm not so sure about is how well a parser interface lends itself to gameplay situations which only ever require a fixed set of instructions anyway: In combat, simply providing a multiple choice menu with context-sensitive options like “attack”, “parry” and whatever else sounds much more comfortable to me.

Fog Convict

After the first act (disabling the fire alarm), the game broke for me; I could not leave the dorm, because the game kept insisting I had to open a door which was already open first. There were a few updates of this game during the competition, but I never revisited this one as there were always enough fresh games still left to try out. The part I played was not that promising. It was big, but full of locked doors. After solving the first puzzles, some doors were unlocked, but seemingly at random: I had to walk through the whole 'world' checking every door once again. If this is actually your intended concept of slowly opening the game world up (which is not a bad decision per se), let me advise you that there really should be some logical link between the player's actions and the locations to be made accessible. A bit sad as this seems to be one of the more ambitious games of this competition.

Edit: Reading the solution, I found out I had only partially solved the first act; I was also supposed to put out a fire in my bathroom. That bathroom happened to be one of the many locked doors I came across and there was no indication that this one was of any significance (other than making me wondering why I would be locked out of my own bathroom). After simply turning the fire alarm off, everybody happily joined the dorm again, although the fire must still have been smoldering. Learning this makes me want to revisit the game even less.


This is the polar opposite of Fog Convict: It could hardly be less ambitious, but the implementation is top-notch! I went through several phases with this game:

1. Girls playing Hide and Seek? What's the point? Why would I want to play this?

2. This is actually very well made. Look at all these interactions! Let me try another silly one... wow, this works, too!

3. Quite a large number of different endings. Quite human, too.

So it grew on me, but nevertheless, it defies any attempt to categorise it in a fixed rating scale. It's not really a game as not even the hiding place is randomised. Even then it obviously wouldn't be a brilliant game. On the other hand, the construction of this small world is beyond criticism. Almost every piece of attempted interaction I threw at the game was met with a custom response, many even triggered changes in the ending or at least my perception of the ending. So all I can say is: Well done, you achieved what you tried to do! I'd definitely recommend this one to absolute beginners of the genre who simply want to learn how to interact with such a game.

Beet the Devil

Played, finished & reviewed.


Played, finished & reviewed.

Note: Although I'm rating this highly here, I have submitted a low rating for the competition. The game, in my opinion, is totally inappropriate in this context. It is much too large to by played in the two hours. I had barely scratched the surface when this time was over.

The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M

Complete technical failure. After the first (trivial) puzzle, the game dumped me to an undescribed location called “Outside the Inn”. Using my superior abilities of deduction, I tried “IN” and indeed, this got me inside the Inn. There, a death-incarnate/Charon character prompted me to pay him, but didn't like any of the two items I could offer him. Again, no exits were listed. I randomly tried directions and found a couple of more rooms, but all of them were completely undescribed. Seeing that this game already received reviews which don't only consist of lots of swearing about technical incompetence, I have to assume the game is simply incompatible with my interpreter. Which, however, is strange, because I'm using the official interpreter of the format.

Edit: I was able to play this one as intended now. Seeing that I had already wasted quite some time in the previous attempt, I played straight from the walkthrough to see as much as possible of it in the remaining time. This is actually very well implemented, but the strident, moralistic plot about a doctor being judged in afterlife is very heavy-handed. Not my cup of tea.


Played, finished & reviewed.

Short version: good game which could have been very good if it had gone through a few more weeks of continuous testing and improvement cycles. I'm happy to see that this one is much more solid (both the concept and the implementation) than Fog Convict from the same author.

How Suzy Got Her Powers

Played & finished, but this game is (admittedly) only a preface to the “actual” game which David Whyld is planning to write. It is the extremely brief origin story of a female superhero of whom we don't learn the superpowers or her motivation for being a superhero. It's basically the old formula of “dying otherworldly superbeing transfers her powers to an unlikely/suprised successor”. The straightforward solution is relatively simple, but there are additional things to do. The parser is very picky, though, discouraging experimentation. What makes this game so questionable, in my opinion, though, is the imbalance between gameplay and plot-driven text. The quotient between these two is way too low or, to put it in non-mathematical terms: too many endless textdumps.


Seems to be a very ambitious game, presenting the player with different scenarios as well as a Bureaucracy-style blood pressure/excitement meter. However, already the very first scenario I tried turned out to be completely unsolvable for me: I couldn't escape from the supermarket. Why is that even a problem? The walkthrough then claimed there are many ways to get out. Yet, I still couldn't find any (which made the implication of the walkthrough kind of insulting as I'm usually not useless at puzzles) and the one prescribed in the walkthrough was really strange. After that, I was killed by a pack of dogs almost immediately. Sorry, given the short amount of time left, that's it – my patience for this one has run out.


I read the accompanying manual. I ran the game. Both told me one thing: That I'm not “cool enough” to run and play this game, because I like playing on a plain text terminal without graphics, sound and colour. Sorry to say, but this kind of thing backfires with players like me – I'm pissed off now and I'm not going to play this game.

Operation Extraction

Requires permanent online connection.

Last Day of Summer

Played, finished & reviewed.

The Play

Requires permanent online connection.


Played & reviewed.

37th place – phew, that is harsh! Although I agree this is not a good game, it isn't that bad!


Played & reviewed.


So which are the games I would recommend? Obviously, the best ones – read the reviews! Which games are the most noteworthy ones (in a positive way) in different respects, though? Let's try to identify a few subcategories.

Carefree Modern-Day Games

The Elfen Maiden, Taco Fiction and Escape From Santaland (in this order) all offer a good balance between a laid-back plot and simple, but not completely trivial puzzles.

Old-School Puzzle Game

Cursed sparkles with ambition. It is by far the longest game of the competition and well implemented at the same time, but does have a few stumbling blocks. Playing it is almost like being back in the 1980s – in a positive way. Play this one for a real challenge.

Interesting Plot

The Hours may not be much in the gameplay department, but it is a delight for fans of classic science fiction: This author knows his time travel logic and he knows how to use it to build suspense!

Introductory Game

It is impossible to really fail in It. Its small and concise world (one garden) is extremely well implemented; beginners who just want to try out how this whole 'interaction' thing works will be delighted to find a large number of possible interaction attempts being rewarded.

Observations / Conclusions

This year's competition, compared to the last two years, marked an increase of almost 50% in the number of entries again. That might seem like a good thing and it is – but not universally.

First of all, what I will remember this competition for more than anything else is the percentage of very short games. Most games didn't even come close to using the two hours of play time they've got as per the competition's rules. When the competition was first conceived, it was supposed to serve as a platform for short games – two hours being considered short, because the standards for comparison were still Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9. This perception has apparantly shifted quite a bit over the years; two hours is now long.

This, by itself, is just an observation which inherently is neither good or bad. The good thing is, again, that authors don't feel forced to overstay their games' welcome. Not every concept will carry a game for full two hours. Imagine It being that long – by then, even the very last player would be yawning hard. The other side of the coin being that everything remains rather shallow by design.

What many authors seem to be trying instead and what seems to be rewarded by the competition judges is gimmicks. Whether it is technical ones, a special kind of puzzle or an unorthodox narration technique – these things will grab the judges' attention. This explains the relatively high placement of a game like PataNoir.

On the other hand, vanilla games which 'only' try to be good games without any claims at innovation also placed unusually well this year: Escape from Santaland, for example; even the winner, Taco Fiction arguably falls into this category. This is very good news: good craftsmanship gets its reward again, much more so than in the previous years. Don't let yourself be fooled by the typical blogging reviewer: This is only a very special subset of the overall judging community.

Which leads to another facet of the competition: the reviews and the reviewers. For a couple of years now, public reviews of the competition games during the judging period have been allowed. Most of them are posted on personal 'blogs', some of which even only seem to exist for the singular purpose of reviewing IF Comp games; in the period between two competitions, they lie in deep sleep. Most reviewers come from the (self-proclaimed) 'literary' direction, favouring plot-heavy games. Some even delve into long-winded discussions about specific choices of words, but never get to the point of whether a game is fun.

Few reviewers manage to get through all games. I did it only, because I followed a strict rule of skipping certain games which were not trivial to run. Playing this many games, as short as each of them may be, in such a short time is hard. Most people get cranky and cynical after a few weeks. That is why I took this break in the middle and even so, games played in the final weeks always have it tougher. The first ones can always rely on more patience and a generally more positive and forgiving attitude. Many reviewers react to these saturation effects by simply stopping. Who can blame them?

But back to the games. There are always new trends in these circles which many people feel compelled to follow. This year, it is 'online' play. Nevermind for a moment that most of the games labelled as such are actually downloaded by the player's web browser and played locally – that's just a technical quibble about terminology. The worrying thing about this is that apparantly, more and more authors are trying to retain some sort of 'control' over their games by not handing them out to their players. Even putting this trust issue aside, this could turn into a big problem when it comes to preservation. The games which are only available on one specific website are very likely to disappear sooner or later. Just wait for it, it will happen (The Play took third place this year – I'm taking bets how long it'll take until it becomes unavailable). And what then? Abandonware sites for lost online IF?

Last year's fad, on the other hand, seems to be over already again: noun-only commands. Remember when graphic Adventures switched to one-click-for-all controls in the early/mid-1990s? Noun-only commands are the equivalent in text-based games: Simply enter the name of an object and the game will automatically try to select the related action which might make sense in the current context. The overrated Blue Lacuna introduced such an interface the year before last and it was heralded as a new dawn. One single game made a half-hearted attempt at that this year. The other unfortunate remnant of Blue Lacuna is still very much alive, though with a significantly lower impact: 'smarter parser'. This is the name of an Inform parser extension which supposedly improves its capabilities. In fact, what it does is mostly to annoy the player by taking him for an idiot, constantly breaking the fourth wall to 'explain' things.

Another, this time lasting, trend have been 'works' (trying to avoid the term 'games' here) which did away with the classic puzzle-solving paradigm. They simply tell stories. While it might be obvious that I'm not too fond of these personally, I'm not questioning their validity as part of the overall genre. What such authors have to understand, though, is that interactive fiction is a different medium than static fiction. The techniques required to write a story in which the 'reader' (player) can interact are more complicated and harder to get right. You can't depend on a completely linear structure of plot elements, for example. Or if you do, you will frustrate your reader/player, because by that point, you've taken away all interactivity (and then, the question of why you published in an interactive format in the first place shows its ugly head). If you're just taking a static short story you wrote and try to implement it straight into an IF language, you're doing something wrong. Like every change from one medium to another, the story needs to be adapted. And some stories are not suited for adaption into another medium anyway.

Last, but not least, this year's competition introduced the first change in the rules since allowing public discussions (and reviews) during the judging period: Now, the games themselves may also be updated mid-competition. This sparked a bit of a controversy about fairness. Sure, strictly speaking, this goes against the competition spirit. However, past experiences have shown that bugs are rarely ever fixed after the competition, because the incentive for authors to go back to their games is gone. This year had a healthy number of game updates and therefore, the archived final versions of the games will (hopefully) be of higher average quality.

One game went too far with its changes, in my opinion. Ironically, it was the game I personally liked best: The Elfen Maiden. Some of the first reviewers criticised alleged homophobic tendences and the author went as far as making it completely 'genderless' and even renaming it. The problem (apart from the original critics being completely out of line anyway) with this is that these new alternative options don't work nearly as well: While the original story was a play on a wide-spread cliché, the opposite options the newer version offers are just silly and without any grain of truth. This does not really make the game itself worse; the original version is still in there. However, it is now buried beneath other options which are not nearly as poignant.

So for authors, this new rule is both boon and bane: They have got the option to fix things, but they also have to remain steadfast and withstand the lure to simply let themselves be carried by the head wind of the incoming reviews. Most reviewers have got their own agenda and tastes; whether these are compatible with the original vision of an author has to be answered by the latter. Trying to please everybody will only result in changing things back and forth and ending up with an inconsistent mess.

Finally, I can only once again encourage everybody to give at least some of the games a try. The competition may be over, but as stated way above, the games continue to exist. Maybe some will even get another update. Playing after the competition might not give you the thrill of judging, but it (mostly) ensures you get to see the best version available. And if you're one of the people who don't really follow modern IF, but who got an appetite for more now: The IF Comp is not the only way to release games... just wait for Spring Thing.