Extra Life

Extra Life
Textual Pleasure: Parsing the Annual IF Competition

Lara Crigger | 1 May 2007 12:01
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In 1993, Graham Nelson, part-time poet and mathematician, released Inform, a programming language reverse-engineered from the virtual machine Infocom had used for its games. Eventually, Inform would surpass its predecessors in popularity, becoming a kind of lingua franca for the text adventure world. But back then, Nelson's language was just one of many lost in the mix. To showcase Inform's power, Nelson released Curses (still considered one of the IF classics) in 1993, and the game met to wide critical acclaim. But Inform still needed greater exposure to gain acceptance.

A poster on RAIF suggested that Nelson hold a game writing competition to bring attention to his new language, but the idea languished on the boards for many months without effect. That is, until 1995, when Kevin "Whizzard" Wilson, himself a text adventure author, seized upon the idea and decided to organize the first Annual Interactive Fiction Competition. Wilson's logic was clear. "IF as a hobby cannot survive," he wrote in his original announcement, "unless there are people out there writing and playing it."

Wilson instituted only one rule that first year: All entries had to be solvable in under two hours. The "One Rule," as it later became called, was implemented to attract as many games for the contest as possible, as well as judges to manage it. To further entice authors, Wilson opened the contest up to TADS entries, too.

Just 12 entries were submitted that first year, many of which were clear knock-offs of the Infocom style. For example, Andrew Plotkin's A Change in the Weather, the winning Inform entry, relied heavily on time-sensitive puzzles, which required the player to restart the game over and over again until she found the exact sequence of commands necessary to win.

However, the contest managed to attract the attention of Activision's Laird Malamed, then technical director of Zork: Nemesis. Excited by the competition, Malamed arranged for Activision to include the top three games in both categories onto the 1996 text adventure compilation, Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom. (The company did get something in return: Many of the authors lent Activision their pristine, mint-condition Infocom feelies to scan for the game, since the corporate supply, suffering from heavy wear and tear, were mostly second- and even third-generation copies.)

Wilson administered the contest for two more years, before time considerations forced him to pass along management duties to David Dyte in 1998. Dyte also found the IF Comp to be too much work, so he handed it off to Stephen Granade, who has managed the contest ever since.

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Response for the contest was overwhelming, and plans quickly solidified for next year's event. Rules tightening judging and entry procedure were enacted, and the division between the two programming categories was dropped. In its second year, the IF Comp attracted more than double the number of entries than it had previously, and by 1999, that number had more than tripled. A new tradition had started, and people were taking notice.

Despite the IF Comp's growing popularity, however, authors still struggled to reconcile the games they were writing with the legacy Infocom had left behind. Titles like Graham Nelson's The Meteor, The Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet (the second year's winner) were stylish and enjoyable, but they also borrowed heavily from Infocom games, mimicking their dungeon-crawling atmosphere and complicated puzzles.

Some experimentation with fancier prose and philosophical themes did occur, such as Lucian P. Smith's 1997 winner, The Edifice, a monkey-makes-good tale about human evolution. But even Smith struggled with the idea that interactive fiction was a function of its puzzles, rather than the other way around.

It wasn't until Photopia, the 1998 winner, came along that authors had the precedent they needed to break free of the this idea. Adam Cadre's melancholy, beautiful story of a young girl as told by the people who loved her most was an obvious choice for first place. The writing alone surpassed most of what Infocom had ever released. But startlingly, Photopia offered no puzzles whatsoever. Instead, the game was essentially an interactive short story; Cadre's extremely linear narrative carried the player along, like a twig unable to influence the stream in which it drifts. No one had ever written such an unapologetically linear game before and had it so highly regarded by the IF community. Photopia proved that interactive fiction didn't need to rest on its puzzles to work.

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