Extra Life

Extra Life
Textual Pleasure: Parsing the Annual IF Competition

Lara Crigger | 1 May 2007 12:01
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However, despite the game's warm reception, Photopia was still a little too linear and experimental. It's no surprise that the next year's winner, Winter Wonderland, was a return to the Infocom archetype: a lighthearted, epic adventure complete with fetch-quests and complicated maps.

Still, authors continued to experiment, and over time most of the community has agreed that the best games are the ones that strike an even balance between puzzles and prose. Titles like Slouching Toward Bedlam and Vespers skillfully mesh both action and words, gameplay and narrative. "There have been a lot more consciously literary games, but that's not to say that every game is an exercise in high-art techniques," explains Granade. "Some authors craft the best puzzle games they can. Some try to tell stories. Some play with the medium and try to push what can be done."

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These days, explains Granade, the IF Competition has blossomed. "[It] has become a center of gravity around which the community orbits," he says. While other competitions like the XYZZY Awards and the Spring Thing exist, the IF Comp is undeniably the largest and most popular event of its kind. Regularly it attracts attention from Slashdot, Blues News, even the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

In fact, so much attention is lavished on the contest and its entries, says Granade, that games released outside the event are generally ignored. "That's terribly disappointing, to spend all this time writing a game and then to have no one talk about it," he says. Therefore, fewer people release games outside the competition, and many of the entries shoved through to the judges are nowhere near ready for public consumption.

In addition, the IF Comp's popularity means authors have less incentive to create longer games, titles that might take 20, 30, even 40 hours to complete. Games longer than the two-hour, snack-sized contest limit have almost gone extinct. "Imagine writing an Infocom-length game and no one playing it or talking about it," says Granade. "Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote an Infocom-length game. I wouldn't dream of doing that today."

Still, overall the competition's popularity has been a boon for the small IF community. Granade estimates that these days, each contest entry gets downloaded between 1,000 and 2,000 times. That's not much in Steam or Gametap terms, but for a genre that most gamers believe died 15 years ago, such a response is astronomical.

The community itself has evolved, and many of the newer gamers don't struggle with the same Infocom-related hang-ups that older authors faced. "Infocom has been dead for 20 years. We've got young members of the community who weren't alive when Infocom was a going concern," explains Granade. "The community has matured."

As I think back to Vespers, I believe him. Infocom never would have dreamt of making a game like this; after all, only so many possibilities were available for a company that needed to keep its lights on. But more importantly, the fans never would have thought of it either. It took almost 10 years for the community to break out of the Infocom way of thinking, but thankfully they did. Games like Vespers are the result.

Leaning back on the couch, I figure that now that I've finished Vespers, I ought to test out the 2006 winner, Floatpoint. I'm not sure what to expect, judging by how spectacularly wrong the description I found for the last game was. But one thing's for sure, Toto: I know I'm not in Frobozz anymore.

Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist whose previous work for The Escapist includes "Mind Over Matter" and "Searching for Gunpei Yokoi." Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.

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