IF Comp 2016: Blurb Reviews

IF Comp is here! The biggest outpouring of interactive fiction all year, and a ton of people writing about it. I’m going to try to write reviews of the comp pieces this year, so here’s an initial preamble inspired by Bruno Dias and Cat Manning before I put down my initial impressions of the blurbs for posterity.

I won’t review everything in the comp, partly because I don’t have the time and energy, and partly because a couple of games contain subject matter that I’m not the target audience for.

I amĀ  not a professional reviewer, nor do I think reviewers (professional or otherwise) have a duty or ability to be unbiased. My plan is to show my impressions, my preferences, and my recommendations to players based on such. Where I make recommendations, recommendations with caveats, or negative comments, I’ll do my best to illustrate why.

I am a social creature, and have friendly chats with many of the authors of this year’s entries. That said…

I am reviewing the games, not the authors. If you feel I’ve made a personal attack on you, please get in touch, but my aim isn’t to be snarky or tear anyone down.

With all that in mind, on with the blurb-judging! To summarise if you don’t have time to read the reams below:

  • Please make sure title and author text are clearly visible on cover art. There are a lot of games where you can barely see the title, which spoils the cover rather.
  • Please don’t be self-effacing in blurbs. It turns me off the game right away.
  • Less is often more. A strong few sentences that say a lot about a protagonist, setting or dilemma can be more effective than overloading the reader with ingame lore, especially for an SFF game.
  • …That said, sometimes it can be too minimal. I want to know what gives the game its spark, vim and vigour. If the art can coordinate with the blurb content to reinforce tone, that’s all to the good.
  • I’m genuinely impressed with the blurbs: although some appeal more than others, I can for the most part see their appeal for other players.
  • To make me instantly want to play something, set it in a desert because I am all over that.

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IF for tough times

What a fortnight it’s been. Here is some free feelgood IF.

Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
Bridget, an anxious moppet of a fourteen-year-old, is miserable at summer camp: she doesn’t fit in, she’s tongue-tied around pretty much everyone (but especially the tough-talking teen detective Bell Park), and she just wants to go home. Not only that, sinister birds are invading her dreams and the adults are starting to act very strangely indeed.

Bridget’s behaviour in dreams affects her personality, which in turn opens up different options in the daytime. It’s a really nice mechanic, giving the dreams concrete purpose as well as humour and flavour. It’s written in dialogue only, and in the hands of a less capable writer might not work, but Hennessy’s dialogue zings. I challenge anyone to get through a couple of pages without laughing. Also GAY TEENS WHO DON’T DIE.



I play this game every so often and it always gives me warm feelings. It’s about an ordinary day of going to class, being comforted, giving comfort and destroying capitalism whle encased in an iridescent mecha suit.

A short game, it nevertheless packs a punch and, wonderfully, the nice messages from the quote above are crowdsourced by the author, spreading the warmth and love around.

Notes: swearing.

Child’s Play (Stephen Granade)
It’s playgroup day and that other baby Zoe keeps stealing your favourite toy. Outrageous!

I haven’t got very far in this because I don’t have much patience for puzzles, but the writing is delightful and getting into the head of a baby is actually quite relaxing. I feel like I have a bit of insight into how Alistair might feel (certainly I felt “cry” was the right solution in a lot of situations…).

Feelgood Factor: BABIES.
Notes: If you are not fond of babies or find them stressful, this is probably not for you.

The breathless, high-octane tale of a CYBER HACKER who just wants their SAUNA EXPERIENCE. It’s nowhere near as dark as most of Porpentine’s games: the dystopian setting is played for laughs rather than the usual feeling of plunging one’s hands into the world’s grimy innards, and it is gloriously shameless about its genre conventions and shortcuts. I love this game for its reeling excitement followed by the delightfully relaxing SAUNA EXPERIENCE.

(I got a huggable manta ray. This is a major life goal for me now.)

Notes: swearing, also if you’re like me and are squicked out by plant-human hybrids choose Crystal or Robot hacker rather than Plant.

Tiny Utopias (Caelyn Sandel)
All the Tiny Utopias are good to check out when your mood is low, but Caelyn Sandel’s gentle, soothing landscapes are marvellously meditative. There are four: Palm River, Tiny Home, Tiny Beach and Tiny Sea, and within each are a host of nodes leading to descriptive text.

Sandel includes lovely soundscapes in the background, adding to the sense of gentle relaxation. I return often to these pieces, enjoying the feeling of a few moments of calm.

Feelgood Factor: GENTLY SOOTHING.

(Many thanks to the &if folks for recommendations!)

Bring Out Your Dead: The Wedding Party

Bring Out Your Dead is a game jam for unfinished work that never quite worked out. It’s primarily for IF pieces, but has expanded out to non-IF games, prototypes, and pen and paper storygames. As a rampant perfectionist and someone who has a habit of keeping projects clutched close to my chest, this jam makes me very nervous, which is exactly why I figured I should enter it.

The Wedding Party was my first non-Twine, non-mod IF piece. I wrote it during 2014 until it stalled. Its setting and characters are roughly based on those in a novel I was drafting at the time.

There are things I like about it: deciding the PC’s preferred address rather than their gender, the characters, the setting, the ridiculous intricacy of the breakfast scene in which vast nests of conditional text display depending on who you’ve spoken to and who you happen to be romancing.

However, in my excitement to get the story down, I didn’t really plan it in advance, resulting in a lot of early quest-giving and not as much problem-solving. There’s a fair amount of binary choices which are clearly “do you want to raise X stat or Y stat?” and I’m not sure about how well the PC signalling their intent works. Ultimately those things could have been fixed (maybe will be fixed at some point in the future?) but the lack of planning meant that I had, and still have, little idea of the project’s scope or where exactly it’s going. Which resulted in stalling and other, smaller projects being more appealing.

Still, I’m fond of it and it certainly taught me a lesson: keep a strong plan and outline in mind at all times, as it’ll help with pacing and story structure.

Failbetter Workshop: It’s Complicated; IF Meetup

Between a cold hitting all three of us in the household in quick succession, the baby having a plethora of teeth coming through, and a deluge of heartbreaking things happening in the world (let’s euphemistically call them “current events”) it hasn’t been an easy couple of weeks. In the middle of it all was a day of respite.

Failbetter Games (Fallen London, The Last Court, Sunless Sea) regularly hold workshops, both for their writers and for visitors to come and see the process, and join in if they wish. Last Tuesday was It’s Complicated: Writing Relationships in Interactive Fiction, which is so much My Kind Of Thing that it’s not even funny. When the tickets came on sale, I dithered in a cycle of money?-childcare?-travel?-how? but Fay encouraged me to go for it, saying we could sort something out. I’m really glad I did.

Olivia Wood (Failbetter’s editor) has talked about romance and sex in videogames for Videobrains hilariously and sensibly, so I knew I was in for a treat. She gave another talk about the issues that face writers when portraying friendships and romances: how to make characters feel real while still having a point plotwise, how to avoid a situation where an otherwise strongminded character agrees limply with whatever the PC decides they should do, how to balance showing a relationship changing and growing with avoiding interminably slowing the pace.

There aren’t easy answers to these and the other issues we discussed – if there were, decent relationships would be far more common in videogames – but talking about them was inspiring and invigorating.

We looked at several pieces of work from Fallen London and Sunless Sea, plus a piece from Harry Tuffs’ House of Many Doors: a diverse selection of NPC-focused plots, scenes and conversations. It was great to have insight into the writing and editing process, and hear from the writers where they had run into problems.

There was a delicious sushi lunch and a chat with the other attendees and the Failbetter folks, which was lovely. The Failbetter office is a converted Victorian chapel with a heavy wrought-iron gargoyle doorknocker, vastly high ceilings and a spiral staircase; it feels very appropriate for the strange, Gothic games they make. The atmosphere was welcoming and friendly, as was everyone there. It must be weird having interlopers all up in your workspace, but everyone was gracious and I felt at ease. Especially nice for me: I’m a social creature, but pick up awkwardness and start getting self-conscious easily.

Over the afternoon the other attendees and I chilled out, chatted, and walked. I hadn’t been to Greenwich since I was tiny but the tube journey there was surreal: a combination of bright, beautiful Regency pompousness with gentrified Mirror’s-Edge skyscraping dystopia. A rainstorm sent us scurrying back to the offices where we hung out and I fiddled around with writing until it was time for the IF Meetup Group.

We had three presentations: Tory Hoke of sub-Q (a project especially close to my heart), Derek Moody of Whodunnit Manor, and Nathan Penlington of Choose Your Own Documentary. Choose Your Own Documentary was particularly exciting as it was completely new to me and was fascinating – it made me wish I’d known about the show when it was on! Emily Short has done a rundown on the talks here.

My friends Mary and Grant kindly had me to stay with them and their marvellous giant ginger cat, and early the next morning it was time to head for home. The sunshine was perfect, warm and bright but not overheated, and even the rush-hour-packed tube didn’t dampen my spirits too much.

It was a break for meeting new people, discussing fictional friendships and romances, hearing people’s stories, and seeing friends: just right. Talking about nerdy writerly things that make my brain fizz helps bolster me for dealing with the world, and with life, when both are making me wilt.

Event: Invisible Wall

Earlier this month I went to Invisible Wall, a games writing event for women and gender minorities! It was nervewracking but exciting.

Writing is usually solitary, sometimes teeth-grindingly so. People get chatty online, sharing their ideas and opinions and woes. And then comes the kicker: to get a job you need to get your actual face out there – go to conferences, hang out in bars, network.

I don’t have a lot of experience telling people about myself. It’s part of that self-deprecating, imposter syndrome business: am I serious enough, creatively, to be worth speaking to? I’ve published two IF pieces in a semiprozine, but everyone else is clearly more together and competent than I am. And so on.

So it was invigorating to go to an event where this problem was discussed frankly and honestly. Diffidence was acknowledged as a legitimate struggle if you feel like an outsider in an industry, and something to push through both for your own self-esteem and so your ideas are paid attention to.

Then there are the pitfalls of being “too nice” and how it can become habitual, ending up with you feeling shackled to an overly compliant, acquiescent persona that isn’t you. “If you’re can’t be confident, be bad-tempered,” Olivia Wood (editor for Failbetter Games) said.

It wasn’t all about avoiding negatives; it was also a lot about celebrating positives. The speakers spoke about their expertise in a confident, straightforward way that was both inspiring and fascinating. “What makes you great at your job?” was a great question to hear a panel of women answer because it feels like we don’t say that enough.

Soft skills, a term that I feel tempted to put a million air quotes around, were discussed in respectful terms. They’re often underestimated, but as Pip Warr pointed out, one of the major journalism skills is getting people to feel comfortable talking to you, and people are often surprised that she managed to extract some juicy tidbit or other.

Teamwork, too. The idea of The Lone Writer dashing off genius lines while standing on top of a building in a swooshy coat is compelling enough, but it’s not sustainable. Working with others feels like a female-coded skill and it really shouldn’t be, but regardless, making connections with people is important and valuable.

As for my own soft skills, I’m an especially good listener and can nudge people into feeling more comfortable talking. At the same time that can mean I end up flattening myself, especially in a very stimulating setting. It leads to a vicious cycle of not feeling so able to talk – if others don’t ask, my brain stops feeling so forthcoming.

During the Invisible Wall networking session I ended up doing that a bit: the journey, noise, busyness and having had a long day of babycare with little sleep didn’t make for an entirely comfortable experience. I had to bow out early because there was just so much going on.

My comfort zone is more in the realm of the Oxford and London Interactive Fiction Group, but it was fantastic to push myself to try something new and I hope next time I’m in that situation I’ll feel more upfront about my achievements. Being in a room where a group of women talked smartly about their jobs and gave advice, and being with a big bunch of people who are minorities in the games industry eating delicious sushi and chatting about games was stimulating and interesting.

(It was also exciting to meet and chat with people like Olivia Wood and Meg Jayanth who I’m SUPER STARSTRUCK about!)

Invisible Wall inspired me to put out some professional writing feelers that are so far going well, and to consider a writing job that previously I’d discounted because of vague creeping uncertainty. I hope there followup events in the future: it was a great experience.

8 things about playing games with a baby

No, not Peekaboo or “how quickly can you steal glasses off my face”, but grownup digital games. In the early days (weeks) (months) (years?) of your bundle arriving on the planet, you won’t be able to see anything beyond the constant grind of babycare, but if you like to play games, at some point you’re going to yearn for a controller or mouse or screen in your hand once more.

I hit that stage when the baby was two months old and have been playing games since. He’s now eight months and teeteringly close to crawling, which will bring a whole other set of challenges. Here are some things I wish I’d known when I started out.

Disclaimer: all babies and parental experiences are different, mileage may vary, etc etc.

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Enough, Rest, and TinyUtopias

The other day I wrote Enough for the very informal and unofficial TinyUtopias IF Jam. True to the theme, Enough is very small, just over 100 words long, and took a couple of hours to put together.

It’s about comfort and encouragement, and the world being exciting rather than overwhelming or frightening, and resting being something to luxuriate in. I found it rather calming to write, thinking about what I’d like to have enough of.

With an eight month old baby, energy and rest are at the forefront of my utopian visions. It’s notable that several of the jam games have that theme: TinyHillside by Emily Short ends with sleep, while Tiny Utopia by Astrid Dalmady describes a gently energised morning wakeup. I’d love to see a TinySleep Jam sometime in the future.

It was really enjoyable to write for a prompt in such an unpressured way, and the rest of the TinyUtopias games are lovely – a varied batch of moments, situations, or wordplay. They’re all very small, so do take a few minutes to check them out!

Heretic Dreams notes

Heretic Dreams was entirely unexpected. I had other projects on the go, there were various baby-shaped demands on my time and brain, and I didn’t need anything else on my plate. But then I read The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Elements of the novella kept racing through my mind: a protagonist touched by the power of a god, a romantic bond between the protagonist and their captain, a disastrous journey. So I wrote Heretic Dreams: a very different setup, setting and story, but still strongly inspired by Wilson’s work. This is the first fantasy interactive fiction I wrote, the one with the most lethal stakes, and the first that I wrote with the intention of submitting for publication.

Spoilers below, but first take a look at this gorgeous fanart by Irina Goodwin!

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Heretic Dreams on sub-Q

I’m delighted to announce that my brand-new piece of interactive fiction, Heretic Dreams, has been published on sub-Q!

It’s a fantasy game about a diviner, a mining expedition and the vengeful god that will tear everything apart.

This is the grimmest and most lethal of the games I’ve written, and I’m immensely proud of it. Have a look, I hope it’s enjoyable!