I didn't quite get round to voting in
this last year's IFComp.
(Oops, I didn't quite get round to posting this when it was topical.)
I did play some of the submissions, though. In particular I played under competition terms most of the Inform parser games, and I had fun doing it. My personal favourite, which probably reflects my background as some flavour of mathematician, was A beauty cold and austere: you have twelve hours to learn enough mathematics to pass your end-of-term test. The pharmaceutical-induced dream conceit allowed the somewhat unconnected puzzles to be combined without worrying too much about a theme – beyond mathematics! – and those puzzles were generally fair. I played for the competition-mandated time of two hours without the walkthrough, though with enough formal mathematical education that using a walkthrough would really have felt like cheating; I did need some help of the “what to do next” kind to finish the game.
The wand I played for a while. It was nice to see a different game mechanic in play (the only things you can do in this game is wave a magic wand, and change the colour combinations of the wand), and the game gave clear direction on how to get started. But I am a person of insufficient persistence, and my reaction to the discovery that I was going to have to remember tens of colour combinations in order to do anything was to write grouchy stuff in my notes about how it would have been better to unlock verbs rather than mess around with the colours all the time and writing down all the combinations I'd discovered...
... which meant that I missed about 90% of the game, I later discovered. If I had been consciously aware that The wand was written by Arthur DiBianca, who wrote Grandma Bethlinda's Variety Box, I might have put in the time investment. Learn from my mistake!
The winner of IFComp was The Wizard Sniffer, which like The wand restricts your actions to an almost absurd degree (maybe not absurd for a pig). Unlike The wand, which is essentially entirely puzzle-focussed, The Wizard Sniffer has a surface narrative that is engaging, as well as a more subversive narrative that unfolds as the puzzles in the game are solved. I can absolutely see why this appeals to game-players; it was just below A beauty cold and austere in my personal ratings, and I definitely did not have the patience to solve some of the puzzles without walkthrough assistance, but I recognize that the framing (reminiscent of Lloyd Alexander’s Taran and Hen-Wen cycle, with additional social commentary) and the quality of the writing in The Wizard Sniffer make it a worthy competition winner.
Some of the other parser games I found less successful: Rainbow bridge was simple and charming, but without any particular challenge; Ultimate escape room didn't really use the medium for anything, and had one particularly annoying guess-the-verb and-also-the-noun puzzle; 8 shoes on the shelves I simply did not understand – quite possibly I missed something. I also started The Owl consults and Eat me, but at this point ran out of time by being thoroughly enmired in developing teaching materials for my Algorithms & Data Structures class, and in fact got so thoroughly consumed by that that it is only now, seven months later, that I revisit this blog entry.
What of non-parser games? I find it interesting that the top-placed games are almost all parser-based, whether Inform, TADS or something else; given that, I'm intrigued by the very-highly-scoring Harmonia, which is built in the Liza Daly (the author's) own Windrush game engine; she also has a post-competition article about the design of interactive marginalia used in the story. It being past the end of teaching term now, I might have hoped that I could indulge, except that I need to start work on next term's materials – and no, I'm not convinced that playing more IF is sufficiently high on the priority list of preparation for teaching Narrative & Interactive Fiction in January. I will play vicariously through my students, and wait for Easter.