It’s the time of year when awards nominations are announced: when a community comes together to honor the most notable writing and achievements of their members, when people ask for reminders on social media about what exactly constitutes a specific award category, when conversations about biasing voting are held. I’m talking, of course, about the XYZZY awards, the IF community’s annual celebration of the year’s most innovative text pieces.
I view the XYZZY awards as somewhat analogous to the Hugos (though admittedly, on a much smaller scale, and without the voting restriction). They’ve been around for two decades; the first year of their existence was 1996. The landscape was rather somewhat different then: of the games nominated, all were parser text adventures written in Z-code or TADS. In 2014, as a contrast, the nominees’ platforms varied wildly. We had one game in ChoiceScript, Choice of Games’ house style; two in Glulx, a system for parser games which has far fewer limitations than the Z-machine popular in 96’s entries; one in Twine; and the winner, 80 Days, in inkle’s now open-source language Ink. So the boundaries of implementation in interactive fiction have widened considerably since the first days of the XYZZYs.
But some aspects persist, thankfully. 1996’s winner was So Far, written by Andrew Plotkin, one of the giants of the IF scene. Last year, his brilliant, puzzley Hadean Lands was also nominated; he’s had games routinely win or place most years they come out. Emily Short, Jon Ingold, and Adam Cadre, whose names routinely circulate in discussions of narrative games, have nominations scattered throughout the XYZZYs’ history. And the XYZZYs’ purpose—to honor games which push boundaries of innovation, which are not necessarily the easiest or most traditional or most crowd-pleasing—remains, at least in my view.
Juhana Leinonen did a breakdown of correlations between XYZZY winners and games which won the largest competition in IF, the predictably named “IF Comp”. The results indicated, among other data points, that the XYZZYs’ designated best game didn’t always line up with IF Comp’s winner, and looked to the Interactive Fiction Database for corroboration of numbers. IFDB is a useful resource, though as with any review, individual bias can unduly influence buzz, given such a small sample size of people rating the games they’ve played. (A score of 3 stars for a very good game is not unusual, given that a single one-star rating from someone who feels the game does not meet their standards for good IF can significantly impact a score.) This seems to be a feature in SFF as well, though, from my limited recognition; I’ve been fascinated or vexed by stories, and have searched for others’ reactions to them, and found nothing but radio silence, or else one two-sentence review which makes me wonder if we read the same work.
Like 80 Days last year, there are the big nominees that everyone knows on this list: Lifeline, Sunless Sea, Deathless: The City’s Thirst, We Know the Devil. But I do want to give a short nod to some games which are eligible for XYZZY awards this year which don’t have the same name recognition. I’m doing this to increase eyes on games which I personally feel are excellent, and might have gotten less of an audience than they deserve, or which I simply think do interesting things. There are literally hundreds of games eligible, and I encourage everyone to play through more than just what’s listed here; if you’re looking for reference on a title, looking it up on the IFDB is a good place to start. There’s a slight conflict of interest in that I’m eligible for “Invasion”, but a good number of people who are active in the IF community are eligible, and so by declaring this before my recommendations, I’m attempting to be as transparent as possible.
Beautiful Dreamer, S. Woodson: Emily Short’s review here; worth reading as a piece on its own. Beautiful Dreamer is a story about being up late, in a world that isn’t quite real, and the game unfolds like a flower emerging in spring. It’s not just a game but an experience.
Beautiful Frog, porpentine: If you’ve played one of porpentine’s shorter games, you know about what to expect. That said, this game swept through my academic community, which does not primarily play IF games, like wildfire when it came out. “thank you for frog”, people wrote, over and over, consciously adopting the game’s verbal positioning to express their experience of it. Writing cogent prose about Beautiful Frog feels strange, akin to amphibious breathing on land. Go play it. Experience frog.
Birdland, Brendan Patrick Hennessy: The highest-ranking non-parser game in IFComp, Birdland is one of those games that straddles the line between feel-good comedy and well-written, well-implemented game. It garnered something of a cult following on tumblr, and has had fanart produced of it. Bridget’s camp experience isn’t, in its particulars, a story that is universal, but the way Hennessy sketches out her inner life and her world makes it feel rich and real. It’s no wonder readers connected with it deeply; saw themselves in the characters.
Cape, Bruno Dias: A sharp, realistic take on the conventions of the superhero genre, Cape is relentless with its probing and pressing of a rotten world. Dias takes generic expectations and twists them, leaving readers with a dystopian city choked by corruption, and a limited ability to effect real change. One of my favorite games of the year, and an excellent example of what the Raconteur platform has to offer authors.
Fabricationist DeWit Remakes The World, Jedediah Barry: A game about remaking the world after apocalyptic disaster, this piece feels very much adjacent to the genre of linear SFF. Written for TEDxCERN, Fabrictionist DeWit is filled with a sense of place and of purpose. The paratextual elements (music, sound, visuals) are worth a mention as well.
Laid Off From the Synesthesia Factory, Katherine Moryati: A parser game on rails (i.e. one that is impossible to “lose” or play “wrong”, and always keeps the player moving forward), LOFTSF has some of the best prose interactive fiction produced in 2015. I personally really enjoyed how the use of the parser magnified the feel of the story, about a woman who’s been fired from a particularly idiosyncratic job and is feeling hemmed in by her life and her choices.
Midnight. Swordfight., Chandler Groover: This is the game I recommend to people who aren’t sure about parser games. It’s not easy, but it features a playscript that directs you to possible actions; it’s a more expansive game than some of his other arguably more accessible-to-non-parser-readers work. But the way it deals with space, time, and story unfolding makes it an experience to be savored and grappled with. If you find yourself frustrated, don’t give in. Explore. Rewind. (There’s also a walkthrough, which I appreciate.)
SPY INTRIGUE, furkle: Mentioned on this blog here; reviewed by Rock, Paper, Shotgun here. Winner of the Golden Banana of Discord in the IF Comp last year, which represents the largest divide between player and author scores, it’s the game a significant number of IF authors thought ought to be in the top 5 games of the comp. Genuinely one of the strangest, most unique Twine games I’ve ever played. What this game does by mixing humor and genuine honesty, the way little bits of something larger shine through, is remarkable. Quite possibly one of my favorite meditations on trauma.
Taghairm, Chandler Groover: I’ve written extensively about what Taghairm does here. It’s not a pleasant experience, but I find it genuinely fascinating. It’s worth experiencing, I feel, even if that’s just in a way of being aware of the conversation it engendered on its release.
Slightly over half the games listed here are from IF Comp, but the rest aren’t; it’s possible some of my favorites on the list didn’t benefit from being released when and where they were. This list is only a small fraction. Sleepless and the Fixer both at sub-Q deserve nods, as does Emily Short’s Aspel, Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie’s Neon Haze, all of Steph Cherrywell’s entertaining, funny, detailed parser games, and Aaron Reed’s ChoiceScript game, Hollywood Visionary. I’d also point to the XYZZY Eligibility List and recommend a deep dive. There’s a lot of great work out there and the XYZZYs can’t possibly highlight all of it. That’s where conversations–loud, exuberant, exultant conversations–about what we’ve loved come in.