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PostPosted: Tue Jan 27, 2015 7:38 am 
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Interactive Fiction Top 50

In 2011, I organised a vote for the Interactive Fiction Top 50. You can find the thread here and the results here and here. Now three and a half year have come and gone, and it is time for a new vote. So please participate!

The aim is not to decide what the best IF ever is by majority vote -- that would be foolish. Rather, the aims of the top 50 are:

  • To create a good opportunity for people to think about the best games they have played, and discuss their ideas on this topic with others.
  • To allow people to be inspired by what they see on other people's lists.
  • To create a useful list of great games at which you can point newcomers to the IF scene.
  • To create a way to track how the taste of the community evolves.

To make this work, I need your help. Please send me a list of between 1 and 20 interactive fiction games that you consider to be the best IF games ever made (or at least the best that you have played). The list can be posted in this topic, or mailed to myfirstname@lilith.cc, where you replace "myfirstname" with my first name. Which is Victor. You can also email me if you want me to post your list on the forum (in case you don't have/want an account). Here are the rules:

  • You can list between 1 and 20 games.
  • The order in which you list the games is not important. The total number of points a work receives is the total number of votes it gets.
  • You can list each work only once.
  • You can list multiple works by one author.
  • You can list your own works.
  • It's up to you to decide whether a work counts as interactive fiction. As a rough rule of thumb, anything that is or should be listed on the IFDB is suitable. (Response to question: commercial games, including the Infocom titles, are fine.)
  • We are asking you to identify the best interactive fiction, not the most influential, most important, most innovative or most accessible interactive fiction. (But of course, if you believe that influence, importance, innovation or accessibility are important parts of being good, that is fine.)
  • The deadline for entering your list is 15 March 2015.
  • The organiser is allowed to participate. (It's good to be making the rules.)

You don't need to do anything except send in a list. However, the whole thing will be a lot more fun if you also post the rationale behind your choices in some public place.

I hope to see many of you participate!


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PostPosted: Tue Jan 27, 2015 2:45 pm 
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So my criteria for this is to think it a bit in terms of a list of works that tries to show off the breadth of the medium, which is why I'm avoiding naming the same author twice (Not considering companies like Infocom as a "single author"). If it wasn't a "50 you should play" list but rather an unbounded "canon", then it would be quite different. "Best" is such an odd criteria to apply in vacuum that I can't help but do it this way (Ie considering things such as historical role and "importance"). Which isn't to say, for example, that I'm going to list Adventure merely because it was important. So in no particular order:

Hadean Lands, Andrew Plotkin - In many ways the second coming of infocom. In many ways the whole game is hung off a neat trick that allows the player to explore the possibility space without worrying too much about it, but the quality of the implementation, the intriguing setting, and the fact that the (very thin) plot led to a 30-page thread of speculation, puts it very high on the list.

Counterfeit Monkey, Emily Short - A very clear demonstration of things you can only do in text games, but also a brilliant game in its own right. A punnish puzzle comedy game at heart, Counterfeit Monkey didn't really need a fully-realised setting complete with a detailed history of political intrigue, but of course it had one.

Photopia, Adam Cadre - Photopia prefigures a lot of things that would bear fruit a decade later with Twine games, and it's also just such a perfect, small piece of work.

A Mind Forever Voyaging, Steve Meretzky - A 1985 game with more courage about tackling political issues than any major commercial game released in 2014. AMFV was a completely different kind of IF from anything that had come before it, and the possibilities that it was playing with would mostly sit untouched for at least ten more years.

Howling Dogs, Porpentine - Still Porpentine's best work. A weird web of oddments held together by a suggestive framing story. Howling Dogs is winning because you can hang a whole universe off every other sentence in it.

A King of Shreds and Patches, Jimmy Maher - An incredibly polished traipse through Shakespeare and Lovecraft.

Creatures Such as We, Lynnea Glasser - Of all the authors with multiple titles that I would consider listing, Glasser's Coloratura comes closest. But I think Creatures wins out on the grounds of mixing together a metatextual conversation about the nature of stories, reflective choice, and an affecting, highly replayable romance story.

Bell Park, Youth Detective, Brendan Patrick Hennesy - Perfectly crafted Encyclopedia Brown parody married to perfectly crafted Silicon Valley satire.

Ollie Ollie Oxen Free, Carolyn VanEseltine - One of the best twist endings in interactive fiction history, married to one of the best puzzle structures in interactive fiction history.

The Baron, Victor Gjisbers - Half a decade before Twine and ChoiceScript games were talking about "reflective choice," The Baron implemented it in an elegant and affecting way.

Violet, Jeremy Freese - Still one of the most well-developed NPCs in games, even though she is just an imago in the player character's imagination. Violet is also the best take on the "mundane task becomes maddening chore" genre.

Aisle, Sam Barlow - An exploration game that's totally orthogonal to the usual exploration in IF. A brilliantly made machine for telling stories. Dozens of different versions of a story that still feels fundamentally like it's the same one every time. It does, however, always bother me that the fresh gnocchi is somehow shelved next to the tinned tomatoes and pasta, which makes no sense given that fresh gnocchi has to be kept under refrigeration.

All Roads, Jon Ingold - A lot of people will name Make it Good. I am not one of those people.

Wishbringer, Brian Moriarty - An early attempt at making IF that is welcoming and accessible. It's still devilishly hard in places, and requires some measure of restarting the game to get it completely right, but Wishbringer also functions as a charming introduction to the Sorcerer setting.

Ad Verbum, Nick Montfort - Unlike Counterfeit Monkey with its tightly constructed puzzle-universe, Ad Verbum is a whirlwind tour of puns and wordplay, each room its own stipulation.

Anchorhead, Michael Gentry - That umbrella! How much of the feel of the game rests on that one item. Anchorhead captures so much of Lovecraft's feel without being rote.

Slouching towards Bedlam, Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto - Bursting with ideas. Time loops, steampunk computers, memetic viruses, panoptic prisons. Neal Stephenson by way of Verne.

Lost Pig, Admiral Jota - A very clever exercise in PC characterisation, and also slapstick comedy.

Suveh Nux, David Fisher - How do I magic? A very well-realised systemic puzzle in one room.

The Warbler's Nest, Jason McIntosh - "Horror" of a different sort. One of the best works for PC characterisation, the Warbler's Nest is such an amazing trick of perspective-shifting.

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 27, 2015 3:12 pm 
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I don't currently have the time to do a full discussion about my list, but, for now, here are the games. If I have time later, I'll go more in-depth. For now, I'll add the top 18. I know my top 20, but I am in the middle of playing Hadean Lands and Anchorhead, so I'm leaving room to possibly add them if I manage to get either of them done soon. So Far and Whom The Telling Changed are number 19 and number 20 of those I am done playing.

18. PataNoir by Simon Christiansen (2011)

17. Varicella by Adam Cadre (1999)

16. Rover’s Day Out by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman (2009)

15. Changes by David Given (2012)

14. 9:05 by Adam Cadre (2000)

13. Augmented Fourth by Brian Uri (2000)

12. Shrapnel by Adam Cadre (2000)

11. Kerkerkruip by Victor Gijsbers (2011)

10. Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents “Detective” by C.E. Forman, Graeme Cree, and Stuart Moore (1995)

9. Creatures Such As We by Lynnea Glasser (2014)

8. Jigsaw by Graham Nelson (1995)

7. The Act of Misdirection by Callico Harrison (2004)

6. Suveh Nux by David Fisher (2007)

5. Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin (1998)

4. The Dreamhold by Andrew Plotkin (2004)

3. Lost Pig by Admiral Jota (2007)

2. Blue Lacuna by Aaron A. Reed (2009)

1. Photopia by Adam Cadre (1998)


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 29, 2015 2:35 am 
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I've been playing IF ever since I found out about it in the 90's, mainly through works from IFComp - only afterwards I discovered Infocom and ADVENT. It's a long persistent hobby of mine that intrigues me much because it's not my usual game fare (that being console action games in arcade tradition) and because some stories in the best ones are truly gripping. So, while I have not played as many IF as I'd hope for, I've played quite a few I really care about.

anyway, here are some excellent random 20 I've played, in no particular order and no author repeating:

Trinity, by Brian Moriarty
Jigsaw, by Graham Nelson
Spider and Web, by Andrew Plotkin
Metamorphoses, by Emily Short
Varicella, by Adam Cadre
Babel, by Ian Finley
Anchorhead, by Mike Gentry
Make it Good, by Jon Ingold
Lydia's Heart, by Jim Aikin
The King of Shreds and Patches, by Jimmy Maher
Slouching Towards Bedlam, by Star C. Foster and Daniel Ravipinto
The Horror of Rylvania, by Dave A. Leary
KING OF BEES IN FANTASY LAND, by Brendan P. Hennessy
Worlds Apart, by Susanne Britton
Hoosegow, by Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch
Walker & Silhouette, by C.E.J. Pacian
their angelical understanding, by Porpentine
Hunger Daemon, by Sean M. Shore
Coloratura, by lynnea glasser
All things devours, by Toby Ord


I was really tempted to play through a lot of more recent stuff, like Counterfeit Monkey, Hadean Lands, whatever they are currently raving about in twitter fiction etc. But for what purpose? The aforementioned are solidified in my skull as great examples of IF already and a quick rush won't change that...

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 3:37 am 
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I'm mostly not concerned with historical value or authorship here (hence why I list three games by Emily Short, and don't list Advent or Zork). If there's any organization to this, it's that I tried to pick the best representatives of a variety of different genres. E.g. Ad Verbum is good, but not (IMHO) as good as Counterfeit Monkey. The King of Shreds and Patches is good, but not (IMHO) as good as Anchorhead. Etc.

In alphabetical order, with some scattered comments:

80 Days

Anchorhead
There was one experience that convinced me that Anchorhead was a true masterpiece. Some years back, I had two college classes back-to-back in the same building, leaving me with a fifteen-minute gap. This particular day, I spent it playing Anchorhead. Class #2 came and went, and I walked out of the building - and was genuinely surprised to discover that it was sunny. Fifteen minutes of Anchorhead had left such an impression on me that I fully expected it to be windy and raining.

It's dark. It's disturbing. It's hard. But it's just so, so well done.

Blue Lacuna

City of Secrets
This is not a perfect game. The pacing doesn't always work, with anticlimaxes, lulls, and a mostly non-interactive ending that came sooner than I expected. The conversation system (a menu/keyword hybrid first used in Pytho's Mask) has many strong points, but is sometimes confusing. Parts of the map are implemented more deeply than others. A few times, I was left wandering around trying to trigger an event without really knowing what I was supposed to be doing.

But despite all its flaws, it's a masterpiece from one of the greatest masters of the craft, and probably my all-time personal favorite.

Part of this is that it's the kind of game I've always wanted to play: a big, long, richly-implemented, open-world, story-oriented adventure tale, set in a vaguely antiquated world both fantastic and familiar, and filled with interesting characters and philosophical questions. The writing is beautiful, and the implementation is rock-solid and creates the feel of a world you could actually live in. The plot, while occasionally weak and predictable, has flashes of brilliance (such as when you first realize who the motionless passersby are). It's conciously beginner-friendly and visually appealing.

But also, more than any other single IF work, City of Secrets left a lasting mark on me. It greatly influenced the way I think about open-world, story-oriented IF design, and (directly or indirectly) inspired a lot of technical and thematic elements of my current WIP. One particularly beautiful passage now hangs on my wall: Queen Rine's Meditation Upon Passion.

It's fantastic. Go play it.

Coloratura
Lynnea Glasser's Creatures Such As We is also excellent, but I prefer Coloratura. It starts with a unique and compelling concept, and then does everything right to present it as deeply and richly as possible.

Counterfeit Monkey
The definitive wordplay game - a brilliant mechanic wrapped up in a rich and interesting story, then liberally slathered with comedy. I still think the Umlaut Punch is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

It's not flawless; a combination of writing style, design, and setting sometimes made the landscape feel oddly empty to me, a constant reminder that the game world existed only to support a specific set of puzzles. But it's so perfect in every other way that I'm almost afraid to complain.
The Goon Show wrote:
Eccles: I can see a manhole cover right above us.
Seagoon: Shine the beam of this candle on it. I'll push it off. Eccles! Stand on my shoulders and pull me up!
Eccles: Ok... (strained) I'd like to see them do this on television.

Curses!
Carl Muckenhoupt described Curses! as "a good example of what you get when a whole lot of people sit down and discuss game design for several years while one person listens and takes notes." A lot more has been said about game design since then, and player tastes have evolved, but Curses! is still a masterpiece of Infocom-style thought, and a treat to explore.

Endless, Nameless

Hadean Lands
The definitive "new-school" puzzlefest. Something special happens when you take someone with extraordinary programming and design talent and give him several years to weave together a whole collection of Good Ideas into a cohesive whole. As in, something so special that it required custom software just to keep track of the puzzle structure.

Kerkerkruip
The Nethack of the IF world, in a lot of different ways. An extremely polished, well-thought-out, and replayable game that's still being regularly updated after several years. Not everyone likes roguelikes, but if you do, you'll love Kerkerkruip.

Lost Pig

Make It Good

Mulldoon Legacy
If Counterfeit Monkey is the definitive wordplay game, and Hadean Lands is the definitive new-school puzzlefest, then Mulldoon Legacy is the definitive old-school puzzlefest. The sheer volume and variety of puzzles is staggering, even without considering their setting and backstory.

Photopia

Savoir-Faire
Like Counterfeit Monkey, this is an Emily Short piece that places a brilliant central puzzle mechanic in a rich and stylized game world loaded with atmosphere and backstory. The setting and play style give it a decidedly more "classic" feel than Counterfeit Monkey, however.

Emily Short put a lot of thought into designing and writing Savoir-Faire (for example, intentionally picking color names that also suggest a physical texture), and it shows. A truly great example of a rock-solid game built around a single mechanic.

Spider and Web
There's not much to say about this except that (a) it's an uncommonly solid and clever puzzle game, (b) it's hard, and (c) for the love of all that is pink and fluffy, DO NOT READ ANY SPOILERS. If you can make it all the way through on your own, the moment of realization when you figure out what's going on is genius.


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 9:41 am 
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Quote:
There was one experience that convinced me that Anchorhead was a true masterpiece. Some years back, I had two college classes back-to-back in the same building, leaving me with a fifteen-minute gap. This particular day, I spent it playing Anchorhead. Class #2 came and went, and I walked out of the building - and was genuinely surprised to discover that it was sunny. Fifteen minutes of Anchorhead had left such an impression on me that I fully expected it to be windy and raining.


Reminds me of when I looked up in the sky shortly after I finished Blue Lacuna and for a second was confused about why the Capalla galaxy wasn't up there.


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 3:15 pm 
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I'm starting out by copying the top 10 I made three-and-a-half years ago. I'll add some new stuff, including some stuff I'm planning to play in the next six weeks, as time goes by! But I'm sure these ten will remain in any top 20 I would be making right now.

  • Anchorhead, Michael Gentry (1998). The puzzles, especially in the later part of the game, are too tough and unforgiving for me; I did not play Anchorhead without a walkthrough, and when I revisit it in the future I'm sure I will need to consult it again. This makes the game less appealing to me. But the atmosphere and the storytelling are so right that one perseveres. I choose my words carefully: I don't care about the story (which is just some Lovecraft crap), but I care about the storytelling: the vague hints that gradually turn into certainties; the slowly rising danger; the very effective use of the main NPC; the way in which a tight story unfolds across a large map without the player being railroaded or led by the nose; all of that is expertly done. At moments Anchorhead may be tough going, but it is a classic of storytelling in IF -- and that is a good reason to keep it in the canon.
  • Spider and Web, Andrew Plotkin (1998). I have hesitated whether to choose Shade or Spider and Web, from among Plotkin's games. Shade, with its slow revelation from the mundane to the horrific, is a beautiful piece of work. But in the end I chose Spider and Web, because it has the most brilliant puzzle in interactive fiction; and a huge part of its brilliance is the way in which the puzzle doesn't just exploit the details of Plotkin's fictional world, but the details of the medium itself. While the presentation and the difficulty of the game may feel pretty old school by now, everyone should play Spider and Web. Not because it is historically important, but because the central idea is very, very good. Of course, we now have Hadean Lands, and that's one of the games I want to explore more in the coming weeks!
  • Photopia, Adam Cadre (1998). I have written extensively on Photopia elsewhere. If the game's claim to fame had been "wow, it makes deep points about free will", or if it had been "it is so emotional, with that protagonist we really care for", then it would not be on this list. But Photopia's real claim to a place in the canon lies in its symbolic exploration of the theme of influence. I do not believe this exploration is particularly deep compared to what happens in good static literature; but it is deeper than almost anything that has been done in our medium. Photopia belongs on this list.
  • Savoir-Faire, Emily Short (2002). I do not like difficult puzzle games (of the IF variety). Yet, somehow, Savoir-Faire managed to draw me in several times. I still haven't progressed very far, but I have progressed far enough to feel a real sense of accomplishment. What is it that makes Savoir-Faire such a good puzzle game? It is not, I submit, the simulationist systems which Emily was very interested in around this time (an interest which I think she has mostly lost). Rather, it is a combination of good puzzles (difficult, but fair; not dependent on weird intuitive leaps; reusing established ideas) with a coherent setting (none of that Curses nonsense here) and a sense that you can't really put the game into an unwinnable state (I'm sure you can, but it's not a constant threat).
  • City of Secrets, Emily Short (2003). I have complained, in my analysis of Metamorphoses, that in many of Emily Short's works-- I should now say, her early works -- "we are doomed to remain strangers, always at a distance, always looking through the veil that separates us from these perfect, self-enclosed wholes". There is something of this in City of Secrets, but much less than in many of Emily's other games. In fact, the bodily weaknesses of the protagonist come into play very quickly, and the neo-Platonic tendencies of Metamorphoses are disturbed by some good physical illness. Anyway, I digress. What makes City of Secrets a great work is the depths of its world building and the openness of the interaction. You are given a detailed and interesting environment, and can try to do many things in it. This does lead to some confusion now and then, and I would in fact be surprised if Emily herself could play through the game now without getting stuck. But there is so much ambition here, and so much of it succeeds, that we would do well to make the effort and enjoy this game.
  • Blue Lacuna, Aaron Reed (2008). Blue Lacuna may still be the best piece of interactive fiction written to date. It has vast world, a vast story, an extremely complicated NPC, a narrative that really changes depending on what you do, great accessibility features, a "story mode" for people like me, exploration of theme, and prose that is mostly quite good. Are there no weaknesses? Of course there are weaknesses, how could there not be -- and to my mind, the greatest weakness is the choice to create a story out of weird SF, weird fantasy, and the atmosphere (and puzzles) of Myst. These ingredients don't mix all that well, and the time and effort spent on their respective development stands in the way of a true exploration of the work's main theme, which is the tension between love and individuality. But it is a great game nonetheless; an amazing leap beyond Aaron's already very fine earlier games (Whom the telling changed, Gourmet).
  • Make it Good, Jon Ingold (2009). If Savoir-Faire is the best string-of-puzzles game, Make it Good is the best one-huge-puzzle game. It is difficult, but you should persevere, for the rewards are immense. They are the rewards of detective literature, not the rewards of high literature: the game doesn't teach us anything about the human condition. But it surprises, it delights, and it makes us feel very, very smart after we have solved the case. Where Blue Lacuna tries to combine theme, exploration and puzzles, and probably doesn't quite succeed in any of these aspects because of that, Make it Good knows that it wants to be a puzzle. And as a puzzle, I know of no piece of IF that is a greater success than Jon Ingold's game.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches, Jimmy Maher (2009). If you want story, if you want flow, if you want to move through a game and be entertained, then The King of Shreds and Patches is the game you should play. Its story falls firmly within genre conventions (Lovecraft again), and its puzzles are quite conventional. The setting, Shakespearean England, is the game's most distinctive feature. But what really matters is that all aspects of the game have been polished to a degree that has no precedent. The King of Shreds and Patches is our page turner, and one of the most fun games I know.
  • Alabaster, Emily Short and others (2009). Alabaster is a very good game. Not only does it manage to create an interesting, believable and complex conversation, but it also manages to turn this conversation into a very weird combination of free-choice-gameplay and puzzle. There are no goals you have to achieve in order to win, and you can decide to try and achieve any of a lot of endings. But there is more: there is a lot of understanding of what is really going on that only repeated and puzzle-minded play will uncover; and it is only with the help of that understanding that one can make informed decisions about which endings are desirable. What are we to make of such a goal-less puzzle game? I do not know; but I do know that Alabaster is fascinating and a lot of fun to boot.
  • Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, Adam Thornton (2011). The most controversial choice on my list, no doubt, since Mentula Macanus was both loved and loathed when it came out. There are those who see it as a work of cynical shallowness. There are those who believe the final scenes are disgusting depictions of rape. And then there are those who experienced Thornton's game as a celebration of playfulness, and as an incredibly irreverent love letter to literature both static and interactive. It is not even satire, for there is nothing in its universe that it does not good-naturedly accept. Stiffy Makane enjoys everything and everyone, and we can enjoy the world with him. (This, by the way, is why it would not be in the spirit of the work to interpret those final scenes as rape.) And man, did I love that golden bough joke.

To be continued!


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PostPosted: Mon Feb 02, 2015 1:44 pm 
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1. Spider and Web. Has the best IF puzzle of all time, which alone would land it on this list, but the interrogation mechanic was also a brilliant way to allow the player to explore the world in a time-sensitive setting without a lot of save/restore frustration.
2. Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina. Last of the epic old-school puzzlers, and also the most polished, which earns it a slight nod over the other contender for this slot, The Mulldoon Legacy.
3. Varicella. An elegant game, for a more civilized age. I'm afraid the gameplay hasn't aged well at all -- even I have somehow lost the patience and meticulous out-of-game planning needed to beat the thing. Besides the excellent puzzlecraft this game also has one of the most evocative settings and distinctive narrative voices.
4. So Far. Plotkin at his best.
5. Jigsaw. An epic love-letter to Trinity, this is another game that has suffered quite a bit from a shift in player sensibilities. I for one would love a re-release that removes some of the gratuitous frustrating features (by allowing players to replay each vignette until they have found all of the puzzle pieces there, without needing to restore, for instance.)
6. Counterfeit Monkey. I'm leaving all very recent games off of the list, as I feel I haven't had enough time to properly digest them, but Counterfeit Monkey is barely old enough that I will consider it, and it makes the cut. Not only is Monkey the most polished of the wordplay IF canon, it also manages to take a mechanic that is inherently goofy and marry it to a setting that is more dark than light and whimsical.
7. Make it Good. In many ways a modern version of Varicella, but in a different enough genre that both deserve to make the list. Highly polished in all respects, as it must be lest a central clue be dismissed by the player as a bug.


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PostPosted: Mon Feb 02, 2015 2:06 pm 
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One thing I've noticed upon checking my list of fave games is how little IF I've actually played over the last few years. From devouring a few dozen of the things every year, I seem to have dropped down to a measly 2-3. Hmmm... I definitely need to get playing more IF. (Which can be my belated New Year's resolution.)

So my list remains the same as before:

1. The Hobbit – Melbourne House (Spectrum)
2. Sherlock – Melbourne House (Spectrum)
3. The Big Sleaze – Fergus McNeill (Spectrum)
4. The PK Girl – Hanadorobou
5. Unravelling God – Toddwat
6. City of Secrets – Emily Short
7. Luminous Horizon – Paul O'Brian
8. Varicella – Adam Cadre

With a couple new additions:

9. Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom by S. John Ross
10. Counterfeit Monkey by Emily Short

I'm sure I've played some other good games in the past few years but nothing springs to mind right now.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 05, 2015 3:38 pm 
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Pulling a list together was hard! But I finally settled on...

Aisle
Bee
Choice of Robots
Cis Gaze
Coloratura
A Dark Room
Depression Quest
Device 6
Fallen London
Galatea
Hadean Lands
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Lock and Key
Lost Pig
Rover's Day Out
Spider and Web
The Gostak
Trapped in Time
Wishbringer
With Those We Love Alive

I wrote up a bit more about my chosen games here.

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