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PostPosted: Wed Aug 31, 2011 12:30 pm 
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Interactive Fiction Top 50

Based on a discussion on the interactive fiction forum, I am organising a interactive fiction top 50 (or a top 100, or a top 20, depending on the number of participants and the distribution of the votes). You send in a list of your favourite IF games, I add those lists together and publish a "best of" list.

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.
  • If it is successful and we do this every few years: to create a way to track how the taste of the community evolves.

To make this work, we need your help. Please send us 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 at the IF forum 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 30 September 2011.
  • 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!


Last edited by VictorGijsbers on Wed Aug 31, 2011 6:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 31, 2011 4:32 pm 
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From this point onwards, people will be posting lists. If you want to think about your choices without being influenced, do not read on. If you don't, do read on.


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End of "spoiler" space.


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 31, 2011 5:22 pm 
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One thing that I quickly realised as I read through the IF Competition results and XYZZY Award Nominee lists, is how embarrassingly many of the most famous and beloved works of IF I have never played. I-0? Nope. So Far? Not really. Varicella? I never got very far. For a Change? Idem ditto. Worlds Apart, Shrapnel, Being Andrew Plotkin, Little Blue Men, Fallacy of Dawn and its sequels, Kaged? Never even touched them. I haven't played Child's Play and I still haven't played The Shadow in the Cathedral, of which I am especially ashamed. And even games I have played, I often only half-remember. Blue Chairs... hm... vague recollections... wasn't there a guy called Dante? How well do I remember whether Anchorhead was really good?

So obviously, the list I'm going to present now is grossly inadequate! But who cares, that will be the case for most of us, I suspect. So here goes, in order of year of publication. I decided to limit myself to 10 games, because that was an amount that forced me to make some hard decisions (which is good).

  • 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, at least for now.
  • 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.
  • 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. For now, then, 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). This is perhaps the only hard puzzle games that I intend to return to until I have solved it, and of which I will never check out the hints or the walkthrough.
  • City of Secrets, Emily Short (2003). I have complained, in my analysis of Metamorphoses, that in many of Emily Short's 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 comes 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, after eight years, 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). For me, the easiest choice to make: Blue Lacuna is 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). A third game by Emily Short? What am I, some kind of fanboy? As a feeble defence, I will say that Alabaster made the list only at the last moment, when I decided to substitute it for Slouching towards Bedlam. But let us cast all defences to the wind: 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. (And in this later work, the neo-Platonic ascetic that I was so suspicious of in Short's earlier games has vanished completely.)
  • 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.

This, then, is my top 10. Worthy games are probably missing. But no non-worthy game is in it.


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PostPosted: Thu Sep 01, 2011 1:10 pm 
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My top... 8.

I have other fave IF games - oodles of them in fact - but the names of most of them seem to escape me at the moment. But anyway:

1. The Hobbit – Melbourne House (Spectrum)
My all time favourite IF game from back in the days when they were called text adventures on account of being adventures with text in them. Wonderfully inventive game that was a pain to solve due to a maze (how could a maze feature in my favourite ever game, you might ask? Well, I don't understand it either), randomised combat (ditto) and some remarkably tough puzzles. Bags of fun to play even after you knew how to finish it. And how many of today’s parsers could handle the things that The Hobbit could?

2. Sherlock – Melbourne House (Spectrum)
Another fave from the glory days of IF/text adventures. (No, I'm not just wallowing in nostalgia here. I do like some modern games, too.) Fiendishly difficult, set in real time (kind of, a five minutes per turn sort of thing) and a great game to spend several months trying to figure out just whodunit. Most times when I loaded this (yes, you had to load games back then, no double-clicking icons back in the 80’s), I didn't even try and solve it, just wandered around trailing suspects and poking my nose in where it shouldn't have been poked. And getting shot by Basil. A lot.

3. The Big Sleaze – Fergus McNeill (Spectrum)
Another from the 80’s. Yes, yes, I know. But this is damn good. Damn funny, too. I never did manage to finish it at the time, but years later I Googled the solution on the internet (shame on me), went back and solved it. Still worth playing after all these years, and far less of a hassle than it was in the day due to not needing to load the various parts of the game.

4. The PK Girl – Hanadorobou
For me, the best ADRIFT game ever written. Back when everyone looked down their nose at ADRIFT and wrote it off as the system you used if you weren’t clever enough to use TADS or Inform (no, I mean 2002. Not last week), this shook things up. A lot. What? An ADRIFT game that was well written? Not bugged to high heaven? Not written by someone in a spare five minutes during their dinner break? And the author even knew how to spell? This, for ADRIFT, was the turning point. Of course, it has its detractors (even amongst the ADRIFT community), but it came a well deserved 6th place in the IFComp that year which is certainly something considering most people back then wouldn't touch ADRIFT with the world’s longest bargepole.

5. Unravelling God – Toddwat
And the second best ADRIFT game ever written. Ironically it came out at the same time as the best ever game and was entered in the same IFComp. What are the odds, eh? I played this one first actually, and sat there thinking "about time someone entered a really good ADRIFT game in the IFComp" instead of the previous ADRIFT entries which, while they may not have been total stinkers, certainly weren't setting the IF world alight. Shame the author never wrote anything else (hint, hint).

6. City of Secrets – Emily Short
I'd heard good things about this game and was relieved to find that it lived up to the hype. Very professional looking interface (seriously, why aren't more IF games written this way? A neat interface won't turn a bad game into a good one, but it certainly helps a good game appear even better). I spent quite a while just wandering around and acting the part of the tourist before tackling the slight problem of actually finishing it. A modern classic.

7. Luminous Horizon – Paul O'Brian
I'm a sucker for super hero games and this is without a doubt the best one I've ever played. Miles better than Future Boy. This is an amazing game in which you can switch characters at will, and which character you're playing really affects how the game pans out, as well as having descriptions appear different depending on who you happen to be at the time. Won the IFComp as well so clearly I'm not the only one who loved it to bits.

8. Varicella – Adam Cadre
I never liked Photopia at all. I played it after hearing what an honest to God masterpiece it was, finished it a while later and thought: is that it? The best IF game ever written? Hmmm... But then I played this little gem by Adam Cadre and realised that when people were singing the praises of Photopia, they'd clearly got it mixed up with Varicella. Obvious when you think about it. The one weak point was the game’s best ending, which seemed more like a bad ending from what I could tell, but up to that point it was sublime.


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PostPosted: Thu Sep 01, 2011 10:11 pm 
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A difficult set of choices, I suppose, and I can’t claim my list of bests to be anything but idiosyncratic. Without any deep rationale here’s five.

Blue Chairs (Chris Klimas, 2004): A game about dreaming. And one rather deeply sad, at least by my interpretation. It goes a little off-puttingly goofy around the two-thirds point, as I recall, but the surreality of the events described supports the theme rather expertly (for the most part). One of my favorites.

The Primrose Path (Nolan Bonvouloir, 2006): Novel premise, clever writing, and some really neat mechanics makes this game stick out for me.

Chancellor (Kevin Venzke, 2005): I seem to recall some grumbling at the fake-out prologue, but the later scenes of wandering through an empty college dormitory seemed genuinely, evocatively creepy to me. It may’ve helped that I worked in very old dorm when this was released (managing a computer lab — ah, those were the days), and I could certainly imagine that place being frightening in the right circumstances.

Shade (Andrew Plotkin, 2000): Another contender for overall favorite work. (It occurs to me that I must have some predisposition toward the dreamlike. Take from that what you may.) An ingenious set of events — each on its own merely surreal — conspire to make the ultimate reveal that much more powerful. Plotkin’s a genuinely pretty good writer and the puzzles here are mercifully approachable. In my mind Shade is his best work.

Vespers (Jason Devlin, 2005): There’s a snobbish part of me that looks down on this game; the writing and especially dialogue just don’t fit the setting very well. But you know what? It’s a great piece of work nonetheless, tense, creepy, and haunting. I enjoyed this very much.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 02, 2011 8:10 am 
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Here's a very subjective list, which would no doubt look different tomorrow, accompanied by fragments rather than full-fledged justifications.

Enchanter -- The early Infocom aesthetic at its height. Just a beautifully crafted adventure game, pitched at just the right level of difficulty.

Trinity -- Still my all-time favorite work of IF, and one of the few with something to say about the times in which it was created. Today, when its historical moment has passed, it still stands as a perfect evocation of the days of the Evil Empire and The Day After. Beautiful writing, chilling imagery, yet still with intriguing puzzles. This one does well just about everything IF as a form does well.

Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It -- Perhaps the most daring and unusual game Infocom ever released, this set of interconnected wordplay-based vignettes always makes me smile -- both for the fun it has with language and for the sheer chutzpah of the whole thing. (But if you don't have English as a mother tongue, stay far, far away)

Guild of Thieves -- I've always had a huge soft spot for this sprawling old-school treasure hunt. It does nothing particularly innovative, but it does everything so well, then lathers on some great dry humor and a bunch of pretty pictures.

Timequest -- Legend's finest hour, this game sends you skipping around the world and through the centuries, solving a web of cleverly interconnected puzzles. Beautifully illustrated to boot.

t-zero -- This game spoiled me for all future surrealistic games. Its world is hauntingly beautiful -- rivaled in that respect only by the alternate dimension in Trinity -- and slowly figuring out how everything works and why you're there is the most sublime of pleasures. Also the best home-brewed parser I've ever seen.

Cosmoserve -- A perfect evocation of the online world of the early 1990s, just before the World Wide Web changed everything. Should be required reading for cultural history classes of the near future.

Jigsaw -- Curses is the more historically important of Graham Nelson's two sprawling puzzlefests, but for playing I'll take Jigsaw every time. When you aren't wrestling with its puzzles, you'll be surfing Wikipedia to learn more about the historical vignettes through which you travel. The reason I read Proust, and that's enough of a recommendation right there.

Spider and Web -- Still Plotkin's finest hour, the best example of his genius for communicating story through gameplay, and for crafting puzzles that feel like artistic statements.

Aisle -- While I accept them as a necessary phase in IF's evolution, I'm not generally a big fan of the "gimmick" games that cluttered the late 1990s and early 2000s. This gimmick, however, really works. A heartbreaking portrait of loneliness.

Anchorhead -- Still perhaps the most fully realized setting ever for an IF game. If it's showing its age in a tendency to sometimes leave the player (and the plot) stuck in neutral, it's nevertheless still a compelling experience, the most genuinely creepy game I've ever played.

Heroine's Mantle -- I just loved working my way through these action sequences one step at a time. Some of the pleasures of the platformer here -- figuring out the right steps for success and executing them with perfect timing. And who wouldn't like to be a superhero?

Slouching Towards Bedlam -- Still perhaps the most fully realized attempt to give the player complete control of the story. Almost anything you might reasonably do is present and accounted for.

Sunset over Savannah -- Another wonderful example of setting in IF. But this time it is a beautiful place that we visit, and it is described with a wistful sadness that almost makes me choke up to think about it.

Blue Lacuna -- It sometimes strains a bit too hard to demonstrate its literary bona fides for my taste, but this game is nevertheless an awe-inspiring creation. Simply the largest and most ambitious work of IF ever -- and its towering ambitions are largely realized.

Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom -- Demonstrates that everything you thought you knew about IF design was wrong, not least that randomized combat can actually be pretty damn fun.

Aotearoa -- I still can never remember how to spell it, but this game takes all the lessons of 30+ years of IF, adds a shean of beginner accessibility, and sends it off powered by the irresistible optimism of young-adult adventure novels. Plus, you get to name your pet monkey. How cool is that?

The Chinese Room -- A great demonstration of the still underused educational potential of IF, this game makes you really engage with the philosophical ideas it conveys.

The Elysium Enigma -- My favorite Eric Eve game, demonstrating everything he does so well: interesting setting, interesting plot, interesting puzzles. If nothing (except perhaps his still unparalleled use of the TADS 3 conversation system) stands out as amazing, the combined effect of the whole does.

Delightful Wallpaper -- A minimalist Plotkin masterpiece that seems to guide you in the right direction by a sort of mental osmosis. At the end you're left blinking and confused, as if you've just awoken from a dream, wondering how you figured out what to do and feeling like a bad ass for having done so.

And an honorable mention:

The Mulldoon Legacy -- My apologies to Jon for not picking one his more "literary" works, but this monster just kept me tantalized, engaged, and entertained for so long that I couldn't bear to leave it off the list.

[Changed Timezone to Timequest. Timezone, like most of Roberta Williams's work, is of course a monument to everything you shouldn't do as a game designer.]


Last edited by JimmyMaher on Sat Sep 03, 2011 5:49 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 02, 2011 9:08 am 
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Here are the nine games I feel mostly strongly about. It's a pretty conventional list, I think. Looking over it, I wonder: did the medium peak in 1998?

Anchorhead - This out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft by a wide margin. The only horror game I've played which I found genuinely scary. The extended endgame is pulse-pounding.

Losing Your Grip - Powerful imagery, terrific puzzles. I came to this one via the spoof in Coke Is It!.

Planetfall - The first game I ever completed without hints, and the first game to provoke an emotional reaction from me. I was moved to submit a drawing of Floyd to the NZT for their cartoon contest (I didn't win).

Rameses - Simultaneously one of the best and most perverse uses of the medium.

Savoir-Faire - The best pure-puzzle game ever made.

Spider and Web - Pretty much what Victor said. It always amazes me when I read bad reviews of this game. It is the most brilliantly-constructed game I have ever played, with the single best puzzle in all of IF.

Starcross - My favorite of Infocom's library, and the game most likely to not show up on anyone else's list. The robot mouse puzzle is one of my all-time favorites. Played it alongside my young daughter a few years ago, and she was motivated to draw a picture of rat-ants.

Sunset Over Savannah - A perfectly-made puzzle piece with terrific writing and imagery. I don't think this one gets enough attention.

Varicella - Brutal, delicious and immensely satisfying when you finally come up with the right sequence.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 02, 2011 5:42 pm 
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ALL ALONE
THE BARON
BEYOND
BLISS
ECDYSIS
FAILSAFE
RENDITION
SHRAPNEL
STRANGE GEOMETRIES
VESPERS


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 02, 2011 9:49 pm 
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All Things Devours. If the novel is the ideal vessel for conveying consciousness, interactive fiction (as a kind of game) is the ideal way to convey certain kinds of experience. All Things lets you experience what it's like to defy the laws of physics. And in a fantastic puzzle, it gives you the opportunity to master them.

Rameses. Whose protagonist embodies the form's limitations. The story could have been told in other media, and has been. But nowhere else can you feel it so keenly. Rameses deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award for "Best Use of Medium" -- and consideration for best writing.

Nightfall. Not that love is blind; just that it's pitch dark, and you can't see a thing.

Babel. Expertly paced sci-fi thriller whose scenery is charged with implications. Your extrasensory awareness lets you reconstruct the story a step a time -- and in a game about forbidden knowledge, your moves are no less dangerous for being retraced.

Deadline Enchanter. Torschlusspanik in the Z-Machine. Reads like a personal ad from another dimension; plays like a guided tour through the prison of self-consciousness.

Everybody Dies. Its dead-on depiction of real life is bracing; its transition to the afterlife is greatly eased by the illustrations.

The Act of Misdirection. This short supernatural tale thrusts you into the limelight, lets you find your legs, and then saws you in half.

Distress. Another tightly controlled sci-fi hellscape. Can things possibly get any worse? Well, yes, and the longer you play, the grimmer it gets. You'll die repeatedly but, if you persevere, you'll see your previous attempts fade into the background in a surprising and satisfying way.

Photopia. Inspiring still.

Delightful Wallpaper. The opening puzzle is so beguiling that it's worth working out for its own sake. But when you realize -- somewhere in the second act -- why you're here and what you're doing, the mansion takes on a whole new significance. (Dual Transform steers a similar idea in a slightly different direction, but, to me, Delightful Wallpaper is the way to go.)

Hopefully the next time we do this I'll have filled in some of my blind spots and will have no problem coming up with twenty. Already I'm inspired to take a look at everyone's picks. I had plenty of games I felt I needed to get to; now I've got several I can't wait to check out.


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PostPosted: Sat Sep 03, 2011 1:17 pm 
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If you're looking for the modern canon, I think it's the games with over 50 reviews on IFDB, no matter how they're rated. (And as you'll see, three of my top whatever are in the bottom five of these games.) And I haven't played a lot of it. Anchorhead? Just finished the first day. Infocom? Before my time. Varicella? The whole concept frightens me, because I'm terrible at puzzles. So, herewith, some favorite games of someone who should really be playing games instead of talking about them, listed in the order I type them in.

Photopia. No comment necessary.

Galatea. Ditto.

Spider and Web. This gets in practically for the framing device alone; it was one of the first games I played and way past my capacity, so I spent a lot of time just typing in the walkthrough. But still, it was amazing. And I did do some puzzle solving; in fact I almost got that one puzzle, except at the crucial moment
Spoiler: show
I forgot what meant "on" and what meant "off."

Anyway, if not for these three I probably wouldn't be playing IF.

Best of Three. In some ways the most satisfying game I've played; I went through, did what seemed natural, and what happened felt just right. Grant's tea order is my favorite writing in IF, and when I went to look it up just now some of the parts leading up to it may have been even better. And why shouldn't IF take on the subject matter of mainstream realistic fiction? Answer: More of it should, if it can.

Shrapnel. Real horror comes from what you do yourself, or what you have done. Another Cadre railroad game, much darker and nastier than Photopia, and effective with it. (Yeah, I like games that are about story, and also games I can finish. No apologies for that.)

The Firebird. This isn't perfect; it has a couple bugs (one of which seemed to cancel out one of the more annoying aspects of the otter puzzle, though that sequence was the time I hit the walkthrough anyway). But it's magical and funny and the puzzles are actually fun, and it does a good job of giving you multiple ways through the more open parts at the beginning. Also, it was a long game I could finish, and the hint it gives you for the maze is a hoot.

Blue Chairs. Art-damaged and I like it. Unapologetic about its fictional nature, about not giving you all the keys to its meaning, and about including details that point to something beyond the world of its story. We need more like this, too, so long as it's good. (Chris Klimas has gone on to make flash games at Twofold Secret, which are highly recommended if you suck less at them than I do.)

The Act of Misdirection. Beats out "All Roads" for the linear game "what happened?" slot, partly because I have a little more intimation that what happened makes sense (even if we Cannot Comprehend Its True Form), mostly because the first scene is So Awesome. And the rest really is chilling. (No, I didn't get the good ending.)

Rover's Day Out. Another one that makes it on the strength of the first part. What can I say, I love winks to the fourth wall, at least when they're done this well.

The Baron. Utterly powerful and compelling. It actually makes you think about free will and desire, and makes you feel the weight of your choices.


A New Life. This game has basically no business on this list. It's impossibly difficult; I haven't finished it yet, even though I've looked at the hints and a walkthrough and figured out a bunch of stuff for myself that wasn't in either of them. And the reason I didn't finish was because of what appeared to be a game-breaking bug:

Spoiler: show
I visited the dragon too soon, was told to go away and come back later, but when I came back it had disappeared.


And the hints -- the hints seem like they're some kind of performance art. At least two of them point you to puzzles that I'm pretty sure are unsolvable.

Spoiler: show
If anyone found a musical instrument, let me know.


Not to mention that you're forced to stay in the gameplay area by the immutable force of the parser telling you you haven't reached the ending yet. So why do I like it so much? Because it does such an amazing job of world-building. The connections you can draw between different parts of the game, even when they don't help you solve any puzzles, give you a sense of a wider universe beyond these few objects that you can manipulate. Especially when they don't help you solve any puzzles, in fact; it's an escape from the airless IF world where everything has been placed there for you to use. Even the unsolvable puzzles in the hints create that impression. Plus, when I did figure something out, I felt smart.

OK, that's a top... eleven. Not a very good number, but I reserve the right to remember something obvious that I forgot later.

Honorable mention: Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle. Come on, it's awesome.


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