Introcomp: 2018

Teasers for new works of digital fiction

Detail from quilt by Adeline Harris Sears (1839–1931) (via)

Writing fiction is hard in any medium, but interactive fiction introduces additional mechanical constraints: the technical challenge inherent in writing software, and the narrative complexity of branching or procedural content. There’s a third, human factor, too: this is a small community and that brings an uncertain effort-to-reward ratio. An interactive fiction author may spend hundreds of hours on a game only to receive limited feedback from a tiny audience.

To gauge interest and get early recognition before the hard work begins, the community runs Introcomp, a competition for unfinished pieces. Not all Introcomp games become fully-fledged works, but many do; last year’s winner, now complete, was a highlight of this year’s Spring Thing festival.

I played through almost all this year’s entries. Most are hypertext stories accessible from any browser and are easy to dip into. Many are promising introductions to potentially satisfying longer works. A few I have reservations about; they either didn’t feel clearly defined or seem overly ambitious. Personally, I’d like to see more genres represented than medieval fantasy (five games) and sci-fi comedy (three games). But if you have any interest in IF, please do check out the games and vote in the competition before August 31, 2018.

An Unexpected Visitor (Nate Taylor)

One of the earliest works of interactive horror used sound effects meant to surprise or unsettle. But audio cues are hard to pull off when the pace of the story is determined by the reading speed of the player—a door slam might be effective when paired with the word “BANG!”, but too soon it’s just a spoiler, and too late it feels clunky and amateurish.

Some modern hypertext works include an ambient noise or music soundtrack. As a player I typically try these out but then mute them—I rarely find they add to my enjoyment of the piece.

But audiobooks are first class citizens of the fiction world, and audio stories in the form of podcasts have never been more popular. It’s surprising how little we use the spoken word in interactive fiction when it’s the dominant form of story consumption for a vast audience, so I’m glad to see a game concept like Unexpected Visitor come around. This first chapter of a hypertext story is a hybrid text/audiobook that evokes War of the Worlds both in story and form.

The accompanying design document suggests this will be quite an ambitious work: the story is narrated and voice-acted (in this draft form by the author), plus there’s a large cast of characters, a combat system, an inventory system, and branching story points. This feels like a lot—I worry that it would be a lot even just to play, much less to author. But I love the core idea of borrowing from the radio play form, provided that the voice work is at least as strong as the writing and programming. I think that with some judicious pruning of the story and its mechanics—focusing on the audio as the core innovation— Unexpected Visitor could be a very compelling addition to the canon.

Draw Nine (Damon L. Wakes)

This short magic-themed story employs randomness to assign the player a varying number of spell-casting playing cards. The effect of each spell is opaque until you try it out, which could favor a narrative structure with an introductory tutorial phase, where no choice is wrong, followed by real stakes. The story ends abruptly rather than at any kind of narrative beat, so it’s hard to say whether that’s the intended structure, and I’m unsure how the random element would play out in practice. There’s a mechanic worth pursuing here, but what’s presented is still just a sketch.

Intro to Implements of the Arcane (Oliver Frank)

Already very thoroughly implemented, Arcane is a parser game about magic with some RPG elements. The magic system involves quite a bit of inventory management and a few mechanics that escaped me until I looked at the hints. For me, a successful full version would guide me through the system for a bit, and clue the mechanical puzzles better—the solutions to both the beast puzzle and getting into the hole felt pretty arbitrary. I’d also recommend editing the text down ruthlessly; there’s quite a bit of backstory dumped on the player at the beginning, and a long ABOUT section that felt intimidating. The bones of the game are here though; obviously a lot of groundwork has already been laid.

Magnitude Operation (Lynda Clark)

This is a lovely-looking opening chapter to a science-fiction story with quite a bit of branching and character development. There’s not yet enough here to fully pin down the protagonist or the overall plot direction, but I liked the creative world-building and how open-ended the choices felt.

Napier’s Cache (Vivienne Dunstan)

I breezed through this tightly implemented opening chapter. The player is just collecting magical objects for an impending quest, but collecting objects in games is fun, and the mechanic works well as a way of introducing the story in digestible chunks. The plot as presented doesn’t break new ground—lots of interactive fiction is about a wizard’s apprentice—so in a longer game I’d look for novel story elements that could set it apart.

Space Ferrets (Rhianon)

The story called Space Ferrets is about a spaceship crewed by ferrets.

Some of my favorite hypertext games are completely gonzo; SPY INTRIGUE stands out here. The best of these works hide a huge amount of craft behind the zaniness, though, and it’s hard to tell from this brief sketch whether there’s a full story here. There should be, though, because I cannot think of a worse possible animal to have loose in a spaceship than a ferret, and this set-up could result in a lot of fun.

The Missing Ring (Felicity Drake)

I was utterly charmed by this little hypertext mystery, which feels close to complete. After a succession of fantasy and sci-fi games, the contemporary setting and realistic cast of characters felt especially fresh and welcome. The implementation here is solid: it’s Twine, with puzzles and inventory management that feel true to both the story and the medium. I’m really looking forward to the finished work.

The Royal Mystery Shopper (Katie Benson)

There’s a cute story sketched out in this pair of chapters about an anonymous inspector in a medieval fantasy village. The pacing was a little off for me—most pages have just a single choice and the branching is very shallow—but the tone is fun and this feels like an achievable story for the medium.

The Scholar (Cameron Smith)

I admit I struggled with this one. The story is written in Unity (I played it via Firefox). Given the engine I was expecting something more distinctly graphical, but as implemented it’s very much like a hypertext game with inventory management. The choices were all very mechanistic: open object, drop object, look around. I can imagine Unity bringing a lot of creative possibility to our medium, but I didn’t get that from this demo, nor did I find the story itself especially engaging.

Undone (Davis G. See)

There’s a significant amount of writing in this story, enough to get a feel for the tone (a mix of sci-fi comedy and pulp action) and the major plot twist, which I won’t spoil. Stories in this vein aren’t my personal thing, but the writing is engaging and there’s already good attention to detail in characterization and action. I think it could be a tractable complete story if the author doesn’t let it spin too far out of control—the twist lends itself particularly well to IF.

(The games Mothership and Retrocession are executables and while I have a compatible machine and I’m sure they contained no deliberate malware, I did not feel comfortable installing them.)

Download and play the IntroComp 2018 games.

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