The annual Interactive Fiction Competition has become a source of great new indie talent, and this year, its winners will appeal far beyond the text-adventure niche. Jeremy Freese’s first-place finisher Violet casts the player as a graduate student struggling to finish his dissertation. The challenge? To sit down and write a thousand words in spite of a barrage of distractions. Along the way, you’ll have an imaginary conversation with Violet, an almost cloyingly adorable redhead who whispers endearments in your ear as she coaxes you to start writing. Unfortunately, Violet has also laid down an ultimatum: If you don’t finally make some headway on your doctorate, she’s leaving you. The puzzles are smart but logical, and they fit thematically into the story: To finish the game, you’ll have to reconsider—and risk wrecking—your career and your relationship, making the game’s cutest quips bittersweet.
The third-placer, Everybody Dies,is even more intriguing. Set in a low-rent Toronto suburb, it’s told from the perspective of three characters in a karmic tangle they can only survive by cooperating in an unexpected way. The surreal story and satisfying puzzles are less important than the chance to spend time in these characters’ heads. Graham, a stoner out of Charles Burns’ Black Hole, hooks players from the start: Before he gives you his slacker’s-eye tour of his neighborhood, he reprimands you for trying to move while he’s finishing his smoke.
Beyond the game: All of this year’s games and the emulators needed to run them are available free at ifcomp.org. Be sure to check out the haunting second-placer, Nightfall.
Worth playing for: Each game innovates on the decades-old genre of text adventure. Everybody Dies augments the text with Michael Cho’s illustrations; Violet adds a switch to turn off “heteronormativity,” so you can play as Violet’s girlfriend if you prefer.
Frustration sets in when: While you’ll occasionally have to fiddle with the interpreter to make it take your commands, both games have been playtested before release. (And if you really get stuck on a puzzle, each game comes with a walkthrough.)
Final judgment: Once again, the IF Competition delivers some of the best writing in games.