Way back in 1995, Graham Nelson had recently released Inform, a language for creating parser-based interactive fiction – games in the mode of Infocom’s classic text adventures from the 1980s. The idea appealed to plenty of people, but they faced a problem: they lacked the large pool of example code to learn from that users of other languages had.
Enter Kevin Wilson, then an undergraduate at Berkeley. He was a fan of text adventures, and was hard at work on a game of his own, Avalon (aka Once and Future). When the idea of a competition to encourage new short Inform games came up on
rec.arts.int-fiction – the pre-web, Usenet-based forum central to the IF community during the 1990s – he ran with it. After a fair amount of debate on that forum, Kevin planned a simple competition with one rule: every entry had to be “winnable in under two hours.” He divided the competition into two categories, one for Inform games, the other for TADS games.
The judging rules were as simple as the entry rule. Anyone could vote. All they had to do was play every game in a division and then vote for their top three choices.
A total of twelve games were entered in that first competition. The response was remarkable. After the votes had been counted, discussion of all the games went on for weeks. Traffic on
rec.arts.int-fiction took a dramatic upswing, and the flood didn’t slow to a trickle for some time.
There was no question that this was a competition worth running again.
For its second year, Kevin instituted a few changes. The divisions were eliminated; each game was judged against all others, regardless of the language used to create it. Instead of voting for the top three games, judges ranked each game on a scale of one to ten. This format has stayed the same since.
After three years of running the competition, Kevin stepped down. David Dyte organized the fourth comp, and passed the job in turn to Stephen Granade in 1999. Stephen would proceed to run the next 15 competitions, right through 2013.
During this time, the annual event that the Usenet-based community nicknamed the IFComp gradually evolved in its purpose. What began as a way to encourage hobbyists to generate new works with interesting new tools became a slow but steady heartbeat for an ongoing creative community of text-game authors and enthusiasts. Since the mid–1990s the locus of IF discussion has changed, appropriately, from the primordial Usenet newsgroups to a web-based forum, supported by other web resources like the IFDB, the IF Wiki, and the distributed, deep-memory IF Archive, all run by passionate volunteers. Eileen Mullin launched the XYZZY Awards, an annual online gala which has long complemented the IFComp by recognizing efforts in the wider world of text-game innovation.
And every year the IFComp would cycle again, releasing right on schedule another several dozen brand-new games into the world, reinvigorating a community always hungry to continue growing and maturing through critical play and discussion of fresh work.
Meanwhile, the larger digital-games world experienced its own level of startling growth and change. The early 21st century saw not just the ascent of digital games as an increasingly important facet of human culture, but a great deal of democratization in the tools for their creation. PCs kept getting faster and cheaper, and the advent of ubiquitous mobile technology exploded the everyday exposure to digital games far beyond the comfortable realm of desktop hobbyists. Tools like Unity and GameMaker appeared, giving anyone with a home computer and the will to explore the potential to create highly polished videogames. A global movement of independent game creation started to form, with new communities coming together to complement the commercially focused “triple-A” games industry and challenge one another to continue exploring new directions to take digital games.
This constant pace of tools-driven innovation carried back into the specific realm of text-driven games, too. Graham Nelson returned – working with Emily Short, Andrew Hunter, and other collaborators – to release Inform 7, a complete reimagining of Inform with a natural-language syntax meant to appeal especially to prose stylists. Chris Klimas created Twine, which has achieved critical acclaim and a diverse, energetic community from its enabling people to create rich hypertext-based IF without the need to write code.
By 2013, Inform 7 and Twine had become the dominant tools for creating IFComp entries. Meanwhile, the larger independent-games community had long since discovered for itself the value of competitions for catalyzing the creation and discussion of new work. As it neared its third decade, the IFComp had become just one of many regular competitions found across the new indie-games landscape, from scrappy events like the Ludum Dare to polished, press-friendly affairs like the Independent Games Festival.
Amidst all this, the comp’s heartbeat has carried on, adding more new interactive fiction to an increasingly games-focused world.
In 2014, for the Interactive Fiction Competition’s 20th year, Stephen passed along the organizer role to Jason McIntosh. Despite significant changes to its website and a few updates to its rules, the IFComp retains the same spirit with which it was founded, way back before it (or most anything else) had a website at all.
The IFComp began with enthusiasts with clear memory and aching fondness for the brief era when those strange and unforgettable text adventures, Zork and Wishbringer and all the rest of them, dominated the field of computer games. It grew to become a central catalyst for innovation in the field of text-driven videogames, and has for a long time now driven creators to explore and invent entirely new directions with interactive text – and, in the process, with digital media in general.
We hope you’ll join us in looking forward to what the next 20 years will bring.
The following list includes every game to take first prize in the IFComp over the years. The competition’s legacy embraces far more than merely its first-place winners, of course. To browse all entries by year, visit the results page.
Stolen away by apathetic Blind Ones, your only desire is to return to your Cellarium and the Song of the Universe. They should understand. You shall make them to understand.
This work also won 1st place in the 2013 Miss Congeniality Awards.
Floating in space on a strange vessel, sole survivor of a world... and maybe of the entire human race, Ektor Mastiff must find a way through the cosmos, on a voyage that can change the history of mankind forever.
Taco Fiction is a game about crime.
This work also won 1st place in the 2011 Miss Congeniality Awards.
The Fish of Maui. The Land of the Long Cloud. Aotearoa. An entire continent of untamed wilds, and the last place on Earth where dinosaurs still roam. If only you'd come ashore under better circumstances...
This work also won 1st place in the 2010 Miss Congeniality Awards.
Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman
Three hundred years ago, the Brazilian Space Agency discovered a rocky exoplanet only 38 light years from Earth. With a surface temperature of 1200 Celcius and nine times Earth gravity, it's hardly the sort of place you'd take your dog walkies. Most days.
This work also won 1st place in the 2009 Miss Congeniality Awards.
Calm down. All you have to do is write a thousand words and everything will be fine. And you have all day, except it's already noon.
This work also won 1st place in the 2008 Miss Congeniality Awards.
Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget.
This work also won 1st place in the 2007 Miss Congeniality Awards.
It is night on this side of the planet.
Settled areas are lit: a jagged crescent in the tropics, lining the inland sea. The bright splatter along the top of the curve is Tanhua, as bright from space as New York. The north continent is darker, sprinkled finely with small lights, where the failing climate makes it hard to survive a winter. And the northernmost point, almost lost on the slope of Mt. Cordia, is the original Aleheart Colony, where the first settlers from Earth landed.
It is your destination as well.
This work also won 3rd place in the 2006 Miss Congeniality Awards.
This work also won 1st place in the 2005 Miss Congeniality Awards.
Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto
In the beginning was the Word, and it was hungry.
Enter a steampunk adventure set in a London that might have been. The year is 1885. Bedlam Hospital still stands in Moorsfield, a decaying shell used to house the poor and the hopeless. Steam-driven mechanical wonders roam the streets. Gear-wheeled analytical engines spin out reams of thought onto punched paper tapes.
And in the darkness - in the alleys and the side shops - hide secrets.
This work also won 1st place in the 2003 Miss Congeniality Awards.
This work also won 2nd place in the 2002 Miss Congeniality Awards.
Wave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of paradise.
This work also won 1st place in the 2001 Miss Congeniality Awards.
"But my madness speaks:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Welcome to the Citadel of Justice. The Inquisitor is waiting.
Young Gretchen could have only imagined the fanciful events that were to occur before finding herself lost in a winter wonderland.
This work also won 2nd place in the 1999 Miss Congeniality Awards.
This work also won 1st place in the 1998 Miss Congeniality Awards.
Lucian P. Smith
Something new in your everyday hunter-gatherer routine: where did this strange edifice come from? Dare you enter and explore the secrets of this... thing, or do you try to face your enemies? Like you have a choice.
Another day wasted as guest of the Empress, a wretchedly long tour of the breath-taking Boreal Falls, conducted as ever by the Lady Amilia. As if she weren't bad enough, an honour guard of soldiers, their breast-plates red in the setting sun, march ahead of the procession and protect you from seeing anything unrehearsed. It's a dog's life being an Ambassador.
Walking away from a picnic, you are suddenly caught in a country storm. You must protect a bridge from being destroyed. An ultra-linear game.
Your eccentric Uncle Zebulon considered himself a wizard, and was rumoured to be very wealthy. But when he died, he only left you one single object in his will... Winner in the TADS division of the First Annual IF Competition, 1995.