Ok, done with all the games! Now let’s talk trends (this has spoilers, obviously):
Well, this was an interesting year, wasn’t it? What I personally found striking was how upper-middle-of-the-road games were this year. Check out the numbers (these are my personal votes, not the actual comp results):
So, yeah, this year had both the highest average and the lowest standard deviation since I started tracking this stuff. It also had fewer 8-10s than any other year (both in absolute and relative terms). So what is up? I think a couple things.
Diligence about beta-testing: It felt like people were working a lot harder to turn in polished pieces this year — look at Aotearoa as the primary example here — which pulls up the lower end scores. An average game with a lot of bugs gets a 3 or a 4; an average game without bugs gets a 5 or a 6.
Smaller sizes: How many games this year actually pushed the two-hour limit? Three, maybe four? And on the lower end, we didn’t get any of the one-room-non-wonders we get some years. The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game was probably the nicest-sized game for me, but there were several. The result, again, is to pull up scores of lower-performing games: a huge or tiny low-quality game is going to lose a point or two from me.
Smaller ideas: This one’s hard to classify, but it felt like a lot of games this year were aiming at smaller ideas than usual. The Warbler’s Nest and Oxygen are both about single decisions, with the minimum of game necessary to provide the framework for those decisions. The effect this has on scores is complicated, but all else being equal (which it can’t be), smaller ideas get lower scores.
Lack of direction: Also hard to prove, but it seemed to me that more games this year than usual suffered from a lack of direction, especially at the start of the game but also during play. Flight of the Hummingbird is one where it was an issue in the beginning but not in the middle/end; Gris et Jaune is the other way around. Unsurprisingly this tends to make me grumpy and lowers my score, or perhaps lowers my willingness to cut the game a break for the rest of it.
The story triumphant: In the eternal battle between story and crossword, I think we have to count this year as a win for the story. The vast majority of the games were puzzle-light, much moreso than I remember in previous years. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were railroady — games like Rogue of the Multiverse and Death Off the Cuff fit the low-puzzle label as much as more traditional examples like East Grove Hills do. This isn’t necessarily a plus or a minus, but just a thing — I think the IF community is trying to move away from traditional puzzles and is still trying to work out what the player should do instead.
The story redundant: And yet at the same time, it felt like there wasn’t that much effort put this year into new and awesome ideas. Things like Gigantomania were the notable exception — we were much more likely to get standard genre pieces (though often, like One Eye Open, very well done ones). This doesn’t generally affect my score in a negative way, but if I see an original idea I’ll usually bump the game a point or two for it.
So yeah, that was my take on the year. The corrolary to this is I had a hard time figuring out what to do for highly-recommended games: there weren’t really any games I had unmixed feelings about. So for this year, my highly recommended list is going to be games that I think are examples of good stuff to look at, even if they also have bad stuff in them: Gigantomania has a lot of gameplay problems, but it’s a great concept for a game and I salute it.
See everyone next year!