Interactive Fiction Competition 2023: Puzzle Game Highlights

The Interactive Fiction Competition—better known as IFComp—is a long-running annual event celebrating text-based games. Since 1995, IFComp has been a showcase for independent game writers and designers to share all manner of digital creations: both modest and sprawling, from text adventures to branching-path stories, puzzlefests to deeply personal narratives, and everything in between.

Some of the most fascinating, clever, moving, and hilarious games I’ve ever played have been IFComp entries—just scan the top entries from past years and you’ll find a wealth of brilliant indie text games, all available for free.

IFComp 2023 logo, featuring an illustration of a hooded person consulting a book and holding magical ingredients

This year’s crop of 74 entries was revealed on October 1, and judging is open to anyone who plays and rates 5 or more entries before November 15. Whether or not you feel like signing up to be a judge, it’s worth browsing the list and checking out some of the games that catch your eye.

I decided to start with the puzzle games this year, and I haven’t been disappointed. Here are some highlights out of the entries I’ve played so far—all of which are playable via web browser.

The Gift of What You Notice More by Xavid and Zan

An illustration of a photo in an album underwater and covered by a tree branch

The genre of this game is listed as “surreal escape room,” and it feels a bit like a point-and-click puzzle game without graphics. In a simple choice-based interface, you navigate around your home while packing your belongings after the end of a relationship, clicking on links to examine or use items, with a goal of plumbing your memories to find closure. As the world opens up, the puzzles sometimes follow a strange dream logic, but things start to make sense in their own way. It’s thoughtful and well-crafted, with about an hour of gameplay leading to a satisfying conclusion.

LUNIUM by Ben Jackson

LUNIUM logo with text reading "Uncover the clues, unlock the chains, solve the mystery - by Ben Jackson" with a dim green room in the background

LUNIUM is categorized under the “detective” and “escape room” genres, and for good reason: in this game, you wake up chained to the wall in a mysterious room full of clues, and your goal is to identify the killer who locked you up and escape from your strange prison. This is the second IF game from the author of The Kuolema, and it’s smaller in scope (about an hour long), but uses a similar system of requiring codes and passwords to make progress. The gameplay feels much like an actual escape room, with descriptions conveyed through text as well as slick graphics. It even has both a hint mode and a walkthrough if you need a little help.

Honk! by Alex Harby

An illustrated magician, strongwoman, and animal trainer being pecked by a goose, with text reading "Honk! The Greatest (Sow, crossed out) Show on Earth!!"

With a title like Honk!, you might expect a wacky romp with a joke a minute, and you would be correct—but it’s also got heart. In this game, you play a clown tasked with tracking down and thwarting a “phantom” who’s ruining all the circus performers’ acts. It’s a classic text adventure, but the writing is modern and fun, with a well-rounded world and lovable cast of characters. The gameplay and the tone completely support the story—even the puzzles are funny. Solving each piece of the larger mystery was compelling enough, but by the end (after about 2 hours of gameplay), the hilarity and heroism of the denouement had won me over unreservedly.

The Vambrace of Destiny by Arthur DiBianca

Text reading "The Vambrace of Destiny" over a marble background

This game is a minimalist dungeon crawl where you use magic spells to defeat monsters and collect optional treasures. Instead of typing out whole commands, you play by pressing one key at a time—either N/E/S/W for directions or other letters as you learn new spells. Figuring out how to get past each enemy or obstacle with a limited magical repertoire is an interesting puzzle, and the game builds to a satisfying finale. It offers at least a couple hours’ worth of exploration, or more for completionists. (If you enjoy it, the author has written more games in a similar puzzle box style.)

Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head by The Hungry Reader

Text reading "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" over a green swirl with puppet-esque eyes

The listed genre for this game is “mascot horror,” but it could also be considered a heist: the objective is to explore an abandoned (or is it?) studio lot and liberate as many puppets as you can—up to two at a time, naturally—using their unique abilities to help find the rest. Completing the entire game takes a couple hours or more, but you can end your mission at any time if you feel you’ve found enough puppets. It’s creepy, suspenseful, and at times unsettling, but somehow the combination of heart and horror works. The creative setup and vivid characters kept me thinking about it days later.

Dr Ludwig and the Devil by SV Linwood

Text reads "Dr Ludwig and the Devil" with a pitchfork and torch logo

In this text adventure, you play as a mad scientist who wants to advance his experiments by any means necessary. The central puzzle is to make a deal with the Devil that you can weasel out of later, which requires exploring a small area of town and interacting with a few local characters, most notably the leader of the obligatory angry mob. The scope is approachable—an hour or 2 of gameplay—but the world is robust, with fun responses to any command I could think of, and plenty of delightful anachronistic humor throughout.

The Little Match Girl 4: Crown of Pearls by Ryan Veeder

An illustration of a fishbowl on a table in front of a backdrop of stars and a ringed planet

I was a playtester for this game and the author is a friend, but I would be recommending the Little Match Girl series either way for its polished gameplay and expansive storytelling. Unlike the doomed character from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, this version of the little match girl goes on time-traveling adventures and meets pirates, ghosts, and aliens—all while using key items and power-ups to help her complete her mission. This installment takes about 2 hours to play, depending on how much time you sink into the (spoiler alert) dinosaur carnival minigame. There’s a recap at the beginning so you can enjoy LMG4 without knowledge of the previous games, though they’re worth playing too.

And all the rest…

With 74 entries, there are plenty more games to check out—some by established names (like LAKE Adventure, by 2021 IFComp winner B.J. Best) and some with lots of buzz (everyone’s talking about DICK MCBUTTS GETS KICKED IN THE NUTS by Hubert Janus…perhaps not their real name). And my favorite thing about the competition is finding that one game that speaks to me in particular, even if it’s not a crowd favorite.

I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to try out some of the entries and maybe even consider judging a few. And if you’re an author or designer, it’s never too early to think about entering next year’s competition!

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