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68th Place Finish in the Interactive Fiction Competition

December 12, 2020
The Forever Cat

Screw you, universe! I’m happy about my little story’s 68th place finish.

Actually, “screw you!” might be too harsh. I don’t want to make the Forever Cat angry.

Universe, please ignore those exclamations above. Thank you for permitting “Quintessence” to finish the Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) in 68th place out of 103 entries. The journey is the thing, right?

How It Began

IFComp has been around for 26 years. My story “Quintessence” is a babe by comparison, and it’s about a particle traveling from the beginning of the universe to the end over and over again. “Quintessence” was born in July 2017 as my Clarion West week 4 submission. At the time, the story was just 392 words long. My Clarion West classmates reacted to the story on a range that included unabashed love and extreme dislike, some of it disoriented. So….it was in the middle of the normal reaction range for one of my Clarion West stories. The scale’s full range was established by my Clarion West week 2 story, written in future perfect and somehow still unpublished.

Clarion West 2017
Clarion West 2017

It’s a good thing I consider a story a success if it produces a range of strong reactions, though I don’t set out to do that. 

A few months after Clarion West, when I was revising the stories I wrote there, a writer friend suggested I turn “Quintessence” into interactive fiction and submit it to sub-Q Magazine (“The interactive magazine for interactive fiction”). To do that, I would have to learn how to program in Twine and how to do who knows what else. To me, none of that appeared to be on the path of learning how to write gooder. I decided not to mess with the story unless I couldn’t publish it like it was.

How It Went

Time passed. It wasn’t untime, which at least provides a false sense of comfort.

I couldn’t publish “Quintessence” like it was.

Quintessence Blog Early Collapse

Here’s a list of the things I wouldn’t have learned between November 2018 and September 2020 if I hadn’t turned “Quintessence” into a 5,000-plus-word-programming piece of interactive fiction:

  • how internet resources to assist newbies with programming are incredibly helpful in most instances
  • how you can, without consequences, do whatever you would like with syntax in spoken English, but if you mess up the syntax in a cascading style sheet or in Twine, everything will break and you will yell at your computer and cry and pace the house and shout about how programmers don’t understand that their otherwise-helpful free internet instructions are indecipherable to a person who just knows a bit of html from the early 2000s when she helped set up webpages at work and why isn’t any human logic used to provide these instructions instead of the information being kindly offered as if the reader already knew what she was doing and this is why she didn’t want to turn this story into interactive fiction why universe WHY?!?  
  • how non-linear thinking is really useful for making my own programming solutions that I hope no actual programmers will ever notice in my interactive fiction
  • how to draw, program, and implement unique cursors in Twine
  • how to make the text atop a singing star not look too weird while ensuring information about the age of the universe is still visible
  • how to use Sketchbook Autodesk
  • how to make a one-of-a-kind picture book for my 6yo niece to include 17 collages with her in them and a silly story about triumph over a witch who steps on a poop emoji
  • how, if I’m working relentlessly in Sketchbook Autodesk, I should switch my mouse usage back and forth between my left and right hands, or the over-used hand will become non-functional for six weeks
  • how many times my partner will look at my Twine diagram of “Quintessence” before tapping out of that experience permanently
  • how to give a generally agency-free sentient particle a narrative arc by creating an antagonist (the Forever Cat) and an antagonist’s foil (unnamed in the story but always thought of by me as the Forever Dog)

My two years spent working on “Quintessence” included other accomplishments. I also read Moby Dick

Quintessence Blog Starsong with Text

sub-Q Magazine Closed Down

As I mentioned before the lament, I was aiming to publish this story in sub-Q Magazine. “Quintessence” had sub-Q written all over it. The piece was interactive, science fiction, filled with pictures and already programmed!

Actually, more like perpetually not quite fully programmed. By the time sub-Q closed, I already had missed two of their open submission windows. Foolishly, I was working not only on “Quintessence” but also on other writing projects.

Quintessence Blog Boxfail

I Entered the 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition

About two weeks before IFComp opened and my submission was due, I had a tricky [newbie] question about participating in the competition. I sent the question into the void of “and if you have any questions about IFComp, please email so-and-so.” Immediately after sending my email, I began planning my workaround for when I didn’t hear back and still wanted to get my submission in on time.

I was so wrong about how that would go. A couple hours later, I got back an extremely helpful email from the IFComp organizer Jacqueline Ashwell. Her response was my introduction to how well the competition is organized and how professional and supportive the interactive fiction community is.

My submission went in on time, and I joined the interactive fiction community. Over the next two months, I participated in the community forum, played the other submissions, voted in the Miss Congeniality Contest and read what other authors and a few non-author judges had to say about “Quintessence.” I also chatted on the message board with the authors doing reviews.

That last bit was a strange and wonderful experience. I feel like, as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, it’s best not to engage with reviewers except to say thank you if that seems appropriate. But the interactive fiction community welcomes the reviewer / author discussions. The reviews for “Quintessence” were far from all positive. Instead, they were on a range from glowing to lightly despising. A few reviews were both glowing AND lightly-despising. I particularly admired those. I was reminded of my time at Clarion West, and that made me smile.

A Middling Finish For the Ages – 4.92 / 10.00!

On December 5, less than a week after IFComp closed, the organizers announced the top 20 finishers via a twitchstream awards ceremony. It was a good time. There were 103 entries, and 2 tied for first place — The Impossible Bottle by Linus Åkesson and Tavern Crawler by Josh Labelle. A tie for first hadn’t happened before. Also, 2020 was the first time the top spot had a Twine game in it.

Because there’s a special place in my heart for vampires, I feel compelled to note that a vampire corporate espionage adventure came in 13th place. The universe has a sense of humor.

Vampire Ltd Places 13th

“Quintessence” placed 68th. If I didn’t know better, I’d be inclined to attribute my 4.92 / 10.00 score on the piece to its being mismatched to a community that likes to solve puzzles in a series so that a story advances. But the range of reactions to “Quintessence” was too familiar. I’m thinking it might be me. It’s possible I write weird stuff. It’s guaranteed that I’m going to keep doing it.

On balance, which is where I try to exist lest the universe collapse again, I’m pretty pleased the story (and the programming!) were good enough for the interactive fiction community to take them seriously. The Interactive Fiction Database’s reviews of “Quintessence” are here as are some other links.

I’m thinking about using the $10.01 I won in the competition to appease my left hand by purchasing a fancy iPad drawing pen that works with Sketchbook Autodesk. Also, I’m thinking about entering something into next year’s competition — basically a continuation of my 2020 submission. It’s a terrible idea to do anything more with this story, so I’m still considering it.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in thinking about being a particle traveling through the universe or in ending the Forever Cat’s destructive cycle so that this universe’s quanta might join the multiverse, I recommend clicking here.

Thanks to the Interactive Fiction Competition organizers and the interactive fiction community. What a great crowd for “Quintessence” to end up with!

Forever Friends
3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2020 9:38 am


    This is so awesome, I’m so glad you found this new community, this whole thing sounds excellent and quirky and cool!

    I have had my struggles with Twine before, and never actually gotten to the end of creating anything, so big ups for you! (I do have a hush hush super secret Ink project in the works but we shall not talk of that here!)

    Best wishes–

    Liked by 1 person


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