What I mean by this is something that most game designers wouldn’t bother to preface with “systematic”: it’s just the mechanic, the thing the player does in the game in order to influence the model world and make progress. But adventure games, including but not limited to parser IF, often have mechanics that boil down to “move”, “take thing”, “drop thing”, and then a host of specialized object applications and unique verbs. So I add the word “systematic” to indicate something more coherent and consistent than that, a design in which consistent verbs are used repeatedly across the course of the game, and the player is taught to interact with the model world in such a way as to gain in effective agency as they are able to anticipate more and more of the results of their actions.
I’ve mostly talked about this in terms of how a good mechanic makes puzzle design easier and more coherent, and how it allows for consistent coding.
There’s another angle to this as well, though: a well-defined mechanic becomes a writing prompt. It shapes the kind and amount of content we need to write. At its worst it imposes a large burden of excess work, but at its best it inspires thinking about our setting and story in a new way. I find that real stare-at-the-blankness-of-the-page I-can-think-of-nothing-at-all-to-write writer’s block is not a common problem when I’m working on IF, especially IF with a strong mechanic, and I think that’s partly because the machine is always there, offering me prompts.
(I should also caveat what follows by saying that this is my interpretation, as an author and a player: I am inspired in different ways by different systems, but that does not mean either that these are the only suitable uses of the systems, or that other people are or should be inspired in the same ways. I don’t want to lard what follows with too many “I think” and “I find” and “for me” disclaimers, but this is all somewhat subjective.)
The most unavoidable writer’s prompt in classic parser IF is the room description. Parser IF did setting before it did anything else — Adventure explored space even when there wasn’t much by way of containment or locking or puzzle solution. This may explain why parser IF is traditionally so focused on setting. As far as I know there’s no “Best Setting”-style award for books or movies, but “Best Setting” has been a XYZZY Award category since the beginning, and one of the least controversial.
Writing about space means thinking about the relationship of one place to another, the types of objects and people that would be in that space, the atmosphere and mood of it, the culture, the assumptions, the memories the protagonist might have there.
Slickrock hillside, orange-red, a hot sun low in a cloudless sky, a hard dry heat. Far downhill, the rock gives way to thornveldt, the plain punctuated by distant outcrops.
Beneath a lone, broad-spreading shade-tree, people kick back on boulders and blankets and camp-chairs. There are meaty things sizzling over a fire, a couple of coolers.
And outwards, across the sun-baked rock, you can sense the Barren Way beckoning.
The tangle extends to the north, south to None Know The Hour, east to The Pleasant Month of May, west to No Place To Rest Your Head and Outside.
There are some baked potatoes roasting in the embers, and a big pot of thick corn pap over to the side of the fire, but the focus is clearly on the meat. There are some slabs of lean beef on the campfire grill, but most of the real estate is taken up by thick, smoky, grease-dripping sausages.
A conspicuously mixed-race group; maybe a third each of unambiguous white and black. Dressed for a hot climate that’s rough on clothes. There’s some low-key chatter and occasional trips to the cooler or the fire, but your general impression is of a pride of very well-fed lions taking naps.
— Invisible Parties, Sam Kabo Ashwell
There’s an implacable landscape here, evoking color and temperature and scent and shape, but much more than that as well, a whole implicit cultural setting. Each object examined layers in new details. This is one of my favorite things about parser IF, both in writing and in reading: the sense of place and presence that invites exploration. I think it’s also theoretically possible to accomplish in choice-based stories, but most choice-based systems do not really encourage this; their mechanical prompts are different.
Doing a full set of library message replacements, meanwhile, is a more of an exercise in narrative voice, practice thinking through how a specific protagonist would describe all these ways of interacting:
That feel just like wall.
Grunk jump and jump, but moon still too high to reach.
There not any here!
[OK, Grunk not do that.]
— Lost Pig, Admiral Jota
Then there are custom mechanics. My recent promotional game Ultimate Quest takes place in a world where people have Google Glass-like augmented reality visualizers that allow them to instantly see social network details of the people they meet — and if they have access to the right data, that can be extended to include financial and medical information and more. The player gets access to some of these modules in episode 3. Inevitably that meant figuring out the social, medical, and financial situations of every NPC encountered in that episode of the game, fleshing them out more deeply: an incentive to social worldbuilding.
Choice-based with Stats (ChoiceScript)
ChoiceScript as a system, especially when combined with the Choice of Games house style, encourages the author to focus on a small, specific cluster of variables that accumulate in the course of play and that gate success and failure in various endeavors. These variables most often model aspects of the protagonist, and the opening of play often takes the form of a (more or less disguised) personality test.
Thematically, this approach supports considering how different personalities are likely to respond to particular challenges, building a story around not a single protagonist but a cluster of potential protagonists. Who is this person? How can this person’s nature express itself at each moment, in each challenge? Conversely, how does the situation described in the story reward or penalize certain character traits?
It’s obvious that Choice of Games has made a mission of writing games that are friendly to a broad spectrum of possible players, often allowing the player to customize gender, race, sexual preference, and other aspects of identity to an unusual degree. But I think the underlying system constraints and genre expectations also encourage thinking about diversity: they constitute a machine for writing about how different types of people might confront the situations of the story, and prompt the author to think about that question over and over.
Quality-Based Narrative (StoryNexus)
“Quality-based narrative” is the term that Failbetter uses for its works. In contrast with the Choice of Games approach (few stats constantly visible and reused thorughout), QBN works tend to have absolutely massive number of qualities. Qualities determine the player’s skillset, but they also decide which storylets are available to the player at a particular time.
I’ve written several things now for Fallen London and Sunless Sea. Any story arc you design requires that you pick out the qualities that will pace that arc: does the player move forward stepwise, reading one bit of story at Plot Level 1 and another at Plot Level 2 and so on? Or is there branching, or a gradual grind to get from one set of storylets to the next? Or are there multiple sets of qualities that can be increased in tandem?
The qualities here are the ratchets and gears of plot movement, and the author cannot avoid designing them explicitly.
Having done so, I find I’m likely likely to focus largely on those key qualities for the duration of the story arc. Largely, but not entirely — because there’s also always that sea of other interesting persistent qualities to play with, an invitation to digression and embellishment. The player’s Connected: Urchins quality might not be a key mechanism for your story, but browsing through the quality lists may nonetheless suggest an interesting side anecdote about orphans, not actually critical to the story you’re telling, but rewarding for those players who come to the story with the correct background.
Then, too, there’s the heavy emphasis on chances that may result in randomized success or failure, but no possibility for the player to undo a turn. This prompts the author to think about story conflicts in terms of difficulty (how hard is this particular action?) and Success/Failure (and sometimes Rare Success) options (what happens if this goes well for the player? what if it goes badly? what if it goes exceptionally well?).
This is a system that — by heavily advertising risk — gets consent from the player to make something bad happen to the protagonist, and encourages the author to write in setbacks, or at least non-progress, as a core part of the design process. Most of the best StoryNexus games I’ve played — not just FL/Sunless Sea but also independent contributions like Final Girl and Zero Summer — take place in environments of danger and ongoing struggle.
Words are the fundamental unit of Twine. You can link off a single word or a phrase or a sentence, and that is the key method of writing — which encourages word association, fluid jumps from one thought to another. Alice Maz’s Colorado Red layers hover-box thoughts on top of the words: hold your cursor under a lightly underlined word and you can peek into the mind of the protagonist, hear a scrap of the backstory that underlies that thought.
Mechanics-light as it is, Twine requires little of the author. But this invitation to elaborate on individual words, to embellish them, to replace or erase them, is always there, centering attention on the stream of words itself. This is perhaps responsible for the unusual amount of interactive poetry written in Twine.
Systemic Context and Tarot Card Design
The more structured the mechanic, the more it demands a particular type of discipline from the writer: a willingness to fill in lots and lots of madlibs blanks even when the experience of doing so has come to feel a bit formulaic. Raw Twine requires this almost not at all; parser games often a little bit; some mechanics require it a lot.
“I think when we started we had the sense there might be forty or fifty cities in the game, but everything kept on scaling up and up, with every new city meaning two or three new journeys to link it into the graph, as well as new art… Towards the end, Meg and I had a list of thirty or forty journeys that needed writing, and would basically have to lock ourselves in with alcohol and scream until they got written. Hopefully, players can’t tell which ones they are!” — Jon Ingold
Pick a mechanic that scales poorly, and you’ll be inflicting a significant chore on yourself. (This is not to imply that Jon and Meg did choose poorly: 80 Days is awesome. But you have to know what you’re getting into. See also Carolyn VanEseltine’s recent post about scoping projects.) Pick a mechanic that focuses on the wrong kinds of things, and you’ll find yourself writing loads and loads of text that doesn’t even do any important story work.
But there’s an upside here too. Writing inside a system benefits from systemic context: the mechanics may indicate that a given bit of text belongs to part of a series, or has an oppositional relationship to another piece of text.
One of the most awesome Kickstarters I’ve backed is Robin Scott’s Urban Tarot, a beautiful, thoughtful, incredibly detailed deck of tarot cards. Robin has been posting the images as she makes them, including short essays about the thought underlying each design. The images of the deck are dually inspired: by traditional tarot meanings, and by New York City.
It is more or less inevitable, in that context, that her Tower card is an image of the World Trade Center on 9/11; at the same time, using that image in that place suggests certain interpretations of both the Tower card and the event of the WTC bombing. The Tower often indicates destruction that results from hubris, so this image asks: would we describe the events of 9/11 as the consequence of a hubristic US foreign policy? The Tower also represents the tower of Babel, an event that caused the diversification of languages and people becoming separated from one another by cultural difference: perhaps we might read 9/11 as an event that either created or revealed fundamental cultural cracks. And regardless of the political stance we might use to interpret what happened, images from 9/11 are for many people images of overwhelming shared fear and grief. The Tower card indicates disaster, but I have seen few Tower illustrations that made me viscerally sense that disaster so well as this one.
IF mechanics don’t generally bring quite that much iconographical wealth to the table — tarot has had a long time to accrete meanings — but they can operate in some of the same ways. Consider the productive dualities used in Krypteia or Raik.
The mechanic is your friend.