Writing in Collaboration with the System

I’ve written in the past about the value of a systematic mechanic.

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.)

Parser IF

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.

>x meat
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.

>x people
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:

>touch wall
That feel just like wall.

Grunk jump and jump, but moon still too high to reach.

>get all
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.

Colorado Red Screenshot

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.

21 thoughts on “Writing in Collaboration with the System”

  1. >QBN works tend to have absolutely massive of qualities.
    An accidentally word?

    Anyway, I guess maybe that is why parser IF was so attractive to me when I first encountered it. I enjoy exploring and testing the limits of a created world, not just in sandbox type games or even (MMO)RPGs but even FPS games. Bouncing around, finding interesting spots and easter eggs, messing with convars, playing with physics.

  2. I wonder if Inklewriter tends to produce a particular mechanic or style. I don’t think the developers predicted that the difference between inline hyperlinks and choices at the end would be so crucial, but it looks like they are.

    (Also I want to respond to your last sentence with “Of course! Without him I can’t get past the Traffic Circle!”)

    1. Can you say more about hyperlinks being ‘crucial’? ChoiceScript doesn’t have them either.

      My first IF system (Undum) did, my second (Varytale) had them in some contexts, but they weren’t used much, my third (Dendry) doesn’t have them at all.

      The ‘look for more details’ use case is interesting, but it is a particular style of writing, one which makes a point of a certain kind of writing. But I’ve not noticed it being crucial.

      Which is not to say I think you’re wrong, I’d just like to learn more of why you feel that way.

      1. Well, that correction doesn’t shed any more light on anything, I’m afraid. You’re right, he did say that. So copy and paste that correction into the first line of my comment and read the rest as is.

      2. Not being matt w, I can’t speak for him, but I would say that the two encourage different ways of thinking about the choice. For one thing, hyperlinks feel (to me) like I’m drilling into or interrogating the text directly. They don’t necessarily articulate a particular action or decision, but instead invite me to push further on a particular word or phrase the author has chosen. It’s a mode of interaction that feels more suitable for exploring a stream of thoughts or feelings, and less for exploring a model world.

  3. This has been а lot on my mind lately, how mechanics deliver aesthetic experiences.

    I think it’s an especially important question when you try to mesh mechanics with something as bound to aesthetics as text. You had an article somewhere about the challenges for interactive text, how you try to mask gameplay (hints, directions, etc.) within the fiction. I’ve been thinking lately if more formal structures, foregrounding the presentation of gameplay information, not bothering too much with achieving a novelistic coherence in linking sentence to sentence even, couldn’t present a sort of aesthetic, based on contrast and the pleasure of encountering a familiar structure – of a paragraph, of a sentence, – with new content interposed. (Something like the changing descriptions of the mechanical garden in The Moonlit Tower, or the random phrase-substitution in porpentine’s stuff.)

    Been reading up on Francis Christensen’s free-modifier rhetorical approach and it struck me how the modularity of writing could both play into the interactor’s role as a gameplayer and as someone who gets an aesthetic kick out of it. Also, it does work as a writing prompt of sorts, since juxtaposing content within a structural framework, meaningfully, however abstract that framework is, is actually at the heart of the pattern-making that is fiction.

  4. “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.”

    I know this is a derail from the main thrust of the article (which I found interesting!), but I read this and had an “oh God we’re only maybe five or ten years from this being actual reality, there’s nowhere to hide from the future, help” moment. (Upside: Facial-recognition-blocking makeup designs look pretty rad and electroclashy, so there’s that.)

    1. Yeah. My suspicion about what happens when we get there is that the world will belong to the people who make data visualization software. Because the amount of information you can find about a person — instantly — is more than your brain can take in by reading, we’ll instead have augmented reality features that stick haloes on people without a criminal record, and so on. And forget how freaky current marketing profiles are, because in the near future salespeople will know as you walk into the store how likely you are to make a purchase there depending on your past spending records and needs. Probably your relationship status will be visible from across the street. Stuff like that.

      If it goes *really* ooky and gross, SkeevyGlass will let people call up internet-hacked images of naked you and augmented-reality them onto of your clothed body.

      Anyway. Yeah. Ep. 3 of UQ explored that universe a little. Maybe I do write horror after all.

  5. Absolutely fascinating article. This resonates with me in a lot of ways: as an occasional newbie IF writer, I work in both Inform and Twine (no experiences with the other platforms, I’m afraid, except for some very brief looks at ChoiceScript), and sometimes I find myself having difficulty deciding in which format to implement a game idea I have. Obviously, there are some clear-cut choices: Inform is better for puzzle-heavy games; Twine is better when you want a focus on the words themselves and on choice rather than manipulation. But then, there are extensive grey areas in between (for example, it’s been said a million times that Andrew Plotkin’s “The Space Under the Window” is essentially a proto-Twine game using a browser).

    Your article does an excellent job outlining all the various modes of IF, and has given me a tremendous number of things to think about.

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