Writing Interactive Fiction (Deb Potter)

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 6.55.20 PM.pngWith the reappearance of IF as a commercial art form, there’s also been a rise in books out there to guide would-be writers in the form.

Deb Potter writes for the You Say Which Way series, which is to say pretty much straight CYOA. She has released Writing Interactive Fiction to teach others how to do the same, in a breezy and accessible style. Potter does not assume the reader has a great deal of pre-existing experience in the space, and starts out exploring basic concepts like choice and consequence, explaining why your basic left-or-right choice is usually such a bore, and suggesting that authors should give readers some warning before an instant death. She also comes down against using IF for moral preaching.

But there are a few places where her suggestions either depart from what I’d tend to consider received wisdom in the IF community, or introduce new terminology. In particular, she talks a lot about how to help the player build a mental model of the structure of the CYOA, and how to draw attention towards (or away from) choices that they might want/not want to replay.

For instance:

A segue choice offers the reader the chance to travel across the story to an entirely different storyline. For example, after you become a dolphin in Between the Stars you get the option to stay as your human self on the spaceship or explore a water planet as a dolphin… So, later, after a few good dolphin adventures… I offer the segue choice to find out what is happening back at the spaceship. By making this offer a few times, it sits in  the reader’s memory that there’s a branch they haven’t explored.

She also notes that if the author presents a choice where both options lead back to the same outcome, it’s only sporting to acknowledge that fact somehow in the consequence text so that the reader doesn’t go to the bother of trying the alternate route and being disappointed with the lack of divergence.

Elsewhere, she offers advice that’s very much from the paper-CYOA world; after some cautionary anecdotes, she reveals:

It is better to copy and paste a section and customize it for each path, rather than angst over what the reader already knows from multiple paths.

…a sequence that left me intensely grateful to be working in a medium where variables exist. (She also discusses methods for writing IF in Microsoft Word, which I didn’t think was really the norm even for paper CYOAs, and sounds pretty horrific to me. But others’ mileage may, and apparently does, vary.)

Potter works outward from the assumption that interactive fiction is first and foremost a children’s genre, though she acknowledges that adults might be interested. But a number of her “players prefer…” anecdotes are based on having listened to and read to groups of children, and collecting information from these. She also offers a lot of advice (“don’t link to random spots on the internet” “include educational puzzles” etc) that are specifically targeted for authors writing ebooks for children, and reminds authors to consider the effects of COPPA.

She’s dogmatic on the idea that all protagonists need to be (potentially) The Reader, and advises against giving the protagonist a gender, age, ethnicity, location, family members, or location — your basic AFGNCAAP, in short. Which is certainly an approach, but she doesn’t really touch on any of the interesting alternatives to this, either Choice of Games’ style of customizable protagonist or the range of interactive fiction that makes positive aesthetic use of the difference between protagonist and player. Instead, she advises giving the player a sidekick who can have the character and personality not provided to the protagonist.

Potter frames this approach as one that promotes diversity; after all, players of all types can (she argues) see themselves in the gaps. But this is not completely true in the examples she gives, even so: even her protagonist with an “unknown type” of family is described has having some family; not everyone does. A protagonist with “no physical features” is still described as being able to walk; not everyone can. I think it’s fair enough to say “well, I put in as much room for the player as I could given the constraints of the story I was telling,” but a perfect blank there is pretty much impossible to achieve.

Finally, quite a bit of Potter’s coverage looks at commercial concerns: designing covers, choosing a brand name and brand identity, presenting oneself on Amazon and competing with the kids’ market there… though she adds that you should not write to get rich, since almost no one does. She also observes “you are unlikely to find an experienced editor of interactive fiction” — and that, I’m happy to say, is only mostly true.

See also: Melissa Ford’s Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine; Aaron Reed on Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7. And if you are interested in writing interactive fiction commercially and are in the London area, our next IF Meetup, July 19, will be on that topic.

2 thoughts on “Writing Interactive Fiction (Deb Potter)

  1. Does there seem to be any evidence she knows of an IF community, or is this one of those things where history jumps straight from Choose Your Own Adventure to modern children’s lit?

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