Mailbag: Self-Training in Narrative Design

Big fan here—of your IF pieces and also of the way you’ve spread interactive fiction outside the IF community. I’m emailing to ask if you have any advice on IF education and bringing it to new platforms/media. 

[Some personally identifying information about the writer’s educational background redacted.]

As I move forward with securing workshop/speaking/consulting gigs, I’m feeling a slight panic that my base skills and knowledge of IF are somewhat lackluster. When it comes to a mastery of interactive thinking, I know that I have a lot of room to grow. 

Would you have any thoughts on how to flex those core IF muscles, and also improve the adaptive skills needed for bringing IF to newer formats and into audio?

Okay, so. This is a two-part question. I’m going to break it across two posts. This post will focus on “how do you flex core IF muscles.” I’ll come back next month to the question of skills for adaptation specifically.

The questioner asks about “a mastery of interactive thinking,” not about writing skills, so I’m going to assume the author feels comfortable on topics like prose and character development, and is more interested in understanding and practicing narrative design across multiple media. It also seems to be a design-focused question rather than a tools- or coding-focused question.

So I’ll try to tackle this from two angles: what are the things you might want to learn, and how might you learn them?

Finally, I should say: even with all the scoping-down I just did, this is a topic that I think would take a book to cover, not a single blog post. So the list of things you might want to know is at once very incomplete and unreasonably scary. No one will master all of it in a couple of months.

What I’d recommend doing, therefore, both to the OP and anyone else who is looking to use this as a guide:

  • Pick one or two areas that seem interesting to you and focus on those for a while; let your interest and enthusiasm be your guide
  • Use a mix of strategies to learn from other people (I list a bunch of approaches below)
  • Alternate between working with other people’s input/insights, and building your own thing. When something you’re reading makes an assertion you think is nonsense, build an experiment to prove the opposite. When something you play inspires you, give that a try. When you read a taxonomy of some kind, question whether it covers all the possibilities, and whether you can imagine categories the article-author didn’t consider (and would the results be any fun to play?)

Core IF Skills. What are these?

I’ve divided these, a little artificially, between “grammar” — basic skills that let you put together something that functions from moment to moment; “dialectic” — structural-level skills about creating meaning; and “rhetoric”, the skills you would need to make IF that persuades, moves, or influences the player.

I’ve also put some resource links in for some of these, but not all of them are addressable with single articles, and this is an unreasonably long post already anyway, so the resource coverage is patchy. (Sorry about that.) One could delve deep into most of the particular segments.

Grammar: how do you construct an interactive experience that makes sense?

  • How do you build a choice? If you’re putting a moment of decision in front of the player, what does that look like? What kinds of choices are there? What does a good choice feel like? How many choices do you give the player at a time?
    • Making Interactive Fiction: Branching Choices (Bruno Dias — I’ve called out just this one post, but he has a column at Sub-Q with relatively short, accessible introductions to a lot of topics in IF writing)
    • Successful Reflective Choices in Interactive Narrative (Cat Manning, on choices where the player’s actions do not in fact hugely affect the world model afterwards, but that still have a big effect on how you might feel about what you read)
    • Not All Choice Interfaces Are Alike (me, about ways of rendering choices that allow for expressiveness, embodiment, etc)
    • Taxonomy of Choice series (Jason Stevan Hill/Choice of Games; these are very specific to the Choice of Games brand and use some of their in-house terminology, but can still be interesting from outside that context. Their games include heavy use of player stats.)
    • Choice Poetics by Example (Peter Mawhorter et al, academic article)
  • What about short sequences of choices? How do you build those successfully and what considerations go into creating a good rhythm?
  • If instead of stand-alone choices, you’re thinking in terms of consistent game verbs, how do you use those moves to advance a story?
  • How do you handle non-linear plot structure and manage the potential of combinatorial explosion? How do you understand and talk about different branching and non-branching structures? What about other ways of organizing and unlocking content? How about highly procedural and emergent narratives?
  • How do you create an interactive world that tells a story as the player explores? How do you place gates, where do you reveal information, how do you make sure that your world is legible and traversible? This skill is the bread-and-butter of parser IF rather than hypertext IF, but it teaches a lot of useful lessons for any crossovers with conventional video games as well as VR or other spatially-constructed pieces.
  • How do you deploy challenges and blockers? In the old days we just called these puzzles, but the ability to gate player progress through a story based on some criteria is extremely useful even for interactive stories that aren’t at all like text adventures.
  • How do you communicate world state, goals, interaction affordances, and stakes to players? How do you allow your fiction to communicate what’s under the surface in a lucid way?
  • For me, the latter question is where we get the need for procedural text generation — because only highly adaptive text can reveal everything I want to reveal about the world I’ve built. That’s an art in itself.
  • How do you handle pacing to trade off between plot-advancing, exploring, and idling actions?

Dialectic: how do you make the aspects of your interactive experience cohere into something with an overall thematic thrust or purpose?

Rhetoric: what moves players, what persuades them, what teaches them or makes them think?

  • How do you engage the player on moral questions?
  • How does interactivity alter the handling of sensitive topics? What can we talk about differently in that format?
  • What strategies are effective at allowing the player to experience life from a perspective not their own (cf so-called “empathy games” [which is itself a bit reductive])? What about evoking unusual mental states or emotional experiences?
  • What can interactive stories reveal about structures of power? When is it useful to decenter the player in order to make a point? How do choices communicate the experience of living on the margins?
  • How do systemic games work persuasively? (The tag “persuasive games” was common a few years ago, and a Google search might still turn up some interesting discussion here. Ian Bogost wrote a whole book on the topic.)
  • …and loads of other topics here — this is really just a sampling — because once you level up from “basic craft” to “what are you saying / can you say with IF”, the field is naturally huge

Learning Strategies.

Not everyone learns in the same way, of course. For me, writing about something is an effective way to make myself summarize, consider, and remember… which is why this blog contains so many words. It’s a record of the past decade or two of trying to educate myself in this very field.

There’s one strategy I think you can’t really avoid here, and that’s actually building some creative work in the field you’re studying: if you want to become a good IF author, you need to write IF. (And the author of this letter has done so, for the record.)

To stretch yourself in the design area, you’re going to want to try different projects with different constraints. Build pieces using tools you haven’t tried before. If you’re a Twine Sugarcube expert, try some other Twine versions, then branch out to Texture, ink, or Inform. Experiment with different genres. Pick out competitions or game jams that are going to give you new challenges. Having a constraint and a time limit is both motivating and a good preview of the realities of commercial work, so it’s worth getting used to those.

After you’ve done that, take some time to reflect about the work you made. Read reviews, if any, but also maybe write your own post-mortem, or go back through and comment your source code (if you’ve built the kind of project for which that’s relevant). Refine your sense of what your takeaways were.

Learning from others:

Reading. I’ve listed some resources for particular topics above. Other general resources include my own list of articles, SPAG and Sub-Q, the XYZZY Awards blog with its critique of entrants,

Playing. Try lots of examples of what’s out there, especially if you’re considering working in a new area. For a broader sense of context, also read some of the reviews written about the work you’re trying out. There are lots of ways to identify suggested canon. This list represents a rather old-school IF community perspective on what’s good and what matters, but searching IFDB, checking out tags, or starting a fresh poll can help identify works with a particular quality that you’re interested in. You might also look at winners of the IGF Narrative Awards.

Here is a post I wrote about the history of IF, divided into periods, and here’s a talk I gave at AdventureX, the Past Futures of IF, that looks at what the IF community aspired to at different times — both of those might also suggest some interesting places to look.

Critiquing, workshopping, testing; reviewing. Giving feedback on other people’s work is often a very informative process, because it forces you to articulate why you think something doesn’t work, and because you often learn from hearing from the other person what they’re doing and why they’re trying to do it that way. In the parser IF community of old, that was often about beta-testing — good beta-testers were highly valued people and would sometimes write articles about their methods.

There are lots of ways into this. You could offer your services as a tester. You could write reviews for IFDB, or on a blog or for Sub-Q; or join critical discussions on the intfiction forum.

You could attend live in-person meetups with other IF authors and talk about whatever work is under discussion there. You could start your own meetup, if you live in a reasonably populous English-speaking area that doesn’t have one yet. (Or maybe some non-English-speaking ones, but I have the sense that IF is more sparsely played in some countries. However, there are or have been meetups I know of in Seattle, the SF Bay area, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston/Cambridge, and the Baltimore area, as well as something in Vancouver and occasional events in Toronto; also London (which I run), and sometimes in other parts of the UK and in Dublin. Not all of those cities are currently active, but I list everything I know is happening in my link roundups here, and I’m always happy to help publicize new meetups.

11 thoughts on “Mailbag: Self-Training in Narrative Design”

  1. Something that has personally helped me with learning how to develop a choice-narrative that goes beyond a branching tree structure is studying modern boardgames – specifically more narrative ones like Betrayal at House on the Hill and Camp Grizzly and Elder Sign which employ IF elements such as counters and stats and bits of story that can work in random order. Learning how creators break down a plot in a medium that can’t take advantage of a computer inspires high-level structural ideas which can make choice IF more replayable and less linear. There are numerous boardgame playthrough channels on YouTube, Geek and Sundry’s Tabletop being highly watchable and informative.

  2. Hi Emily, thanks a lot! That person asking the question could have been me, even down to the bit about bringing IF into audio, so this is immensely helpful. Also it earned an instant front row position in the recommended reading list I use for my workshops..

  3. “There’s one strategy I think you can’t really avoid here, and that’s actually building some creative work in the field you’re studying: if you want to become a good IF author, you need to write IF. (And the author of this letter has done so, for the record.)”

    How I wish this blog were an IF game, teaching by showing..

    1. I’m not quite sure which of several ways this comment is meant.

      If you mean “I wish you’d written some IF that someone could learn something from,” my IFDB page (https://ifdb.tads.org/search?sortby=ratu&newSortBy.x=0&newSortBy.y=0&searchfor=author%3AEmily+Short) contains several dozen games, some of them with full commented source releases in order to make them into more accessible teaching resources. Bronze and Glass in particular were written with the intent from the outset of helping people learn to design and code in Inform 7.

      The examples in the Inform manual are also by me and aim to cover a wide range of approaches to the specific craft needed for parser-based games, including quite a bit of detail on modeling worlds, understanding input, building player characters, etc.

      If you mean “I wish someone would write some IF that is itself intended to be a tutorial about IF”, some of those do exist. sortingh.at (http://www.sortingh.at/) is a Twine piece that helps people choose which development tool would fit their project. IF Tutorial ( https://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=cls3a6lks4fb4yuo ) aims to teach how to play IF for German players; Inform School ( https://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=a1f3kx4uzq4fdfm8 ) is a game that is itself a coding exercise. Endless, Nameless (https://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=7vtm1rq16hh3xch) arguably functions (among other things) as a bit of a retrospective of the history of IF design and IF community expectations. The inklewriter tool (RIP) used to come with a tutorial that was itself written in inklewriter, and I had a little game about Hansel and Gretel that I wrote in inklewriter also with the intention of showing some things about IF choices when I taught workshops. There are probably more examples out there; this is just off the top of my head.

      If you mean “every learning point mentioned or referred to in this post ought to be taught via game”, I’d conservatively estimate that at about 4 person-years of work, or (again conservatively, given the probable market rates of the kinds of people who could design and code such a thing) about half a million dollars in salary costs and overhead.

      1. Sorry – I meant it way more flippantly than you took it. You write great IF, and also a very interesting blog – which is text, even hypertext, but no IF. Wouldn’t it be great if it were..?
        (But maybe some codefest where anyone interested could turn one of your posts into a module for a collaborative IF might actually be interesting. The trick would be to find a good overall concept that could contain all those modules.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s