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 and stats, how do you use those moves to advance a story?
- Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling talks a good bit about game verbs in a story context, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions (and my review talks about how/why not)
- A lot of parser IF design is about this; the trend towards parser games with limited verb sets is a particularly interesting place to look
- How do you choose stats for your game? How do you understand the relationship between the stats and the gameplay outcomes?
- 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?
- Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games (Sam Ashwell)
- By the Numbers: How to Write a Long Interactive Novel that Doesn’t Suck (Choice of Games)
- Adventures in Text (covers a range of topics, but some of it is around structure particularly; Jon Ingold/inkle, video)
- Beyond Branching (me: talks about quality-based narrative and some other methods of organizing content)
- Storylets: You Want Them (also me, this time about standard storylet-based approaches to narrative structure)
- Survey of Storylets-based Design (me, but summarizing and linking to an article by Max Kreminski)
- Card Deck Narratives (me, talking about work that relies heavily on randomness rather than branching or procedural content sorting)
- Emergent Narratives in Dwarf Fortress (Tarn Adams, video)
- 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.
- 2013 Best Individual Puzzle Finalists (me — this is an analysis of some XYZZY-nominated puzzles, but it begins by enumerating a bunch of qualities that a good puzzle might have)
- 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.
- Procedural Text Generation in IF (me, several years old, and I’ve had a huge amount of additional work in this area since, but it tackles some applications in the text adventure space)
- Procedural Generation (Bruno Dias)
- Five Strategies for Collaborating with a Machine (me, video; focus on the aesthetics of the generated text)
- 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?
- How do you devise a mechanic that is going to be a good fit for a particular story? A story that’s going to match a particular mechanic? How might that change from scene to scene?
- I talk about this some in post-mortems for Counterfeit Monkey, and in general IF post-mortems can be a good place to find out authors’ reasoning about such things: answers tend to be particular and vary from game to game, which is the whole point.
- Worldbuilding from a Mechanic looks at one angle on this
- Narrative Mechanics, Narrative Dynamics (Aaron Reed; this is just one piece of his dissertation thesis, which is worth delving into as a whole, and he’s reposting bits to Medium)
- Andrew Plotkin’s reviews often look at these issues in detail; here he’s talking about some IGF nominees and here about how to adapt a beloved fantasy favorite to interactive form (more in-depth on the mechanics here), but it’s worth going through some of his backlog too. A lot of my earliest understanding of narrative design came from reading Andrew’s posts about interactive fiction back in the 90s
- How do you manage the “triangle of identities” — the player, the person performing any commands you give in world, and the narrator? When does the triangle make the interaction jarring? How can you play with separating those identities, or putting a fictional gloss on how they’re interacting? How do tropes like the unreliable narrator work in IF specifically?
- Original triangle of identities discussion in the Inform manual (Graham Nelson)
- Viewpoint for Cut-Scenes (me, on first/second/third-person issues, but also looking at some games that do different things with the triangle of identities)
- Which types of gameplay are the best fit for different genres?
- When do you tell your story as story, and when as backstory? What can be achieved by interactively telling a story about events that can no longer be affected?
- Where does the player have freedom or a lack of freedom?
- What types of agency are there? How and why do you enable or deny agency? How does the player’s degree of agency affect their feelings about the themes of the work? What about cases where the gameplay makes the player complicit in something they might not really want to participate in?
- Bestiary of Player Agency (Sam Ashwell)
- An Alternative Taxonomy for Interactive Stories (me; talks about the player as protagonist, as co-author, as reader…)
- On Games and Links: Extending the Vocabulary of Agency and Immersion in Interactive Narratives (Stacey Mason)
- There’s a fair amount of exploration of what can be done with constrained or denied agency in IF, from Rameses to Depression Quest, and it would be worth trying some of those games and the reviews of them
Rhetoric: what moves players, what persuades them, what teaches them or makes them think?
- How do you engage the player on moral questions?
- See Victor Gijsbers’ work for some interesting IF experiments here.
- 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
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:
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.
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.