Mailbag: Finding Inspiration in Non-Obvious Subject Matter

Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, as painted by Elisabetta Sirani

I used to publish questions that people have asked me either by email or on Twitter.

That went on a hiatus for a while; to kick it off again, I asked Twitter folks what they’d be most interested in seeing me write about. Here was one of the questions:

Where [do] you look for or find good inspirations, lessons and ideas for IF that come from as far from IF as possible absolutely no IF, no games, better if no pop culture, no media, no art).

Or, if I may put it better: how to enrich interactive fiction with inspirations, ideas and techniques originating in other fields, particularly in the most unrelated.

I asked for some clarification, which led to:

For me, perhaps the best would be: “this is how other people have found some unexpected new things to bring into IF, in case it might spark your imagination”.

This restatement makes the question much easier. There are lots of IF pieces inspired by events, places, crafts and activities, emotional experiences, or academic fields outside of interactive fiction — and many author essays about those processes.

The rest of this post collects links and excerpts on what authors found inspiring — and what aspects of their games were affected by the inspiration. A search for post-mortems on the intfiction forum will yield a very rich supply of other author essays, for anyone who’d like to explore beyond this collection.

Inspirations for Theme and Conflict

Inspired by the trial of Adam Winfield, a whistleblower soldier accused of murder, the piece freezes a single battlefield moment and replays it from half a dozen violently conflicting perspectives.

Aaron Reed’s artist statement on “maybe make some change”
Screenshot showing the selection of verbs in Aaron Reed's "maybe make some change", including Shoot, Hear, Miss, Threaten, Calm, and Hug.

“maybe make some change” presents the player with different verbs, some of which might be locked at any given time: in a complicated situation, not everyone has the same tools for handling it, and bias plays heavily into what people are even able to imagine doing.

The taghairm ritual is probably my favorite magic spell. I appreciate it because it’s the most horrific real spell that I know about. People didn’t imagine this spell to put it down into a fantasy book. People practiced it because they hoped that it would work. Performing a taghairm is still about reshaping the world with your intentions, just like throwing salt over your shoulder, but the stakes are incredibly higher with a taghairm, and those higher stakes demand blood.

Chandler Groover’s post-mortem on Taghairm

Many authors write because they’re confronting something — something from the news, something about human nature, or something from their personal life — and the writing is a way to wrestle it down.

Those confrontations don’t always lead to a resolution; sometimes they can only set out the problem.

No matter what route you go, people will accuse you of destroying journalism, of narcissism, of desperation. The accusations will invariably fall on you, not the system. The one route that redeems you is the one that leads to obscurity and likely joblessness, because the content that’s wrung out of you today is the Google trail that frightens employers tomorrow.

Katherine Morayati’s post-mortem on Take

Inspirations for Viewpoint

At one point I was worried that people would criticize the game for portraying a manic, delusional state in a positive light. The idea of consciously embracing your delusions as a meaningful life narrative and trying to pattern your life on fictional models is pretty far outside standard psychiatric recommendations. A lot of the game falls into the category of “Don’t try this at home.”

Something that isn’t emphasized too heavily in the game is the strange way that some of my delusions were almost self-therapeutic.

Ben Kidwell’s post-mortem for Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony
Abstract watercolour cover art for Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, showing a man apparently sitting at the end of a pier, but visualising some cosmic spheres

Quite a bit of interactive fiction deals with unusual mental states. The protagonist of Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony is delusional, and its mechanics as well as its narrative reflect that. The post-mortem offers a wealth of detail about how and why it was built.

Text-based games are, I think, particularly well suited to telling stories with intense subjectivity and atypical viewpoints. Without sound or graphics, there’s nothing to disrupt the narrator’s internal monologue or contradict their interpretations; choice-based interfaces can also communicate the protagonist’s decision-making processes even when those are very unlike anything the player mightbe used to.

SPY INTRIGUE builds heavily on the power of the textual narrator, juxtaposing fantasy with (also fictional) “real world” segments and (non-fictional) scans of physical artifacts from the author’s actual life.

I think there’s a certain type of person who will really recognize themselves in the story and it will just be the most quotidian recording of everyday existence and to everyone else it will be scifi. 

Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s interview on The Maximum Softness Capable of Being Exerted by All Machinery

Inspirations for Voice

I think I was writing a line, and it had the N-word in it. And I was like, ah nah I probably shouldn’t put that in there, I’m going to get roasted by the internet. And then I was like, wait, why can’t I put that in there? And that conversation just kinda got me thinking about the whole representation of Blackness in video games in general.

And I thought, well, if no one else is going to do this, I might as well. I want to see this. I want to have this happen.

It might piss some people off, it might make some people uncomfortable. But it’s our experience.

Davionne Gooden’s podcast interview about She Dreams Elsewhere on Intelligame Club

Writing in the author’s own dialect, or in the language they find comfortable, can feel surprising or subversive when it differs from the vocabulary of most interactive fiction.

Some games lean into the duality of voice, presenting texts that have both a familiar and an unfamiliar aspect.

My mother is Japanese and my father is American — white, mostly. It’s just kind of detailing the weird ups and downs I’ve had being multiracial…

I looked at my personal life and took basically a feeling or something that I felt like I needed to get out, and that would be my core of it, and everything else I would make up. I kind of liked throwing this personal thing out there but no one would really know how much of it was fake and fictional and how much was actually real and personal.

Emma Kidwell’s podcast interview on Half with Intelligame Club

In Emma Kidwell’s half, suppressed thoughts drift down the page, layered behind the main narration; frequently they are at least partly in Japanese:

Screenshot of Emma Kidwell's half, with foreground text in English and faded, moving background text in a mix of English and Japanese

Harry Josephine Giles makes the text of Raik shift from Scots to English or back on command from the player — though the English version is also a fantasy life, while the Scots version describes what is really happening.

For me, there’s a whole lot of thematic stuff going on in the use of dual language. A lot of it is to do with the history of Scots as a minor language, with the political relationship between Scots and English, with desire for a lost language and lost country, with the anxieties of dual language speaking and diaspora, and so on. If all that’s gobbledegook to you, Sam Kabo Ashwell’s review was almost gallingly precise in its dissection of these themes. Part of the issue with writing in Scots (and especially the issue with building its audience) is that as soon as you write in Scots you’re immediately referencing all of these themes: it never gets to assume the neutrality of an imperial language like English.

Harry Josephine Giles’ post-mortem on Raik

Working with the languages of Scotland is a big part of her practice, in interactive texts but also in non-interactive texts and live performances — a territory where language and politics meet.

Screenshot of Harry Josephine Giles' Raik, showing a passage of text in Scots
Screen of Raik

Inspirations for Characters

The original idea for Dancing with Fear came one late evening in Cambridge, listening to Los Panchos while working on a translation. When I was a kid my mother would play boleros on a record player while she ironed clothes, so boleros always remind me of her, and also of a family trip to Cuba in the late 90s.

Victor Ojuel’s post-mortem for 1958: Dancing with Fear

Character concepts can come from places very far from the main setting of a story — as witness the covert influence of French history on Dr Sourpuss Is Not A Choice-Based Game.

Inspirations for Setting

Enthusiasts were better value than professionals: real historians don’t tell you the color of Albert Einstein’s socks.

Graham Nelson, ‘Jigsaw and I’

A number of people have reached for historical settings, events, and situations to define their game worlds. 1893 is based around a huge, ambitious reproduction of the entire Chicago World’s Fair that also includes a mystery plot and puzzles; Jigsaw replicates 20th century events as set pieces.

Smaller translations also abound, some of them more still-life than landscape. Flametop by David Malaguti is a piece entirely about a guitar and all the many elements thereof; Queen of Swords, an Art Show piece about donning a full set of fencing gear. Jacqueline Lott’s The Fire Tower represents the experience of a real hike that the author knows extremely well.

The IF Art Show attracted quite a bit of this kind of writing — all of the above are IF Art Show pieces — because it created space for these more illustrative kinds of work.

Inspirations for Puzzles

The continual challenge in writing A Beauty Cold and Austere was how to take concepts that are usually and concisely expressed in the static and often formidable language of mathematics and put them in an interactive, narrative form instead.

Mike Spivey’s post-mortem for A Beauty Cold and Austere
Cover art for Mike Spivey's A Beauty Cold and Austere, showing a vibrant blue fractal on a field of black

There’s a lot of IF looking to teach a subject that might not be at all IF-related. Sometimes, the concepts of a totally unrelated field shape the whole feel and purpose of a game. (Those curious about IF teaching might like this older mailbag post about pedagogical uses of IF.)

Mike Spivey’s A Beauty Cold & Austere was certainly inspired by other IF, but also by mathematical ideas and the desire to teach them — as he does professionally.

Spivey’s post-mortem goes into substantial detail about how the puzzles were designed, and about his puzzle design goals: “How can I make a concept associated with X (1) concrete, (2) interactive in a text-based format, and (3) interesting from a puzzle perspective?”

The Chinese Room by Harry Giles and Joey Jones takes on a bunch of philosophical conundra and brings them to life as interactive fiction puzzles — structurally similar to A Beauty Cold & Austere, but a different area of focus.

The Gostak, meanwhile, extrapolates its entire (very focused) puzzle from an Andrew Ingraham line about how syntax carries meaning.

Inspirations for Non-Puzzle Mechanics

The first words you translate in Endure establish some themes, so if you translate phrases about the Cyclops first, you establish a Cyclops-themed viewpoint on the text and other phrases about Odysseus and his men are translated more unsympathetically.

Me, on Metamorphic Texts
Screenshot from Endure, with options for how to translate words of Greek

Endure tries to capture the process of understanding a passage of a foreign language, at that stage of language learning where you’re still puzzling out words one at a time. The interface invites the player to choose which words they want to change from Greek into English, and what kind of spin they want to put on the translation. Order of translation matters too: the words you translate first become the context in which you understand the later pieces.

Endure is a close relative of First Draft of the Revolution, an interactive epistolary story. In both pieces, I was interested in exposing the choices — social, emotional, intellectual — involved in the process of writing.

The framing of choice, the amount of expressiveness and agency that the game offers, the selection of verbs that work and verbs that are withheld from the player: this is rich territory for communicating all kinds of different human experience.

Some authors work heavily with expressive mechanics to evoke emotions or other sensations. For instance, Squinky specialises in aspects of social awkwardness and mechanics that reproduce or interrogate that sensation.

It’s a rhythm game. It is very difficult. It has overwhelming, unintuitive controls. So as you’re playing this terrible DDR clone, Mr Darcy snarks at you the entire time with procedurally generated dialogue spoken in a text-to-speech British accet. I made this game to convey how bad I am at partnered dancing and also as a more general commentary on the performance of gender roles and how I again find those really really really constraining.

Because, of course, you have to be a lady in this game. Otherwise you wouldn’t be dancing with Mr Darcy.

Dietrich Squinkifer (Squinky) about Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge, How to Intentionally Create Discomfort Through Game Design

Inspirations for Choice Structure

I was afraid to write it because the subject is so personal and so frightening. My grandfather suffered from dementia. His decline was, for me, the stuff of nightmares. Much of who I am is tied up in mental pursuits and how I use words. Having that leach away is one of my worst fears.

Stephen Granade’s post-mortem for Will Not Let Me Go
Cover art from Stephen Granade's Will Not Let Me Go, showing an illustration of two wedding rings

Will Not Let Me Go shapes its choices very deliberately to capture the sensation of gaps within a thought.

Granade’s post-mortem explains: “Because dementia attacks words and comprehension, I focused interaction on individual words. Links in Will Not Let Me Go occur mid-sentence. Sometimes they represent Fred thinking of a word, realizing that it’s wrong, and replacing it with the right one. Sometimes they represent Fred’s thoughts stuttering to a halt. I wanted to give the reader the same experience: knowing there’s more to come and involuntarily trying to guess what comes next.”

In the end, it is Septima’s/the player’s choice if she takes the money back to be able to fulfill her lifelong dream of living out her last years beyond the walls of the villa – a goal she has worked for for a long time –  or if she allows Pola to go free, effectively setting free her emotional grandchild at the same time.

What I would like to highlight here is the way we let players express their choice… We do it by making people walk to A OR B.

There is a rather obvious metaphorical component in this, of course, but also a touch of embodiment: The player walks a path Septima would have walked with an air of finality at the end of her decision process, hopefully feeling an echo of the strong and conflicting emotions she would have felt while doing so.

Nico Czaja’s presentation on Septima
Image of the villa in which Nico Czaja's audio story Septima is set

Location-based interactive fiction maps against real-world geography, which can be both a constraint and an inspiration. Nico Czaja’s project Septima is actually set physically in a reconstructed Roman villa, telling the story of people who lived there through audio on a device the player carries.

For more about choice presentation in general, see Not All Choice Interfaces Are Alike and Peter Mawhorter’s work on choice poetics.

Inspirations for Overall User Interface

For instance, a couple of months ago, Donald Trump’s Twitter account was de-activated by a contract worker on his last day, doing routine moderation—much like the PC in Human Errors… Or you’ve probably heard of the Cambridge Analytica scandal; that data was harvested from Facebook access requested by a survey years ago on Mechanical Turk that paid $1.

These stories have something in common: ordinary people, precariously employed, being paid not much for work they know relatively little about.

Katherine Morayati’s interview on Human Errors
Cover art for Katherine Morayati's Human Errors

There’s a whole subgenre of games that tell stories through a UI that wasn’t designed for narrative: email systems and bulletin boards, fan wikis or alternate versions of wikipedia, web sites, chat messaging systems and social media platforms.

These works often explore how a particular medium constrains and reshapes communication, or satirise the types of communities that arise around these communication methods.

One of my favourites is Katherine Morayati’s Human Errors, built around a customer service system. That system imposes a very limited bandwidth on your ability to help anyone who reaches out to you and also constructs a specific power relationship between the characters writing in and the player character, providing a strong context for the player’s choices. Sub-Q has a detailed interview where she talks about the piece.

Inspiring Aesthetic and Formal Qualities

Katherine Morayati’s talk on Writing IF Like a Pop Song used pop songs as a source of metaphor, drawing parallels between structure in songs vs. structure in narrative, starting by comparing intro/verse/chorus/…/outro to branch-and-bottleneck, where you can go off to a variety of different verses, but then come back to the branch point (chorus). She was asking what we can learn and apply to IF from this: polish the intro first because it’s what everybody sees first. If the chorus comes again and again, polish that more than the verses which will only be seen once.

Josh Grams’ NarraScope summary on intfiction

Speaking of Katherine Morayati, she also gave a talk at the first NarraScope about what IF authors can learn from the formal features of music. Others have written about poetry as a model for the cadence of hyperlinks:

Lorine Niedecker’s own Wisconsin wilderness–living almost her entire life in remote rural areas– also looms as an influence in this poem. Besides being one of my favorite poets, Niedecker described her own poetry as a “condensery”… I think of her work as a kind of lighthouse for not only what poetry can do, but also other forms of writing can do, particularly ones that can ebb and flow, like Twine is capable of.

Anya DeNiro’s design notes on Doggerland

And so…?

On the evidence, these inspirations can come from anywhere, but often they come from an area the author already knows well — an academic subject they teach, a hobby they enjoy, a location they visit, a mental or emotional experience that is part of their daily life, a topic in the news that is occupying their thoughts, another art form that they know intimately.

Equally, inspirations can apply to any aspect of IF. And sometimes those inspirations are very clear and specific from the outset.

When I’m working with source material where it doesn’t feel obvious how to use an inspiration, I tend to ask myself questions about why the material appeals:

  • Themes and conflicts: Is it making a statement that I agree with, or asking a question that I want to wrestle with?
  • Setting and environment: Do I find this setting attractive or pleasurable? Strange and evocative? Is it a setting I want to recreate or understand better in order to have a fuller connection with the people who lived there?
  • Mechanics: Is there something I want to understand better about how this process (physical, social, or mental) works in real life? Do I have observations about the process that I’m seeking a way to express?
  • Viewpoint and narrative voice: Is there an emotional space, a way of thinking, or an unusual set of perceptions that I want to unpack? Am I interested in showing multiple perspectives on the same thing?

Once I’ve identified the aspect of this material that interests me, I also like to set design goals for how that material will be brought into my chosen game genre — often setting criteria for what a good puzzle might look like, just as Mike Spivey did with the puzzles for A Beauty Cold & Austere.

One thing did feel a bit off to me about the original question: it talks about getting as far away from IF as possible — ideally, away from pop culture, media, and art entirely.

Possibly that was just meant as a way of expressing the challenge involved. But I tend to find that the most exciting and inspiring examples arise from an author’s attraction to something — an interest in a particular technique, an appetitue for a specific experience, a glimpse of truth that seems impossible to express in any other way.

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