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?)

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Survey of Storylets-based Design

Sketching a Map of the Storylets Design Space” is a paper by Max Kreminski prepared for ICIDS 2018, an academic survey of the storylet design space. I wanted to point my blog readers towards it, as it covers a lot of interesting territory in the quality-based narrative/salience-based narrative area (and in fact references my post on structures beyond branching narrative). Those of you interested in ways of structuring IF with more procedural complexity than a branching narrative may find it interesting.

The paper offers an overview of major storylet-based tools and works from both indie and academic experiments new and old, including StoryAssembler, StoryNexus, The King of Chicago, Reigns, and Ice-bound Compendium. It does not discuss Varytale, but then Varytale has been unavailable to play with for some years now, so there may not have been an accessible version for Kreminiski to look at since beginning their research.

Kreminski identifies four dimensions for looking at storylet-based systems: how preconditions for storylets are defined; whether individual storylets can ever be repeated; what sort of content is contained within a storylet (linear text? replacement grammars? branching content?); and finally, the “content selection architecture”, or how storylets are chosen as eligible for display.

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Kreminski also built a storylet system and a small prototype game of their own, a piece called Starfreighter. (It’s available on itch, if you want to look at it yourself.) The scenario is a fairly standard space-trading story, in which you accumulate crew and cargo and travel through a procedurally generated graph of solar systems. There are several cool presentational aspects here, including the way that you can select place names in your storylet and get extra information and see the location highlighted on the map. The actual content is not very deeply developed — there’s enough here that you can travel from port to port, do some trading, and have your hull damaged repeatedly by space debris, but it doesn’t dramatically develop very much more than that.

The structurally interesting bit about Starfreighter as a storylet system is that it looks not just for specific qualities (like Fallen London‘s “if your Connected: the Duchess is greater than 10”) but for resources that fit particular qualities, and subsequently binds those identified resources to the storylet for purposes of producing the narration. So for instance you might have a storylet “sell [cargo] on [planet]”, which would become available if you had any cargo (say, a crate of exotic matter) and were on any planet (say, Uinox), so that the storylet text would then be realized as “sell crate of exotic matter on Uinox.”

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Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

Characters.jpgWrite Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget is actually the first in Stant Litore’s writing series, though I looked at the one on worldbuilding first. It is even slimmer — about a hundred pages in a relatively small-format paperback — and makes for a fast read.

Though very different in form, shape, and style, it reminded me a bit of Lajos Egri’s approach. Litore asks us first about our character’s core strength, a characteristic that will enable them to face down some difficult situation and overcome it. Everything else — both their problems and the solutions to those problems — flow from that strength; just as in Egri’s view of drama, every situation and characterization has to flow from demonstrating the narrative premise.

As in Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget, Litore provides a series of linked exercises for the reader, focused on brainstorming outward from these issues. After the initial task of looking at core strengths, he goes on to build up the reader’s skill in observation. There are exercises on noticing and recording physical sensations associated with emotion, and on developing dialogue style. Ultimately, Litore covers some of the same territory you might see in a more checklist-like approach to building a character bible, but the way he develops the priorities is important. It starts with the things that are likely to matter the most in creating a compelling story, and then allows the details to hang from those.

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End of December Link Assortment

January 5 was mentioned in the previous roundup as the next SF/Bay IF meetup but that event has been canceled.

January 16 will be the next Boston IF meetup.

January 19 is the next London IF meetup, and will consist of two talks (one from me) on conversation-based gameplay. If you’re curious about some of the design considerations coming out of my work at Spirit AI, I’ll be talking about that here; and we’ll also be hearing from Florencia Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games about their conversation-focused designs.

January 26 the Baltimore / DC IF group will meet to discuss Ian Michael Waddell’s Animalia.

February 2 is the date for the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

February 8-9 there will be a two-day conference Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games.  I will be chairing Friday’s event; for more information about the conference, please click here.

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IF of 2018

A few of my favorite games from this past year:

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 12.03.06 PMReigns: Her Majesty was a terrific commercial release from Nerial and written by Leigh Alexander. A sequel to the previous Reigns, it used its design to comment on the history of gender and power. It is also extremely funny, with some wonderfully zingy individual sentences.

Also stylish and gorgeous to look at — and entertainingly on the border between graphic adventure and text-based narrative — was Ben Wander’s noir-lite A Case of Distrust.

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Katherine Morayati’s Human Errors made fantastic use of a customer service-style interface to talk about how technology and corporate life divides us from each other. Brief, sharp, and inventive in how it uses its interactive interface.

Bogeyman by Elizabeth Smyth is a sort-of-horror story about an abusive caretaker relationship that I found consistently uncomfortable — as it was intended to be. Work in this genre often leans into being disgusting or creepy in a way that lacks human depth, but this piece made the personal relationships central to its horror, and that made it exceptionally effective.

Dead Man’s Fiesta (Ed Sibley) is a story about the process of grieving, and about the ways we try to manage our feelings, though they may not really be susceptible to management. That’s a topic that IF has taken on before, in various ways, but Ed’s take worked better for me than most: it has sparks of humor and surprising observation about the other characters in the story, rather than being simply maudlin retrospective, and I found it effective.

Illuminismo Iniziato (Mike Coyne) won Spring Thing 2018 with a classic comic fantasy text adventure.

And if you like the flavor of that, you may also enjoy Mike Spivey’s Junior Arithmancer, a set of math puzzles embedded in text adventure form with fantasy spellcasting. It’s a less-narrative sibling to Spivey’s A Beauty Cold and Austere from last year.

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Alias ‘The Magpie’ is an entertaining heist puzzle game set in an environment that parodies Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, with a hint of Pink Panther; and features some very charming feelies as well. Constructing a farce that will play smoothly in a parser puzzle game is no easy feat. I played this with a group, which is always a different experience from playing solo, but we glided through the puzzles pretty smoothly and were confronted with one absurd twist after another. Two notes: the setting and plot include a comedy depiction of mental illness — a sympathetic one, and so ludicrous that it would be hard to take seriously, but still something to be conscious of. And the game also depicts but doesn’t really inspect an aristocratic experience of colonizing a bunch of countries in the name of the British Empire.

As a bonus, here were two games that I really loved from 2017, but didn’t play and review until 2018: Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy) and A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey). The former is a funny, moving, yet non-twee young adult story about growing up and learning enough of your truth to tell it to other people, executed in Twine with terrific illustrations. The latter is a text adventure full of puzzles exploring the nature of mathematics.

Mid-December Link Assortment

The Oxford/London IF Meetup does not meet in December, due to everyone being busy this time of year.

January 5 is the next event from the SF Bay IF Meetup:

SF Bay Area Interactive Fiction Group

San Francisco, CA
328 Members

You are playing an unusual form of interactive entertainment. A COMPUTER is here, displaying mostly text. In accordance with tradition, the text is written in the SECOND PERSO…

Check out this Meetup Group →


February 8-9 there will be a two-day conference Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games. The conference is being organized by The Centre for Research in Digital Storymaking at London South Bank University and cohosted by the Oxford and London IF Meetup.

The first day, Friday, February 8, will take place at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A is also currently running the exhibition Videogames: Design/Play until February 24.  I will be chairing Friday’s event and giving the introduction, and the evening will feature a keynote game by Porpentine, and the exhibition.

Saturday, February 9‘s event will shift to London South Bank University, featuring panels on gender, identity, indies and industry.  Hannah Wood will give the keynote and a drinks reception will follow.  For more information about the conference, please click here.


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