Interactive Fiction for the modern game designer

A look at how interactive fiction can assist the modern game developer

The beginning lines of Zork

Yeah, interactive fiction (IF) games haven’t been that popular as of late. For like the last 30 years I guess. Maybe even longer.

But what I want to do right now is argue why interactive fiction is actually very relevant for the modern game designer, and show why thinking about it during the design process may create more engaging stories.

What I’m going to lay out applies to all games, but I think it’s especially important for story focused games. And that means especially to indie games, which are the primary games that are earnestly engaging in story content at the moment.

Now obviously, they are doing it pretty successfully, but I think there is room for improvement. There are a lot of games that possibly have a great story, but there are far fewer that successfully tell that great story.

Interactive fiction, I think, may have a solution.

Why is IF important?

There has been a trend in game storytelling that I have just noticed begin to creep into the indie game scene. As the technology to build games is getting more sophisticated each year, it is becoming easier for small teams to create beautiful landscapes and high fidelity, engaging audio. And the temptation becomes to make as much of these niceities as we can, and to throw a lot of it at the player at once to marvel at. Larger budget projects have been doing this ever since technology got to the point where we could display 3D graphics and sound.

The result of this is that we begin to have a discrepancy between the input/output relationship in our games. Games that have a lot of niceities to throw at the player tend to give the player a lot of output for a relatively small amount of input. At the very far extreme of no input with much output, we have a movie, which seems to be the natural direction games start to take once the ability to create great looking landscapes gets into the hands of the creators.

But it’s poison for the telling of a game’s story. When playing a game, the player expects to be playing. And when you’re telling the story without the appropriate amount of input, players start to tune out. It’s why a lot of players skip cut scenes, which are only output with zero input.

Now there is a certain subclass of modern games which have a beautiful input/output parity, and that is the AAA shooter. Bulletstorm, for example, is an incredibly well executed game, and did not back down from keeping up input/output parity during complex scenes (such as the giant wheel chase!). The result was a very memorable game for me.

But if we are being honest, the core game loop of these sorts of games is a little more simple to get right than it is in slower paced adventure games. And a lot of modern indie titles are tending to be slower paced adventure games.

The difficulty with an adventure game is that there doesn’t exist a defined set of actions as there are with, for instance, shooters. And as a result I think developers are tending towards blandish adventure games, ones where we aren’t getting to play the most interesting parts of the story.

Of course, there are exceptions. Thomas Grip recently wrote about how Inside (a very great game) is a rare game because it actually allowed you to play the story. “Playing the story” is the ideal for a game interested in telling a story. “Playing the story” means the player is engaged. And it means that the game is doing something that other mediums cannot.

If your players are “playing the story”, it also means that there is near parity in your game’s input/output loop when it comes to delivering story content (we’ll cover why in a second). And while that isn’t all that is required to engage a player in the story, it’s a start.

So why did I start with talking about interactive fiction? It’s because IF has been having us play the most interesting parts of the story for years. They’ve done it so naturally for so long — and somehow a lot of graphical games just haven’t come close to creating the most interesting scenes I’ve played in IF.

See, interactive fiction is interesting because you cannot violate the input/output relationship of interactivity. An IF game necessarily waits for the player to give input before acting itself. And while some IF games purposely flout this (Aisle is an interesting example of a game that gives a lot of output compared to a very, very small amount of input), generally they don’t, and so they naturally lend themselves to having the player “play the story” more easily than graphical games.

An example in Andrew Plotkin’s “Shade”

There is a really great, short IF game called Shade by Andrew Plotkin, and you should go play it here:


Really, it takes like 10 minutes.

Alright, let’s talk about it.

How IF pulls you along

So while the entire game of Shade involves you playing the story, and is a great game, there is one particularly cool moment that I will choose to extrapolate on how its input/output relationship works.

Near the end of the game there is something skittering around the floor in your room, and you are engaged in looking around for it. You overturn objects, but it skirts just out of sight. You examine areas where it may be, and for tiny moments you see it before it skirts into darkness again.

Consider how this may play out in a graphical game. It’s a pretty complicated scene, and so most likely you would just have some sort of cut scene of your character looking around for it. In a lower budget game, possibly your character would say to your partner (provided only so that your character can say things out loud in instances like this) that there is something around her feet, and that “I think it went into my room”, signalling to you (the player) to walk to your room to get more story delivered.

But in Shade, you have to inspect the objects around your feet to try and find the thing. You are an autonomous agent, engaged in the story at hand, and so you must give the input to the game to look for the thing. In turn, the text you get for inspecting stuff gives you subtle hints at where it might have went next, and so you go through and inspect more places, and eventually you make the decision to start picking things off the ground so it doesn’t have anywhere more to hide.

There is parity to this design. We make the move to look in a particular location, and the game responds. We make the decision to pick the things off the ground, and the game responds. The game doesn’t gloss over this moment with a cut scene or some dialogue — we get to “play the story”.

The rub is that, because the most interesting parts of a story tend to be the most complex scenes, the parts of games that would have been the most interesting to play end up being brushed over. And it’s because it’s hard to do. It takes time to design a scene like this. It takes even longer the more complicated the scene is. And that’s why the temptation is there in graphical games to just put it in some dialogue, or in a cut scene, or whatever.

But for an engaging story, it’s worth doing.

(It is important to ask: why were we looking for it at all? It didn’t tell us to look for it. There were no quest markers. I’ll examine this in this article’s sequel, on puzzles.)

Note that it isn’t necessary to do this for every part of your story. That’s one of the powers we have as game designers. We can choose what parts of the game to gloss over with a cursory explanation of what’s happened from our protagonist, and keep the interesting parts at input/output parity. The problem is that the interesting parts tend to be the more complex parts, and so many games choose gloss over the more interesting scenes like searching for the skittering critter, and have us do the boring things, like walking from point A to B.

Applying IF to the games of today

Firstly: all games are IF at their heart.

Graphics and sound of modern games have done a lot to obfuscate that point, but I think it’s true. From Gears of War to Gone Home, I think all could have been accomplished IF games if they went for a less lucrative direction. By thinking of a game in terms of pure input/output of IF, I think a lot of clarity can be brought to how a modern game works.

Consider how your typical IF scene plays out: you enter a room, and the room intro text skillfully plants in your mind very particular aspects of the room. Perhaps it mentions an odd looking plant, and so you inspect the plant to figure out what is odd about it. And maybe when you inspect it, the whispers of a faint wind blow by your ear.

Well, this is precisely what modern games do! It’s just that in an audio visual game, when you enter a room, you would just see the odd looking plant, and naturally you would walk over so you can get a closer look at it, and maybe when you approached it an audio file of a faint whispering wind plays. Potentially, it is the same stuff as in an IF. The trick is to recognize that and to start thinking about your rooms as a series of inputs and outputs.

To design moment in a game where the player plays the story, you must strive for input/output parity. That is the ideal. Too much input without enough output is boring and a wasted opportunity, and too much output without enough input is boring and not an engaging way to deliver the story.

Look at your script and consider the most interesting parts, and make sure that we are getting to play it. Don’t gloss over them. Think about how it may play out in an interactive fiction. Think about every step the player takes as input, and provide him some output. Don’t just hide more story behind a lock and key puzzle. Let us really play it. It’s worth the hard work.

This post was republished from my Medium article here.

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