Ideas for Interactive Fiction

Recently there has been a bit of an argument raging on several blogs about how much a game idea stands alone, how much it’s worth without any implementation, apropos of Squidi’s 300 game mechanics page.

I’m not going to dive into this debate, mostly because the point I’d want to make has already been made eloquently and repeatedly by other people: that the process of implementation includes a certain amount of further design work, raises questions that aren’t covered by the original specification, and so on. It tends to warp an idea in other, subtler ways, too. (A great book on this, not about game design but about art, is Baxandall’s Patterns of Intention. It’s a compelling description of how external and internal forces shape creative production, which I read in college and still go around recommending whenever I have the slightest excuse.)

On the other hand, not every game idea is viable even in its basic form: it’s either not a description of anything that could be elaborated (because it’s about incidental features of the game), or it leads inevitably to terrible implementation problems. So Squidi has genuinely accomplished something by serving up an assortment of ideas at least some of which are really pretty decent starting places.

I occasionally look through the search terms that have led people to this site, to see whether I’m providing what people are hoping to find, and one of the things semi-frequently mentioned is “ideas for interactive fiction” or “if premises” or the like. I wonder what these people are looking for — maybe, in fact, something like Squidi’s list, only IF-specific instead of directed to other kinds of (primarily video) games.

I have this conversation quite a lot with friends who find out that I write games. “Hey,” they say, “I had a great idea, you should write it. Wouldn’t it be cool to have an interactive version of the Agamemnon?” (Okay, I hang out with a lot of classicists.) Or: “How about a game about astronomy?”, or “How about a game set in 1925? I love the 20s!”

This stuff is not so useful as the starting point of a new game. It’s not that meaningful for a game to be “about” something unless you can also say how it’s about that thing.

What Squidi offers on his site is not that kind of idea. It’s a list of ideas of mechanics, which is to say, an assortment of answers to the question, “What does the player do in this game?” That’s a much more useful kind of idea to have. (I’ve already talked about this some, apropos of Chris Crawford’s discussion of it, but it is so fundamental that it bears repeating.)

I’m not sure how useful or possible it would be to produce a similar list for interactive fiction, but here are my thoughts.

The vast majority of IF is built on one of a handful of core mechanics that have already been laid out, and which can more or less be recognized by the verb set they rely on most:

  • The player wanders around exploring a map of rooms. His progress into new rooms, etc., is blocked by a need to solve mechanical problems, primarily depending on a standard set of verbs such as GO, TAKE, DROP, PUSH, PULL, OPEN, CLOSE, LOCK, UNLOCK, and occasionally (when interacting with machines) SWITCH, SET, DIAL, and so on. There are subsets:
    • Objects have more defined physical properties, so the player can meaningfully do more with CUT, BURN, POUR, SMASH, FREEZE, etc., in order to manipulate his environment, either by destroying things or by altering their states usefully.
    • The player interacts primarily through magic; most often this means that there is a set of spells that can be cast, but it may also mean reliance on magical tools or machines, a magical grammar allowing the player to design his own spells, or an alternative system of magical (or advanced SF) function. Key verbs might be spell names such as GNUSTO, or commands to activate magic devices.
    • Same as above, only with special SF gadgets or real-life machinery: spy tools, tractor beams, et al.
    • The player wanders around, etc., except that he interacts primarily through unusual capabilities, perhaps superheroic, which may entail special verbs (FLY, etc.) or make certain standard verbs more likely to succeed (ATTACK more often successfully destroying things, e.g.).
  • The player wanders around a surreal environment, manipulating items in part through wordplay; verbs might be quite idiosyncratic, with commands based on proverbs, puns, or alliteration.
  • The player has a straightforward(ish) task to do, but must manage resources (either physical objects or number of turns) in order to get it accomplished without running out of chances. This is usually about working out an optimum order in which to do activities.
  • The player exists within a pretty constrained plot. There are occasionally tasks at hand, but these aren’t especially consistent in nature: what the player does in a given scene depends very much on the scene and very little on an interaction style for the whole game. If there’s any choice at all involved, it usually produces branching similar to a Choose Your Own Adventure.
  • The player primarily engages in combat with one or more other characters, relying principally on weapon and armor combinations and/or special commands to do with ATTACK.
  • The player primarily converses with one or more other characters, relying principally on ASK, TELL, ANSWER, TALK TO, or other verbs about conversation, or by picking conversation choices from a menu.
  • The player primarily has sex with with one or more other characters. A combination of physical interaction verbs with body parts, usually, in the few I’ve looked at. Sometimes manipulation of clothing also figures into it all.
  • The player primarily tries to find out the truth about some topic. Verbs tend to heavily emphasize research or exploration: SEARCH, EXAMINE, LOOK UP, CONSULT, READ, ASK ABOUT, etc. While conversation might be important, the conversation in a research game is likely to be quite different from conversation in a conversational game, since the objective is to collect data more than to get characters into a particular mood or conversational state. The game might end with the player having to make some sort of decision based on the discoveries so far, but it might also simply conclude with the player has seen enough.
    • A subset of this might be contemplative games that are almost entirely about the protagonist coming to a conclusion (rather than finding something out).
    • An even rarer example is IF intended as a contemplative device for the actual player rather than for the protagonist: Tarot Reading, say. This verges on being neither a game nor interactive narrative, but something else entirely.
  • The player primarily explores and enjoys a setting through one or more senses, without making significant changes to the world. May include a lot of SMELL, LISTEN, etc. Landscape entries in the IF Art Show are particularly frequent examples.
  • Some system (such as machinery) or group of other characters run around doing their own thing, while the player either watches or intervenes occasionally. May involve lots of WAIT, LOOK, etc., with occasional bursts of interference.
    • A variant: The player sets up an environment, then watches while characters interact with it. See Lock and Key.
    • Another variant: the player moves around watching characters, but since different scenes happen in different places simultaneously, the player gets to choose which characters and thus narrative arcs he finds most interesting.
  • The player has relatively little control over narrative events, but is primarily involved in determining the pace of the presentation of text, or in providing a randomizing factor; possibly arranging the story into an aesthetic form he prefers. Not an idea heavily explored in IF, but there are Crystal Ball and the very different Space Under the Window, and my experiment fugue was inspired by the non-parser-based interactive fiction of The Reprover.

Obviously, there are games that combine these mechanics, and there are also a few weird outliers that don’t really belong to any of those categories but also don’t really define a new genre. (Textfire Golf comes to mind.) It also doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to do anything creative with one of these core mechanics, especially if the approach is “come up with a new magic system for the player to use” or something along those lines: there’s a lot of room for mechanical creativity there, in defining how the magic system works and what kinds of puzzles and solutions it gives rise to.

Some of these mechanics aren’t nearly played out, either. There’s a lot more to be done with a conversation/linear combination, in which the protagonist works his way through a series of scenes of talking to other characters. For one thing, that describes the substance of much literature fairly closely; for another, it allows for some subtle branching and decision-making in the form of picking between several conversation directions.

The interfere-in-an-active-kinetic-system genre has also got relatively few entries, but I am less sanguine about its ability to produce interesting interactive narrative, for reasons I’ve already been over quite a few times. But I could be wrong, and of course there are also other goals than interactive narrative that are worth pursuing: I do think this kind of game needs particular attention to the tuning, but that it can produce some pretty entertaining puzzle scenarios, especially of the very focused one-room-game sort.

Combat? I stick with my contention that I haven’t seen that done really well yet in IF, despite the randomized fights that sometimes occur in assorted games. Maybe someone will accomplish that, though: I know some people are working on it.

And then there’s the adult IF stuff, which (at least as far as I’ve seen) explores only a pretty narrow, self-gratification-oriented range of what could be done with sex in IF. If it were used more as another band of communication with NPCs, some quite different and interesting stories might arise, so it’s a little unfortunate that the “mainstream” and “Adult IF” communities have separated quite as drastically as they have done.

That little survey also suggests that one profitable avenue for brainstorming about new IF mechanics would be to think about verbs that could be used or are already used, and expand on those ideas. There are a few standard IF actions that haven’t really been made the center of any games. Off the top of my head, and with no guarantees that they’re of good quality or even tasteful:

  • BUY has been a standard part of the Inform vocabulary for years, but it’s used systematically in relatively few works. It’s not hard to imagine, though, an IF genre about trading or negotiation, corresponding to some of the existing video games already out there.
  • SMILE, FROWN, WAVE, GIGGLE, LAUGH…? Gestures as substitutes for the conversation in a conversation game, where (perhaps due to a language barrier) the protagonist can communicate only by demonstrating emotions.
  • THINK ABOUT. A more explicitly contemplative game even than some of the ones listed above, where mostly what the player does is guide the protagonist’s memories and ideas. I’m not crazy about this one: it seems like it would be prey to many of the same flaws that literary hypertext sometimes displays (static, hard to understand the player’s agency, nonlinear in a confusing rather than a cool way), without hypertext’s ease of use. So possibly a lose-lose situation, but we’re brainstorming here.
  • Social meta-actions: SEDUCE, BLACKMAIL, INSULT, et al. People suggest this periodically, but I’ve yet to see (or write) a good game using these ideas. I don’t know what everyone else’s reason is; mine is that I haven’t thought of a sufficiently good and effective model to produce interesting results to these actions. But I continue to chew on it from time to time.
  • PRAY: you mostly communicate (one-way?) with the deity/ies of your choice. I suspect this has the potential to be either a) tasteless parody or b) leaden religious propaganda, without a lot of middle ground, but who knows. I once heard a rumor that someone was writing an IF implementation of some of C. S. Lewis’ work.
  • JUMP, SWIM, other non-standard modes of movement: maybe something where the primary challenge is in traversing a physically complex environment. One challenge would be to figure out how to present this interestingly in text. There are plenty of platformers out there in the video-game world, so how would an IF version be better?
  • ADVANCE, REWIND. The player’s control is, again, not control over the narrative, but control over what part of the narrative he’s seeing at the moment or how it’s presented to him; this might mean moving backward and forward in time, following different characters, interleaving or separating scenes, etc.

Of course, the other half of this is to brainstorm via nouns: what are the things in this game? We’ve seen games about physical objects, doors, vehicles, and rooms; we’ve seen games about topics of conversation; and we’ve seen games about words. But perhaps

  • Units of time: the player manipulates a setting or a scene by setting it forward or backward. (Sort of the same idea as ADVANCE, REWIND above, but with more emphasis on exploration of setting and less on exploration of event.)
  • Universal laws or entities. Could lead to a bizarre sort of simulationism: what happens if we “deactivate” a given law that applies to everything in the game-world? This might give rise to different styles of magic/science game than we’ve previously seen; could even be educational.
  • Emotions. The protagonist is an empath and can read the feelings of others. Or the protagonist is an empath and can control the feelings of others. (Creepier.)
  • Scenes. The player moves events around, causing them to happen in different orders. This might be for purely aesthetic effect (how do I like this story told best?) or it might lead to changing outcomes — characters reacting to scene 2 differently based on what scene 1 was. Would probably feel a bit meta and distancing, because the protagonist would not be directly inhabiting the world, but might be interesting anyway.
  • Ingredients (for cooking, or for medicine, or for a magic potion). The player has an assortment of resources, but some of them interact undesirably, others are expensive or limited in supply, etc.; solve for a recipe that produces the desired results without incurring any negative side effects. It’s kind of a resource-management game, but only kind of. (Embarrassing confession: this idea came to me because I’m a fan of Snape, and Snape’s potion-making lessons always seem to be about how certain ingredients will cause your cauldron to explode, others will combine to make you grow dog hair, etc. I don’t get the sense that JKR has in mind a consistent set of underlying rules here, but if we worked one out, this seems like it would be a fun basis for a game or at least a puzzle.)

Or we might think about kinds of activity that people do in life that aren’t currently covered. We’ve already covered travel, low-level physical interaction, conversation, violence, sex, contemplation, research, use of machinery for specialized tasks; that might leave such areas as

  • Performance. Lots and lots of video games are about this, in one way or another — everything from performance on a guitar to performance at shooting someone — and while I like Guitar Hero a lot more than I like Doom, it seems like IF does very little with it at all. That’s partly because lots of forms of performance are about timing and physical coordination of some kind. But not all, or not exclusively! The Act of Misdirection has a great scene about performing a magic act, and while it’s not scored in these terms (as I recall), it is definitely possible to do a better or worse job of the act, depending on how you draw the audience’s attention, whether you let things hang for too long, etc. A performance game/puzzle in IF seems like it might wind up being primarily about the player’s interaction with a large group audience. How do you build and contravene expectations? If the sequence of actions/gestures is important, how do you arrange required elements into something successful?
  • Time management — well, the casual games market has this one pretty well covered, I think, and I’m not sure whether IF would be anything but a worse interface for a tired concept, but it’s conceivable. Again, the concept would have to change a little bit in order to become turn-based, and it would probably get a little repetitive, and once you’ve taken care of those two problems, are you just left with a timed puzzle of a pretty ordinary variety? I suppose there’s also When Help Collides, which has a section where you can schedule a geisha’s time for the day. Unfortunately, I could never understand this puzzle well enough to solve it, but that doesn’t mean the concept is inherently bad.
  • Human management, using the resources of individual people together to accomplish things. I’ve only seen one (non-IF) game that does this, but it does it wonderfully.
  • Logistical planning: choosing goods and services and arranging timings in order to accomplish some complex goal, like a vacation for 20 people, a trip around Paris for a month, a fancy dinner. It’s a little like resource-management in the small scale except that it would presumably involve a wider range of options. Also, I find this kind of task fun, but some people regard it as work. Also also, I am not sure how good a text interface would be at conveying all the options.
  • Aesthetic judgement I’ve already speculated about a bit elsewhere.

Anyway, I don’t imagine I’ve covered nearly all the possibilities, but those are a few, and maybe they also give people some sense of how one might go about thinking up new mechanics.

Which all may not at all be what people are looking for when they want “ideas for interactive fiction”, but it’s the most useful approach I can think of at the moment.

If the problem is more about coming up with a setting, characterization, plot, premise, etc., then that’s a subject for a whole other post. But conventional writing guides already offer quite a lot of brainstorming guidance for that kind of thing. And hey, there’s always the IF Name Generator.

10 thoughts on “Ideas for Interactive Fiction

  1. Fabulous post, Emily.

    A few days ago, I was hit with an idea for a game that would fall into the “SMILE, FROWN, WAVE, GIGGLE, LAUGH” category. (Luckily, I managed to crush my desire to start coding it. One project at a time is more than enough.) Abstracting from the setting and the mood to the mechanics, the ideas was that: (1) the protagonist does something (opens a wallet, reads a letter, tries to pour a drink) and gets a result from the game (finds a credit card, finds out that someone is in love with her, finds out that the bottle is empty); (2) the character reacts to this by laughing (joy; success), smiling (amusement; tenderness; love), frowning (being troubled; in doubt; annoyed) or cursing (displeasure; failure); (3) based on these reactions, the game decides what the goals of the protagonist are (you laugh after finding the credit card? your goal must be to rob the guy whose apartment this is); (4) the game world, the scoring system and the possible endings depend on what the game believes your goals to be, thus reinforcing them.

    It would be a challenge to code, and I’m not sure its worth the effort, but it’s one way that expression might influence the world.

    It is also possible to start by thinking about characterisation, plot, premise, and so on, and to build game mechanics that actively promote those elements. For instance, in the RPG Dogs in the Vineyard, there is an intricate way of resolving conflicts which involves lots of dice. The cool thing about this system is that if you are losing a conflict, you can escalate it–which generally means starting a fight, and if you wish for the biggest bonuses, a fight with guns. Pulling your gun may thus allow you to win a conflict you are losing–but it also dramatically increases the chance that the other side of the conflict will get hurt and perhaps even killed.

    So what the system is asking you, when you are losing a conflict, is this: are you willing to kill for this? Is that how important it is to you? That is also the main theme of the game, and it is the mechanics that are largely responsible for bringing it up again and again.

    Given that I want my game to ask the following question, what game mechanics can I build that turn playing the game into answering the question?–that’s the question an RPG-designer should be asking. But I must admit that I am far from sure how that kind of thing might be done in Interactive Fiction.

    (Oh, and the combat is coming along nicely. ;) )

  2. “I’m not sure how useful or possible it would be to produce a similar list for interactive fiction”

    It would be no more or less difficult than producing a list about any videogame genre. Gameplay mechanics are essentially closed systems of interaction. Several of the ideas on my website could be interactive fiction (in fact, one of them – Infinite Detective, in which a crime of opportunity is systematically generated and the player has the ability to ask NPCs about what they saw and did at specific time periods – was actually an IF idea in the first place).

    This was a very interesting read and a particularly noteworthy list, but it did sort of all boil down to how one interacts with the world. Making interesting gameplay mechanics is less about how one interacts and is more about why one interacts. For example, you could create gameplay in a text adventure in which the only verb were “EXAMINE”. Perhaps something where you are examining a crime scene and must deduce the killer, or a game where examining one object changes the description of another, or even just a game where you are tasked with finding four objects in a room filled with junk based on vague descriptions given by examining nearby objects (the sword is near a fuzzy imitation of a north american forest animal named after a boisterous US president).

    On the whole, though, I don’t think IF needs gimmicks quite as much as other genres. Physical gameplay is something that has to change between games if that’s all there is. You can’t have two Mario games that play exactly the same or it gets old. But IF is based on writing. You get an interpretive version of the world from an author that far eclipses the metaphors other genres employ (when they bother). So the best IF ideas are going to be the ones that, generally speaking, have the best writing.

    Anyway, just wanted to pop by and say that I enjoyed your article. I’m not a big IF player myself, but I do appreciate insight into the genre.

  3. On the whole, though, I don’t think IF needs gimmicks quite as much as other genres… IF is based on writing. You get an interpretive version of the world from an author that far eclipses the metaphors other genres employ (when they bother). So the best IF ideas are going to be the ones that, generally speaking, have the best writing.

    I agree. But (as I get to at the end) I assume people looking for IF suggestions are looking for something a little different than they could get from a book, premise collection, or workshop about writing static fiction. If that’s not true, there are already buckets of resources out there…

    Anyway, thanks for dropping by. :)

  4. I’ve been playing around a bit with nonstandard modes of movement; they’re fun to mess around with, but I found that it’s actually quite difficult to make the player continue to care about them. There definitely isn’t the same kind of feeling one gets in, say, a platformer after learning a new maneuver; the fact that new maneuvers are essentially funny-looking keys for funny-looking locks is much more obvious in text.

  5. I’ve always enjoyed reading the IF theory here and I must say that this is a very interesting list.

    One mechanic that I haven’t noticed mentioned yet is that of ‘dynamic’ or changeable map geography. An example of some of the possibilities can be found in the I7 manual in the “All Roads Lead to Mars” sample. The idea there was that the player would experience new rooms in the order the author intends while giving the player the ability to roam in any direction they wanted.

    Though it might be a bit gimmicky (especially if not handled right), I see some potential there for combining it with continuous need or timed based puzzles to create a sort of new puzzle involving the idea of “strategic exploration” as part of the solution. Whether such a puzzle could be made intuitive is perhaps the bigger question, but it certainly could be done in some genres, particularly fantasy and science fiction.

  6. ElliotM, I think that example is based very closely on the Mars-sequence of Photopia. In that game, it is not used as a puzzle, though, so exploring those possibilities would be neat.

  7. “Social meta-actions: SEDUCE, BLACKMAIL, INSULT, et al. People suggest this periodically, but I’ve yet to see (or write) a good game using these ideas. I don’t know what everyone else’s reason is; mine is that I haven’t thought of a sufficiently good and effective model to produce interesting results to these actions. But I continue to chew on it from time to time. ”

    Knowledge is power. Applying knowledge in different ways has different results.

    My game is doing some of this. Players can learn rumors, and depending on who they tell (and how), can change affect the game, by changing their relationship with one or more NPCs, or by the relationships between different NPCs.

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