Tips from interactive fiction authors – bonus round!
When I asked my Interactive Fiction authors questions a few weeks ago, I included some extra ones that were slightly off-topic. While not necessarily tips for the new IF author, they should certainly be of interest to those involved in IF and who want to know more about it or about the authors in question. Once again I was fortunate that they were so generous with their time, as I got back some answers even for those extra questions! I include them all here in a kind of bonus round to finish off my IF series.
More tips for the new IF author
How much information do you generally give the reader at the start of the story, and how do you decide how much is appropriate?Emily: The introduction needs to be pretty short, because people tend to want to start playing; they don’t want to read pages of text before beginning. So I try to give the most condensed version I can that will tell the player where his character is and what his goal is. In IF, even more than in conventional fiction, you have to communicate the goal immediately, because the player has to have something to work towards. That goal might change over the course of the piece as things happen in the story, but there has to be something clear to start from.
Then I work a lot of the other background information into the opening scene, so the player will pick up more about his character and setting as he plays.Stephen:One of my narrative kinks is having the player start with little information and asking them to piece the story together as it goes. I’ve over-used that trope, in fact, though I can’t say I’ll never use it again.Jacqueline: It depends on the experience I want them to have and how long the game will ultimately be. If it’s something short and I need to give the player a bit of background, I’ll do that. But it’s better for the player to experience things as they go, learn as they go, much like we prefer doing in the real world. It’s more natural, and feels more realistic.
There are so many items, rooms, and interactions that an author could put in the story and so many descriptions that could go with them. Where do you draw the line?Emily: My rule of thumb is: no rooms that don’t have at least two or three interesting things in them; no items that do nothing; no interactions that are irrelevant to gameplay.
To break that out a little: it’s tempting at first to make a big sprawly map with lots of rooms, but that becomes overwhelming for players. So it’s a good idea to condense the map and combine rooms that might serve related purposes. Get rid of your hallways, staircases, porches, antechambers, vestibules, and so on, unless there’s something actually interesting that’s going to happen there.
Items are worth implementing if they do something interesting (a key, a letter you can show to another character), if they give important information about the world (a painting of your character’s ancestors), if they set atmosphere (a dying flower in a vase), or if they give the player hints about how to interact (an instruction sheet, say). If the object doesn’t accomplish any of those functions, I tend to leave it out.
This is an aesthetic choice — some people are much more rigorous about modelling every detail that would be present in real life, down to the towel rods in the bathroom and the handles on the doors. To my mind, those features are distracting to the player, though: he might expect them to do something, and if they don’t, they’re just annoying.
And “no interactions that are irrelevant to gameplay” means something similar: I don’t implement a detailed weather system or a microwave that you can really cook things in if those don’t matter at all to the story and aren’t part of getting to the ending or solving any puzzles. Otherwise, the player will just wind up tinkering endlessly with something that looks important (why did the author lovingly implement this if it doesn’t matter?).
So overall, I’d say that I look at this as a process a bit like dressing a set for a play. It’s better to be a little bit impressionistic but provide the player with a few memorable, interesting props that are fun to interact with.Stephen: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. famously said that every sentence should do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action. I’m not that extreme, but your items, rooms and interactions should have a definite reason for being there. Don’t feel like you have to implement everything, because you can’t. Instead, implement what matters.Jacqueline: Heh. Well, I don’t, which is part of why people both love and hate having me as a tester, and why I don’t have more large-scale works out there (though that will change in the future). My personal belief, which I did fairly well in The Fire Tower, is that you shouldn’t have a noun in a description that doesn’t itself have its own description. This is what garnered me a Xyzzy for Best Setting. Player should be able to explore, and explore freely, and in fact have to work a bit to find something unimplemented. Unimplemented things are jarring, avoid them. Repetitive descriptions for three things in the same room is jarring, avoid doing that. If you don’t want to go to that fine a level, then don’t write yourself nouns you’re not willing to code. Instead of writing, “The leaves of the plant have an intricate system of veins, and there are several small discolorations where insects have had their way,” you should instead write, “The leaves of the plant have been gnawed on by insects.” This latter approach isn’t as pretty, but it also doesn’t force you to then code a description for the “intricate system of veins” or those “small discolorations.”
Broader IF questions
What first attracted you to Interactive Fiction?Emily: I played Infocom and some Scott Adams games in the 1980s, and enjoyed them hugely. Then I thought they had gone forever, until a friend of mine in college told me about the amateur IF scene.Jacqueline: I started on a diet of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and then Zork I, II, and III. It’s how I learned to type, it’s how I learned the word phosphorescent, it’s how I got out into the wilderness when I lived in a city and was too small to venture out alone.
Out of your own stories, do you have a favourite, and why (or why not)?Emily: Not really. I usually get to a stage of passionately hating whatever I’m working on shortly before I finish it, and then it takes me a little while to forgive it for being such a pain to complete. Likewise, my favorite of the moment is whatever project I’m working on that I’m still feeling enthusiastic about.Jacqueline: Well, The Fire Tower is the best of what I’ve publicly written to date, though it’s really showing its age in many respects and responding to your interview has helped me realize that! But I have other favorites that are more personal. I enjoyed the challenge of using only one noun to write Things, or the challenge of having a few objects combine in different ways to represent multiple objects in Within a Wreath of Dewdrops, both of which I wrote with my husband, Sam Kabo Ashwell. I still think The Invisible Argonaut is hilarious, even if you can play it in ten minutes and it’s unwinnable and thus frustrates the hell out of people because they expect there to be something more. I guess we all have our public favorites and our private favorites.
What piece of IF have you read that you feel best demonstrates the form’s unique potential (as opposed to traditional fiction)?Emily: I couldn’t really point to just one, because the form has potential of quite a few different kinds. There’s a whole chunk of my website about this ( http://emshort.wordpress.com/how-to-play/reading-if/ ).Jacqueline: Blue Lacuna, hands down.