Interactive Fiction: Writing an IF

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A vague idea of the overall structure of a game is needed to get started, but this structure may of course change over the course of the game being written.

It may be helpful to create a simple stop-gap for sections that you are a little scetchy about, to help you get on with the parts of the game that you have worked out. Caution should be excercised, so that you do not get too far ahead of yourself, however.

It is better to put a great idea aside for another project, than to have to 'shoe-horn' it into a game that it doesn't really fit into. Likewise do not be afraid to rethink sections that you cannot satisfactorily execute.

Maps, puzzle charts, scoring systems and the like are usefull for checking your work, but are unlikely to be able to help the creative processes.

Maps can be useful for checking that locations relate in a realistic (for the game environment) manner.

A puzzle graph (kind of like a flow chart of puzzles) is a good way to understand the ways that the player can progress through the game. They also help visualise the balance between optional puzzles and multiple solution, and liniarity.

Scoring systems are generally best to be left alone until the game is nearly completed, this avoids you having to worry about any changes that you make affecting them. It may be useful to use the same flags for both scoring and for hints if your game has an in-built hint featre. In this way you can avoid having to update both a hints flag and a scoring flag

No matter how well you think you know the games layout, a paper map is alway a good idea.

Virtually all I-F designers (and players too, for that matter) seem to prefer drawing their maps in the style made famous by Infocom -- that is, using boxes for each room, with lines connecting rooms in the appropriate directions.

Don't restrict the player too much, there is much more illusion of freedom if there's more than one thing that the player can have a go at. Also it means that they can be doing something other than getting frustrated if they can't work out one of the puzzles.

Make your adventure realistic. This doesn't necessarily mean it has to be realistic by the standards of our universe, but certainly by those of the universe it's set in.

Be descriptive, this is interactive fiction, not interactive bland. Don't forget to describe any senses that are important to that scene, not just sight.

Don't overwhelm the player with too much text, limit yourself. Also whilst a good description is needed the first time they enter a scene, unless something has changed, a one or two line description is good for second visits.

When creating locations, it might be a good idea to include objects for the sorts of hings that you're likely to find there, even if they're not mentioned in the description. It is perfectly reasonable to expect some players to try examining barstools, or wallpaper, or any one of a multitude of possibilities.

Be fair to the player, life might not be, but this is entertainment. Being unfair or cruel will not endear you to the player (unless they like that sort of thing...).

In situations where the player could render the game impossible, you should provide some strong hints. If they can use up that item they need later, either allow them to get another, or at least give some indication that it might not be the best idea.

Don't overwhelm the player. Choices allow freedom, but with too much freedom the game will become unstructured and the player won't know what to do next. This doesn't mean you have to sacrifice some of the freedom of action, if you don't want to, just give hints as to what should come next.

Don't assume that the player will want to wait until the very end to get reward. Give their character powers, items, bonuses or even just praise, when they do something significant.

Don't ever base whether the player dies, or cannot complete the game on a random chance. It is acceptable if the the puzzle has a solution that always works, and another that oviously a poor solution (random). An example would be a leap that looks too far to make, with a small chance the player will make it, but they have a 'potion of leaps and bounds' in their backpack.

Don't be afraid to kill players if they do something stupid, partcularly if there is an undo function. Sometimes it can be fun to see how many different ways you can kill off your character, particularly if the descriptions are well written. A message along the lines of 'I'm not letting you do that because it would be fatal' is just dull.

Introductions, whilst optional can be good for setting the scene in situations that the player might nt be familiar with. Endings should make the player feel that it was worth it.

A good ending is one that ties up the loose ends, whilst still leaving room for a sequel (if you are planning on one). It should give the player a definate sense of accomplishment.

If the player is likely to want information on something in the background of the game setting, then make sure they have access to it.

Hidden secrets (or 'Easter eggs') can be a good way of adding so longevity to a game. If the player knows that there's things that they didn't do, they are much more likely to play the game again. Multiple endings can also be good for this.

Don't kill the player without warning, or at least a hint

Don't kill the player or make the adventure impossible without warning. It's also probably not a good idea for the player to be allowed to continue after an adventure has been rendered impossible. A better option would be an alternative ending.

There should be freedom of action, a player should not feel 'rail-roaded' into a set course of action. Without at least some freedom, the fiction is not very interactive.

Don't punish the player for luck. A random chance of something that affects the course of an adventure is fine, but a random chance of killing the player or rendering the adventure impossible is unfair unless the player does something stupid.

Do not include too many red-herrings. Either explain them later, or at least in the sequel. A lot of unsolvable puzzles and unusable objects will just frustrate the player.

If something is impossible for the player, there should at least be a reason.

The player should have a vauge sense of where they are in the adventure, and that it is progressing. Ideally they should know whether they are in the begining, middle or end of the story.


If an item is not needed later, don't be afraid to take it off of the player once it's served it's purpose.

Give the players some idea as to what items they might need, that are not obvious. The average player will take, inventory allowing, everything they can find. This somewhat affects suspension of disbelief, unless of course the character played is a kleptomaniac.

For each object try to think, 'what kind of interactions can I attempt with this object?' It may be helpful for you to have a list of verbs by their side and to consider each verb against each object.


Nowadays a parser should really be capable of taking and dropping multiple objects, if not other multiple actions.

If reasonable synonyms do not work, the player will get frustrated. The same applies to simmilar verbs; if 'unlock box' will not allow you to get into a locked box, then it will be rather frustrating to find out that 'open box' will.

A good game can easily be spoilt by a poor parser, spend time ensring that your game has as good a parser as is appropriate. If creating your own parser get yourself a good thesarus, players should not be forced to play 'guess the verb'.

Ideally the parser should be able to understand both US and UK English, and not rely on the use of slang or colloquialisms.


Once a puzzle is solved, the player should be able to understand the solution.

Don't rely on he player doing unlikely thing for not reason. Their brain might not work that way. If you need them to do something unusual or convoluted, at least give them a hint.

Don't require that the player do things for the sake of doing it, this can get very boring. Examples include puzles that go on for long after the player has obviously got it, or making the player trapse over countless locations they've already been to, so that they can get an object needed back were they started.

It should be able to complete the adventure without knowing what happens next. This includes any knowledge gained from any point from which it is impossible to get to the point the player is now at.

Don't focus all of your attention on the puzzles, develop the story as the player progresses, possibly even during the puzzles.

Don't create puzzles that have to be solved within a sertain time frame (or number of moves) without giving the player warning and ample time, unless the puzzle doesn't have to be completed. A better solution would be for them to think it requires completing within the time frame and messages every turn about how the time seems to be running out, but to not have the time run out until the message the player gets when the puzzle is completed.

If a puzzle doesn't fit in with your adventure, then including it will shatter all suspension of disbelief, and ruin the atmosphere. It may be a great puzzle, but you can always save it for something else.

Try to increase the average difficult of the puzzles as the game progresses. It's fine to throw the odd difficult puzzle in at the beginning, or easy one near the end, but no-one wants to be totally stuck thirty seconds after starting the game, or find that the final puzzle at the climax of the final scene is the easiest one in the game.

Tailor the puzzle difficulty to your target audience. If you want to let the player tailor it, you could always create the game so that it branches (possibly converging for important plot points, then diverging again) with one easy path and one difficult path. All you then have to do is give the player some sort of object that they need to get to the easy path, and voila! So long as the player knows that's what it's for, they can keep it or discard it depending on the desired challenge. You could even ask at the beginning of the game what difficult they want, to determine if they get this item.

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