When I first started trying to write interactive fiction, it didn’t go down so well. I had all these neat and nice plot arcs figured out, I had detailed character arcs with really cathartic progressions… and I put it down and tried to make it into a game and it sucked.
It sucked hard.
It wasn’t until I’d been talked through a few times by my very patient boss, hit my head against the brick wall of my studio a few times, and read a lot of books, before I realised that when shifting from writing more linear fiction to introducing interactivity, you had to let go.
Let it gooooooo, let it gooooo.
Elsa knows what’s going on.
With interactive fiction and games writing, you can’t have a One True Path if you want the focus to be on giving loads of player choice. You can’t have the strictly authored experience that literature or film have, where the composition of each frame is artfully arranged for maximum emotional affect. You have some control over it, sure. But when your job is to have many different ways to experience a story, you have to let go of control a little bit. You have to move away from having a favourite storyline and try and make them all as good as each other.
The kicker for me was learning how to modulate scenes into encounters that could be approached from any angle, and in almost any order. Now this doesn’t mean that you lose complete control, but it does mean that hitting certain character progression beats becomes harder, and major plot points that you want the player to experience regardless of their previous travels need to be bottlenecked and carefully constructed.
We’re lucky now that we’re not bound by the paper format of interactive fiction anymore. With interactive fiction engines like Inform and TADS (or engines that rely on less code and are more GUI based like Twine and ADRIFT), we can include variables, inventories, and code to track player movements in a way that can be completely hidden from the player. For example, In The Old Days, we had to go about this in a more wooden way. “There’s an old man here. Have you met the old man before? Turn to page 300 for yes, 470 for no,” in order to make sure a non-player character didn’t introduce themselves to you more than once. Now, we can get the engine to check that the old man has been met, and ask later passages to parse for that variable to display different copy accordingly. This is but one of the tiniest examples of what we can do now with interactive fiction that we were once unable to do.
To really check out the muscle of what we’re capable of now, I highly recommend checking out the work of local developers Tin Man Games. Their proprietary game engine is like if there was a giant mech godzilla version of Twine, ready to destroy Twine City. Twine on steroids. My point is, it’s powerful! I’ve seen it from the inside when I edited Temple of the Spider God and it really is a thing of beauty. It fills me with hope for what we’re capable of in the future of interactive storytelling and games writing.
So if you’re scared to jump in the plunge pool of trying interactive writing for the first time, it’s understandable. It’s gonna be cold in there for a bit until you figure out how to make it work. But once you realise how to let it go, you’ll realise that the cold never bothered you anyway.