A critical IF vocabulary

New art media tend to start out being criticized in the terms of older art forms. Early film critics relied on the vocabulary of painting and photography and of literature and theatre. As the new medium developed, the language to describe its art forms in developed along. Gastronomy is criticised in other terms than music, and rightly so.
I think IF has developed to the point that it is a medium supporting various art forms, and that it can benefit from having a rich and accurate critical vocabulary. I hope this thread will spawn discussion that will help establish some useful terms.

The point came up in the XYZZY award discussions, where it was about categories for appraisal. Here is an extract; for the whole discussion see here.[rant=Discussion extract]

But in this thread I hope to collect a wider variety of notions. Counterpoint, chiaroscuro, symmetry would not normally categories of appraisal, but they are sery useful terms to describe certain works of art with. What typical IF-specific notions are there, and what would be good expressions and descriptions for them? What terms from other art media are misleading? The floor is open - don’t hesitate to offer vague notions, as in “Well, there is this quality that some IF has, but it is hard to describe. X has it, Y doesn’t, and it has to do with Z.” Someone else may understand what you mean, and together we may come to an accurate description and find a good name for it.
Likewise, don’t hesitate to bring up vocabulary already in use, whether to recommend it or to disagree with it. We might end up with a catalogue of useful notions.

I suggest that this one might be called the Hemingway award.

Robert Rothman

The quality of very naturally leading the player to be curious about particular interactive objects, without the player feeling hit over the head. (Some work by Ryan Veeder and J. Robinson Wheeler comes to mind; Zarf is also good at this.)

The quality of going beyond the world model, inviting the player to respond to something about the prose itself. (Interactive poetry, Ad Verbum, Earl Grey, Pale Blue Light, any game that asks a rhetorical question and then has a response if you answer it, etc.)

Ultra-distilled prose, brief but very punchy.

I don’t have special terms for these qualities.

Unless someone has fed me hummus. At that point, the overlap can be alarming.

The triangle of identities is something that IF is uniquely concerned with. (Though if Google Translate serves me right, Dr. Gijsbers suggests it’s more of a lop-sided quadrilateral.)


Via critters.org/turkeycity.html.

Eyeball Kick. I like it.

You mean as in the example given here?

There still is a whole bit of theory to be developed around dealing with the knowledge gaps. The above example would work great in linear fiction, but in IF, since the player steers Richard, how can be established that Richard is not going to act on the player’s knowledge?
Generally, between player and PC, one can:

  • Have no gap: amnesia, the apprentice approach (Suveh Nux), the Shade approach, …
  • Remove the gap: background story text, a ‘remember’ command, a look-up device, …
  • Use the negative gap in the game: learning on replay, Spider&Web approach, …
  • Use the positive gap in the game. (How? The above example show the problems.)
  • Ignore the gap (as many games do)

Thanks, all. Keep 'em coming!

Taking ‘content’ in the physical way, I came up with this - words like ‘length’, ‘breadth’, ‘width’ already having been taken, I went for some cognates.

The content of IF can be seen along three axes, one of which being depth, which basically has the same meaning it has in all narrative criticism. The other two together constitute coverage, which is the product of:

  • Longitude - the amount of development during a perusal of the work. One-turn IF has very little longitude, though Aisle has more than Rematch, as the various runs build up more content. Long works do not necessarily have more longitude: an endless search in a huge boring maze doesn’t add much in the sense of content.
  • Latitude - the amount of spread in development among different choices. Traditional literature or an extremely narrow piece of IF (IF on rails) has a latitude of 1, whereas interesting one-turn IF tends to have a greater latitude. Arguably, again Aisle has more latitude than Rematch, as there is more content to be found by taking various paths. Old CYOA has little latitude, because most choices either merge or lead to instant endings.

Longitude and latitude are like serial and parallel, of course. As for the adjectives, shallow and narrow are easy, but ‘long’ already being taken, I don’t know what to use for the longitude adjective.

These terms allow one to speak of ‘uneven depth’ - where the story is shallower in some places than in others, or more specifically ‘uneven lateral depth’ - some choices leading to shallower stories, but also of ‘uneven latitude’, e.g the funnelling phenomenon where at some points the wheel seems taken away from the reader, who suddenly no longer has the freedom enjoyed in earlier parts.

I agree that what you’ve termed ‘longitude’ and ‘latitude’ pick out important experiential aspects of interactive fiction, but I think the overly geographic nature of terms can be a bit misleading. I’ve used the notions in discussion with others before, and would say the depth of experience and the breadth of choice, respectively.

Oh, and broad lateral IF doesn’t have a single plot, but a whole family of them. I suppose one would then be a plotkin of the other, as in: “Have I found all the plotkins of this story, or are there still some surprises left?”, or: “Yes, but in another plotkin you do get to talk to the woman.”

Hmm. Personally I like the visual aspect: For coverage I visualise a 2D plot graph with these dimensions, and depth in the third - though ‘visualising’ is the wrong word for my spatial awareness of depth.

And on a more linguistic level, wouldn’t depth and depth of experience be easily confused? And what adjectives/adverbs would be used for those two dimensions? I’d like to have words that can accurately modify a sentence like: “There was a longitudinally interesting range of atmospheres”, which would of course give a very different playing experience than a latitudinally interesting range or the cacophony of an altitudinally interesting one.

I fully agree the terms are ugly in their ponderous latinateness, but I should like to have one-word terms that move easily to other grammatical categories. “Your WIP is interesting, but you have latititudinised it to the detriment of longitudinal evenness of depth” - words that could make sentences like that sound natural. (Of course, if the common words hadn’t been taken already one could simply have said “…but you have broadened it to the detriment of even depth over its length”, or a more native English variant of that.)

Another one: granularity. IF is typically discrete - in space, matter and time. Typical temporal granularity is < 1 min (look, take/drop, (un)lock, open/close, …). Spatial granularity may vary widely, but often corresponds with the temporal. Material granularity tends to be in the cm-m range: books, keys, … - larger objects often have parts (desks with drawers) or contain/support smaller ones.

Deviation from the typical values can thorougly change the reading experience - imagine positioning the bottle above the glass before pouring, or having to move each leg repeatedly for walking, or in the other direction, being able to say “Invent time machine, then build it”, or “lead army to victory” (or even “win game”).

Are there any works of IF that deviate from the typical values in interesting ways?

Granularity’s another interesting distinction between parsered IF and CYOA.


Don’t Pee Yourself and The Nemean Lion both play with granularity in different ways (and are super short).

Yeah those came to mind for hypergranularity. In general, games that make you do lots of little small fiddly actions can be annoying. Some people found this in the original implementation of making drinks in Calm:

So now make hot chocolate just works.

As for hypogranularity, as Conrad alludes you see this more in gamebooks. When playing games like Choice of Vampire, often you have to choose broad strategies of action like what you do over long stretches of time, or what your attitude is towards things that pass. It’d be interesting to see more of this sort of thing in parser fiction.

The Guardian is a nice example of spatial hypogranularity – you cross an endless plain in two turns. (This was something I liked about it.)

Granularity of time and space was one of the things that I riffed on in Heliopause. (A “room” can be several light-years. “Turns” could be measured in months or centuries – I left that indeterminate.)

Sounds like degranulation by learning might be useful in some cases: the first time it takes an effort, but after that the lump command will work. So once one has made chocolate successfully once, one can simply call that “make chocolate” and use that as (if it were) a macro. Once I have been to the bank, I can henceforth just say “go to bank”. Starting my car the first time may take a lot of fiddling (belts, clutch, key, hand brake, …), but after that it’s routine.
I think IF authoring systems ought to support this, rather than game implementors having to build it from scratch…

Would transcendent or self-aware do?

Almost certainly there already is a term for this, as it happens a lot in other media, such as cartoon strips where someone grabs his own text balloon and fills it with helium, or breaks through the top line of the picture box in order to grab something he dropped a few boxes earlier. And probably the name is something ugly with “meta” in it.

My mother used to be a nurse in a lunatic asylum, and before WWII a patient there had written a hilarious self-aware novel, that nowadays would be called Hofstadterish, I suppose - lots of playing with the levels. Supposing he didn’t invent the genre himself, I guess this means the genre was well established by then.