Addressing the Human Condition in interactive fiction?

Is there any good writing on authoring text games that resonate with players, make them think, ask “important questions”, and generally treat the human condition? Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Recommendations for games that tackle “heavy” or “deep” subject matter effectively? How is it that one can make a text adventure approach literature?

EDIT: I don’t really consider myself a programmer or an author. I haven’t had much education in either field. Just throwing a question out there to see what people have to say.


I don’t know of articles/post/the like about the subject, but I have two games that game to mind when I read those questions:
Computerfriend by @slugzuki broke me, same with The Archivist and the Revolution by @cchennnn (actually most if not all their games would apply)


Hmm, that one’s really tough. I know resources on how to write IF efficiently or in a pleasing way, and resources on overall plot design for an engaging story or how to handle branching dialogue.

But I haven’t seen much of anything when it comes to a guide to writing meaningful or emotionally impactful IF. I’m looking for more and will let you know if I find any.

Edit: Okay, so here goes. In thinking of meaningful interactive fiction, one of my first thoughts was Hana Feels, a game about self harm. I found a blog post by the author about the design process and how to approach it tactfully:


During my long series on A Mind Forever Voyaging at Gold Machine, I argued for reimagining IF as a medium that invites or creates empathy. You might think that sounds crazy, but remember that Will Crowther’s actual goal in writing Adventure was sharing an experience with his children. Empathy and shared experience has been in IF’s DNA from the very beginning. It doesn’t cover everything we call IF. Some works might fall out, but what else is new?

The essay is only a modest beginning. Much more work is needed. Maybe someday.

My goal in writing RTE was to share subjective experiences and create empathic connections. I mean this in multiple ways: between characters, between players and D (the main character), and, in some way, toward and for the mentally ill and/or traumatized.


Well, such advice could be pretty yucky. It might say ‘Choose sufficiently worthy subject matter.’ I think we simultaneously acknowledge the value of authors making certain heavy subject matter The Text, which is what the publishing canon calls Literature, but those books have no guarantee of being better or worse than books that aren’t explicitly about those topics. We can’t forget the value of the effort so we can’t get over this, which is probably why genre is never looked at as favourably.

Also, there’s truthfulness, and good artistry. You need both to affect people, which is what I think makes things meaningful regardless of subject matter or genre. And there can’t be any craft guides to these. Is this just talent to start with, multiplied by work and experience and taste? If you’re truthful and a good artist, and you make explicitly heavy subject matter your subject matter, you’ll probably have the conspicuous effect of being experienced as meaningful with a high strike rate. I don’t say this facetiously.

But you can address the human condition in a zillion ways, and you don’t have to do it head on in the subject matter, or even in a real world. That’s where I start questioning the assumptions of the question (I don’t mean in a heavy way :slight_smile: )

Like Drew, I’m most interested in the empathy/characterisation/perception webs of the IF narrator as my basic meaning engine.



Non-sequitur. I watched the original Hellraiser again this week, then two and four (I started with three a few weeks ago after reading a novel that reminded me of it). And it’s had me thinking all week. Maybe it acknowledges that if the only aim of desire is more desire, and this maddens you and you seek an endpoint – and try to get it by summoning these pleasure demons – it depicts the endpoint as so extraordinarily terrible, that that’s why there can be no endpoint for desire in reality. So, in topics about meaningfulness, nobody will suggest Hellraiser as a starting point. But it’s the most meaningful and questiony thing I saw this week.



Nice! I posted and then went out to see some bands play, and when I got home there were some great links to articles and games to check out. Thanks for the feedback everyone. Please, keep it coming. I think this is a topic worth discussing, even if I didn’t articulate the question as well as possible.


Sounds interesting! I’ll have to check it out. Embarrassing confession: I never got around to finishing Depression Quest. I think there was just too much hype and anti-hype around it, my brain couldn’t be fair to it. I need to rectify that.


Added those to my library. Thanks for the recommendations!


Great set of articles! That moment in AMFV when you realize your son has left to join a cult is so sad in such a low-key way. I suspect you could even potentially miss it if you aren’t checking in at home on the regular. But it’s like… what do you do? He’s an adult, and he’s found a religion that speaks to him. You’re not going to change his mind. He’s not even around to talk to.


I personally love the first Hellraiser (and The Hellbound Heart, upon which it is based). Compare it to the 80s slashers it gets lumped in with, and (beyond being visually striking), well, it’s actually ABOUT something! I don’t remember the sequels so well.


Maybe i’m viewing this too naïvely, but i don’t see what needs to be “adjusted” per se to write something more meaningful. IF as a medium, if anything, simplifies education or approach; Immediate action can have both immediate and eventual consequences.

Then again, player driven interaction implies engagement. It’s rather pointless to try and broach a sensitive subject if the player’s intent is to simply finish a game, which is where in my humble opinion is the critical selection point of the author. What is your intent? Do you want to entertain, to educate or simply tell a story? It’s much easier to end up doing all three by side effect after focusing on one aspect, rather than intentionally trying to mould your work into a shape that fits everything.

Those that resonate with your writing are those that are on the same frequency with it.

N.B I’m not an author and i’ve barely cobbled together a game for the springthing, my views are entirely subjective.


I found this interesting topic from a person asking about writing about the human condition from the perspective of someone who has trouble relating to people. It forced a lot more thoughtful answers and might be worth your attention.

How Do You Write About the Human Condition When You Don’t Understand Humanity?

I’ve shared these articles before, but I’ll re-share one specific to the fellow’s struggle with understanding literature. His advice of having something to say is exactly the starting point of writing about the human condition, I feel. It’s not the perfect essay to your question, but it describes the process of his struggle with the task well enough.

Writing Well Part 3: Origins of a Writer

I remember helping my son with his English classes in high school (and yes, he passed despite my involvement). Having something to say was my first advice and second was to learn how to write a theme and ensure that your story supports it throughout. Subtle, yet deliberate should win a reader over. My third advice was show, don’t tell. Let what the reader has witnessed in your story sink in on it’s own merit. Don’t try to explain things through your writing. A message can’t be forced, it needs to be felt to be understood and fully appreciated.

How to Develop a Theme for Your Story

I remember when the video game industry was up in arms when Roger Ebert declared that video games were not art because they lacked authorial control. Well… you’re never going to find another genre of gaming as close to the authorial control required to meet Ebert’s definition of art so I think you’re on the right path. :wink:


I’m going to take this at an angle. Two angles.

Recto: The natural genres of IF are science fiction and fantasy. I’m not sure if we say that out loud a lot, but the vast majority of IF games are SF/F[*], and it’s not just because Crowther put “MAGIC WORD XYZZY” in the first one and everybody copied him. (Although they did. YOHO!) I don’t have a complete argument for this; something about fantasies of power and strangeness being suited for the interactive format. Or maybe just that the home-computer boom of the early 80s was almost exactly in sync with the explosion of fantasy as a published genre.

Verso: Of all genres[**], science fiction and fantasy are most prone to being dismissed as escapism that says nothing about the “human condition”. People that dismiss SF/F this way are wrong, obviously. Just as Roger Ebert was wrong. But by asking the question, you may be predisposing yourself to that point of view. After all, you asked about “literature”, and one thing people mean when they say literature is not science fiction or fantasy. (Or horror, or mystery, or romance.) [***] I don’t think you meant it that way – “stories that tackle heavy subjects” is an entirely orthogonal definition, and I’ve got a couple thousand SF/F books on the shelf to prove it. But the question, like “can games be art?”, recalls a long history of bad arguments.

[* Some people would say that the natural genre of IF is porn. I will leave it to those people to talk about that, since I’ve played very little AIF.]

[** Everybody agrees that porn says something about the human condition.]

[*** Or porn, but only because when your porn is literary you’re allowed to call it “erotica”.]


I certainly didn’t mean to disqualify genre fiction or video games as art or start some argument of that nature. I’m personally in love with a lot of media which tends to get discounted as juvenile or degenerate (rock music, comic books, anime, etc.) and have found powerful works and experiences in all sorts of “disreputable” idioms.

I’m currently beta-testing a sci-fi game while brainstorming ideas for a potential fantasy game, and my favorite text adventures tend to fall in the horror camp.

I think what I’m interested in is how to use the text and mechanics of interactive fiction effectively towards the end of making better games, not exclusively in terms of fun-factor (though, being engaging to the player should probably be part of the goal of an interactive work), but also in terms of asking interesting questions and putting the player through powerful experiences.

Drew’s concept of the text adventure as a sort of empathy machine is fascinating; I will have to think of ways I can use it more effectively as such.


I do think Ebert was misguided in that regard, probably due to a lack of familiarity with the idiom. It is possible that what is artful about games is not the same as what is artful in non-interactive media, but it would probably take someone more knowledgeable than I to sort out the specifics. Again, I’m neither much of an author or programmer.

Your post has given me a lot of food for thought, and I’m going to have to take some time to read those links. Thanks for the feedback!


I don’t feel like I’m going to state anything new, but what you said here makes me think that…

…the root of interactive fiction is choice. That’s what really separates the genre from books, though you want to have the impact that traditional literature carries. When your choice feels like it matters, that’s when a choice becomes a vehicle for your intent. How do I make a choice feel like it matters? When both seem viable/appropriate in some manner. There should never be a seemly poor choice, nor an equally obvious proper choice. Now you have the reader’s attention. They are agonizing over the choice. Now they are engaged.

What happens after the choice is consequences. How do consequences carry weight? When the consequences affect other characters somehow and elicit emotional responses from the characters themselves. If the characters are developed properly by this time, then you’ll care about how they react. Empathy is the key, for sure. Relatable characters encourage empathy. The characters cannot be perfect. Their flaws are undesirable/unattractive, but understandable (maybe even forgivable as the story progresses).

Anyway, maybe this is an obvious road of thought, but I’m sharing it nonetheless. :wink:

And just so my post isn’t completely a waste of time, this is an interesting breakdown of IF plot design patterns. Choices can easily get out of hand so we have to work within some framework and limitations:

Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games


Is IF really about choices and consequences, though? One of the most famously “artistic” pieces of IF, Photopia, has basically no consequences to your choices. And yet it feels very different as a parser IF work than it would as, say, a short story.

…and on the flipside, that pathological example, a copy of Moby Dick where the only command is “turn page” to get to the next passage, doesn’t feel like IF at all. What makes Photopia feel like IF and Moby Dick not, when the impact of player choices is approximately the same?

In my opinion it’s about the illusion of choice, which creates a different sort of connection between the player and the character than exists in a static piece of fiction. This is the core of the article I’m working on for The Rosebush. The key to IF is enhancing that illusion through various tricks and sleights of hand, which the author may or may not be doing intentionally. (The authors of various editions of Colossal Cave probably weren’t thinking of it in these terms, but how much can you really impact the overall ending through your choices?)


Ebert walked back his argument against video games. He admitted one of his mistakes was an unfamiliarity with the medium, and thinking he could base his argument purely on theoretical grounds:

He doesn’t admit video games are art. It’s more a mea culpa in the sense of, “I’m not well-versed enough in video games to offer such a pronouncement”:

I concluded without a definition [of Art] that satisfied me. I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art. I don’t know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature. I don’t know if they can be inspired to transcend themselves. Perhaps they can. How can I say? I may be wrong. but if 'm not willing to play a video game to find that out, I should say so.


I note that Zarf’s angles should also be debated in the proper place :wink: I don’t disagree with Zarf, but I note that, if I’m not wrong, 1980s was roughly when the reading “speculative” instead of “science” surfaced, and this led to the core point: my current major IF is definitively “speculative”, and if a specific sub-genre can be put, is the classical Utopia (e.g. The City in the Sun of Campanella)
Not by chance I quoted Campanella, not that I agree on his theocracy, but on his narrative, the dialogical one (again, from the same timeframe, Galilei’s Two Chief World Systems) and I noted that a parser game is basically a dialogue between the player and the story. Hence the speculative fiction around bravely exploring an unknown world (notice that is the very same plot device of the original Utopia by Thomas More…) and an utopia by its very nature, invariably address the human condition…

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.