Ask Ryan

Sorry for replying three times in a row, and risking outstaying my welcome here! Part of my mind is at an online work conference, so I didn’t gather my thoughts properly before replying the first two times. I’m not sure whether I have gathered them yet. But there could definitely be a table of contents page, linking back to your posts in this topic. Maybe that would be a happy medium.


Well, this is joyous news! Thank you.

1 Like

As a penance for pooh-poohing the original idea, I’ve made a start on this for you here:

A forensic analysis reveals at least one unanswered question!

I have to confess that I haven’t played any of your games yet, which partly explains the lack of detail in the summaries. Anybody can edit the wiki to make improvements or additions.


Thank you for setting up all this. I appreciate how your summaries include the answers where appropriate, which should save people a lot of scrolling.


How do you maintain your mental health while remaining productive?


I don’t know if my mental health is perfect, so I might not be qualified to answer. But I won’t pass up an opportunity to talk about myself.

I’m blessed with a comfortable life and supportive friends and family.

I used to pay attention to politics and current events, but I noticed that was making my life worse, so I stopped.

open for questionably applicable internet usage strategies

I try hard to make social media “serve me,” if that makes sense. I only use it in ways that bring me useful or pleasant content. If I politely followed all my friends, I’d get a bunch of feeds full of my friends complaining about things and their retweets of other people complaining about things. So I only follow people whom I can trust not to perpetrate negativity. Mostly artists. And I don’t use a service if it insists on showing me content that I didn’t ask to be shown!

I don’t think of web forums or stuff like Reddit as “social media” per se, but I pursue basically the same policies. I don’t get involved in arguments; I try not to read arguments, or even material on topics that I would want to get in an argument about (because then I just get in an argument in my head and my blood pressure goes up regardless). I don’t look at stuff that’s just going to make me feel worse. And I ignore a lot of other stuff, not because it’s bad, but because it doesn’t interest me!

I use this comment blocking extension for Chrome.

[end of digression]

I work on things that make me happy. Any creative work has the potential to become frustrating, but I try not to pursue projects that are going to make me miserable. Actually, I think this point might yield some concrete bits of advice:

  1. I try to recognize ideas that excite me, and not let them get away from me. When some notion strikes me as particularly fun (or funny), I write it down, and I focus on it, and I try to nurture it into something I can make. My work makes me happy when it arises out of that excitement.
  2. Contrarily, I find that work that comes from other impulses does not make me happy. When I’m feeling unproductive and depressed, and I feel like making something will make me feel better, I end up working on something that I soon (or eventually) realize is lousy. And it’s not surprising, because the work was born out of desperation rather than inspiration.
    2a. I haven’t found it to be helpful or healthy to work on something for the sake of working with someone else. When the initial motivation is “we should make something together!” it’s easy to rush into pursuing an idea that you later discover you don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for. It’s better to say “we should make something together, when the right project comes along!”

I cited this earlier as “the first habit of highly effective people.” I just checked, and apparently it’s the second habit of highly effective people. I don’t care: If you’re asking me, then this is the first eight or ten habits of highly effective people: “Begin with the end in mind.” Plan everything as much as you can before you start working.

If I’m writing a game, and I get to a part where I don’t know what I need to write, that is called “writer’s block,” and it sucks. It causes the creative process to become sucky. But I can minimize how often this happens if I have a detailed plan before I start writing. If the design is in place, the implementation happens smoothly.

(Sometimes, when I’m designing a game, I get to a part where I don’t know what I need to design. We can call this “designer’s block” and I don’t know what to do about it.)

A strong design also lets me know how much work a project will take, and how far along I am, and that’s incredibly important for my personal morale. For my larger games, I like to make a big poster (I call it “the big board”) to hang over my desk with a map of the game on it. I X out or color in each room as I implement it. It’s so satisfying, and I know exactly how much I’ve done, and what’s left, and what I should do next!

Okay, fine, here’s the big board for A Rope of Chalk:

About visualizations and diagrams (I feel like I explained this in another answer...):

The big board is usually the fourth or fifth visualization of a game I draw up, after sketching it in my notebook several times. Some people disapprove of meticulous planning, and they’ll tell you to stop drawing your little diagrams and just start writing. I think this philosophy derives from the traditions of linear media (and even there I question its efficacy) but in game development it is just dumb. Games have multiple levels of internal logic that all need to work out, and the angles that aren’t worked out before you start writing will torture you mercilessly as you attempt to work them out while you’re trying to write.

I guess I’m not exactly addressing the mental health angle. Let me clarify:

  • The design process itself is, or should be, a source of joy, so we should prolong it for as long as we can derive joy from it.
  • Detailed design preserves us from miseries in the production process, such as that of writer’s block, and that of having to rewrite a bunch of code to support a system that we didn’t realize we needed until we were almost done with the game.
  • Detailed design also provides the production process with context that assists in maintaining motivation, especially when the context is visualized as fun diagrams or maps.

I’ve heard some artists talk about how finishing a project feels very good, but doing the actual work is painful. I guess it’s fortunate that I’ve picked media to work in for which doing the work can be very fun. And I’ve developed methods for making the work more fun.

Thank you for your question. I’m sorry if my answer was mostly rehashing older answers.


I’ve added this Q and A to the wiki page at Ask Ryan - IFWiki, summing it up as “I work on things that make me happy. Detailed design preserves us from miseries such as writer’s block and assists in maintaining motivation.” I will probably re-read your answer and want to summarise it differently next time. Anybody can edit it though.


7 posts were split to a new topic: The mental perils of social media/news

You can read it again if you want, but I think you’d have more fun reading something else.


Not sure if I’m breaking some sort of unspoken question quota here; let me know if I am.

It’s been a few years since your last IFComp submission (A Rope of Chalk) and your last EctoComp submissions (Castle Balderstone). Your last few games have been released outside of Comps altogether. Is this coincidental or does this represent an intentional shift away from releasing new material through IF competitions? Either way, have you noticed a difference in community engagement compared to Comp releases? (And, yes, I know that’s two questions, but they’re pretty intertwined.)


I don’t think there are any limitations on how many questions people can ask me. I HOPE not.

Very few of my games have been released through competitions. Right? Just the Balderstones, Taco Fiction, Verdeterre, Robin & Orchid, and Chalk. And The Horrible Pyramid! That’s nine games, but out of like forty. And Taco Fiction/Verdeterre/R&O/Pyramid were all in 2013 or before.

I was planning to enter another Castle Balderstone in EctoComp 2022, and I wrote most of really cool story called “Like a Sky Full of Locusts,” but I had a very busy summer and the project didn’t materialize. Hopefully I’ll manage to finish it for EctoComp 2023.

The reason I enter Balderstones in EctoComp is that it’s my Halloween tradition. I just want to do something Halloweeny, because I love Halloween! But if you look at it more practically, it’s a bad idea: Barely anyone looks at EctoComp, and the huge effort I’ve put into the last couple of Balderstone games (especially Even Some More, whoosh) is completely out of proportion to the amount of attention they got.

But most of the time I’m not very interested in entering competitions. My inspiration and motivation don’t really interlock with the competition schedule. A lot of my projects are (or I can construe them as) inappropriate for competitions, because they’re too small or too big or too high-concept. And entering a competition is supposed to get a lot of people to see your game, but the attention those people can spare for your entry is inversely proportional to the number of entries in the competition. A Rope of Chalk took me years to put together. It’s extremely clever and deep and good. The reader who carves out some time to play it in a leisurely, mindful manner will get a lot out of it. All the people who saw it during the competition saw it as an entry on a list of a hundred games they were supposed to give fair shakes to.

I don’t have a useful way of quantifying the community engagement I get from competition releases versus noncompetition releases. When people contact me to say they like my work, or they subscribe to my Patreon, it always seems to happen out of the blue. I guess it would be possible to analyze what little data I have, but I feel disinclined to do this. I believe it would be discouraging.

I guess in general I don’t find competitions very motivating, and I tend not to enter them unless I have some reason that appeals to my particular desires—and I further guess that the increased visibility a competition affords usually doesn’t qualify. I would like to add that I don’t have a strong grasp on the competition environment and so I don’t think anything I’ve said here should be interpreted as advice on how other people should handle their own projects.

Anyway, I hope you and everybody else will eagerly look forward to my IFComp 2023 entry, The Little Match Girl 4: Crown of Pearls.


Thank you for your question.


Thank you for this and prior prompt responses. Much appreciated.


I thought it was a faithful retelling of an historical event. An honest recording of the past doesn’t require cleverness does it? Just kidding… (or am I?).


I’ve noticed that the effort that goes into a game and even its overall quality doesn’t directly relate to its popularity or amount of comments on it. I’ve been replaying all the games on IFDB with 100 ratings or more for fun, and tons of the “big ones” (in terms of literal size) aren’t on there: Muldoon Legacy, Finding Martin, Cragne Manor, Worldsmith, 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery, Worlds Apart. And complex games like Endless Nameless aren’t on there either. Something Adam Cadre said reminds me of what you said:

I was recently startled to discover that I’d been given a shout-out on the blog of the London School of Economics by a researcher who’d studied the IF world. In the absence of a commercial market, he argued, IF writers produce work pretty much exclusively in order to create “cultural value.” This may be as good a descriptor as any for why writing Endless, Nameless now strikes me as probably a waste of time. Back in the day I might work for weeks or months on an IF piece, and maybe it would get a hundred downloads — but fifty of the people who downloaded it would post about it. And those fifty people had all gotten to know each other a little bit, if only through the newsgroups, and so those posts tended to lead to actual conversations about the work — and therein lay its cultural value. I could look at those conversations and feel like I had accomplished something. Endless, Nameless may have garnered exponentially more downloads immediately upon its release… but if only four of the people who downloaded it actually say anything about it, and if those posts don’t end up inspiring much discussion, that doesn’t give me a whole lot of motivation to do another one.

So at some point it feels to me like putting more and more energy and work into a game just gets released into the void. I think the individual players often enjoy it more, but I don’t think making a game 40x longer makes it get discussed 40x more even 4x more; and often it gets discussed even less.

Emily Short said this too:

Should I write parser IF? To which my answer would be almost always no. Let me inflect that a little, though.

If you want to write a game that you have a reasonable prospect to sell for money, you should not write parser IF. There is a commercial IF scene that makes money, but essentially none of it is parser-based.

If you want to write something quickly and easily, you should not write parser IF.

If you want to create something that will have a large built-in audience, you should not write parser IF. Likewise if you’re hoping to get a lot of feedback on your work. This is an area I’m sad about. When I came up, in the late 90’s/early 2000s, the parser IF critical community was still very active, and a game submitted to IF Comp could look forward to dozens of responses from people very experienced in the form. Now admittedly those responses could be extremely curt or harsh if a game was perceived as not-up-to-snuff, and the definition of IF was a lot narrower than now. But an ambitious and experimental game could get a lot of really thoughtful engagement, too. That is less true now.

If you want your parents to play what you build, you should not write parser IF. (My mom plays parser IF. She introduced me to it. But lots of people find it challenging to get into, even when created by loved ones.)

If you want something to put on your portfolio that will look snappy to potential employers, or that they will even know how to play, again, do not go to parser IF.

If you’re curious about natural language processing, parser IF is still not for you. What you can learn from parser interactive fiction is how to wield tools from the 1970s for a very particular craft purpose. That’s fine. I like old things. But what you learn here doesn’t always completely translate to the modern version of that domain. (It’s not totally useless either, as I’ve found — but if this is your goal, there are more direct ways to go.)

You should write parser IF only if you have goals outside those categories. Perhaps you are nostalgic for Infocom; perhaps you think parser is just so cool; perhaps you have a game concept that really fits parser and there’s just no better place to do it. Possibly you are tickled by a medium where you can spend half your time writing responses to commands like LICK PARROT. Maybe there’s something you aspire to learn about game design that you think parser IF could teach you.

Sorry for adding so much to an ‘ask ryan’ thread, especially since you already know this stuff, I just thought it might provide context for others.

Here’s my question for you: what was the main driving concept behind ‘little match girl’? Was it, ‘the juxtaposition of a sweet orphan girl and her gun-wielding death job’ or ‘visiting different dimensions through fire’ or something else that got you hooked on the idea?


Well, @johnnywz00 's Readthrough mode is the antidote to this one. It could at least allow parents or what I’ll prejudicially describe as “incompetent friends” to see what you’ve done.



I only knew the “little match girl” as a pathetic image, no narrative attached, before I saw this video in December 2019:むにむに別館 I swear there were English subtitles on it at the time, and they described the story in such bizarre terms that I felt compelled to check out the original and find out how much had been lost in pop-up Lego translation.

When I saw exactly how bizarre the story really was, I felt compelled to write the first Little Match Girl game (and rush to finish it so I could send it to my Patreon people on New Year’s Eve). My whole idea was that in the original story, the little girl dies, that’s the point, but in this version she’s not going to die, and what happens to her instead is the main joke of the game.

“The Little Match Girl 2” is an inherently funny title for the same reason; she rightly ought not to be available for a sequel. And it seemed like it would be nice to give my Patreon people another exclusive game when New Year’s Eve rolled around again. It was intuitive to suppose that this second game would take place exactly one year later.

This reminded me of something either Jackson Publick or Doc Hammer said about The Venture Bros. (a series that has become a big influence on the Little Match Girl saga): We only see tiny half-hour snippets of these characters’ lives. We don’t witness even a tenth of all their adventures. If the little match girl realized this incredible time-travel power on December 31st, 1845, then by the same day in 1846, she would have seen and done A LOT OF INTERESTING STUFF. And I had been thinking about her through all of 2020, so she had developed quasi-realistically in my mind as well.

By the time I finished the second game, I had really become enamored of the character; her situation and her worldview reminded me of characters I admired from long-running epic stories that I wanted to emulate. And I had established a tradition of making Patreon exclusive games for New Year’s Eve. So I was basically obligated to make the Little Match Girl into a long-running epic story.

Nowadays I’m so jazzed about the series that I’m motivated to work on it even outside of a New Year’s Eve Tradition schedule, so that isn’t really part of the equation. What I’m most excited about is the opportunity to build these games into a story on the scale of Venture Bros. or Sandman or Adventure Time, something that will reward the invested player with some percentage of the joy I derive from putting it all together.

Thank you for your question. It’s so important to supplement depressing general advice with something that appeals to my ego.


Alright, mini-question: What significance does the screenname Afterward have?


No special significance. It’s just rad! Who else has a screen name that’s an adverb? Nobody.

Thank you for your question.


With IF Comp coming up, do you have any advice on reading and processing reviews of your work?

Thanks for your incredible work (and for creating games for me to point at as prior art, so that my own project doesn’t sound so insane… Or at least has good company)


#1: Know Your Goals

If you’re planning to pay attention to feedback, you need to start out with an understanding of what your work is trying to accomplish. Then, when reviews come in, you can evaluate that feedback according to whether the reviewer is evaluating the thing on the level or levels you give a care about.

As far as I’m concerned,

  • The extent to which an audience enjoys a work of art measures the success of the work as entertainment.
  • The extent to which an audience understands the message of a work of art measures the success of the work as communication.
  • The extent to which an audience is convinced to believe the message of a work of art measures the success of the work as propaganda.
  • The extent to which a work of art expresses whatever-the-artist-wanted-to-express measures the success of the work as art.

I really think this mission to do a thing with your ideas is the sole obligation of the artist-qua-artist, and you will notice that success in this mission doesn’t require any audience’s sign-off or even the existence of an audience. In that sense, all reviews are stupid and pointless. And if you approach them with this mindset, they can be a lot easier to deal with emotionally. Not everybody will understand what you’re doing (especially if you’re doing something interesting), and that’s fine; you can write off the people who don’t get it and get useful feedback from the people who do.

#2. Ryan Whines

In the American public school system as I experienced it, there was a lot of direction given on the correct way to evaluate fellow students’ work, and I get the impression that some people learned that giving feedback is about finding X nice things to say, Y critical things to say, making sure you say W but not Z, and putting it all in the right order to get an A on your Feedback Evaluation. I think this checklist-type approach tends to obfuscate or disregard the reviewer’s authentic reactions and opinions, and so I tend not to trust reviews that look like they were written from a received rubric. There’s also a limit to how seriously I can take reviews composed in a competition environment where people feel obligated to write feedback for dozens of games over a period of six weeks.

Even with all these coping mechanisms in my toolbox, I can get very anxious about reviews. I think it would be ideal, if you experience this type of anxiety, to have a trusted friend read a review first so that they can tell you whether you should read it. This method requires that you have access to a friend who understands you very intimately, though. Someone who’s a good enough friend to know and deal with exactly how emotionally vulnerable you are at any given moment, but not such a good friend that they tell you “Ryan, you don’t need me to vet your reviews for you, you’re an adult.” A tough needle to thread.

Thank you for your question.