Authoring Tips

This is kind of similar to the IFComp tips, except it’s more particular to game development. I just wanted to throw out a couple things here, and see how well others may agree or disagree.

You have to be really careful with what you say to players, during the course of the game. It’s really easy to send them down the wrong path, without even realizing it’s possible. Part of this is in really thinking about how players might interpret what you’ve said. For example, if you have a table, and you describe it has having “four legs – the cheap kind that screw on and off”, then some players are going to try interacting with the legs – either by merely looking at them, or by trying to “remove” or “unscrew” them. If your intent was just to give a good description of the table, then you may be misleading players.

The rule of thumb I’ve started following (or, at least trying to follow) is to either (a) not mention the individual pieces of an object at all, and don’t phrase things in a way that implies an action, or (b) mention the pieces but also implement them, including whatever action I might have implied in the text. It may be something as simple as:

“You twist and turn one leg, then another, only to discover that that they’re too tightly attached.”

The trap here is that this may just firm up the player’s resolve to find a way to remove those darned legs. You could follow up with something like “Oh well. It wasn’t important anyway” or “Oh well. You don’t need to mess with the table, anyway.”

And that brings up another point. Be careful when saying “it’s not important.” I think it’s fine to say that sometimes, but some players are going to get frustrated if nothing in your game is important, or if they’ve made up their mind that a thing is somehow important and you tell them it’s not. It’s even worse if you say “that’s not important” in response to a particular action, when there actually is something important about it (maybe a different action).

And, be careful telling players “that’s not here” or “you don’t see that.” Usually, that’ll happen for nouns that just aren’t implemented as objects (or “extra_scenery”, as is the case in Hugo). For simplicity, say “you don’t need to refer to that” (or something) instead. Ideally, they player will be able to refer to it, but if not, at least don’t tell them it’s not here.

Also, be careful telling players “you can’t do that.” Players want to know why, because it might be something they could do, in that situation. As an example, if the default response for “hit” is “you can’t do that”, then they’re going to be told “you can’t do that” when trying to hit anything you haven’t trapped. This may be (like the “you don’t see that here” messages), a throw-back to the earlier days. What’s more likely – and probably more acceptible to players, it something like “venting your frustrations on that won’t help anything.” It’s the same result (nothing happens, nothing is done), but at the very least, it doesn’t tell the player that they “can’t” do something that they can. The “you can’t do that” is probably fine for totally impossible things – hitting the sky, eating a car, etc. Even there, you’d be better of coming up with a custom message, if you can.

If your IF language supports grammar extensions, pay close attention to them. Setting up the right grammar can be the difference between a robust, playable game, and one that’s a nightmare of guess-the-command. In the example about unscrewing the table legs – assuming perhaps that your game needs the player to do this, you might expect players to do it in a number of ways:

remove legs
remove legs from table
take off legs
take legs off
take legs off table
unscrew legs
twist legs
twist legs off
twist legs off table
twist off legs
twist off legs from table
pull legs off table
… and it just goes on and on.

You shouldn’t have to catch every single possibility, if you’ve grouped synonymous verbs together, and if your grammar definitions are correct for each one. It might seem like overkill, but it can make the difference between good game flow, and bogging the player down (even if for a little while) trying to figure out how to do an action. For simple things, it’s less important. Still important, yeah, but less important. But, when you’re requiring more complicated and non-traditional actions, you need more complicated handling.

Anyway, just some random thoughts. When (and if, at this rate), I finish my next game, it’ll probably be full of things that completely contradict my advice. It’s really hard to guess how everything you tell a player might be interpreted. I guess that’s where beta testing – and lots of it – can be really helpful!

This is the point that I’m getting to in my game…I hope I can get it right. I’m sure any beta testers I have will be able to run my game through the wringer so I can get any problems sorted out though.

Late in development, it can really become a chore. You might try to clarify something at one spot, only to accidentally open up false clueing to something else. Even in beta, one tester might get stuck on something, and you make changes to the text, only to introduce something that’s equally misleading.

Better, more experienced IF authors probably build a solid framework to minimize the chances of things going wrong. I remember how happy I was that there weren’t enough bug reports to necessitate a new version of Distress after the comp. I was worried that too much tinkering with the balance of things would bring the whole house of cards crumbling down!

I’ve been reading through a lot IF reviews (including yours, Merk - great stuff !), and I really like a phrase I came across about object descriptions - “salient features”. This includes:

(1) Overall impression - the obvious things about the object. It’s big, white, blocking the door, just like the one in the previous room, etc.

(2) Anything exceptional about the object (eg. a wine glass being out of place).

(3) Things that contribute to the atmosphere, backstory, etc. (eg. objects in a house that reveal something about the person who lives there).

(4) Things that are relevant to the PC - something they would notice because of their personality / background (eg. a thief might notice the roughness of a climbable wall), or because of their current goal / state of mind (eg. a broken twig when the PC is tracking someone).

(5) Things that the author specially wants the player to notice - clues that the object may be useful for a particular thing, merits closer investigation, etc.

Emily Short pointed out that one reason she doesn’t like big text dumps is because when she is playing IF, she is looking for the “relevant stuff” … too much text makes this a bit overwhelming and hard to continue doing for several hours in a row.

I guess the trick is to balance (5) with the other four so that the important features of an object are obvious, but not too obvious …


It’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in writing the text, and forgot that players will have to interact with what’s there. A game that comes to mind in last year’s IFComp is “Xen: The Contest”. There was so much story, but not enough implementation. My “Trading Punches” had these same sorts of problems.

It’s harder to think of an example where the game text was misleading – descriptive, but offering false clues and prompts. I may skim my reviews and see if something jogs my memory.

I find some things interesting when comparing interactive fiction to static fiction. I wonder how some of my favorite books would work as IF. Initially, this really awesome story idea seems ideal, but then I realize how difficult (or impossible) it would be to turn that into a game – an interactive game. Yet, IF can be enjoyable even if the story wouldn’t make passable static fiction. I guess the key is good writing.

Most of us aren’t great writers – given exceptions like Adam Cadre, whose book(s) I’ve never read, but just being published is impressive. When it comes to IF, it’s best to write well and code well. Often, though, writing and story are weak in a technically impressive game, and well “written” games are buggy and sparsely implemented. The competition winners always seem to get both sides right.

I guess I’m rambling.

So how do you write descriptions (and responses to actions, etc.) in a way that gives players an idea of what to do next and moves the story forward?

On a related note, have you had much success monitoring what the player is doing and prompting them after a certain time if they seem in need of a hint?

Your rambles are most interesting … :slight_smile:

Keep in mind that I’m only recently starting to figure out how to write better IF. So this is somewhat theory, somewhat things I’m doing for future projects, and somewhat things I’ve observed in other IF. One of the most important things is to handle the likely (or even not-so-likely) wrong actions, and direct the player back that way. Here’s an example, just off the top of my head. Also, I think it’s important to “imply” things wherever appropriate – and especially when the action can only be taken one way. Don’t make the player spell it all out for the parser, if your grammar can be built to handle this. But, be careful not to imply too much. You might force a solution to a puzzle the player hadn’t actually solved.

You come upon a large hole in the ground. The bird you’ve followed this far swoops down, and disappears into the depths of the earth. You caught one fleeting glance of the golden key, still held in its tightly-clenched beak.

Unlike the bird, you’re unable to fly.

It seems like a long way down. You can’t see the bottom, and it’s quite dark in there.

And fall to your death? If the rough walls don’t kill you, the abrupt landing will.

It’s wide and deep. The walls seems rough and irregular, and… something else?

(the hole)
With just the muddy, crumbling dirt to provide purchase? There must be a better way.

You notice, now, that thick vines snake in and through the hole’s interior walls, going downward.


At this point, the player has solved it. But, in addition to “climb down” (and other similar commands, synonyms for “climb”, etc, which don’t come readily to mind) you may also want to handle:

They’re thick, solid, and they won’t come loose. Easy to grip, though.

GRIP VINE <— singular
You take hold of one thick vine. Yes, it will definitely hold your weight.

(the hole)
(the hole)

… should all work now. Just remember, if the player leaves the room, say something like “you let go of the vine first.” And if you’re really being fair to the player, GET VINES should imply a “grip” or “hold” anyway. In this example, you’d also want to handle attempts to drop or throw inventory items into the hole, jump over the hole, and anything else that seems likely for players to try, on the road to discovering that there are vines to climb down. In the example, I don’t mention the vines just by looking at the hole. But I mention the walls and/or dirt a couple other times (including a pretty obvious prompt when looking at the hole), and with luck, a player is going to catch on and examine the walls.

For an easier puzzle, you just mention the vines in the hole’s description, and (perhaps even just by noticing them), allow actions like “CLIMB DOWN” to imply “(using the vines)” instead of being just one more step in the solving process. You run the risk of implying something the player hadn’t already realized, but as risks go, that’s a small one. It just depends on whether you want the puzzle to be a little harder (but still fair), or pretty easy.

Well, I’ve tried it, but not necessarily with success. In what I felt to be the sticky parts of Trading Punches, I would often count the number of turns lapsed, and just start prompting the player to take an action (asking Ruhne about things in the cutscenes, kissing Elora, etc). I sort of did this in Distress, with daemons that would remind the player about things every so often. I also built a big logic tree in Distress (a bunch of if/else conditions, mainly) so that the “hint” feature would try to figure out exactly what the player needed to do next. It wasn’t automatic, but something like that in another simple, linear game could work well sd a deamon (provided the hints were unobtrusive and accurate).

As for really knowing what the player is up to, that seems trickier. It probably comes down to focusing the player back to the things and areas of interest. How? Dunno. Lock the doors leading out of an area, and let the player find the key along with whetever other goal has drawn him/her here. Mention important items (or goals in general) just in the course of looking at things or doing other commands (if appropriate).

Merk wrote:

Is that because the plot depends on the character doing a certain action (maybe at a certain time), which you can’t force the player to do?

The appeal for me about turning a book or movie into an IF game is that the characters, setting, etc. are firmly established, and it sounds like a lot of fun to be in that world or to be those characters for a while … is that what appeals to you, too?

I probably shouldn’t have said “impossible”. I guess it’s possible to turn anything into IF, be it a book, a movie, whatever. I’ve never tried, though.

Part of it would just be making the story interactive, in an entertaining way. I think the author would have to take a lot of liberties with the story – for working in puzzles, filling in the “gaps” where IF will have to present things interactively that the movie or book didn’t.

I guess it happens all the time, in video games. It seems like most mainstream action moves (and even some that aren’t) get officially-licensed video game adaptations. Most are bad.

There are a couple other possible pitfalls, I would think, in adapting static fiction to interactive fiction.

One is that you may assume the player knows the source material, and forget to include details that would make the game impossible to solve otherwise. Suppose you’re adapting Superman, or writing a game featuring Superman. If a puzzle requires x-ray vision or heat-vision, it would probably be good to work this in earlier, just in case a player isn’t familiar with Superman, or doesn’t know his powers beyond flying and super-strength. Granted, that’s probably a poor example – everybody knows Superman – but that’s the idea.

Another is that you may assume the player won’t try to stray from the storyline at all. This is probably what you were getting at. I think it would be hard to adapt a book or movie and not have it seem railroaded. You’d have to decide just how rigidly you want to channel the player’s actions. Should out-of-character actions be stopped entirely, with an appropriate response? Or should you allow players to stray, but lead to an early (and less than ideal) ending?

My next couple projects are purely fiction – fantasy, sci-fi – just “invented” stuff. I’m not sure I’d want to adapt a book or movie (even my issues with IP infringement aside), but I think I’d like to work on one or more games in an historical setting. I’d like to do research, study up on some historical period, event, setting, whatever, and work a fictional game into it. I think those kinds of games could have an appeal for people, because it’s not just fantasy.

I agree that adapting a work poses problems, but it could be fun.

Of course, I really would much rather create my own worlds and stories to tell, because it would feel so much more satisfying to complete.

I hate licensed video games, and almost never play them, unless they are unusually good. Most of my favorite games are original series, like Silent Hill or Shenmue or Castlevania.

And with these games, the developers aren’t lazy in creating the story, just like Merk said, they don’t have the luxury of the public’s general knowledge of a character or setting.

Merk wrote:

Just for fun, I had a think about what kind of IF you could make from “Star Wars” (Episode IV, ie. the original one) - this is from Luke’s point of view.

Droid Cleanup Shed
While you are cleaning up the smaller droid - R2D2 - a beam shoots out from one side and projects a hologram recording. A beautiful looking woman in a white robe appears. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” The recording replays over and over; it seems to be stuck.

ask r2d2 about recording
R2D2 bleeps unintelligibly. C3PO replies, “What is what? He asked you a question. What is that?” After some more bleeps and whistles, C3PO says, “Oh, he says it’s nothing, sir. Merely a malfunction, old data. Pay it no mind.”

Some more beeping follows. C3P0 interprets: “He says that he is the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a resident of these parts and it’s a private message for him. Quite frankly, sir, I don’t know what he’s talking about. Our last master was Captain Antilles. But with all we’ve been through, this little R2 unit has become a bit eccentric.”

The recording continues to play.

who is kenobi
You don’t know anyone named Obi-Wan, but a strange old hermit called Ben Kenobi lives out beyond the Dune sea; too far away to walk, but you could get there quite easily by speeder.

r2d2, play recording
“Play back the whole thing”, you tell R2D2. He beeps and whistles, and C3PO interprets: “He say’s the restraining bolt has short-circuited his recording system. He suggests that if you remove the bolt, he might be able to play back the entire recording.”

The recording continues to play.

what is restraining bolt
A restraining bolt is a small attachment that prevents a droid from wandering too far away. It is easily removed.

remove bolt
Which do you mean, R2D2’s restraining bolt or C3P0’s restraining bolt?

You remove the restraining bolt from R2D2, and the recording stops playing.

r2d2, play recording
“R2D2, play back the entire message.”

The small droid whistles. C3PO says, “‘What message?’ The one you’ve just been playing! The one you’re carrying inside your rusty innards.”

Turning to address you, he says, “I’m sorry, sir but he seams to have picked up a slight flutter.”

Your uncle’s voice carries across the moisture farm, “Luke!”

There are several ways the plot could go from here:

(a) If Luke goes to have dinner now (without replacing the restraining bolt), R2D2 wanders off, and Luke needs to go and find him (thus meeting Kenobi and not being around when the Storm Troopers come). This is the way the original story goes.

If Luke puts back the restraining bolt (or doesn’t take it off in the first place), then:

(b) He could go and find Kenobi anyway, but without the droids. Luke would be alive, but the droids’ capture would wreck the rest of the story.

(c) He could stay home instead, in which case he is killed and the droids are captured by the Storm Troopers.

To keep the story “interactive”, I guess you would need a way to allow (b) or (c) (which are both reasonable things to do, given no foreknowledge of the future) and make them non-fatal in some way …

Maybe Kenobi is compelled by the force to come and visit? Maybe someone else tries cleaning up the droids and leaves off the restraining bolt? Maybe Luke didn’t re-attach it properly, or it just falls off? All pretty implausible …

Static fiction is full of coincidences, minor choices which turn out to have major consequences, character flaws (or strengths) leading to one action rather than another, etc. - to me this seems like the hardest kind of thing to handle in an IF version of a story.

Star Wars would be hard. The people most interested in the game would probably be very familiar with the movie. They’d either take things for granted and not even think to “try” it in the game, or they’d constantly test the boundaries, just to see how far they can stray. Plus, I think they’d be more critical of the game. I know I would be. I’ve always had a hang-up about people who presume to take an established work I like and make it their own. But that’s a whole 'nother matter. :slight_smile:

If you had to (in some theoretical other universe, where you were forced as a slave to write IF), how would you solve the “restraining bolt” problem mentioned in the last post?

Well, if I were doing the adaptation, I would try to stay as faithful to the original story as possible. So, I’d come up with ways to be sure the restraining bolt wasn’t replaced, so that R2D2 does wander off.

First, I’d stop the story at the point where C3PO relays R2D2’s advice. I’d probably prompt the player, via C3PO, until the restraining bolt is removed, and trap attempts to leave by saying something like “Not until you’ve heard the rest of the message. You can’t shake the sense of urgency you heard in that woman’s voice.” Then, if Like tries to put it back on, I’d have R2D2 roll out of the way. If the player tries again, I’d have R2D2 roll again (different text this time, though). On the third attempt, I’d have R2D2 snag it using an attachment, and hide it away in a compartment.

It’s railroading, but I’d prefer this to any course of action that disrupts the story. I’d limit the puzzles (and the impact of players’ choices) to each scene. Let them stray within a scene, but require that each segment end in a way that won’t break the story.

If I wanted to let the player have more freedom, I’d probably not play from Luke’s perspective. Maybe I’d write a shorter game about Han Solo, covering the same time period (up until the meeting with Luke at Mos Eisley). I’d invent a story that fits in, but can’t easily be contradicted by Star Wars canon.

That’s the whole reason I’d stay away from adaptations. Piss off the purists if you veer off course, and limit your players so much that they’d be better off watching the movie if you try to make it faithful.

Not saying it can’t be done, but really, if you’re going to put so much energy into creating something, you might as well make it your own.

Merk said:

As a player, I’d prefer the plot to be a bit more flexible, myself - so I could try out things and see what interesting variations to the original I could come up with, as well as trying to “break” the game and see what excuses the author thought up to make sure the main events still happen. I would get a bit bored with an exact replay of the original story, I think.

I have loved Star Wars since I was 6 years old, but I don’t think I would ever try adapting it to IF (even apart from copyright issues) - it would be more fun to make than to play.

Do you know of any adaptations that turned out to be really good? Did they vary the plot line at all?

In the realm of IF, I haven’t played any. Well, I did try playing either the “Ambar” game (based on the Roger Zelazny books) or the “Plan 9 from Outer Space” game – maybe both – without getting very far. I think the “Plan 9” game was more about the movie itself (not the story), so I don’t really have an answer.

I remember playing several games on my good old Spectrum years ago that were based on famous characters and/or ideas. “Sherlock” was good, if unfairly hard; “The Hobbit” was a favourite of mine, although most people these days regard it as too retro for their tastes. I’m sure I played quite a few others as well but I don’t remember their names now.