As a question for authors, perhaps I’m asking, “What do you feel makes a game genuinely engaging for players?”
I am sure this varies wildly by player. I will say that for me it’s NOT characters or a situation. I play IF for a particular feeling – the feeling of exploration. So for me depth of exploration potential is the key. This can be the traditional large map to wander around, but it can also be implementation of many verbs, or many nonstandard messages. Or even the replay value from the optimization puzzle in Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, and the slightly different information you get as things take place at each level of flooding.
In real life, my legs don’t let me go exploring the wilderness, laws don’t let me explore random people’s houses or hack into mysterious computers, and my safety-consciousness means I don’t tinker with things without checking the instructions first. And during the pandemic, this is exacerbated: I’m barely leaving the house.
I can get characters, story, or pretty writing from a book (and I have 10 floor-to-ceiling bookcases full); I can’t get the exploration feeling from a linear narrative. The point when I get bored is when I am poking around and not finding anything new.
It’s possible to make a gloriously branching CYOA (and The Cave of Time was), but there has been a glut of recent choice-based stuff which was depressingly linear and closed, and I don’t have any interest in that.
I spent months poking at Zork I even though I was stuck on all the puzzles because there were a lot of things to try which at least gave new, funny responses. Jeremy Freese’s Violet is exceptional for a small, one-room game in its exploration depth; you get snarked on by Violet for almost everything you try, and there is really clever stuff tucked in the corners in response to almost everything.
By contrast, I know there’s a recent remake of Thomas Disch’s Amnesia, from 1986, and the moment I hit an unimplemented object in the first room (the telephone book), that was it, I quit.
In short, if your game’s
AMUSING list is 20 pages long, you’ve hooked me. If your scenery is throwing generic library responses, I’m out.
As an entertainment medium, IF suffers from the fact that most of the forms of competition (movies, video games, board games, YouTube, and arguing with strangers on Facebook) are more readily engaging.
Please note that NONE of these scratch the exploration itch, with the possible exceptions of looking for new things you haven’t seen on YouTube, and finding new strangers on Facebook
FWIW, debugging other people’s code actually scratches some of the same exploration and puzzle-sovling itch – searching through a new, unknown code base, trying to find the bug…