Authoring vs. Playing

I’m excited about the new I7 release, and thinking vaguely about writing a new game. But I’m wondering whether other folks feel the way I do – that writing games is more fun than playing them.

I’ve tried out a few of the better-scoring games in last year’s IFComp, and while they’re well written and play smoothly, after 15 or 20 minutes I’m bored and ready to move on. This is not a criticism of the games! It’s an observation about my own psychology as a game player. (Maybe this post belongs in Playing rather than Authoring – it’s kind of about both.)

As a question for authors, perhaps I’m asking, “What do you feel makes a game genuinely engaging for players?” There could be several answers to this question – a brilliant concept, or clever puzzles, or action that moves forward quickly, or something else.

Writing (including both the prose and the code) is fun and a challenge for me. I wish I got the same sense of fun and challenge out of playing a game someone else wrote…

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I think I sort of see what you’re getting at – I definitely enjoy playing IF, but there’s something distinctively addictive about making a game. I enjoy puzzle-solving in the context of playing a game, but in many ways writing one is a continuous process of puzzle-solving on overdrive, as I get to figure out how to implement a feature, or write up a particular sequence in just the right way; there’s way more of a dopamine hit from successfully doing all that than from solving someone else’s games, most of the time. I can see getting really drawn into the writing process and finding playing pales by comparison, though I’m not personally there myself!

In terms of what I find most engaging in IF, I have to say for me it’s usually the quality of prose above all else; if there are satisfying puzzles or engaging characters, that’s great, but it usually takes a while to tell whether those are present, whereas the writing is obvious from the beginning.

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That happens to some people; it happened to me. There was a time when I played all the IFComp entries every year. Then that started to feel like a job, rather than fun, so I stopped. (Circa 2006, so it wasn’t a question of “too many games”.)

It’s pointless to ask “What should game authors have done to retain Zarf’s interest?” There is no answer to that because, as you say, it’s something that happened in my psychology.

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I’ve heard the observation stated before that more people are writing (traditional) fiction than reading it. A similar observation (gripe?) I’ve heard is that writers today are merely writing for other writers.

I think there’s something to it, and I’ve wondered if it’s true in the IF sphere as well.

Memorable character(s) in a lively situation. In parser-based IF, that usually means a compelling narrative voice and a unique setting or challenge. They complement each other.

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I think there are a lot of similarities between the current IF scene and what I know about the current poetry scene, where a high percentage of the audience are also creators. There are some advantages to this condition – there’s lots of conversation about craft, a community-wide focus on issues of distribution, tools, etc., and I think an inviting DIY ethos that helps bring in new authors – but some downsides too, most notably for sustainability (looking at the number of votes for the highest-ranked IFComp games is pretty depressing; this community punches way above its weight class compared to other forms of narrative games, but that likely won’t be a permanent condition).

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I enjoy writing more than playing, and I think I enjoy beta testing more than playing as well. It feels like I have more to say about the game, and I’m contributing to something that’s growing. Some works can be very good, but sometimes I feel like they’re trying to cater to a certain audience.

I think it’s good to expose yourself to different works you wouldn’t normally enjoy, but it can start to feel like a chore. Certainly when I wrote reviews for all the IFComp games last year, I needed a few breaks, and it got in the way of simple things I wanted to do.

One other thing that I like about authoring is that it’s easier to pull myself away when I don’t have an idea and have confidence I’ll come back. With other people’s work it can feel like I’m ditching them.

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Yeah, I was thinking both sides of that myself.

I guess the counterpoint is that we’ve been worrying about sustainability and low IFComp judging totals for fifteen years now? The concerns are real, and I am always in favor of new ideas to widen IFComp awareness and voting. But it’s not an imminent collapse. I hope…

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There’s certainly a monstrous ongoing boom in self-published traditional fiction. Most of it is dreadful, of course. (Naturally, my own work is a glorious exception, heh-heh.) Part of this is due to the advent of NaNoWriMo, a movement that I cordially detest, because it encourages people to believe they can write a novel when in fact they haven’t a clue how to go about it.

But I’m pretty sure the world of readers is still 100x greater than the world of writers, if not 1000x.

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. Unfortunately, any attempt to make IF more engaging – for example, by adding graphics – tends to make it a poor cousin of real video games. In my view, trying to spiff up IF with graphics, music, and such things draws attention away from the real strength of the medium. But then, I’m a parser IF guy. I’m intrigued by the branching narrative possibilities of hypertext IF (e.g., Twine) but I have yet to get on board with it.

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I love writing, and I can’t play IF when I’m in the middle of writing something. I even read novels less often. There is a real risk of accidental plagiarism for me if I write and play at the same time. But I only love writing more than playing sometimes.

I can’t even imagine trying to play every game in a Comp like some of you badasses do. If a game irritates me, or just doesn’t grab me, I bounce off of it tout suite and move to something else. I don’t finish at least half the games I start, because there’s just too much out there for me to spend time on something boring or broken or insanely unfair. Trying to play all of those would probably burn me out, and that would be sad.

But I have always had times where I burn out a bit on IF and turn to my iPad and play other types of games. Then I get sick of those and return to IF. Writing IF has definitely increased the amount of time I spend playing other things.

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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…

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Perhaps. When I heard those observations/gripes, both were in the context of literary fiction, where I do think the ratio is lower than 100x. (As @DeusIrae said, it certainly seems to be true for the poetry scene.) For genre fiction, it would seem readers still outnumber writers by a fair multiplier.

Today’s readers are much more educated about narrative techniques, though. Director commentaries, web sites dedicated to story tropes, reader reviews, message boards…it’s all contributed to a widespread dissemination of creative production techniques.

I bring this up because, taken to its extreme, this acts much like readers-are-writers: The reader knows a lot about the craft (or thinks they know it), and go about judging the work as a writer would (or thinks one would).

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Bingo! Spot on, I would say. The opportunity to explore has various dimensions – the size of the map, the number of objects that can be tinkered with in a given room, the variety of responses you get when you try something that doesn’t work or when you enter into conversation with an NPC, and also the fact that when you do something clever, new rooms or other resources become available

What frustrates me in game-playing, I think, is when I’m stuck in an area where there are only three rooms, I have only one object in my inventory, and I get nothing but unchanging stock responses when I try to interact with the things that are mentioned in the room description. In such a case, it’s clear the author wants me to find some particular action that will advance the story, but there’s nothing else I can do other than keep banging my head on the wall until I find that one action.

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The last game I truly enjoyed was Savoir Faire by Emily Short. It had elements of game play that I prefer, which is probably a good puzzle/magic system, well written, and mildly difficult.

Not a big fan of puzzle-less story games and if the difficulty level rises too high, I’ll definitely lose interest.

I’m just not very good at playing puzzle heavy games! When I do play video games, it’s more along the lines of maximizing a battle mage-y cleric build, or creating a jam empire and speed running cavern access while fast forwarding through romance options. I don’t like competitive play, partly because of the same reason I don’t like puzzle games- that element of being left in the dark and having to grope around blindly while poorly anticipating the next move ahead.

A lot of the media I consume is through second hand means- movie reviews, video game tips and tricks, hobbyists sharing their niche opinions about everything from shoeing horses to extracting human parasites. I find it really satisfying to listen to someone passionate. Video games are a lot like that for me too. I love let’s players, and as a little kid spent a lot of time perched beside someone else’s shoulder to exclaim over their game play- whether it was sitting in my dad’s lap or scrunching myself into frame with an uncle. The same vicarious thrill and joy at having an experienced player curate the perfect viewing for you bubbles up when I read reviews written by people who clearly know what they’re doing and are good at it.

I love writing, don’t get me wrong. Playing is fun sometimes, too. I mostly play puzzle less story heavy games to ease the skill friction. But I think I most enjoy interactive fiction by seeing it through someone else’s eyes, and letting someone else guide me through their experience of a game, pointing out the highs and lows and throwing in a little personal flair with a tangential anecdote or related factoid. It’s like relaxing into an all day spa trip where you leave it up to the professionals and just get to enjoy yourself- no worrying about DIY required. Reviews rock.

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I personally don’t believe it’s healthy to dissociate the two. I think the binary of creators/consumers has caused meaningful cultural harm. Art and audience are alternations of communion, and while the kurtosis of your particular engagement may vary, the whole should pertain in each mode. While I spend more time reading than writing, it is the reading that renders the writing possible, and it is the writing that renders the reading substantial. I think in the natural state this is multimedial, where someone might incorporate the experiences gained by a film into the music they make, so perhaps there’s a difference in mode preference, as several here have highlighted. I also think we should reimagine what we think of as “production”, where your daily behavior could be an instantiating output, rather than having to generate some discrete “work”; what’s the point of experiencing other people’s spirits if it doesn’t change how you engage with them and yourself? Isn’t that a productive difference? Still, I think an obsession with only creating or consuming tends towards the solipsistic, with unfortunate outcomes like obsession with talent as a kind of capital or a predominating expectation of transactional service from a work.

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(…)

WARNING: That post is one of the most important stuff you can read about the subject of creating IF. Handle with care.

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I think there’s a space for games that aren’t exciting or innovative, but are comforting and joyful. Of course once you’ve reached the level of world weariness of a Shakespeare or a Tolstoy the only thing that remains to do is to buy a plot of land, become a dirt farmer, and wait for death.

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