Balancing Writing and Implementation?

Hi everyone. So, after a few days of being on this board, I finally reveal my terrifying ulteiror motive! I’ve been (not so) secretly writing an interactive fiction game!


That’s right folks, I didn’t just come here to write entirely too much Emacs Lisp and regexes and bother people with incomprehensible ruminations on software architecture!

In all seriousness, I’ve been getting into long form parser IF (finished Anchorhead, playing King of Shreds and Patches right now) with my girlfriend because it’s one of the only things we can do together on most days without it making my concussion worse, since she can read aloud and I can discuss what to do next with her and draw maps. It’s reawakened a deep childhood fascination with parser IF, since writing and symbolically/semantically simulating things with computers have always been twin skills and fascinations of mine, and inspired me to write my own.

I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write at first, but I noticed a few things about the parser interactive fiction that’s available that started to clue me in: first, as far as I can tell, there is only one even vaguely cyberpunk work of parser IF (Fallacy of Dawn), and that’s one of my favorite genres; two, that long form parser IF seems to have died out.

With that in mind, I set about thinking something up. I now have a broad strokes setting, including aesthetics, socioeconomic and political factors, and some characters (both background, secondary, and primary), as well as a set of philosophical themes that I’m interested in that will weave nicely into the setting and characters, and a four act plot structure with climaxes that will work as puzzles in the game, some puzzles sprinkled out in between, all the basic plot things like twists, conflict, and emotional connections. I’ve also got ideas about the style I want to write the game in (drenched in atmosphere, oriented towards exploration and covert operation). I even have a design philosophy — I view the most rewarding part of IF for me to be when puzzles are primarily used to further invest and immerse you into the story, and as mild obstacles to overcome so you can be rewarded with the next several pages of text.

The issue is, I don’t really know exactly how big the game world (a city) needs to be, or how long the descriptions should be, to feel long enough for someone to really get immersed in and care about. I wouldn’t be beholden to any answer, of course — the game will be whatever size it needs to be to be good — but having a ballpark to aim/plan for would help. What exactly counts as “long form”? How long is Anchorhead, which is kind of my benchmark for immersion right now?

More importantly, how do I find a good flow where programming isn’t constantly interrupting my writing process and my writing process isn’t constantly interrupting my programming? Writing for me is an incredibly intense and focused state where I have to sink deep into the mood and headspace specific to the scene I’m writing — is this true for anyone else, and if so, how do you work around that?

I guess I’m just really worried about sustainability. I know myself, and know I have a tendency to start ambitious projects that I have the technical skills and time to complete, which I then never finish, and I want to try to hold myself to something by building healthy behaviors if that makes sense.

Anyway, sorry that this is so rambling — it’s late and I have a lot of concerns. I guess the TLDR is that I’m reaching out to the more experienced writers here for advice and wisdom and anecdotes about doing large projects.



I was thinking about your statement about there being very few cyberpunk parser games and that long-form IF has kind of died out. I think that these are broadly really accurate statements. The only Cyberpunk games I can remember recently are Silicon and Cells - Details and Ma Tiger's Terrible Trip - Details and both are definitely shorter than you’ve described.

There have been a few longform IF games released recently (notably Jim Aikin’s The Only Possible Prom Dress which did well in the last IFComp, but as a whole I’d agree that longform parser IF is a rare thing to encounter, with some years not having any polished longform games released and most years having less than 3 or 4.

Making a giant game as your first game is risky; it’s worked for a few people (like Mike Spivey, who released A Beauty Cold and Austere as his first game, which was and is very popular), but it’s usually easier/better(?) to make a small game, get feedback on it, improve as an author, and then make something longer.

If you want some idea for size, I’d say that the total amount of interactions is more important for immersion than pure size. For instance, the game 1893: A World's Fair Mystery - Details has an enormous map based on the actual 1893 World’s Fair, but many of the locations are just ‘fluff’. The game is great, but it doesn’t have the epic ‘feel’ of a game like Anchorhead or Emily Short’s City of Secrets, which have meaningful interactions in almost every room.

Also repetitive interactions don’t mean as much as non-repetitive interactions. So if the walkthrough for your game is 200 actions, but 100 of them are waiting, the game is not as interesting as, for instance, a one-room game with 200 actions that are all almost entirely unique.

The standard for IFComp winners is around here (I studied this for a while and this is not exceptionally accurate):
2-3 hours of gameplay length
30K-80K words of text
around (this is really pulling a number out of nowhere) 10-20 ‘puzzles’
about 200 actions in a minimal walkthrough.

Of course there are games that don’t fit this at all (Alias the Magpie is much longer than most ifcomp winners, for example, and Slouching Towards Bedlam is much smaller in text size and walkthrough size than most of the other winners).

So for your game, you could pick one of these metrics and multiply it. Do you want an 8 hour game? a 100K text game? a 600 action game?

Anchorhead takes place over 3 days and has about 600 actions to beat. So it’s very roughly three times larger than the metrics listed above. Just make sure you don’t try to fill up metrics with repetitive stuff that isn’t actually good; I’ve done that several times and gotten negative pushback from players every time.

For myself, I find that it’s best if I write whenever I have ideas and program when I don’t. The programming can inspire the writing: if I program out the mechanical steps of a puzzle, it gives me ideas on what to say in the descriptions of that puzzle.

Writing a good parser game is a lot of work. The work I put into my longer games Color the Truth and Absence of Law were both roughly equivalent to my Master’s Thesis (200-400 hours of work). A longer game is even more; my longest games In the Service of Mrs Claus and Grooverland each took multiple years to make, working about 2-10 hours a week.

Sounds cool!

This reminds me a bit of a longer game I like that came out recently: The Weight of a Soul (more of a steampunk/goblinpunk game): The Weight of a Soul

The puzzles in that game are definitely in service to the dialogue, just mild obstacles.

I look forward to whatever you end up making!





I don’t think long games have lost appeal, it’s just that they don’t always jibe with the community’s focus on competition and jams. Sometimes longer games do well in that format, but IMO they are swimming upstream.

I usually have a few tech tasks to work on when I don’t feel like writing text. Working on unique mechanics, information management, and the like. I try to have room to follow whatever my inspiration is at the time.


Okay, but also: Don’t stop doing this, either. Reading your thoughts on the differences in logic flow between TADS and Inform was really fun!

Take all my input with multiple grains of salt. Most of my design theory and experience comes from the visual game space. I’m also very new to IF. From what I’ve read on other threads, though, the problem of description length seems to vary between players. I usually keep mine under maybe 10 sentences, just because it’s hard to write more than that and not need to implement 30+ decoration objects to represent the mentions I made in the text.

Game world size can vary a lot, but I take a note out of turn-based game design for this. I try to get an idea of how many turns should be spent going from A to B (as in, what would feel right, as a player, or what would make most sense from a game mechanic perspective). From there, I fill in the turns with spaces to explore.

That way, whatever you put between your two most-distant locations will not disrupt other game mechanics, and will not “feel wrong” to the player.

“Feel wrong” is a bit nebulous, but this is where experimentation comes in. Just write up some empty rooms with random text for descriptions, and see how traveling between them feels to you. You can add branching paths and such, and figure out at what point it feels engaging, and when it feels overwhelming. You are a person, just like your future players…!

If you feel like you might be too biased, then you can send it to some testers for feedback, like a proper science experiment. Also, you can probably be as experimental or niche as you’d like, and you’d make a positive impact for someone out there. Don’t chase perfection for too long; there are multiple genres and styles of game, and a wide spectra of player preferences. Some players like huge maps, and others prefer smaller ones.

I have an intense amount of ADHD, so perhaps this might be where I actually know what I’m talking about, lol.

For writing, it’s best to have an outline that gives you an idea of your programming scope. Once you have a scope, lay out your rooms and mechanics. You don’t need to write descriptions at this point, but make sure your placeholder descriptions are something you can search for easily.

Once the mechanics and structure is in place, you can start doing focused writing. After each room, fill out decoration objects, and other things that the player might examine.

I feel like this is probably best for ensuring you get those uninterrupted, focused writing periods. I’m the same way with the writing focus thing, so hopefully this is helpful.

Parsers, as a whole, are quite niche in the wider videogame landscape of today, so I don’t think any sub-type of parser game could really be “dead”. Just nobody has made one kind of parser game or another in a while, but that’s the consequence of a comparatively-small dev count. If the IF community was as large as the visual game indie community, then something like a “long-form parser” would be a genre, just like “souls-like”.

This is a really excellent point. I haven’t been in the community long enough to get a good sense of the competitions, but it makes sense that the voltage of competitions would be a driver for average game lengths.

I deeply relate to this. You’re absolutely not alone, and I know quite a few others on this forum can attest to this as well. Most released games reach to the sky, by standing atop a mountain of dead projects.


Yay, congrats!

There’s Shadow Operative, which is short (IF Comp length) but super cyberpunk! And Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos (Robb Sherwin, who did Fallacy of Dawn, is a co-author) is kinda cyberpunk-y, if you accept Philip K Dick-adjacent stuff, rather than just Gibson, as in-genre. Not many other examples I can think of though.

Hmm, I think of these as sufficiently separate questions to be worth addressing separately. In terms of immersion for the kind of game you’re describing, it’s tricky because I think you need both sufficient breadth and sufficient depth to pull it off – typically these days, games will mostly go for depth and leave aside breadth. Since you’re talking specifically about a city, it might be worth looking at A Mind Forever Voyaging, which is probably the best example I can think of? It’s probably a bit bigger, and a bit sparser, than contemporary taste would dictate, but it does feel convincingly like a place without being too overwhelming.

As for “care about” I think that’s more a function of characters than of geography; hard to say more about that without knowing more details on what you’re planning on that side of things though!

This is mostly true for me too – what I’ve found generally works is to have the ability to switch gears if I’m stuck on either the writing side or the implementation side. I try to have at least one big iron in the fire in either category at any time, so if I feel in a writing mode, I can beaver away at some prose, and if I feel in a coding mood, I can dig into a system, and then at a micro level, if after doing a bunch of writing I’m getting fried, I might add an incidental verb or something else to give that part of my brain a break.

(The longest IF project I’ve completed is just a little over 2 hours to play, though, so all of the above might be bad advice! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with).

EDIT: I’d also say, the advice about making your first game short is generally good but certainly not an iron law to follow. I do think it’s super helpful to get a sufficiently-big, sufficiently-polished piece of IF in front of testers sooner rather than later, though, because you will learn a ton from even just like two strangers spending ten minutes on your game, and the sooner you do the less stuff you’ll need to redo :slight_smile:


Long-form: FWIW, I’m still working on my first game and it’s massive, but I didn’t realize it was going to be considered massive when I was in the early stages of putting together a quaint little puzzle chain and implementing a few scenes then utterly unconnected to any story but which it amused me to include. As in, if you took all of the possible criteria for determining game size and factored them all together (recent forum thread about that) my WIP will probably be in the top ten of all time? But that only happened by accident/naïveté/unwillingness to quit when I realized after a year’s worth of work that my undertaking wouldn’t be worth a pile of sheesh without another year’s work (and then coming to the same realization the next two years consecutively).

Room description length: I personally had a hankering to write lush descriptions, and painting a charming and whimsical fantasy world was one of my end goals right alongside providing a sufficiently entertaining series of things to tinker with or solve. But what ended up happening was testers got quickly burnt out seeing huge text blocks pop up every time they traveled to locs they’d been in before, or did a ‘look’ to refresh themselves on what else needed x-ing. At first I thought there was no help for it, because I had already labored over the descriptions for about 250 locs, 150-175 of which were unique and not just a slight variation on the desc of a certain region. However, the importance of the problem was sufficiently brought home to me by @kamineko, to whom I’m grateful, that with manifold tears and sighings, I went back through my entire game and wrote terse descs to represent all of the same locations. But since I couldn’t “bear” for the player to see the well-painted description on merely the first day they played, where they might continue to play the game for weeks or months and never see anything but the “mechanical” versions and forget what my game world actually “looks” like, I implemented some extra mechanics where the lush desc is used first and then every 7th time (whether traveling or looking), but the player can call up the full desc whenever with ‘ll’ instead of ‘l’.
Moral? Either keep your room descs to maybe (/mostly) 5-7 sentences, or prepare to write a firstDesc and a conciseDesc for every room…


Well, I can suggest BYOD which started as the prototype for the game mechanic that would power an epic parser cyberpunk opera prima that never came to be.


I don’t think you can balance writing and implementation, as every game is different, just as every author is different. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, so just work on what keeps you inspired. If you get tired or bored or run out of ideas, move onto something else or put it aside and come back to it later.

I don’t think I’ve heard the term ‘long form parser IF’ before. After reading the responses, it sounds like it could be either long, verbose, narrative games, or just long games in terms of playing time.

For the former, head the advice already given here. Players don’t like being bombarded by reams and reams of flowery text every time they enter the same room, especially when that text does not add to the game, requires you to repeatedly press Enter to get to the command prompt and all the noun phrases are not understood by the game. Every word is valuable. Consider rich, yet concise room descriptions where you can drill down (using EXAMINE) to get more detail.

For games that take a long time to play, they also take a long time to write. Two years or more is not unusual. There are people on here that have been working on the same game for a lifetime and have never published anything. You recognised this as a danger yourself. It’s better to write something small to get experience, rather than write something big that you get tired of and it never gets finished. You can always tackle that bigger project when you feel more comfortable with the whole design, writing and development process.

I’ve often heard the term ‘cyberpunk’, but didn’t really know what it was, other than gut feeling. So I looked it up. Now that I know, I can assure you that there are many cyberpunk games out there. A few have been mentioned here. There are also many retro games that would be considered cyberpunk and modern games written in languages other than Inform. SANTAPUNK 2076 comes to mind. This was written in Adventuron. A search for terms like punk, cyber, cyberpunk and steampunk reveals lots of potential games on CASA and IFDB.


I’m not a writer, but a couple things come to mind that I’ve seen people talk about…

  1. If you haven’t seen Emily Short’s Idea to Implementation it might be worth a look: it talks about a (non-exhaustive) handful of implementation approaches and there are a bunch of other IF authors in the comments going “wow, I’ve done all of these” or “this one works really well for me” or “I’ve tried this one and it doesn’t work for me at all.” So it’s a good reminder of just how different people are, and it might spark something for you.

  2. This is choice rather than parser, but I think Jon Ingold is pretty well known for wanting to separate writing from programming, and I think there’s a passing mention in his Adventures in Text talk that with 80 Days they could mostly sit down and write the narrative and then he’d come back and sprinkle stat changes through as appropriate. So I wonder… there have to be people who do something like that with parser games, right? Write the descriptions in a word processor (or even in Ink/Inky for a lightly interactive transcript?) and then come back and put them into the parser game later?

  3. If it’s less getting interrupted and more getting distracted by writing (or programming) when you’re trying to do the other: if you have a document where you jot down ideas so you don’t lose them, is that enough for you to let an idea go for now and keep on with what you’re working on? I know that works for some people. Also writer techniques like marking something with, e.g. “TK street name” (TK being a letter combination that doesn’t occur in english, so it’s easy to search for, some people think of it as “To K/Come”) and keep moving rather than searching for the perfect name…

I suspect you’ll have to experiment somewhat to find what works for you, though. Good luck!


Hear hear. This is also perhaps part of the reason that WIP culture hasn’t totally been embraced here. Here are some more reasons. One, standard save files typically break with game updates in most IF authoring systems unless care is taken with a custom save solution. Two, combinatorial explosion and unintended interactions become a thing for already completed and polished sections as you add more to the game. Three, the best way to get attention on a game is to enter it into a Comp or Jam, but oftentimes once it has been submitted once, it is disqualified for future entries as more content is added, possibly making update and expansion number 14 of your massive epic fall into obscurity. Four, the larger the whole game, the smaller the pool of testers willing and able to take on the project; you’ll often find folks intentionally noting a game is small in their request for testers as a way to signal a smaller commitment.

For all of these reasons and many more, people tend toward two approaches. One, they release episodic games on the same character or overarching story that are still functionally and narratively complete from each other. @dee_cooke 's Barry Basic series comes to mind. Or two, they work in silence for years compiling the whole massive endeavor before allowing the public a peek at their project, increasing the chances that economic woes, health issues, or general life bullshit will delay and/or completely derail the project.


Oh, and I’d like to add that, if you’re insistent on a large game that will be have multiple releases with new content, like a classic DLC or Expansion pack model, it’s best to put in the foundational work upfront to make this more feasible as you go along. Recommend you read through this short topic if you have a chance: What are your thoughts on Organisation for Sandbox Style Gaming?


So much good stuff here! I don’t even know where to begin answering everything in detail, so I’ll just put a few general remarks/responses up:

  1. What kind of long-form game do I want? I think optimizing for any one metric alone is probably a route to disaster and/or fluff, so I’m really aiming at a general feeling of immersion and prolonged discovery — the feeling on the player’s part that there’s a fair amount to the game and it won’t just stop short suddenly. I also care about atmosphere and love writing descriptions, so there’ll probably be a lot or prose, for sure, though. I definitely don’t intend to include a lot of dead rooms though. I want the map to be fairly small but dense with interesting landmarks and locations that the story comes back to multiple times. Thus, to make the city big enough I think I’ll take the idea I saw of making mock up rooms just to see how many moves between places feels natural. Then I’ll fill those rooms with side content — street vendors with NPCs who have some interesting conversion, shady looking black market dealers, punk venues/clubs, etc.
  2. Speaking of lots of prose: of the two routes to deal with copious prose without overwhelming the player that I saw suggested in this thread, I’m really not sure which one to choose. Putting most of the flowery, descriptive details on decorations instead of in room descriptions has the advantage of being more prose frugal, since I don’t have to write a description of each room twice; however, it has the downside of leaving much of the atmosphere broken up and in places someone might not see, instead of being a natural part of exploration. Going with first and second descriptions has the opposite issue. For now, I’m going to go with first and second descriptions, though, since when I’m building out the world I can write those less detailed descriptions as placeholders, and then when I come through to add prose I can turn rhe original sparse ones into the second descriptions. Also, @johnnywz00’s idea to bring back the long descriptions every so often is an excellent one.
  3. Mechanics were mentioned several times, and that’s one of the things I will sheepishly admit I don’t have a whole lot of ideas for unique mechanics for my game. Which is probably a very bad thing, honestly. I think the AR system everyone has built in in this world, or the fact that the protagonist starts out the game with a missing arm and has to get one and choose which one to get, might be places to start, though. Additionally, there are two big set piece puzzles that hinge on directing people with different skills to do things within a relatively limited timeframe, while avoiding discovery. I think that’s pretty good.
  4. The advice on writing sounds very good. I think switching back and forth between them depending on what inspires me at the moment is a really good idea that will help me keep my momentum.
  5. As for starting with a shorter game — I agree that would be wise. The problem is, if I’m not inspired to do it, I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish it. This game is what I’m really inspired to do. However! The idea of episodic releases is very intriguing to me. It seems like it could solve the length related issues without compromising my work as a whole, and then when I’m done I could put them together.

I wasn’t really considering writing a large game and then doing DLC or expansion packs later. But now that I’m considering an episodic release this might be relevant to me anyway.

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I’d be happy to post the relevant code used, but it’s not that complex if you’d rather implement it your own way…


I’m curious to see how you did it, but I think ot would be better at this point for me to implement as much as possible myself, so I can learn TADS well.


By all means! Being the amateur self-taught programmer that I am, figuring out and achieving something with code is almost as much to me as any end result to be gotten out of it… when I dabble with C++ I use SFML just to get graphics on the screen but beyond that I don’t go looking for libraries to make a game with premade 3d bodies and all that, I just ask myself, can I think through and figure out how to make a maze generator, or a billiard game etc…


Funnily enough, I took the same approach when I started a project using OpenGL. It was very rewarding, and I wanted to turn it into a small but fully fledged Fallout style FPS RPG before I realized I can’t draw/3d model lol. I still want to go back to OpenGL at some point…


Has anyone here read anything by Alistair Reynolds? Chasm City maybe? That and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners are my biggest inspirations for the IF game I’m working on now.


Absolution Gap was great. If that kind of SF world and that kind of writin is your inspiration, I’m certainly interested.