Dead Horses, and the beating thereof

Are there any genres in IF that are universally or near-universally considered to be “dead horses”?

I ask because I’ve begun work on a game that’s essentially a straight-up “lazy medieval” fantasy, and makes no illusions about it. It’s not a treasure-hunt/cave-crawl, but more of a vaguely Varicella-ish optimization game built around using magic and assorted weapons and laying traps to defend a castle from bad dudes.

Anyway, the reason I ask is because I occasionally find it hard to muster up the willpower to give certain works (be they movies, games, books, whatever) a chance, because they’re a “dead horse” to me, and I know others feel the same way. I, for one, tend to groan whenever an IF game has the PC waking up from a dream, or begins in their house, and I haven’t played a sci-fi IF game since Planetfall (although those are both my own lame prejudices). Are there any pitfalls I should avoid in order to give a good first impression? Or should I try a different setting out, period?

If you have an idea, I say do it. If you haven’t played a lot of IF, there’s probably not much danger of copying an idea. Perhaps you’ll have a new twist on a “dead horse” as you call it. Like, instead of a haunted house, maybe your idea is a haunted pirate ship. Or instead of a straight sci fi space ship, maybe your idea involves rescuing 18th century humans from a space ship that abducted them.

Go with your idea. Don’t let people dictate it’s form just because it’s been done.

As a rule of thumb, there is no dead horse that cannot be resurrected by sufficiently strong execution. Violet is at heart a frustration comedy in an office: a genre that in a weaker implementation would have induced eyerolling and theatrical groans from a substantial proportion of players. I loathe wacky wizards with all my heart, but it’s still possible that someone might write a wacky-wizard game that I’d love.

It helps if the game is interested in something other than its genre. If your goal is just “write a lazy medieval fantasy game”, you’re probably in trouble. If your goal is “use the familiar lazy-medieval fantasy setting while really thinking about [income disparity in single-resource economies|the importance of treating people you dislike with respect|the problem of akrasia|the pleasure of craft]”, you stand a much better chance.

That said, the main contenders for dead-horse status in IF are Zorkian fantasy, lazy-medieval D&D-derived fantasy, My Boring Apartment (with fully-implemented fridge and toilet), Dilbert-ish office comedy (coffee, sysadmins), Trek-derived SF and Crazy Uncle’s House (scattered diary pages). But bear in mind that genres can be dead on arrival: a game can be tediously genre-reliant even if that genre has never been done in IF before.

Genres can’t be dead horses, but plot devices can. And one in particular comes to mind: the protagonist has amnesia. If I see another one of those, then it better be a perfectly well executed game.

That was my least favorite episode so far this season, but I did think Lily Cole was well cast. :slight_smile:

Every genre is fine with me. As long as you’re having fun doing it.
But If I have to start beating dead horses I’m out. No matter how good your game is. :slight_smile:

Oh come on. Pirates in space! What can be better? And Rory dies yet again! How many times has he died now?

Pirates and Ninjas in space vs Jesus and Cowboys.

I think I once played a game which used that idea, but I’ve forgotten about it.

Robert Rothman

This was a fun read.

I’m one of those folks who have been thinking about writing a game on and off for over a decade (first attempt was via AGT in the 90’s).

I was actually planning to learn TADS3 and write a simple, formulaic game soon - just as an excuse to get to know TADS3 before attempting more original works. I was thinking of flogging one of these two dead horses:

  • A time traveller who goes and visits various scientists in history to collect relevant items for a museum in the future (e.g. fur from a cat Schrodinger owned, or a prism sitting on Newton’s desk). For bonus points, the player would “inadvertently” provide hints to the scientists that would lead them to some discovery. Essentially a treasure hunt.
  • A parody of graduate school. I’m not even sure about the plot - perhaps just getting through a day as a graduate student. Typical humor: Make fun of post-docs, of professor hierarchies, of crazy research, of teaching and dealing with students. I’m surprised university life was not listed here by anyone else (elsewhere on the web I’ve read it’s a common “first game”).

What’s sad is that the first serious project I was contemplating after doing one of the above two would be one involving amnesia. You suddenly find yourself in a prison (or hospital with a uniformed officer outside who won’t let you leave). You don’t know how you got there. You escape somehow, and spend the rest of the game figuring it out. The “twist” would be that at some point in the game, depending on the player’s actions, the code execution would branch off - one branch where you’re innocent - the other where you’re guilty.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that amnesia is a common theme - and the “twist” probably follows as a result…

The thing about clichés is that they usually become overused because they serve a useful purpose. Amnesia puts the player and the player character on equal footing in regards to how much they know about what’s going on at the start of the game. Sure, there are other ways to do that, but few are as quick, convenient, and immediately understandable. If that’s the best way to make your story work, I don’t think you should scrap it just because some people might bitch about it being overused. Especially for a first game, it’s better just to get something written, and worry about originality later (if ever).

There are those who have the kind of prejudices you’re concerned about, and trad-fantasy is certainly one of the big targets. There’s a lot of conflation that goes on with cliche-as-language vs cliche-passed-off-as-substance.

But I think the more crucial question is: are these people your target audience? They’re probably not, almost by definition, and thus ignorable/dismissable.

Yeah, I take it as read that if you’re using genre to talk about something, the rules become Different. But that’s not, I think, what the original topic suggested:

It’s entirely possible that this premise could serve as a framework for something more. But on its own – which was the question, I think? the lazy-medieval trope is likely to detract.

Hmm. But either way, the answer is the same: if you want to do X (even if X really is a cave-crawl-treasure-hunt, cliche to the bone and not just on the surface), the fact that there are those who have knee-jerk negativity toward X is always their problem, not yours (the designer’s). They are, again, outside the target audience and irrelevant to the design.

Well, yes, but rigorous application of this rule can leave you with a target audience of one. (Who will already know all the solutions.) If someone’s asking this question, it’s fairly safe to say that they’re concerned about the extent to which their authorial choices might limit their audience.

You could rephrase this question as “Is there a substantial sub-group of IF players who like (or at least don’t totally loathe) lazy-medieval fantasy?” To which the answer is: yes, as is clear from a quick perusal of old comp scores. You could phrase it as “If I write a straight lazy-medieval game, will reviewers say mean things about it?” to which the answer is also yes, probably. You could also phrase it as “If I write a straight lazy-medieval game, will this annoy/alienate/inhibit aesthetic uptake in/bore a substantial portion of the, let’s be honest, not precisely gigantic IF audience?” Again, yes, for certain values of ‘substantial’. These are all legitimate concerns, I think, even if they’re not binding ones.

(Also, the prerogative of an author to do whatever they want does not in any way conflict with the prerogative of readers to tell authors “Never do this.”)

I daresay the nature of the work will determine far more than the rigor of the rule. While there are certainly those within the IF community (and elsewhere) who pooh-pooh traditional (“lazy”) fantasy automatically, trad-fantasy remains a hugely popular gaming genre, so such a game could therefore find (or create) a substantial audience if it’s done well (or done appealingly).

Of course. Hence my response, and yours, and most of the others here. We’re each providing our take on exactly that.

I don’t recall suggesting otherwise. If I did in fact do so, I humbly recant :slight_smile:

My point rests on the presumption that the OP author is clearly aware that some people are snobbish about genre and needs no reminding of that. Given that, I think it boils down to “do you want the snobs as part of your target audience?” which is an authorial choice and none of my business … so the only response I’m left with is a gentle reminder that there are plenty of fish in the sea … far more than in the pond.

Most other mediums just don’t care about beating dead horses as much as needed. Why should Interactive Fiction be different?

A moot point, I’d imagine. It’s never been different before.

Actually, I would strongly distinguish “traditional fantasy” and “lazy fantasy.” “Traditional fantasy” suggests to me anything on a fairly large continuum including LoTR, Game of Thrones, Wizard of Earthsea, et al – stuff with a lot of unique world building and often good production values, even if there are certain consistent tropes. I’m up for playing more of that, and it tends to be fairly well received by many IF players, though there are a vocal handful who don’t like “escapist” genres at all. (I don’t think “escapist” is a sensible label to slap on everything that isn’t a realist piece set in the modern day, but that’s a different discussion.)

“Lazy fantasy,” by contrast, suggests (to me) that it’s going to be a lot of bits from other people’s worlds glued together without consideration or consistency, and often with an essentially modern-day set of manners and mores underneath the rhinestones. Such a game has to have something else going for it for me to like it. I liked Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom because it was doing comment on the whole genre. I liked Adventurer’s Consumer Guide because the puzzles were cool. Combine lazy fantasy with lazy puzzles – a stock recombination of lock-and-key standbys and NPC fetch quests – and I feel like I’m playing someone’s craft homework.

It’s a fair distinction*; we have a similar one in pen-and-paper gaming, just with different terms (often trad-fantasy vs. kitchen-sink fantasy, so I was taking “lazy” to be an example of the “escapist” thing). But I still think “design for those who might like your game rather than those who’ll dismiss it out of hand” applies whether working hard to be trad or (I’m going to enjoy typing this) working hard to be lazy. Or working hard to write about private eyes or spacefarers, etc. I also think the OP’s description of the game’s design (an “optimization game built around […] laying traps to defend a castle from bad dudes”) doesn’t trip any red alerts re an excess of fetch-quests or lock-and-key puzzles, so it doesn’t seem worrying on that score, really (unless the comparison to Varicella is somehow worrying; I haven’t played Varicella so if there’s some kind of undercurrent of Varicella-clone-fatigue among IF enthusiasts, I’m ignorant of it).


  • Though I’d propose that Ed Greenwood’s (which is to say Jeff Grubb’s) Forgotten Realms, arguably the best-selling fantasy gameworld ever in terms of total games produced and total units moved,** occupies an uneasy spot somewhere right between the two … (which is, for better or worse, where pen-and-paper fantasy worlds often end up, not always deliberately***).

** Including computer games, where it’s the setting for most of the old SSI gold-box games (Pool of Radiance, etc), most of the Bioware Infinity Engine games (Baldur’s Gate, etc), as well as Neverwinter Nights (both SSI and Bioware games of that title), etc.

*** Though I have a Uresia WIP, speaking of deliberate …