Does IF tell a Story?

When a piece of Interactive Fiction is deployed, what is the effect? Does it deliver a Story?

It’s possible to regard old school traditional IF as Simulation. Offering Verb/Noun manipulation of a virtual environment. The early experiments provide as many pariahs as they do exemplars. Nobody wants mazes any more. Ivy League Frat House Nerd Fantasies do not do well in 2023.

There is evidence that IF authors consider their work to be a type of literature:

Here’s my question: If Interactive Fiction is a narrative form, what methodologies are appropriate for planning a new project?

Should we adopt a screenwriting approach?

And should we acknowledge these forms as adjacent/contributory to an IF project?

  • Poetry
  • Theatre
  • Painting
  • Literature
  • Textile craft
  • Table-Top Role Play
  • Photography
  • Software Engineering
  • Movies

No time to write anything extended now, unfortunately, but I’d just point out that your list of media excludes the interactive narrative form that directly inspired the original work of IF - that is, tabletop role playing, which has developed a very worked out understanding of what “story” is in a dynamic context, and how it can contrast with “plot”. So when looking for areas of comparison that’s probably a helpful starting point!


Thanks for the correction. Happy to add TTRPG to the list.

Cool, that’s one more avenue to understanding an IF design process!


Have you read Twisty Little Passages?

Some of the non-IF technology stuff is quite dated now, since it’s from 2005 (“chatterbots” for instance??), but if you’re into methodologies and the philosophical underpinnings of IF, it’s a great read: Twisty Little Passages


I like the question about the process of creating games. It’s really easy to get bogged down when creating complex systems. My first thought are game design books eg a book called game design lenses (or something) which is explicitly about different perspectives on design. The more tools and perspectives you have the better probably. I imagine that the process significantly influences the final product, so to create a new type of game you might need in some way a new process.

1 Like

I’d say simulation. Parser games have strong emphasis on world-objects-npc representation, story or otherwise.

If you go purely by story, then ChoiceIF will work as well. But VN does have solid environmental builds.

It’s the old Puzzle vs Plot spectrum.

1 Like

Yes, exactly this.

All the bits of IF I’ve written so far have been experiments and apprentice pieces. I think I’m at the point when I can embark on a full-length project.

I’m in sore need of a structured workflow, so that I can do a couple of hours useful work in the evenings, and be able to pick up where I left off.

I need a process which can answer these questions:

  1. Will this idea work (in advance of coding it all up)?
  2. If not, what should I change?
  3. How long will it take me?

This is a problem which affects screenwriters and novelists too. So I’ve been looking into some of the various writing systems (and there are many).

I’ve just finished reading Robert McKee’s Dialogue and I’m a couple of chapters into Eric Edson’s Story Solution. The latter is highly prescriptive on structure, which I think is what I need.

My direction for 2024 will be to follow this process to build a multimedia IF project in a non-traditional framework (Python/Web).

Please share if you’ve tried this sort of approach. I would very much like to hear your experiences.


I always liked the Bismark quote about it being better to learn from other people’s mistakes (eg reading books). And reading books has certainly helped me. Unfortunately for myself, in being able to figure out if a design is going to work, it’s really about personal experience, and spending hours building things that end up not working. And every new project is going to present new problems and pitfalls that you aren’t going to see coming. I’ve spent so much time building things I end up not using, so I’m really trying to pare everything down to the essentials - what is the main idea, and does x promote it, and what is the minimal design to achieve it. Given how complex the problem is, even a ruthlessly pared down idea ends up being pretty complex. And I try to iterate as much as possible in the design stage. You won’t be able to nail everything down, but hopefully the issues you inevitably encounter in the implementation stage won’t be major structural issues that ruin the entire project.


Agree with Russo about tabletop RPG, to the point to enjoying adventure modules as form of fiction… (I’m unsure if I have explained well…)

On the process of creating games, indeed TTRPG playing and mastering helps, e.g. writing down “NPC sheets”, but if I got correctly the core question, if a simulationist game can narrate a story, my answer is an unquestionable “YES !”, whose is easily explained with ancient wisdom:
(hope that I have translated well; Italian version below my xlation)
“heard and forgot, read and learn, do and understand”
(“ascolto e dimentico, leggo ed imparo, faccio e capisco”)
that is, doing things in an simulated environment narrating a story lead to understanding the story narrated.

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


In my experience, developing IF comes closest developing scenarios for TTRPGs. Yes, IF delivers a story of some kind. There has to be a plot–a reason for the protagonist to be doing what they are doing. The same is true in a TTRPG scenario, as well as novels, screenplays, etc. The difference is that in IF and TTRPG scenarios, you’re writing the story knowing that someone else is going to decide what the protagonist does.

In a normal short story I not only decide what the world looks like, and establish the personal of the protagonist, I get to decide what the protagonist does to move the plot along. I don’t have to account for alternate choices because there are no alternate choices.

In writing a TTRPG adventure, I get to decide on the basic plot–the steps the characters must complete to reach the final conclusion. I have to provide challenges for the players, and try to lead them in the direction I want them to go. But, I also have to anticipate where they might go, how they might react, and what foolish things I might be able to get them to do and account for them.

In writing an IF game, I have the same challenge. Someone else is going to direct the actions of the protagonist, so I have to anticipate what they might do and make sure the game is still enjoyable (and, if not winnable, comically losable). The challenge in IF is a little easier than in TTRPG because: 1) 90% of playing an IF game is trial-and-error to learn how to play the game once through perfectly; and 2) if the player doesn’t like the way things are going, they can always type RESTART.


I nearly always start with a story idea, unless I start with the mechanism and then fit a story to it. Stephen King wrote an essay once where he compared writing to cups and handles. He has lots of cups without handles in his mind, and sometimes a handle will occur to him that matches the cup, and then the whole story is ready to go. I feel much the same way. I’ve got a mental file cabinet with a drawer of mechanisms, and another drawer with settings, or characters, or basic plots, and another with puzzle ideas. Sometimes something happens in my mind to click a couple of these together like cups and handles, or like legos. It’s an organic process. Then it either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it goes on the shelf and maybe one day I’ll click the missing lego into place and it will work then. It’s a process that I can’t force.

So questions like these:

aren’t ones I can ask. I can never know any of these things before I start something. I’m not sure how anyone can know these things.


They don’t? I mean, you’d think Woodhousian fiction has had its day, and yet it’s recently been going strong as ever. These kinds of topoi might be undead, but that just makes them more difficult to burry for posterity.

More on topic: without (at least) resorting to Dadaism, you will hardly be able to write interactive fiction and not automatically tell a story in the imagination of your readers.


You just had to mention Stephen King. The only novel of his I tried to read was Misery (since I liked the movie) but got irritated before 50 pages. I did read On Writing which I thought was interesting. But if I remember correctly the main piece of advice was to promote the process in which you start with an idea and just keep writing and see where it goes. I’m firmly in the create a design/outline camp. If you are only adapting later sections of the story as you add them, then you are missing the ability (or at least making it significantly harder) to improve the earlier sections. I can already hear people telling me that King is a master and has so much skill and experience that he’s already figured everything out in his head, which just sounds ridiculous to me and contradicts the stated process of figuring out where things go. It seems more likely to me that he just doesn’t actually have anything to say and is just churning out text.


It’s a bold move in a forum full of writers who probably all have different processes to just come out and say that anyone who doesn’t use outlines is a hack whose work is probably bad.

Not unless you’re publishing serially. This is exactly what self-editing/writing multiple drafts is for.


Great! Glad that works for you.

I just liked the cup-and-handle metaphor, but I see that was a delicate subject. Why exactly did you ask for opinions here?


I think I’m the same way with cups and handles! I have a whole lot of ideas saved up waiting for another idea to pair them with.


I didn’t say that people who don’t follow a particular process are hacks, though my negative opinion of Stephen King’s writing probably could have been separated more clearly from what I think is a legitimate criticism of that particular process. Certainly it is possible to just write and never rewrite or edit anything and in the process discover and create something amazing, and it is also possible to create multiple drafts and create something amazing. Whether you are iterating with drafts or outlines you are still iterating. But writing an entire story and becoming attached to many aspects of it and then having to rewrite a lot of it because something fundamental isn’t working takes a lot of time and energy. So instead of simply dismissing me maybe you could offer some ideas about how you handle these problems and complexities.

Here’s a thought: do stories need drama?

According to the standard story telling principle, you do need drama. And protagonist. And Character Growth. Resulting in Life Affirming Choices.

But there’s another principle to tell stories: Slice of Life. Iyashi Kei is considered “healing” stories. No drama. No Antagonist. Kishotenketsu.

I argue that such stories is just as valid, but especially so in IF circles. Consider the usual dating VNs. The protagonist choose a girl. Who is the Antagonist? Usually, there is none. But the stories are there and we are emotionally affected just as much as, if not more, than action movies.

Who is the Antagonist in a Battle Royal? How about Treasure Hunter collecting Artifacts in adventure games? There is no Life Affirming Choices in such stories, because… Life Happens, and such life is as interesting as conflicts.

Crafting a memorable characters and/or environments is more important that any plot/drama. IMO.


Fully concur & agree on the last point !!

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

I honestly don’t get the premise of the post.

Does IF deliver a story?

Unless it is poorly written or sets out to not tell a story then of course it tells a story.

Even bad IF tells a story.

If the IF has no inherent storyline it follows (or leads the player through) your own actions within the simulation tells a story, even if it may not be all that interesting.

My own 3 IFs definitely tell stories. Each was intended to tell a very detailed and hopefully well thought-out story. A lot of the “game” is intended to unfold the “story”.

At times daemons will lead the player through very specific story elements that follow a very specific plot.

I refer to mine as IF Stories more than I refer to them as IF Games.