Getting over the hump

Hey, everybody, this post is just about a problem I’ve been recently having with the creative writing process. I’m working on a novel-length IF, and the puzzles just don’t seem to be falling into place. I’m worrying extensively about developing my characters, presenting a realistic setting, and presenting the ideas in such a way that tells a cohesive story; but the game design elements aren’t sinking in yet.

I’m writing my script now, and I’m having trouble presenting a more coherent plot. I’m good with the ideas, but I seem to keep making a lot of amateurish decisions. The stories not as good as I keep envisioning it to be. And, like I’ve already mentioned, I keep worrying that there aren’t enough puzzles.

Most of the interaction coming from the player revolves around investigation. I plan to plant a lot of interesting items in this first chapter, and I need to find a way to get all the subplots to meet together do to the player’s creative efforts. I’m not used to telling stories with this kind of medium, although I’m very used to writing literature that involves some kind of mystery.

I’ve decided to write my novel in this medium, because I’ve decided I like this medium the most. My only problem is my inability to transpose what I know about great exposition techniques in static literature, to more interactive prose. I don’t want the story to seem too linear, although the tale still has a definite direction. There is certainly a goal, but I would like to keep the old adventure game habit of solving puzzles in multiple orders. I need some kind of technique to organize my plot. Are there are any useful links I could use? Or should I just try writing my first drafts of this interactive novel as straight as I possibly can, before settling on some of the more alternative choices the player might muster?

I believe this story needs its challenges, but the conflict involved is mainly a mystery. I feel like I need to plant story ideas in the setting somehow, but I keep having to adjust the map, reconfigure the plotline, elaborate ideas; it’s getting very complicated. What do you think the best way of approaching puzzle-design might be, especially in regards to meshing it with story?

You might find this helpful: … mentation/

Thanks for the link. It’s been very helpful. I don’t know how to use any IF development systems yet, but I’ve created some separate word documents to list what I could otherwise describe in a development system; I also created a scene index, to organize my sense of direction. This takes a different approach than writing static prose, it seems: you can’t just draft you story over-and-over again, because IF seems to take a more organized method than that. Fortunately, I’m very organized with my knowledge, so this isn’t a big stretch for me.

Here’s an approach I take to designing puzzles/challenges around story-heavy games.

  1. Figure out which pieces of your story are mandatory, such that the player will not understand or have the full experience of your narrative without them. These can be twists and outcomes that happen as the player goes along; they can also be bits of backstory that illuminate characters and provide motivation. These are the backbone of your piece.

Other interesting/fun facts about your world and characters that aren’t mandatory, note down and set aside. You’ll use those later, but they don’t go into the core puzzle design.

  1. For each of the things you need the player to understand thoroughly, ask yourself: how could I ask the player to demonstrate an understanding of this story element? If the story point is about learning that NPC X secretly hates NPC Y, maybe the puzzle is about using X against Y somehow. Ideally, you want to make sure that the player has a chance both to discover the information and then to make use of that information again, creating active knowledge of your most important plot points. (If this helps, I think of my job as teaching the player the story, just as a textbook would have some explanation followed by an exercise to cement understanding.)

You may find that certain pieces of information don’t depend on each other and can be made into parallel puzzles, creating the “discover in any order” effect you’re talking about. I usually make a chart with lines and boxes. Gareth Rees’ classic article on the plot and puzzle design of Christminster might also be helpful reading, though he disagrees with some of the advice I just offered. But hey.

Also, note that the difficulty of these puzzles is totally up to you, and sometimes if you’re doing something story-heavy, it’s best to err on the side of more accessible puzzles; if they’re doing their essential job of checking that the player understands something and making sure he doesn’t see a later part of the story before he’s ready to get it, they’re narratively functional.

  1. For each of the big emotional or choice moments: how can I use interactivity to reinforce the feelings of helplessness, agency, or other characterization points that go here?

These elements don’t have to be puzzles in the sense of challenging the player to know or prove something – they can be, but it’s not required. This article talks about some different scene styles to achieve different effects; this one about the specific challenges of creating an interactive set piece scene.

  1. Plan out or even implement a skeleton version: discoveries followed by challenges to make sure the player understands the necessary facts; dramatic scenes that intensify emotion or feeling around crisis moments.

  2. Test the skeleton. See where the pacing feels wrong and where more depth would be nice. Alpha testing with one or two trusted friends who aren’t you can help you identify blindspots. Warn them that they’re not getting a fully finished game but that you want feedback on what you have.

  3. Flesh the game out. All the backstory that you decided wasn’t critical enough to deserve its own puzzle? Add that in now, as optional things the player can find. It can appear in dialogue, it can be in side scenes, whatever.

Design so that the player can choose to dig in more deeply to interesting issues if he wants to, but always knows what to do in order to advance the main story plot. (More about the expand/advance distinction shows up in this review.)

This is also the right point to adjust the pacing and foreshadowing based on your testing from step four. Do you find that the big twist scene doesn’t have enough impact on the player because he just doesn’t actually care enough about the protagonist’s girlfriend yet? Maybe you need an earlier scene to set up the relationship more.

As a bonus, I suggest trying (if you haven’t) Make It Good. It’s pretty difficult, but it’s an amazing game in terms of mostly avoiding really artificial puzzles in favor of a mystery scenario that naturally contains challenge and discovery.

I think I’ve talked about this before: I have a habit of trying to put all my eggs in one basket. I come up with some big epic idea, where I’m vague on the details, and then I dig myself a big hole and get stuck. At some point in my life I discovered that (if you don’t mind me switching metaphors) I don’t have to implement all my ideas at once, I can put some on the back burner, er, for a rainy day, so to speak. :stuck_out_tongue:

The key is, I tell myself, “what I am going to create now is not my last and greatest work. I am only going to use some of my ideas, the ones that fit here and the ones I am able to implement given the time, tools, and skills I have available right now.” If that means postponing your big novel to make a shorter work that helps you get familiar with the development system you’re using, maybe that’s okay. My dad came back to many of his childhood hobbies in his 40s, even went back and got a college degree. “Life is long,” he told me: you don’t have to do everything right now.

Even if that means writing the same story twice, maybe that’s okay. Lots of writers write the same story over and over again. Some of them did a great job at least one of those times, and it wasn’t always the first time. I don’t think there’s any shame in that.

One alternative is to collaborate with someone that finds puzzle design comparatively easy.

I envision the setting, the characters, the theme, the one true path and alternate paths in detail before I code them. For the plot, I come up with a outline with the one true path and any alternate paths that work with the story and that’s all I need. Then I begin implementing. This probably results in a game that doesn’t have as many choices, but if you go over to ifdb, you’ll find that people will hate whatever you make, so as far as popularity goes, it doesn’t matter anyways. The actual puzzles I work out as I’m working on the game. My games are not puzzle-heavy or even have hard puzzles in them, because I’m an atmosphere kind of guy. So, this approach works for me.

You can spend months planning something and never get started on a project, or you can understand that you’re imperfect and you will make imperfect things, and just go for it. The key is to shoot for excellence, not perfection.

Thanks for all these great posts, and thank you Emily Short for the great article as well as the great tips that I thought were very relevant to my project.

I believe the tidbit about staring pretty small was very sound, and this story that I’m writing now is not that “deep,” compared to some other ideas that I have. I think what I’m tackling now is fairly easy. I’m a very atmosphere-heavy guy, so I think that’s mainly what I’ll be going for. I can experiment with puzzle-design some type later, once I get more experienced with this medium.

What Poster mentioned about their being one true path, and a lot of alternate paths, in an interactive fiction story resonated with me a lot, because I have a similar structure with my narratives. I don’t believe I’ll be able to please the whole fan-base with this story, especially considering my relative inexperience, but I believe that pleasing myself should be a sufficient way to start. Although I don’t think puzzles are gonna be my forte anytime soon, I’m looking forward to using the interactivity imbued within this medium to enable my readers to explore my fictional territories and lore more thoroughly, than something like a novel might provide. I’ll think about this advice, and check up on it some more, as I write and experiment with my draft. The implementing strategy has eased my writer’s block considerably, but there may still be some holes I haven’t learned to flank just yet. I’m sure I’m getting better though, so I’ll just keep hacking at my draft, using this thread as a kind of cornerstone at times, whenever I come across any substantial stumbling-blocks.

I think this concern is kind of related to the original topic of this thread, so I’ll go ahead and ask it here. Is there any free software that I might use that can make writing a non-linear script helpful? What I have in mind is some kind of “gamebook writer” which purposes is used for the development of branching paths in IF. Even something that’s not designed exclusively for the uses of plotting IF might come in handy. I find it difficult to organize my branching paths on my word processor.

If you just want to draw branching diagrams, I like Dia. I’ve found it pretty useful for mapping CYOAs thus far.

Yeah, diagrams are common for this kind of thing. Here are a couple examples:

Deirdra Kiai’s mindmap for The Play
My puzzle chart for Bronze, with assorted commentary

I use OmniGraffle for mine.

I use CmapTools. It doesn’t have many features but just enough to sketch puzzle/plot diagrams. Here’s an example made with it.

I haven’t tried it, but you might want to look at Storybook (

I have used Storybook. It does have the ability to mark branching paths, but I don’t think it can display those paths in a flowchart or anything like that. I haven’t used that feature (called “Strands” in the program) very much.

Unfortunately, the latest releases of Storybook have become increasingly nagware. I have found it useful, though.

Thanks for the suggestions. I’m gonna try Storybook right now.

It really is hard to get over the first hump with creating your very first interactive fiction as you would now know what is good enough and what is to be improved on when you start rolling things over.

What I like about it though is when you can care so much less and just let all things fall right into place when you planting them.

Ideas really flow from there.