Gimmicks and their role in IF

The broad definition of gimmick that I’m using for the purpose of this post:

I am probably making a poor word choice, here, since “gimmick” is loaded with bad connotations. You may call it by a different (or even better) name and that’s cool with me, I’m not interested in debating the semantics. Just pretend I used your word, instead.

First of all, let me start by saying that I don’t believe these kinds of gimmicks are necessarily a bad thing. They often make sense in the context of the game. I enjoy many of them. So why even mention them? Because it seems like the “top” lists and competition winners are often the entries with a gimmick. I’m not an IF author, yet, but it seems more difficult to garner appreciation solely by high quality writing, world-building, and puzzles.


  • Photopia: the colors as both a plot device and literal text color
  • Spider and Web: the flashback gameplay device
  • Counterfeit Monkey: the primary gameplay mechanic of linguistic manipulation
  • Lost Pig: the Orcish language
  • Shade: the one-room aspect and the twist

These are some of the best IF games ever written, no arguments there. The writing is high quality and the gimmicks serve the games well. But if I’m honest it makes me feel pressured to come up with some sort of novel plot or gameplay device in order for anyone to appreciate my game, instead of just writing a good story.

Nothing wrong with a good plain story, but I understand the urge to innovate or at least twist something in a game. I’ve done it a whole lot - not innovate necessarily, but have a gimmick such as meta commentary or an “AHA!” moment.

A good mechanic is one of the hallmarks of a good game. The difference between a mechanic and a gimmick is that a gimmick is incidental to the game, but a mechanic is something a game is designed around.

I think the reason good games have good mechanics is because good games are coherent; the puzzles and story have repeated or similar elements that tie everything together. A lot of just okay games are a collection of unrelated puzzles or scenes that advance a simple story, without any real connection.

For an example of a good game that doesn’t use ‘fancy’ mechanics, you can see Hunger Daemon. It’s a classical type adventure that just relies on the funny plot to tie together the puzzles.

Also sometimes (for me at least) an entire game idea will come out of a title that is a pun or double entendre. “Hunger Daemon” fits this.

I suppose it’s sort of the same way with video games. People complain about the likes of FIFA and Battlefield having the same gameplay year after year. They also complain about games like Haze which have a novel mechanic, but which just doesn’t serve the gameplay very well.

I feel like literature is the opposite. People are willing to read a good fantasy or sci-fi without any revolutionary plot devices. ASOIAF is great stuff, but it’s mostly about the time-tested power and sex. It also has magic/zombies/etc., but those are not revolutionary in the genre.

You may have started an endless argument about what’s revolutionary in a genre… I will say that when the first ASOIAF book came out, it felt new and fresh in the published fantasy field. Not because any specific element was brand-new! Obviously you can find antecedents to everything. But it took the familiar genre elements and handled them in unexpected ways.

This is the trouble with talking about novelty: genre insiders see one changed mechanic (or gimmick) standing out in a field of unremarked genre conventions.

Yeah, I think I’m looking at this all wrong. The “gimmick” is not something added to an IF game to make it great. The “gimmick” is what makes something worth telling as an IF game instead of some other medium.

I wouldn’t call anything a “gimmick” unless it is a trick of some kind, specifically deceiving people about the intended purpose of the game/mechanic. If you do something out of the ordinary in order to make a great game, that’s not a gimmick, even if it’s incidental to the game as a whole.

What might count as a trick? Here are some examples, some trickier than others.

• Publishing IF in order to get people to buy some non-IF product
• Including a gate that requires people to promote you/your game on social media in order to progress
• Telling people your game is about one thing, then presenting a game about something totally different

That last example is close to what Craig called out as “incidental,” but only if you say that “this is a cool game about dragons” when dragons scarcely appear in the game at all.