It struck me that many of the entries in this year’s IFComp, and perhaps many works of interactive fiction in general, fall into one of two distinct categories:
In certain games, you explore a world from within, keeping track of the spatial relations between objects and locations. Your overall aim is to map out every nook and cranny of the simulated world. In the process you get ideas about sub-goals, devise strategies for reaching them, and try out the strategies. Essentially, these are world exploration games, but the best ones also have a compelling story woven into the simulated environment, anchored to elements of the game world. By the time all of the world has been explored, the story has also unfolded.
In other games, you are primarily exploring a story, or sometimes a set of alternative stories. This creates a sense of navigating an abstract network of cutscenes, rather than a concrete fictional world. Your overall aim is to explore the potential twists and turns of the plot, and to discover any underlying mechanisms affecting how the cutscenes play out. These are story exploration games.
Thus, in a world exploration game, you take the protagonist in different directions, and in a story exploration game, you take the story in different directions.
I would say that parser-oriented games tend to be of the world exploration variety, whereas choice-oriented games tend to be of the story exploration variety. But in the competition, there were several notable exceptions. For instance,
Enigma is a parser-driven game about exploring a story, and Krypteia is a choice-driven game about walking around in a world.
Personally, I find myself more immersed in world exploration games, in the sense that I can readily picture myself as being the protagonist inside the simulated environment. In games where navigation is expressed in terms of cardinal directions, rather than e.g. room names, I find the sense of immersion to be even stronger. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, because navigation by compass points arguably calls for a greater amount of suspension of disbelief. But perhaps this is a clue to what’s actually happening.
Somehow, in the real world, our brains construct a sense (or illusion, if you prefer) of us being in a particular place. I think spatial relations are at the heart of this process. For instance, our eyes might pick up two doorways set at right angles with a coffee table in between, and this pattern of relative locations could be enough to trigger a memory of a particular room that we are familiar with, and activate associations to what we know about neighbouring rooms. In this way, the brain builds a model of how to reach all sorts of things in our vicinity, and this surfaces as a conscious sense of “being here”. So maybe the sense of immersion is reinforced when a game feeds concrete, spatial data to our self-orienting brain functions, tricking them into constructing a fictional model of our surroundings.
Scenery tends to be described at a higher level in story exploration games, and the result is a less tangible world model. Since we do not apply our spatial reasoning abilities to elements of the game world, these brain functions occupy themselves with other stimuli, and are perhaps diverted onto the medium: For twineoid games in particular, I often get the feeling that I’m using spatial memory to keep track of what the various links do, based on their appearance and placement on the page. This then reinforces a sense of being neither in the game world nor on a chair in front of a computer, but somewhere in between. In fact, it feels similar to being “on” a website or “in” a computer program.
Finally, let me emphasise that in my opinion, a piece of interactive fiction can be both enjoyable and deeply engaging even without the strong feeling of being there that I mostly associate with world exploration games.
Comments? Thoughts? Rebuttals? Let me know what you think!