IF and spatial reasoning

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!

When i played IF as a kid, my favorite aspect was exploring new worlds over the puzzle-solving, etc. It’s probably because it was great escapism. Also, I’ve read some players of IF also enjoy that exploration process and so in my IFComp entry, “Jesse Stavro’s Doorway”, the first chapter is the infiltration of a house and the entire house is laid-out in the IF world. I got dinged on this many times in the reviews, however, so maybe it’s a fine line one has to draw when creating said world to explore. Either way, it’s still my favorite aspect despite critics complaining that my maps are too expansive. True, each room should serve a purpose and I’ve definitely over-done it in the past. Still, I hope others agree to some extent with what I’m saying.

This is very insightful, and a much better distinction than the tired old “parser vs. choice” one! If the competition reviews are anything to go by, I’m afraid world exploration games have it tough these days. People seem to be routinely looking for central plot points revealed explicitely through text dumps, rather than picking up clues from their surroundings. Whether they’re not able or not willing to go with this sort of implicit storytelling (which requires piecing things together by themselves in the end), I don’t know. In any case, that seems to be the prevalent consensus summing up many baffling complaints about a number of games this year.

One thing, I gather, which makes this approach so hard to sell is that it often makes communication about central plot points hard. Boiled down to this revelation style, there is often little to impress the passive, indirect audience which did not experience the interaction themselves. I would go as far as saying that being told the plot of such a game can never be the same as experiencing it first hand.

I know that when Infocom was still cranking out games, I enjoyed drawing up maps, but it could also very confusing. I could only keep a few maps in my head at the time, and I was just glad for the games.

An automap would be a huge help, and I think in this case, we have an extension for that. Nevertheless, a Twine with a mapping frame on the left might work very well indeed. Something like Krypteia, only it’s always visible.

You could do that easily enough, just by putting the map code into the sidebar, or wherever you wanted it.

Interesting (and telling) that when people hear world exploration, all they think about is mapping. Visiting locations is only a tiny fraction of this, in my opinion.


I explore when I open a drawer, when I read a left-behind diary, when I interact with alien, steampunk machinery, when I dialogue with NPCs…

But the original post was explicitly about spatial exploration.

…which includes the exploration of locations rather than just their connections between one another, doesn’t it?

Yes, but then we run against an issue with our tools. When we’re interacting with a world in text form, the fact that the coffee table is between the doorways is more or less window dressing. It doesn’t usually change the way we interact with the coffee table, and it can be pretty confusing when it does. For instance, in Counterfeit Monkey

in the scene where you have to free the demonstrators I had a terrible time keeping track of what was far away from me and what was close to me and therefore interactable, even though it was critical to the puzzle.

Whereas if you have to move from the living room to the backyard through the kitchen, that concrete interaction gives us the sense that the kitchen is in between the living room and the backyard without our needing to be told. We experience it actively.

This can be contrasted with graphic games, where the fine-grained location of the objects is immediately visible and also determines how we interact with the object even if the exact location isn’t important (we may have to move the mouse to the location of the object or have a character walk there).

So I think it’s natural for our spatial models to track the world model; within rooms the objects will be fairly undifferentiated in their location.

Still, this kind of difference stands.

I’d have a lot more to say on the matter, but now I’m at work. I’d just like to point out that - of the games that I’ve played, which are not that many, I must admit - only With those we love alive had a sort of spatial relation, although lacking the real “go north etc” it felt more like jumping than walking. And I suspect that kind of “world model” is so much hard to achieve with Twine or similar tools. In the end, anyway, the exploration was NOT part of the story, in the specific game.

Adding on-the-go, reading your further explanation, what I want to say is that we EXPLORE not just by walking rooms or deciding where objects are, but also by interacting with the world model. By opening containers, by having a story told us by an NPC and so on. Which i suppose is fairly easier to accomplish in Twine than room-walking.

Well, there’s a fair amount of room-walking Twine. In this contest as ifl pointed out Krypteia was very much about exploring a map (and so was Icepunk), and in older games there’s Chemistry and Physics, mostlyuseless’s Surface from the 2014 Spring Thing (and to some extent Witch’s Girl too, where the repeatable storylets were very much organized by place), and in howling dogs the overworld was very much about moving from room to room. But it is true that in Twine you have to make an effort to enable room-walking, and in Inform you have to make an effort to disable it.

Hence the distinction in the original post being made not between development systems.

I’m going to add a temporal dimension: parser games tend towards less noticeable global effects. You see this in parser games having a frozen-in-time feeling or where interactions with NPC are shallow (few effects outside of that NPC). World-changing events and complex interactions over multiple NPCs are just more difficult (not impossible) to model in parser compared to choice games.
As for world exploration. I tend to enjoy games with detailed locations more than expanse. That doesn’t mean huge text dumps, it means rich interactivity… if I’m in a kitchen I want to be able to open the fridge, look in the drawers, make a sandwich -> or be told why that’s not a good thing to do in this game.