IF as exploratory spaces

Hello everyone. I have been looking at a large quantity of IF and sadly I have to say I hardly ever finish any of them. The reason why is simple. Most of them feel compelled to have puzzles, and lots of them or are presenting a narrative without much if any input. Yes there are one turn games and other more exploratory ventures but they are few and far between.

My question is why is that? As I look at it IF is primed to allow for games that have lots of gameplay mechanics, large spaces and set pieces to explore with very little comparative effort. I know that writing and polishing them takes time but its still far less so then classical games of any kind.

Again the question that creeps up is why that is the case. Why not embrace the potential of the medium and offer more exploratory spaces and mechanics that go beyond simple puzzle solving. IF makes it exceedingly easy to have rather complex world models, if we so desire.

And to not just ask but also offer my take on the matter. The main reason is because IF is held back by its strict adherence to the use of virtual machines and non existence of any modern development tools or practices. I can’t fathom its a lack of creative input given how many great smaller scale puzzle driven games the medium produces.



I’m not really sure what you’re looking for. You want a piece of IF with both narrative and game aspects removed? So you just want to move from room to room with nothing to do? I don’t really get it.

No I think I might not communicated that clearly enough what I mean. What I am thinking of is a IF that still tells a story but it does so really occupying the space it takes place in rather then the locations and people are props and set pieces. NPC’s that follow schedules depending on their internal states, NPCS that have moods and act according to them, which influence what they might do or where they might be.

In short what I am thinking about is having a more systemic approach to IF then trying to force a funneled narrative onto the player by having one path that the player must follow or they get “stuck” which said puzzle focused games generally tend to be. It casts the illusion of freedom and shatters it as soon as the player gets stuck the first time, and also fails to captivate a more general audience in my opinion.

What I am envisoning is giving the player spaces they can explore, with characters to interact with on a more systemic level that still has a narrative but the authored narrative not being the only means of engagement since it banks on the player getting invested in said narrative, which could or could not happen.

You could say I am seeing not enough “game” in Interactive fiction as it is most widely produced, even by the standards of the hayday of IF and not modern standards. While all of this might sound like I think IF is bad thats not what I try to say at all. I am just saying that there is lots of potential in thinking about IF on a more systemic level and give the players a space to explore rather then a narrowly defined narrative that we as authors force upon them.

Games are first and foremost toys, to be played with unlike a novel, games are participatory but too often IF is unnecessarily reducing itself to guess the correct command over actual player engagment.

Moving from room to room with nothing to do can be very rewarding, as in museums, libraries, aquariums, and zoos. A recent exposition challenged its entrants to create exploratory games, specifically games with no endings, set in zoos. Four games based on this prompt were entered and they were all very enjoyable despite containing little if anything in the way of puzzles or conventional narrative.

Another real-life situation in which one moves from place to place with nothing to do is when one goes on a hike. Last year, an excellent game was published that skillfully recreates the experience of exploring nature, eschewing conventional narrative elements like an overall goal or ending; unfortunately, the game also includes numerous puzzle-like elements.


Okay. I get what you’re saying now. To be honest, I’ve toyed with that idea as well.

However, I think there’s one giant hurdle from preventing it from being something enjoyable (as opposed to “possible”, which it definitely is), and that is the fact that repetitive text gets old really fast and it’s pretty much impossible to make a world feel organic with automatically generated text. Visual games don’t have this issue, so “walking simulators” are pretty common. But for text, I think that pushing the player forward (whether by narrative or puzzles) is a solution to avoiding repetitive text.

Edit: Actually, maybe I didn’t read your response closely enough. :sweat_smile:

I think gaming has changed compared to the old days like Zork and such. It probably has a lot to do with being spoilt for choice when it comes to games, but most modern gamers don’t want to get lost in games. They want to get in, have an experience, and get out. If they’re stuck wandering aimlessly, they’ll drop the game. This is why PC and console RPGs not only come with a task list but also objective markers on the map. They’re catering to player demand.

Obviously this is not true for all gamers, but I think it’s true for most. It’s definitely true for me.

I get where you are coming from and partially agree. The counter example I find are JRPGS. To give a specific example the trails of series which are generally 60+ hour affairs where even the most minute NPC has its own story that plays out as the story progresses and actually has continunity that goes on for a good two decades now.

I am not necessarily saying that the player should just wander aimlessly. What I try to advocate is that the narrative itself occupies a larger chunk of the world. To give an example from the series I mentioned above. A simple janitor in the school the first gam of the sub series “trails of cold steel” takes place the player can talk to or completly ignore. If the player does the same janitor will mention the character by name and shares tidbits of his life with the player. Its optional, completly missable but adds depth and meaning to a character instead of them being just a dispenser for text.

Another example is that characters tend to be in spots that fit the time of day and even time of year the story is currently in. A concrete example is a guy that is fishing in different spot. The player character even comments that said character is absent if you check his regular spot and if you look for said character you get to do a small sidequest. To do so however you have to go out of your way to check said spot which is not even near the path the main quest requires you to go on, but if you do you are rewarded.

That is genearlly something I think that IF needs, which is that the space a narrative occupies becoming wider, and more filled rather then the tendency to minimize. Especially IF players are generally more patient and willing to immerse themselves but we seem to write IF like we would write for AAA games to funnel players through an experience in less then an hour.

Twine games actually do that differently and have more systemic games that feel more like a game, with exposed mechanics, which IF almost uniformly lack. I know that it might be unweildy to have combat in IF form for example and I dont advocate to focus purely on gameplay, but I strongly advocate that we remember that a game is as I said before a toy, that means we have to give the player a means to interact in ways that are not necessarily intended by the author.

To put it simply what I am missing are games that have a bit more sandboxy of a feel. Think Fallen London, sunless sea, sunless sky and so on. Heavy on the mechanics, lots of exploratory space and immensly well written narrative storylets.

Mmm. Okay. I agree with what you’ve said. There’s definitely a place for that kind of stuff. That extra attention to detail that helps flesh out the world.

The obvious reason this doesn’t exist in IF is because the majority of IF is usually made by a single person that has a difficult enough time just trying to complete the main narrative. The reason that games like the “Trails of” or Witcher (if I’m to add another similar example) are able to accomplish this is because they have a team of 200+ working on the game. The person writing the main story quest is usually not the one writing the side quest material, and neither of those groups are the ones writing random NPC banter. It’s a collective of writers fleshing out the world, which is not a luxury that hobbyist IF writers have.

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Yeah that seems rather plausible, but also a bit sad. And in parts I also think (and this might be considered a sarcrilege to think) is because a lot of IF is written for competitions within very narrow timeframes. I know I am not making a good impression here and I aplogize, because I come and join the community and basically advocate for it to pivot without anything to show for on my own end (which I hope to rectify).

I do assure you all though I do not do so to advocate my personal taste or any other personal gain but for my love of the medium since I strongly believe that IF even has commercial potential far beyond what it has shown so far.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting more. I too would love to see games have the kind of depth that you’re describing. But it’s a bit like wishing a hobbyish musician would do a collab with Ariana Grande instead of some rando they found on YouTube. If their means allowed for it, I’m sure they would also prefer it, ya know?

Myself, I’ve only started dabbling in writing IF. My only real game isn’t even complete and it took a lot more work than I expected. Feature bloat is real. Every time I added a new event, I would consider what ramifications it would have on the characters there, so the ripple of each event would spread to each character every time. It snowballs quite quickly.

I don’t think “written for competitions” implies “within very narrow timeframes” at all, at least not within the IF community: I certainly hear about people submitting games to IFComp and Spring Thing that they have been working on for over a year…

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I’m actually in the early stages of developing a game more like this. I’m writing it in Inform 7, and have pretty ambitious plans re space, NPCs, plot etc. However the scale of it, and that I’m developing it in my spare time (which is very spread out due to illness), means it’s likely to take years to complete.

To be honest as an old timer a lot of what you’re writing about reminds me of MUDs. Have you played those at all? Though they are traditionally more slash and grab treasure hacks than games with emergent plots, they do have the sort of open world exploration and NPCs you’re looking for.

Emergent plot is more of a challenge, and something that academic researchers are tackling. I think there’s probably quite a lot to be learned from traditional pen and paper roleplaying games here, and specifically sandbox type settings, where the players can explore a rich, fully implemented world. But for solo amateur developers of interactive fiction that is extremely challenging to implement, for both logistical and time availability reasons.

To turn things around again have you considered trying to ŵrite your own game, to show people what you are looking for? A proof of concept would be nice. Even a smaller case study demonstrating the ideas. There are more modern IF tools out there, including Inform 7. It might be good for you to explore some of the issues, and to show us what you want.

Meanwhile I will continue with my game development :slight_smile: I will report back when it is eventually complete!


Yes I have played MUDs althought not really extensive, especially because they are very combat focused most of the time. After you mentioned I actually looked up the topic some more and indeed found some academic work in that regard which was a great read, and to a degree has shifted my perspective on the topic, so thanks for that.

I have been looking into writing my own IF and have dabbled in both Inform 7 and TADS3. The latter was promising due to it scaling better. I love Inform for what it does as an enabler but have a hard time grasping how well it would scale due to how the syntax is structured and how projects are laid out. I am still experimenting to offloading chunks of the game into their own extension to have a bit better segregation then chapters and books.

I rather would try to write a simple three word parser from the ground up in c# but I am have a very hard time finding good literature to gain the necessary knowledge. I know rough concepts (seperation in lexer, parser, tokenizer) and how each part is supposedly working but my knowledge is not there yet to write my own).

I might give it a try in inform 7 because thats what I am most familiar with so far.

Whatever sort of video game you are into, at some point an author will try to fuse it with traditional IF. I myself have two ideas for projects that would involve procedural generation and (hopefully) emergent gameplay. Sadly that will have to wait until I finish my work in progress. In the meantime you might want to check out Kerkerkruip, which includes procedurally generated content and is more combat-focused than puzzle-focused.

I am not sure what “modern” means in this context, but regardless, new development tools are being added all the time, and they open up new possibilities. For example, Dialog has been hailed for being a new system that compiles compact code for the Z-Machine, and well it should be, but what intrigues me is that its syntax is based on that of Prolog, a programming language that greatly simplifies certain aspects of AI design. That alone is an indication that better NPCs are on their way, and I am confident that we will see other exciting developments in the not too distant future.

Modern for me means that it scales to the needs of teams. That it provides sufficent level of abstraction, and that it scales to scopes that modern games might require. Gluxe was a step in the right direction and I get that due to the genre’s heritage and the wish to be multiplatform the need for virtual machines is there but that holds it back in my opinion.

A threadsafe, managable and scalable language like rust or my personal preference c# has all of that but the best approximation for a domain specific implementation was in Java of all things which again I assume was due to the inherent requirement to be multiplatform.

While Inform 7 made some headway you lack basic things like being able to segment code in mutliple files to allow multiple people to work on the same project. Things like text highlighting and color are a pain to implement if they exist. Multimedia and even simple mouse usage are almost non existent either. Inheritance based modeling, interfaces, data handling and much much more. Generally all things that on the reduce friction on the developers as well as the users end.

The first major hurdle any IF has to pass is that they have to have some interpreter. At that point you already loose a sizeable chunk of your potential audience compared to compiling to specific platform targets.

IMO, writing creatively in multipurpose utility language is a pretty horrible experience. There are so many language conventions you must adhere to that have absolutely nothing to do with your game. You’re better off just writing your own scripting language dedicated to making text adventures so you can concentrate on what’s important. But since there are so many that already that exist, you need to create one that’s better than those or else you should just use one of the available options.

I actually think the opposite is true. Look at Zork and all the Infocom games. The entire reason those games carried on was because they used a packaged interpreter that was reverse engineered. If they had bundled the games into the executable, we’d be stuck trying to play them using a DOS emulator.

The difference is that when you don’t use an interpreter, the players are at the mercy of the dev to port the game to the platform of your choice. When you use an interpreter, you can leave it up to others to create a single application that will run your entire library without having to recompile or port any of your games.

One of the reasons that Twine is so popular is that the browser acts as the interpreter. If we had to rely on an OS specific application that ran as well as the IDE does (which is not well at all, IMO), I don’t think it would have survived.

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I tend to play with this concept in my own games,

so I made Skybreak!, a game with a huge number of spaces to explore…but you move around the map randomly and can only do one thing at each location: https://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=b21j5feykymttixm

and I made Tingalan, a game where there are no puzzles except figuring out how the map works. https://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=yt0l0nzzztygdn12

I will give both of those a look, thanks for sharing. I am now moving into pre production and design of something in that kind of vein. The idea is that location and object description is infused with the protagonists voice, which is a gamble to have a protagonist that has a very distinct voice.

In regards to what you said Tayrun. I think I might once more due to English not being my native language have communicated purely. I did not mean to say to write an IF in the mentioned languages but in a domain specific language based on those languages. That way you have the best of both worlds. You have your domain specific input as well as the means to have a fallback should you need something that is not in the (by defintion) opinionated design of the domain specific language.

My main gripe is that what we have at the moment is very opinionated. As to the fact that we might play Zork in a DOS emulator yes we might and I personally do not see that as an issue due to the drawbacks virtual machines poses but I know I am in a minority with that opinion.

In regards to Twine I have to strongly disagree. Twine works because its hyperlink based, first and foremost. Twine as a standalone application in my opinion would have a very similar level of adaptation then it has right now.

I used to play Sryth and attempted to create my own text-based open world inspired by it. The actual creation of the world, and your character to explore it, was the easy bit. It even tracked time, so some locations would change depending on the time of day (congregations would attend church at certain times, for example) or time of the year (mystical portals opening on solstices and equinoxes). Even NPCs could be tracked with programmed routes as they wandered the lands as they went about their business (for example pedlars moving between villages with their wares).

I did get to the “so what” stage of the project, tho, and stopped working on it - and this was part of the reason I stopped playing Sryth, too. The adventures in Sryth didn’t join together into anything coherent. It didn’t go anywhere so each experience was standalone and disjointed. There was also the challenge of balancing the right amount of text with which to describe each location - players could come back to the some locations many times, so it shouldn’t be repetitive, but still needed to be immersive, which required it to be rich in evocative language. And there’s also the problem that a large open world may be explored over a long period of real-world time, so the player shouldn’t necessarily be expected to remember the obscure clues they have so far gathered in their exploring (especially from locations that may only be able to visit once).

I would love to play a better version of Sryth - something with more of a joined-up story, with NPCs that live and breathe and with whom the player can have meaningful interactions. I would also love to be the guy that could write something like that, but even writing Night of the Demon has more than taxed my free time (and programming skill). Even a such a simple “basic” game has required A LOT of designing and coding - every new verb I add to the vocabulary and every additional item I put into the game multiples the amount of conditions that need to be captured in lots of different locations.

If you compare the complexity of traditional interactive adventure fiction games, in which there is a single objective that all actions, items, and locations will take your character closer to achieving, to open worlds, with living NPCs with their own routines and objectives, multiple quest lines, lots of items that may have overlapping uses, etc., and the effort required to implement the latter is orders of magnitude greater, as @tayruh has already mentioned.

An interesting ambition, though, and not to be discouraged - I’m only lamenting the reasons that I never pursued such a project. I would, of course, wish anyone else the greatest of success with it!


I can see where you are coming from with that. I am still in the very early stages but I hope to bring such a world albeit probably on a smaller scale to life. The great thing about it is that a storylet based game like I envison might scale better.

Weirdly enough I found some interesting conceptual approaches to how to solve tha tin traditional indie gaming as well as the AIF space. While most AIF is despicable in terms of portrayal of sexuality, equality and such due to its low barrier of entry it proves to be a extrenly experimental space with little fear of failure it seems.

I see what you mean, and before now I have found that I like to think of myself as a toy maker at heart. As a (sadly) teamless gamemaker using Twine exclusively, I think I have demonstrated in a small way some of the potential of such a situation.

My first game I made (but which I recently finished off) has an end, but it’s a needle in a haystack, which you simply might eventually find in your exploration, and there is no indication of where you might find it except for one clue (and there is no indication of where to find that either). The rest is exploration of a dreamscape. However, the only interaction is choosing a path, and maybe coming back and choosing a different path next time, nothing like things to pick up or characters to talk to.

The one I made after that was tiny, and I used images to make a little house you can explore, watch TV, look in a mirror, look in a closet, read a tiny book, etc… I made it for my brother for his birthday.

Then I made a huge game (comparatively) on the same principle, even including a version of the little house. It has a goal, but there are whole villages and things to explore apart from the goal. There is even a library where you can read a few books and listen to records.

My other largest game, which I recently remade, has two main goals, but a lot of other things to find too, and things like sword fighting and a card game which are necessary for the main goals can also be replayed for their own sake.

That said, on the whole my favourite game I’ve made is entirely linear, an atmospheric monster slashing game. I think it has the smoothest and least confusing dynamic.

There are various ideas for text games that I want to make, like a small Heroes of Might and Magic type game, but they’re coming on very slowly. I really like the idea of an exploratory space, in which there is a game you can play or a book you can read. It was also in a game I like called Journaliere. Sorry if this is way too many links in one post!

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