Looking for recommendations: IF theory and criticism

I think it comes down to the differences between craft and theory.

Most of the topics I’ve read on IF theory skew toward craft. Even discussions on memesis, such a hot item twenty-plus years ago, tended to lean toward the pragmatic, such as “how to achieve and maintain memesis” or “does this break mimesis in my game?” Topics like fair puzzles, player’s bills of rights, dealing with “unnecessary” physical elements (“Should my house have a bathroom, even if it’s not important to the game?”) are all what I would call craft issues.

Some IF theory is more like “theory of operation,” in the sense of “Notice how players become involved in a second-person present-tense story where they chose the protagonist’s actions.” That’s theory, but it’s still focused on the mechanics of game play.

On the IF Wiki pages, there’s a handful of entries on gender and moral dilemmas in IF, but it’s pretty low-volume compared to craft and operation. Topics like creation of meaning and open vs. closed texts don’t seem as thoroughly discussed.

Here’s something I’ve noticed in traditional fiction: Craft tends to be discussed by writers. Theory tends to be discussed by critics. The IF community skews heavily toward writers. Maybe that’s why there’s more talk on craft than theory.

Without trying to minimize anything or anyone, there’s only so much that can be said about craft issues in any art. I suspect that’s why the talk dried up.

The criticism and theory side of things might heat up if there were more non-author players invested in the meaning of the games. It would probably help if IF had a larger cultural footprint.


I’ve been busy today so haven’t had a chance to post, but have had some ideas rattling around in my head to write up – except Jim just pulled together everything I’d been thinking about and then some. All of this seems exactly right to me, and I think it’d be interesting to have a community conversation about what a broader level of critical engagement (beyond the traditional I-bashed-this-out-on-a-short-deadline comp/festival review) might look like and if there’s any interest in ways to foster that. The eve of IFComp is probably not an ideal time for that, but it would be interesting to come back to later on.


Three words: IF Review Comp.


All good points, Jim. When I started Gold Machine (I registered the domain one year ago today!), I declared that it would operate from a “death of the author” starting point. I wanted to focus on audiences experiencing Infocom games as cultural objects, as texts that reflect their cultural context. I also wanted to consider the ways in which Infocom games contributed to what I might call a “cultural history” of gaming. Or to a creative context that later developers drew upon.

The most well-received bits from golmac talk about these things (I’m mainly referring to pieces that get picked up at Critical Distance) and give me hope that text games can be part of wider gaming conversations that even people outside of IF circles might follow.

Of course, now I am writing a game, which puts a new spin on the whole “death of the author” thing

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This is a very interesting book on twine history and theory: Twining: Critical and Creative Approaches to Hypertext Narratives

I think some of the narrascope talks had interesting discussions on theory (and in 2020). Here’s a GDC talk from Jon Ingold (he’s had a bunch of other talks). This podcast has some IF creators who are not part of this community.

In the visual novel space, there are some talks here from an online conference (I have not watched most of them). This is a zine about visual novels and interactive fiction.

There are some craft discussions in the Choice of Games forums as well. The Writing and Content forum has good discussions. In particular are Mathbrush’s post about playing every choice of game, and data analytics of Hosted Game popularity.

There are also interesting conversations on discord, but they’re unfortunately ephemeral.

I also wish we had more in-depth discussions of IF theory in a place like this forum (in particular ones that don’t privilege the parser medium), in a space that’s more informal than academia, more permanent and in-depth than discord or twitter, and more social than a blog. I think some of the more interesting recent discussions on here have been in postmortems, which is part of why I wrote all those long posts (and why I’m a little disappointed they haven’t had much engagement, although I’m part of the problem here as I haven’t been engaging with others as much as I could). Here is a reblog of a tumblr post I may or may not have written on twine genres: games and words — This is not a taxonomy; most games (especially...

[edit: i use the word “interesting” way too much…]


It sounds like a joke, but there actually have been attempts in this vein; @mathbrush ran a competition for the best IFComp reviewer a couple years ago (here’s the thread with results), as a way to encourage reviewers – and as a prize, I wrote a review of one of the winner’s reviews. That’s actually a bit I lifted from Mike Sousa, who reviewed all the 2002 Comp reviews (including mine, since that was the first IF Comp I judged!)

I think Brian wound up being a bit unsatisfied with how the competition went in terms of its main aim of generating more reviews, but I think there’d be scope to kick the idea around some more, perhaps with a different goal in mind (and maybe moving away from a competition structure since I think folks might be pretty Comped-out).

EDIT: While we’re on this topic, I feel like I should say that I think @kaemi’s reviews (and exegesis on Victor Gijsber’s IF archive are maybe the best contemporary example of the kind of criticism we’re talking about – so it does exist, though as Autumn says above, there’s a disappointingly low level of engagement.


What I really appreciate about reviews is their specificity. It is one person’s response to a specific work by a specific author. That grounded focus prevents reviews from freewheeling into free associative pubspew. A lot of craft and theory can slip off into syllogistic automata with assumed priors that generate so many statements that deserve a [[CITATION NEEDED]].

Because, I believe, the best reviews exist composed of that tension towards the universal, towards inflections of theory as informed by and conversant with this new data point. A lot of what we want to accomplish in the general appears in the specific. I think that is why Mike Russo’s reviews are often so engaging, is that they are replete with touch points of an active intellectual engagement that brings each new work into a larger conversation that produces many of the achievements we might normatively ascribe to theory, albeit in an unsynthesized, raw format. That dance between trying to think about art while speaking about an artwork is where the best reviews shine, delivering the calibre of insights for which we are currently pining. You see through the lens into worldlight.

If there is not enough of such content, it’s because reviews are hard, and the competition format often forces you to produce to a pace that prohibits more contemplative permeations that dwell beneath more immediate emotional responses. But it’s okay to fail, surely, in pursuit of the times that you don’t.

So I don’t think there is a qualitative gap here so much as the limitations of production in a niche hobby pursued in whatever free time we can cobble together week to week. It’s easy to romanticize all the cool things we could build, but who’s gonna build all of them, and who maintains them year on year? How many of us are logging in on a Sunday to fill in pages for IFWiki? Aaron is still looking for a successor organizer to Spring Thing; what happens if he never finds one? I’m not saying that in a hectoring way, I certainly have done nothing to help either situation. I’m just saying that there is so much beauty, passion, and dedication thriving in this vibrant little palace, and sometimes that gets missed in the mistyeyed soulsearching for What Else.


Thanks, Autumn. This is the kind of stuff I’m looking for.

E: ah, it’s that A. Salter book! I’ve been meaning to check it out. :slightly_smiling_face:

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This Introduction to IF Scholarship includes an astounding annotated bibliography of articles up through 2001.


How is is it possible that @kaemi wouldn’t win this? I read those reviews for the reviews themselves. The fact that they discuss games is an excellent side dish.


Thanks, Zed. I’ll check it out!

Since it seems like tumblr might be a good place to hear about choice/hypertext/non-parser IF, I’ve made an account there. If you talk about IF stuff on tumblr, I’d like to follow you. Here’s my new, entirely empty account.

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I was certainly being tongue-in-cheek! It seems like all problems in IF are solved with a comp. GMTA and all that.

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And just in case you hadn’t seen it, check the Theory and Practice section of the IF Resources sticky thread in the Authoring 🡺 Resources category.


I feel like you just don’t have enough people who are the specific combination of interested, invested, and social enough to talk about it on forums to sustain this type of discussion, at least not around here. I think reviews do a lot of heavy lifting but those are kind of one-shot things, not really a conversation in most cases.

I might suggest trying to pick specific aspects of what kinds of IF stuff you’re looking for and looking for into the broader game community’s commentary/discussion on those. For example, if you think how to construct dialog is interesting, look at conference talks by Ingold (“Sparkling Dialogue” is a good talk) or read about how Disco Elysium constructed its dialog; if you’re interested in narrative structure, read commentaries about The Stanley Parable; there are a lot of games that have narrative and words in them.

I realize that might not be super helpful but I think for me, who has little interest personally in analyzing or making parser games as, like, a specific form, I don’t really think a discussion has to be about IF to be instructive about IF. For example, there’s a talk from GDC 1989 (!) about King of Chicago Story vs. Game: The Battle of Interactive Fiction concerning semi-procedural story structure, but King of Chicago, while being a narrative game, would in no way qualify for any category of “interactive fiction” used now, being, you know, graphical.


I think that’s probably true. & I also think that’s ok.

We’re at 30 replies, which is not bad so far as things go. I would call it a successful thread. It certainly is in comparison to my monthly(ish) Infocom threads, and better than my last four attempts at craft/theory discussion. At one point, Disco Elysium was mentioned! My thread about definitions of IF stopped at 38. Perhaps we will catch up to it. I have the interest and the investment, but I must confess that I am not terribly social. I overcome a lot of inertia before attempting these conversations.

As the person who made this thread, I can tell you that I in no way imagined limiting the conversation to parser games. In fact, the problem I’ve mentioned is that it gets harder to find content written after 2012, which I presume corresponds to the ascendence of Twine and other choice game formats. Are you saying that you aren’t interested in any kind of interactive fiction?

We’ll never know, but if KoC were released today, it absolutely could have an “interactive fiction” label on Steam.

No, I mean, I’m interested in whatever people might call “interactive fiction” generally, it’s just, like, I think looking outside of that community/form is likely to be productive. Like I wouldn’t necessarily say “go see what the Twine people are up to” so much as “figure out what aspects of IF craft/theory you’re interested in and then go look those up in the wider gaming sphere”. If that makes sense?

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I do find that interesting and spend a lot of time thinking about games outside of this community. Unfortunately, for the project I’m working on, I am seeking writing related to the evolving meaning of the term “interactive fiction.” What does it mean now that it no longer means what it did in 1980? Or 2011, for that matter? What do all those Steam tags mean? etc. So, while looking at dialog systems in Deadline and Disco Elysium interests me, it’s not what I’m up to right now.

But really, you weren’t talking to me, so of course you weren’t addressing my OP. Carry on!

I will say, so far as reviews go, that it’s a mature format within the community, and I think it would be very hard to make the shift to more theoretical content. The writers enjoy doing what they do, the readers enjoy reading it. I don’t think that scene should change because another type of discourse feels lacking or absent. If people want theory, they’ll write it. That’s what I’m going to do, anyway.

I get the suggestion, it’s just that, when I first started lurking last year, I thought, “wow, these people really love reviews!” It was my first big community takeaway. I wouldn’t suggest any changes.


Yeah, this seems right (and makes sense) to me. One thing that interests me – though, per the immediately-antecedent comments, revealed preference indicates it hasn’t interested me enough to devote time to it ahead of reviews, annotated playthroughs, and (slowly) working on my own games – is looking at some of the theory and practices in tabletop gaming and seeing what, if anything, might be analogous.

There are obviously a lot of differences between tabletop RPGs and IF, but on the other hand, they’re both made of ~100% words, and I’ve certainly experienced some synergies between my experience planning and running tabletop campaigns and my experience designing and implementing IF. And RPGs are a highly-theorized space so there’d be lots to chew on (though, now that I think about it, my sense is that most of the theory production and criticism happened in the late 90s and aughts, and tapered off into the teens. I wonder if there was something in the water?)

Your comment also makes me wonder whether there’s a potential issue of myopia here, as if you narrow genres too much questions that might be theoretical if posed generally look more like questions of craft when you pose them more specifically. Like, if you think a lot about how a wide variety of different physical objects move and interact, that gets you to Newtonian dynamics; if you think a lot about how to throw round objects with speed and accuracy, that gets you to siege engineering.

Oh that’s a much more specific topic then.

This obviously only starts coming into play when Steam takes off but if you’re interested in how the broad public (meaning the people who tag things on Steam, which is closer to the broad public than anybody on here) views interactive fiction, literally just looking up the tag might help Interactive Fiction - and you can use steamdb to try and get additional metrics, though that requires some wrangling: https://steamdb.info/stats/releases/?tagid=11014. For example if you look here you can see that “interactive fiction” is heavily correlated with the “adventure” tag with ~2/3 of “interactive fiction” games having “adventure” and so on: https://steamdb.info/instantsearch/?refinementList[releaseYear][0]=2021&refinementList[tags][0]=Interactive+Fiction

edit: this doesn’t really address the “top 5” tags though, I’m not sure how to search on that