Looking for recommendations: IF theory and criticism

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


Thanks, I love this kind of thing. It would be very interesting to crunch some data to understand what those upticks consist of, particularly the massive leap in 2020. For my present purposes, I’m very interested in IF as a thing or idea that exists in culture, so broad usage is absolutely part of that picture.

I always try to be polite in my posts and not do more than one long theory digression each post (if any at all) and have anything else come up glancingly. But if someone wants to ask me to expand at length on anything in particular they’re welcome to ask.

I would disagree we’ve done much more yet still than scratch the limit of craft. I do think we sometimes loop and repeat ourselves; whenever “hey let’s drop compass directions in parser games” comes up exact same discussion happens, and it’d be nice if we had that down and could build a little further.

I’ve been meaning sometime to make an index isolating when I’ve a particular topic comes up in a particular game (“these are all the games with erratic scoring systems”) but there’s only so much time in the day.


Hey, Jason. I actually quote you in this upcoming Monday’s post.

This is a challenge not just with your site with but with researching IF in general. So much IF writing is in blogs like ours (Jimmy Maher, Emily Short, and so forth). There’s no unified way to look at a single site (I don’t think I even have a search feature), let alone everyone’s sites. I’ve made tags for my posts, but looking back they don’t seem that they would be useful for serious research. It would be a big effort to resolve the problem just for my own site, and some days I feel like my whole life is IF already :slight_smile:

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I assume you’re talking about something more specialized than using any search engine to search your site, e.g. site:golmac.org zork at DuckDuckGo?

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I think that is useful in a lot of cases, but some thematic groupings would not be visible, as in Jason’s example of “games with erratic scoring systems.” Most reference works would deal with this by providing a subject index. In theory, a system of tags could do it, too, but in practice that might be busy and overwhelming for readers. I haven’t ruled out revamping my own tag system once my work with Infocom is complete late next year. I’d take a break from writing to do it (I’m sure I’ll be ready for a break).

Another possibility would be building my own subject index page for the entire Infocom project. I guess it depends on what the readership looks like by then. If people are searching for content, I want to help them find it.

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My memory says the intense critical talk dropped off well before that. Before the transition from Usenet to this web forum, really.

I don’t know how much it was Usenet trollage (remember that RAIF was totally unmoderated) and how much was the initial crowd of people just got worn out on the subject.


What a curious conversational tactic!

As Zarf points out, it’s off, timing wise. When you look at community resources, theory activity seems to peak in the aughts. I think the big shift/drop off occurred in 2012, which probably corresponds to the release of Porpentine’s howling dogs. While it provoked a lot of conversation, the IF Wiki didn’t add much to their theory page after 2012. I can think of Aaron Reed’s dissertation and a really good recalled history by Emily short. There’s bound to be some more. As I mention in my most recent Gold Machine post (out today, of all days)—a lot of that early (pre-2012) discourse is explicitly about parser IF and would need some rework to accommodate broadening definitions of IF.

A lot of that theory was quite good, mind you (I love Twisty Little Passages). The field of study has changed, that’s all.


My nomination for “most seamless” might be “King of Dragon Pass” (and the sequel) which I’ve generally tossed into the “Narrative Strategy” bin along with Oregon Trail and some other related games. Oregon Trail itself has been discussed quite a lot but some of the other games haven’t.

(I might do a special series on my blog kind of like Before Adventure where I spend five days doing some notable and totally-obscure narrative strategy.)

However, I still feel like there’s not any way to be “objective” about what good blending is, and some of the straight Infocoms I feel really don’t have anything unblended (maybe other problems, but not feeling like a puzzle is forced – probably both Deadline and Plundered Hearts fit this). We have had various people over the years claim that puzzle-solving is not plot and I do take some objection to that – there are many circumstances where a generative plot forms. It might not be in the obvious, 3-act way that screenplay writers feel stuck in, and every once in a while I bring up Kishōtenketsu (4-act structure) as possibly a better fit for puzzle situations, but there’s still definitely story going on, in some times more vivid than the intended surface layer of the game. (I don’t remember what the objective of Sorcerer was, but I sure remember the time travel puzzle.)


To be fair, Sorcerer had one of the weakest “plots” (if it can be called that) of the Infocom games. The first act is “your mentor is missing, get hold of a spell that will let you locate him” and then the rest of the game is “the spell didn’t work, time to wander around randomly solving puzzles until something happens”. It’s very much in the vein of the earlier treasure hunts, except with the unspoken goal of “accumulate new magic spells” instead of “accumulate new treasures” (which means your treasures are also new capabilities).

Not that that really opposes your point at all. The time travel puzzle is also the thing I remember most about that game, certainly more than any of the thinly-implemented characters.


I think conventional storytelling in IF is enjoyable when done well, but I wouldn’t call it an inherent good. For one thing, it implies that the linear plot has been arrived at as of a sort of a priori, Aristotle-style unity, when that isn’t even true of print-on-paper fiction anymore. My MFA is in traditional literary writing. I don’t think I have any expertise with writing games as such. It’s a different skillset.

While a compelling linear plot might be part of a good game, IF theory is not traditional fiction theory and it is a mistake—feel free to disagree!—to imagine that IF authors ought (ought, I say, of course authors should if they want to) to write digitized Raymond Carver stories.

To be clear, I agree with you, @jbdyer. Some of those simulation games are good examples of mechanics and story working in concert. They contain strong fictional elements in service of a game’s core loop. So far as the Infocom stuff goes, what I’m looking for are other elements of fiction: prose, world consistency, characterization (the Thief does a lot with very little, for instance). To me, those games (and many old games by other authors) can be assessed in terms of their fictional elements, even if the plot is slight. A game might have other virtues, after all, exploration and the like.

@Draconis beat me to it with Sorcerer. I think it has one of the best puzzles (I bet many would say it’s the best puzzle) in the Infocom canon, but in terms of fictional elements (even disregarding the story), it is the weakest in the original six Zork games. That amusement park drives me up the wall.

It’s true, though, nobody forgets that puzzle. As a fun fact, the Gold Machine essay that has received the most negative feedback (most of it in PMs, mercifully) is my critique of Sorcerer as a work of interactive fiction, emphasis on fiction.


Well, you haven’t made a case for anything, so it’s hard to say :slight_smile:

I do think that the current spirit of the conversation is more immediate than guessing or waiting until tomorrow might complement (though I think you first invited guesses almost 48 hours ago). Besides, frequent references to withheld information might be misunderstood as setting oneself apart as a sort of “keeper of the wisdom,” and I’m sure that is not your intent.