The Thirty Nine Steps post-mortem

The Thirty Nine Steps was my first IF game, although I’ve written tabletop RPGs before. So I learned how to write IF - and how to use Twine - as I was writing the game. I wrote at weekends, over about three months.

Before I started, I made a deliberate design decision: the choices you make would change the way the story is described, but they would never lead to failure. This means that, to some extent, the story writes itself around your choices. It also means you always get to a “good ending”, although you can achieve some specific things on top of that (e.g. crack a code, avoid pursuit, capture your enemies).

I’d originally intended to make the music a bigger part of the game, reacting to the way you play. Instead, it just opens each chapter.


I was amazed that the game came 13th in the competition. It was placed higher than some games that, honestly, I thought were better.

Fascinatingly, there was a very low spread in the ratings. Nobody rated the game lower than a 5 and the vast majority of scores were 6, 7 and 8 (it was nearly the lowest standard deviation in the competition). That tells me that people generally liked the game, although they didn’t love it.

I’m delighted with those scores. They suggest that The Thirty Nine Steps was a fun, competent game, and I couldn’t hope for more for my first entry.


Thinking about my design decision above: people noticed that you always got a “good ending”, but they didn’t generally notice that your choices changed the way the world was described. Lots of people commented on the “breathless pace” of the game, which I think was because you couldn’t fail.

There were lots of complaints that the narrative didn’t make sense. People mentioned three specific things: it didn’t make sense that your enemies had murdered someone in your flat, but left you alive; it wasn’t clear why you suddenly found yourself running from unknown enemies; and (relatedly) it wasn’t clear who your enemies were or why they were after you.

Part of this is the genre, I think, but I could have written it better. For example, you could have found the body when you entered the flat after a night out, rather than when you woke in the morning.

And I could have made it easier to discover more about your enemies, the Black Stone. It was theoretically possible to do this, by cracking a code, but it required taking a very specific path through the game, because you could only study the code in specific locations. Finding out about your enemies could have been a much bigger part of the game (think of The Fugitive, in which Richard Kimble must solve the murder as he runs).

People also complained that some of the choices seemed bad or meaningless. Again, this is partly the genre, but there are things I can do. For example, if you exit the flat without taking any precautions, you’re eventually forced to hit a policeman. I could change this so you simply run past the policeman, which would feel much more in-genre and much less of a “bad choice”.

There were also some choices that seemed genuinely meaningless (e.g. you could run or walk to St Pancras station; you could, at one point, take a hazel stick or not take a hazel stick, and why wouldn’t you take it?). I can be more careful of those.

Some self-criticism

I could also have improved the way the game looked. I used a fairly basic Twine implementation and a few pictures and design tweaks would have made it look much more professional.

And this will sound strange, but…one of the things I aim for, in my games, is that they “cut deeper” than you expect. Even if they’re fun, I like people to get a bit of human experience from them. I don’t know if I succeeded in that with The Thirty Nine Steps (except that a secret subtext was the joy of being alive, which I think did come through in the text).


Thanks to everyone who played, rated or gave feedback. I am genuinely over the moon about the whole thing. It was a good first experience of IFComp.


Congrats on your entry! This one of the most fun games I played this edition. It was really fun to go back between chapters and try to get the best/worst path or the variation between each type of actions. Really impressive for it to be your first IF game too!

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For what it’s worth, as someone who was lukewarm on the source material, I liked the game a lot more than I expected to, and it was largely because of this design ethos. I agree that it contributed to a sense of breathless pacing, and I really liked the way that the choices affected what the PC noticed and the overall tenor of the narration, which is not something I’ve seen done very much.


Thanks for this, it’s helpful.

You’ve reminded me: the source material will have made it hard for people to engage. I love that book, but not everyone will get excited by a 100-year-old spy novel. I mustn’t underestimate that.

Now I think of it, the decision that you’d always get a “good ending” went even deeper then I’ve described…

I’d played a lot of games where, after playing for an hour or two, I’d get an ending that was narrated as suboptimal (I.e. the text would make it clear I could have done better and my character wasn’t entirely happy). I think this was intended to inspire me to play again, but instead, I found it a bit of a downer.

So I decided that The Thirty Nine Steps would flatter any choice the player made. That is, the narration would always praise the player’s choices and make every ending sound amazing.

Admittedly, I then reined back on that, because the game would lightly criticise you if, for example, you killed someone during your journey.

This comes from my background in tabletop role-playing. I’ve learned that, rather than rolling for success or failure, you can roll for two different but equally successful types of result, and it’s often more satisfying.

I think I’ll probably come back to that in future games, maybe approaching it in a different way.