Things we like, things we don't

Hi people, I’m pretty new to writing IF but currently beavering away on a potential competition entry. I’m interested in finding out what pushes your buttons or turns you off when playing an IF work, whether it be a competition entry or not. I might use the responses to draw up a ‘make your player happy’ guide, as I’ve come across the occasional bit of advice (like make sure there’s a ‘syzygy’ response) but I’ve not seen a whole bunch of them pooled, and that could be useful.

Be as vague or specific as you like.

Here you go: …

I don’t know if this is a joke that I’m not getting, but I think you mean that you want to make sure there’s a response to the command “xyzzy”.



I should have mentioned in the OP that I’m a total moron. The joke that you didn’t get is my life.

I can’t open Juhana’s link. Tried different browsers and 2 machines. Is the site dead?

Hopefully not, it’s the IF Archive… You must be hitting a dead mirror. I’ll attach it here. (150 KB)

Here’s one article on the subject:

I know there’s a big compilation of comments on game design in general and certain games specifically, culled from IF comp entries’ reviews from years past, but I’m having trouble finding it now.

You should also take a look at Jess Knoch’s IF Comp Primer. The site seems to be down right now, but you can read an archived version at

I take humble pride in assuming that someone got confused over my nick. :wink:


You might also want to look at the thread on this site, “How to win IFComp”: viewtopic.php?f=32&t=6205

As maga says, the title is a bit of a bait-and-switch; it could really be “How to have a good experience as an IFComp author.”

Looking through that reminds me that I like good hint systems when the puzzles are hard. The best hint systems will let me contribute some to solving the problem rather than pushing me to the walkthrough or something that feels like going to the walkthrough. (As Jenni Polodna says, “It is a made-up scientific fact that if someone is forced to resort to your walkthrough, their opinion of your game decreases by up to one billionty and neeb.”) But, y’know, make the game you want before worrying about the hint system.

I’m sure everyone has their own list of pet hates and loves; you probably won’t be able to cater for everyone. But for what it’s worth, here’s some things I tend to think about in competition games. For better or worse I think a lot of us have a few ways we “test” competition games early on. My impression may be (perhaps unduly) influenced by these things, but I don’t think I’m altogether alone.

  • Is the text (especially the introduction and the first room description) free of typographical errors, missed or extra spaces, funny line breaks and so forth?
  • Can I EXAMINE objects that are mentioned in a room description? Very black mark if the room tells me that “bookshelves stretch to the ceiling” but EXAMINE won’t let me look at the bookshelves (“You can’t see any such thing.”). Kudos if the response I get is not only present, but actually interesting (not much kudos, therefore, for descriptions that tell me that they are “just ordinary bookshelves”).
  • Does ABOUT and/or HELP and/or CREDITS produce something – and preferably something useful? Kudos for beta testing (though I am not as rigorist about it as some). Extra kudos for some sort of hint system. Especially in a competition game, getting stuck is a nuisance, and it’s nice to have something other than a walkthrough.
  • XYZZY. I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s sort of a stale tradition, in my view. But the fact that some thought has been given to it tends to reassure me that care has been taken generally.

As I play on, I tend to notice more subtle aspects of “craft”:

  • Has thought been given to avoiding annoying parser messages? Unless you have a very good reason for it, please don’t give me a single room with four doors that I have to unlock with four different keys, so that I keep having to answer “Which do you mean?” questions.
  • Are there sufficient synonyms? If there is a television I can turn on, I want “turn tv on” to work; I don’t want to have to “switch on button”.
  • Do I have to do “busywork”, by which I mean things like endlessly (and separately) unlocking and opening doors before I can go through them, or tracing and re-tracing a complex route between known locations? These are annoyances which can be avoided. The addition of “extra busywork”, such as the need to replenish light-sources or food and so on is a big black mark.
  • If I try reasonably predictable things, do they seem to be catered for? For instance, can I try to CLIMB things that look like they might be climeable, KISS people who seem kissworthy, HIT things that frustrate my progress, PUT THINGS INTO other things that seem to be receptacles, and OPEN things that I would expect to be able to open?
  • Has TAKE ALL been made sane?
  • Is navigation around the world simple: is the map logical, reasonably memorable, not unduly equipped with empty locations, and apt to provide me with useful hints when I get wrong (not just “You can’t go that way”, but “You can’t go that way, you could go west (to the dining room)”)? I don’t enjoy making maps, especially in short games.
  • When I do go to the walkthrough, is it more than a list of commands? Will it help me to pick up where I’ve got stuck?

More nebulously, beyond these elements of what I regard as basic craft, I’m looking for some things that might be more personal, and are about puzzle and story design:

  • Do I have clear goals? I don’t want to spend hours wandering aimlessly waiting for it to become apparent what I should be trying to do. Does the game/story let me know when I’m making progress?
  • If the game is puzzle driven, are the puzzles in any way interesting – either directly (because they take thought) or indirectly (because they involve interesting exploration)? Puzzles which are (just) about finding things, especially keys or “treasures” which don’t do anything, that have been hidden out of sight are not very thrilling to me. The whole search desk, open drawer, search drawer, take box, open box, take key shtick. No thanks.
  • If the game is narrative driven, is the narrative one with enough tension to keep me involved in it? Wandering around finding things isn’t really a story. There needs to be something at stake, some sort of friction, some sort of choice or question to be pursued.
  • Are characters interesting? Personally, I far prefer the well-developed protagonist with a character and story to the sexless, ageless cipher. But even the latter can be done well or badly – a lot then depends on the world we are in. If there are NPCs, are they in any sense three dimensional?
  • Is the setting interesting? Does the world seem “empty”? And if so, is the emptiness justified by anything other than the need to avoid work?

Finally, there’s the writing. At this point, obviously, we are getting into the realm of the very personal. But still

  • Everyone can agree, I suppose, that spelling, grammar and punctuation should be correct, at least most of the time. Spacing and capitalization can be problems.
  • I am (usually) looking for writing that helps me feel the scene vividly. Both extremes cause me problems. A succession of dull nouns (“You see a spade here. There is a hole here.”) tells too little, while the purple prose – especially if it is full of cliches – also annoys: “This vast chamber soars to the ceiling like a cathedral, its roof lost in deep shadow, bespeaking a world of woeful angst for the suffering denizens of Shangri-Lo. The Zombie Bride of Lord Hormaster lurks menacingly upon her momentous throne, gnashing her blood-dripping fangs with brooding hatred.” Calm down dear!
  • The over-use of cute “atmospheric effects” is, for me, counterproductive. I don’t need to be told, every time I do anything in the forest glade, that some piece of fauna has hove into view, or some bit of weather made itself known.
  • Standard parser messages, many of which are written in a rather strong voice (the register of a clever undergraduate?) are inappropriate to some stories, and where they are inappropriate, I want to see them rewritten.

Damn you, syzygy! DAMN YOUR EYES!


Some very useful links here, and some great pointers, particularly from PaulS. If you just free-typed all that, Paul, you are a man who has suffered too much frustration from this world already, and I will take your advice to heart.

I like things that are good. I like them less when they’re not.

I want that on a t-shirt.

Write the sort of game that you would most want to play.

Respect your audience. Don’t jerk them around without excellent cause. Don’t preach at them. Don’t sneer when they don’t behave how you want them to. Don’t assume that they’re all straight white men. Be on their side. Most of all, recognise that playing your game takes time and effort that they might usefully spend doing something else: so don’t expect them to put up with your demands on them without offering them something first. Make sure that they always have reasons to keep playing.

(But remember that respecting someone isn’t the same thing as giving them everything they want.)

Remember that all the rules can be broken, given a sufficiently awesome reason.

The player shouldnt be coddled TOO much.

How would you quantify “too much”, out of curiosity?

When enormous lists of do’s and don’ts get handed around. If I play an IF that doesn’t have some “community standards”, I don’t complain, I deal. It’s what we had to do in the Infocom days.

I remember discussing this with another IF author. Should we be emulating a command that comes from “old school” IF? Especially as current interactive fiction has evolved from games like Adventure or Zork. One example is that these games could all too easily end up in unwinnable situations while most IF games created today are always winnable.

I think the answer is “if it amuses you.”

As old-school conventions go, it’s harmless and inobtrusive; if you don’t know or care about it, it doesn’t hurt your play experience. If you do, you get a small joke and a feeling of acknowledgement. No real downside.

(There’s sometimes a bit of a subtext about XYZZY being an oldschool/newschool identity thing. I don’t have much time for this approach, on the grounds that it’s wanky beyond belief. On the other hand, if the player’s knowledge of XYZZY is actually important to the game, that falls squarely in the Not Cool category.)

Aside from the general standards of good modern IF:

Make sure it’s playable either online or with Gargoyle. Otherwise I won’t play it.

Most of the time I’m very much a “casual” player, so tough puzzles will probably just make me quit. Sorry!

Make me care about the story, quickly!