Thoughts about challenge design in IF

I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of challenge design in IF, in part prompted by some reviews of my comp entry, and am curious about what other writers/readers think. By challenge I mean a choice or other situation where you can fail.

What do people think of the idea that there is a fundamental tension in IF between the I and the F - between the story and the interactivity? We want a good story and characters to invest in - but true interactivity usually requires the freedom to fail, which means the possibility of bad things happening to those characters, or the player failing to “unlock” part of the story they are enjoying…

Is it true that to the extent we are invested in a story and its protagonist, we don’t want interactivity of this type?

I have further thoughts on this, but I’m wondering how other IF writers/readers think about and manage this tension? Is the answer in offering the “illusion” of choice? Or writing stories that are light-hearted in tone, where players won’t invest too much? Or AI-generated branching fiction?

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People have been commenting wryly on this tension for thirty years now. “…A crossword at war with a narrative” was Graham Nelson’s comment (http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/programming/general-discussion/Craft.Of.Adventure.txt).

My general answer is that games work at multiple levels. The author can exert a lot of control at one level (say, the flow of branching chapters) while giving the player a strong sense of freedom and agency at another level (say, manipulating objects to solve a puzzle within a chapter). Players are used to this kind of split even if they don’t consciously analyze the structure that way.

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Ha! I’ve re-invented “interactive fiction” for myself to also solve this exact problem. I’d go into more details here, but for sympathy at everyone that’s already suffered enough through my explanations, I’ll instead just recommend to poke around the forums for places where I mention buzzwords like “Stateful Narration” or “Narration-based Agency”.

To me, this is the fundamental “art” of Interactive Fiction. To make the player feel engaged at the story level and at the choice level. The best games are stories on top of strong systems.

What I’m about to describe is easier to say than to do (see: my not having written a game) but my personal frame is that the crossword isn’t at war with the narrative. The obstacles and their overcoming in puzzler IF are like the songs in a musical or the fights in a superhero comic book: they’re the engine of narrative, and where the most important elements of characterization, setting, and theme should emerge.

(I assume this take isn’t original but I wasn’t around for all thirty years of discussion.)

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Having been knee deep in A Mind Forever Voyaging for over a month, I would say that challenge is more a matter of audience preference than it is a necessary component of IF. Challenge and failure don’t define interactivity. An author, on the other hand, might build a very good game around them.

I don’t think that failure and seriousness are necessarily conjoined, either. If my mother died in 2020, for instance, I can’t correlate that experience to a chance of failure. Serious things happen in life, and a game can hold up a mirror to life.

A poem can be said to have high stakes, even though there are rarely decisions to make.

Such is the freedom of the author, to assemble something from disparate elements in disparate quantity. Challenge, drama, rhetoric, these are all tools available to a writer of IF.

I would also say that—and this won’t be news to authors of detective fiction—sometimes the joy of experiencing a text is not the joy of mechanically figuring things out. Rather, it is often the subjective experience of figuring something out—of being clever—that the work provides. Experiences of satisfaction and joy are things a “traditional” text can offer a reader, and IF isn’t really different to me.

When I’m playing a puzzly game, I don’t necessarily need to be smart (how could an author control that?). I want to feel smart.

The same goes for choice and consequence. I want a subjective experience of agency. The amount of agency actually available is of lesser concern to me.

How does the experience of the game feel? To me, good games, like a lot of art that I like, can be manipulative in a positive sense

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Nothing to add, but just want to say I agree with everything in Drew’s post here.

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Yeah, this is where I come down too, though obviously there are different approaches one can take, and I’ve very much enjoyed games that do have a tension between the narrative and interactive elements (or just go entirely towards one pole or the other – is there any non-puzzle narrative element to speak of in something like Ad Verbum?)

But with that said I personally most enjoy the games where the story is the puzzles and the puzzles are the story – it feels like that’s what takes best advantage of the IF format. That doesn’t resolve the question of how to manage challenge, though.

The simplest approach is to just gate progress according to puzzle-solving, of course – there it’s not so much the narrative coherence as the pacing that suffers if the player winds up struggling. I’ve also seen puzzles that basically solve themselves if the player gets them wrong or is flailing for too long, which is unsatisfying in terms of challenge but once again keeps the mimetic trains running on time. One middle ground I’ve taken in a narrative-heavy game I wrote is to think more about challenges than puzzles – the most “gamey” part of that one is a sailboat race that you can win, lose, or lose badly, which all take the same amount of time and don’t branch the story in a meaningful way, but do shift the emotional dynamic between the protagonist and their teammate.

And then of course, you can question the premise that interactivity really requires the risk of failure – I haven’t played too many visual novels, but I think many of them are structured such that different choices can take you in wildly different directions, but most of them are meant to be satisfying (indeed, the player’s expected engagement is often to go through all the branches in order to see the full story) – Choice of Games I think takes a similar approach with their offerings (though I think the expected playstyle there doesn’t involve repetition, with choices often being more about expressing your vision of your character), though I likewise haven’t played too many of them.

The other common thing I see is the comedy-game one you mention, where you can fail or die, but your “reward” is a little joke and it’s easy to undo or reset so you can try again.

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I no longer play games where big failure is an option-- cruel games. I don’t want to undo, I don’t want to start over, I don’t want to reload a saved game. I want to figure things out without any of that.

That said, I do think it’s important to feel that there are some stakes in a game’s decisions. I just think there are more satisfying ways to provide those stakes than constantly killing the player or allowing miserable fails.

And those feelings lead to my being a nanny author too much, as I want players to succeed to the point that I’ll restrict their agency in really unsatisfying ways. It’s hard to strike that balance. Thankfully I have testers who will slap my hand when I get too rigid in gating.

The best IF marries the interactivity and the story in such a way that you can’t unpick them from each other. Doing this well is an art form.

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Well, what is challenge in IF? Is it solving a difficult puzzle? Is it making wise plot choices? Is it mapping accurately, or comprehending avant-garde writing? For that matter, what is interactivity? (It could be choices with consequences, or maybe it’s a highly manipulable world model, or something else.) The same question about fiction: is time linear, do events described definitely occur, and how many plot beats occur per player action?

Some of these options could work with each other and some could work against one another. I think it’s pretty well established that typical game activities interposed with linear plot beats can produce some dissonance. But maybe that’s pleasing to experienced players? Maybe players generally like the security of having some limits to their freedom?

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I had a big response written and then I realized which game you wrote and that what I was writing doesn’t apply.

The problem with death-possible situations in long choice games is that, fundamentally, you do want a satisfying story arc. If you have a great story the whole time and then fail at the very end, it ruins the story.

You can get around that by:

  1. Allowing undo and retry,
  2. Making your early game have enough variety that replaying it is enjoyable, or
  3. Writing the game in a way so that even failure is satisfying.

I think #3 is the best but it is very hard to write this way. Choice of Games does this really well, with Choice of Robots, Creme de la Creme, and Mask of the Plague Doctor all have great ‘losing’ endings that make satisfying arcs.

#2 is easiest in short games.

#1 is probably the best option if you can’t do #2 or #3.

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These are great questions. I think there is a great deal of “illusory” choice in all IF, and have commented myself that great parser fiction doesn’t have to model every possible input, but only the input that the player will type. So the trick is to guide the player by the nose into typing what you want them to type, without letting them realize you’ve done that. And part of doing that is creating authentic motivations for the player. They feel motivated to solve a puzzle in one game, or to respond in a way that is consistent with the nature of their character in a more high-brow “literary” narrative.

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So far as the question of “what is fiction” goes, it’s been a big tent in print media since at least the 1960s. Like difficulty/challenge, it is a collection of things. Their individual importances vary by work. When people say “actually, Infocom’s interactive fiction wasn’t really fiction,” they’re holding 80s video games to a stricter standard than many 20th century authors and readers did traditional, printed work.

Re: experiences of failure, I don’t mind them as long as a) the rules are clear b) significant replay is not required c) it is actually interesting d) it is in keeping with the spirit of the game. Infocom often made deaths funny. While we don’t enjoy that so much today, I appreciate their efforts to maintain the overall tone and spirit of their work.

My interest in difficulty (or perceived difficulty, as I have said) is quite similar. I’m personally very bothered by puzzles aren’t a natural part of the game world. I don’t want them to disrupt my subjective sense of the game world by reminding me of their “gaminess” if that makes sense. The terms I’ve used in writing are “organic” vs “inorganic.”

The most egregious example I can think of is the opening half of Zork III compared with the second half. You start out with this intriguing, atmospheric region but wind up with knick knacks like the Royal Puzzle. To me it feels like something one might find on a coffee table. Zork III initially promises to be a subversion of adventure game tropes, but it doesn’t keep that promise. Another example would be the “coins on a scale” problem in Spellbreaker. I know some people enjoy these things, but they throw me right out of the game.

Even puzzle-heavy games can consist of very organic puzzles. Counterfeit Monkey, for example, is rather brilliant in this regard.

The thing I’m most interested in with my own WIP is having consequential choices without consequential fail states. You see a lot of that in choice games. The player is making decisions that shape a narrative. Figuring out how this works is a problem to solve, should the player want to, but everyone gets a complete story that isn’t truncated by You Have DIed or somesuch.

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Expectation management comes into this. If you write a game called “Marooned on the island of a thousand deadly dangers” no one will bat an eyelid on ending the protagonist’s life a few times. If you go about it in this way you also keep the option of not conforming to those expectations without frustrating the player any more than they were in the first place. I for one only ever include the paths to the bad endings in the walkthroughs for my games to pleasantly surprise those players who find the good ones by themselves.

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So many thoughtful and interesting responses.

Yes, my definition of “interactivity” was a bit narrow. I meant to add branching fiction as a way of achieving this – although it’s always going to be limited how many meaningful branches you can offer. And choices to e.g. style your character’s name, appearance, personality – that’s an interesting avenue, though not one I’m personally drawn to.

Mike, that’s interesting, your sailboat challenge example is something I try as well – I think of it as “vertical branching”; the story doesn’t branch horizontally in different directions, but the player can take the high road or the low road or the middle road to the same place, and the rest of the story has a different flavour depending which they take.

Dorian, I’m interested in your systems and terminology. If you don’t post them here, I’ll go searching for them!

“Songs in a musical” is a great analogy for puzzles in IF. I have the same emotional reaction to both – it’s rare that it’s completely seamless and that grates on me, except when it’s done well enough for me to buy into it, and then it’s magical.

The idea of making the player “feel smart” – I’ve been flirting with this idea, and it’s good to hear it from others. That gives me confidence to lean into it more. I want my players to succeed and act out cool, inventive, heroic actions, and I don’t want them to ever feel cruelly punished if they fail. But this leads to another question of mine (that might warrant a thread of its own): for the writers like me who like to insert challenges with consequences into their stories, how can we playtest our games to get the difficulty just right? I compare it to boardgame design, which I’ve done a little bit of, and which is a very iterative process. The first version of your game is always hopelessly broken and gets refined through many playtests. But with a boardgame you can send it back to the same playtesters again and again. With a game in a story you need virgin playtesters who don’t already know the solution… I feel like I would need at least a hundred (in batches of ten perhaps)… This is something I’ve struggled with in my IFcomp game.

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This is a really complex topic and well worth discussing.

Different IFs, by the nature of the fictions they wish to express, will need to provide different answers. Options that can be valid in some contexts include:

  • Excluding interactivity other than moving the game forwards positively/not moving it forwards at all (that’s the type that would answer “Yes” to the “Is it true that to the extent we are invested in a story and its protagonist, we don’t want interactivity of this type?” question).

  • All happy endings (like the above, but without the “not moving it forwards at all” options. Even this can be made branching if there are different kinds of happy endings to experience).

  • “Failing forwards” (a type of IF where getting something wrong will recount the failure and segue smoothly into whatever part of the narrative follows on from that failure). Note this can be in an essentially linear or heavily branching IF.

  • Using state tracking so that failing can lead to different narrative outcomes later on (this can be extended to different types of outcome depending on why the failure happened and the surrounding circumstances).

  • Having a protagonist who is intended to fail at some things, and must fail to eventually succeed

  • Having a protagonist who is intended to fail at some things, but with sufficient flexibility in the program that the player can effectively “choose” where (and sometimes if) those failures happen

  • Having “bad endings” be a big part of the point of the game (perhaps to the point where the story only makes sense if some of them are experienced)

  • Diegetic hinting, where the hint system effectively adds another layer to the story. This may appear at the end of some failure paths, insert itself into the puzzle process or wait for the player to decide the hints are wanted.

  • A framing story which turns the failures into part of a broader narrative

Illusion of choice can be applied to any of these options. Light-hearted tones can carry off narrative-failure-less games more easily than heavier-toned ones, though some of these techniques would allow the latter to do this also. AI-generated branching fiction would need to have the same considerations as the manual variety, or else the choices generated could themselves reduce investment in the story and protagonist.

Another important thing to note: different degrees and tones of failure are possible. Not every failure need mean the narrative comes to a stop (although it’s hard to avoid this in games where many options are available at a specific moment, such as some parser games which large vocabularies). However, weaving meaningful failures into the narrative can strengthen the story significantly while also boosting interactivity and fun.

For Budacanta, I went with “protagonist intended to fail, but with enough flexibility so where and how can be selected”. (There is no “if” - without some failures, the narrative and characterisation would not be plausible). The nature of the story did not lend itself to a protagonist who succeeded at everything. The choices presented are what make sense to the protagonist, who has character-based reasons for these not always matching the options the player would consider in the same position. There’s also plot reason why most failures connect to the rest of the narrative without stopping it in its tracks. Yes, it’s a lot of writing and many players will never see half the text. However, it allows for a lot of options when integrating failure in a way that makes sense to players employing a variety of approaches to a given choice. It definitely has undo-and-retry and there are multiple ways to go through the early phases of the game (which is just as well as the early phases are all that are complete so far).

Every other option on this list likely has examples of IF that would count, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were authors on this very thread who had used every single one of the methods in my list when authoring their IF over the years.

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You’re pretty tough on death for a Resident Evil player :slight_smile:

-Wade

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Yes Alianora, I see it as a whole toolkit of devices for the writer to create interactive experiences in IF. In The Princess of Vestria I used:

*Illusion of choice (hopefully sparingly enough that players don’t spot it!)

*State tracking (affecting A)future interactions/challenges and B)the story’s epilogue)

*Failing forward (but always with consequences via state tracking – including a “luck” counter that will run out)

*Ability to style/personalise the character, (a little, mostly via the epilogue)

*Death/capture/other catastrophic failure + forced rewind

*In-game hints

*Branching narrative (rarely, and always quickly rejoining the main narrative)

*Different ways to “win” at some challenges, including the game’s ending

*Timed puzzle

With this last one, I’m wondering if it was necessary to make the puzzle timed. A regular puzzle is also interactive, if not as dramatic. Is there a special term for a puzzle where the narrative is paused at that point until you’ve solved it, like in point-and-click games?

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Ha! And FromSoftware games, too! Well, my unfinished game does have 40 unique deaths and fail states… so far! I enjoy a good death provided the conditions are right :sunglasses:

The first instance of an IF game using player actions to drive a global “clock” is Ballyhoo (1986), I think? I’d love to know if there is a specific term for it. I would likely call it “Ballyhoo time,” to go along With Zork (or ADVENT, if you like) time and… Deadline time is a bit clunky… perhaps just simulated time for a constantly ticking clock.

You might make a new thread with a poll: how do you feel about timed puzzles? It’s a good question!

I was just about to make a comment about soulslike games here as well. Thing is, soulslike games, and a lot of modern roguelike/roguelites as well, is that they really don’t have a “fail” state. Or certainly not a “hard fail” state.

An awful lot of ink has been spilled over puzzle design in IF, but I think one of the fundamental underlying problems is the design assumption that the critical path through an IF title must be narrow and linear. Why not a game where the player can “fail” at literally every puzzle and still reach an ending other than an abrupt “game over”?

In very simple terms this can devolve into the “true” ending versus various grades of “bad ending”, but there’s nothing inherent in IF that demands that this must be the way it is.