Tropes in IF Authoring

In a recent review, @DeusIrae mentioned the “my apartment” trope. When I saw that he referred to it as “my-dumb-apartment,” I laughed aloud. Why? My first game makes extensive use of its close relative, “my dumb trailer.” Whether I succeed or not is a question for another day (a spring day!), but today I must confess my affiliation with “my dumb apartment.”

What are some interactive fiction tropes that you enjoy, dislike, regret implementing, consider underrated, etc and so forth? There is a relatively short category page at the IF Wiki that might inspire some new ideas.

I’ll name one to start. I like puzzles that look like “mazes” but are not solved like mazes (of the sort in Zork). I think this was one of Dave Lebling’s signature implementations:

  • The “baseball” puzzle in Zork II
  • The weasel village in Starcross
  • The translucent rooms in Enchanter
  • The “plain” and the “compass rose” puzzles (I dislike both, incidentally) in Spellbreaker
  • The wet/muddy tunnels in Lurking Horror

I like them because they subvert what I consider a memorable failure in Zork I: its three areas with unreciprocated geographies and similar/identical room names/descriptions. and these later mazes seem to reflect a desire to iterate and improve.

Obviously this is not just a post about Infocom/Parser/80s games. Other platforms and other time periods (including now!) are just as relevant.

Note: Since works by members of this community may feature such tropes in their work, it’s important to be respectful when expressing negative assessments. Don’t shy away from talking about the tropes, just please be nice.


This significantly misses a step in history!

The trope is: puzzles that look like Adventure’s “maze of twisty passages, all alike”, but are not solved that way (by dropping objects to mark your path).

You know that’s the trope because Adventure subverted it before Zork was conceived! (With the “all different” maze.)

And then Zork subverted it too, by adding the Thief, who moves the objects you drop. It’s a subversion which makes the puzzle more annoying, not less. But it’s clearly an attempt to subvert the already-well-known trope.


Keys left in keyholes, but on the other side of the door. This one’s not exclusive to IF but it remains weirdly popular despite the difficulty in implementing PUT X UNDER Y in an intuitive way. I couldn’t resist putting it in Scroll Thief, but forbidding the “classic” solution: you need to just get to the other side and take it out. (Testers actually found a second, unintentional solution: the code checks if the key is handled or not, and the BLORB spell (which encases an object in a strongbox) marks its target as handled.)

A passage that limits your inventory, and a puzzle on the other side of that passage that would be trivial if you had your inventory with you. Adventure and Zork used light sources for this, but I would also count, for example, the coal mine in Sorcerer (you can’t carry your spellbook down the chute and you need to prepare new spells on the other side).

Towers of Hanoi for no reason. This one’s become less popular in the modern era, thankfully.

Sequencing puzzles, where you can only visit each area once, and you need objects from some areas to solve puzzles in other areas, so you need to use trial and error to figure out the right sequence to do them in. Trinity and Curses have this as their very foundation which is why I never managed to finish them; Jigsaw appears to but actually has only one or two dependencies between areas.


Yes, that is a more accurate account. The thief was one of Infoom’s many attempts to “top” ADVENT. I think the result was impressive technically, even though I dislike it in practice. In those old days, though, I don’t think it bothered me at all. It was still an emerging form, after all. Everything seemed magical at the time.

I think there is subversion of maze gameplay (which is the ADVENT to Zork evolution), but there is also the deception of “this looks like something you should map but it really isn’t”. Is ADVENT’s subtly rephrased room description still a mapping problem? It’s been so long that I can’t remember.

I read this as more of a problem of an object or objects that are ephemeral, yet still needed for solving a problem. I confess that I did not follow it closely because I had no advice to give.

Still, an object that dispenses objects is vending-machine like. The first example of the trope that I can think of comes from long ago. Steve Meretzky’s Stationfall. I wouldn’t call it a complete success, though I liked the basic idea. There must be an earlier case, as that was late in the trajectory of the commercial boom (1987).

This is usually what I bring up when I am explaining my dislike of Zork Zero. It’s baffling because I consider Steve Meretzky Infocom’s most consistent puzzlemaker.

The limited inventory one is a good one, too. Not sure if it persists to this day, but it was definitely a thing. I loved the basket problem in Zork I, by the way.


For a more modern example (for a certain definition of “modern”), Savoir-Faire has this for the endgame. I can’t think of many other examples post-Infocom but this style of puzzle is a personal favorite of mine.


I 100% lifted the modification from “my apartment” to “my dumb apartment” from someone, though I can’t remember the attribution at the moment unfortunately.

Anyway, agreed with many of the tropes folks have shared – to add to the pile, I get all the arguments about how riddles are often bad design since they create single-point failure states and often feel very artificial and gamey, but nonetheless often enjoy them when they show up in a game. Ideally they’re options, easy, or both – or at least have workarounds – but they can be a fun intellectual exercise and an opportunity for some literary, playful writing.


The pervasive trope I first thought of is amnesia. It’s such a handy way to open the game (as IF Wiki puts it, it’s “the holy grail of game epistemology: the player character has exactly the same knowledge of his world as the player.”) and oh-so-tempting to use. The game that led me to learning TADS, Babel, hangs on this trope.

Amnesia pairs well with another IF trope: The player wandering around a map in isolation, or near-isolation. (My IF Comp entry is guilty on this second point.)


Kleptomania. Wandering around other people’s property just taking things. Not only is it perfectly acceptable in IF, it is expected. In transcripts, I see players trying to take EVERYTHING, because they so often can.


It’s even worse in many RPGs, where you wander around breaking into everyone’s homes and taking their stuff.


“Rule 1. Anything that’s not nailed down is mine. Rule 2. Anything I can pry loose is not nailed down.”


“This game cannot end until you kill yourself.”


Not that it’s very important, but the post didn’t have anything to do with a trope at all, vending machine or otherwise… it’s a more abstract problem about how to code different types of objects that conceivably could have come from a renewable source. In my particular situation using a vending machine isn’t even an option…

I recall Jimmy Maher writing that riddles tend to be “culturally specific.” Be that as it may, I feel quite clever when I get them. I loved the Zork II one and was surprised to see it criticized.

It’s a good trope. I think its only real shortcoming is that it is so familiar that the writing must be truly amazing to overcome that sense of familiarity.

Yeah, this is a classic. I only have… five? takeable items in my WIP, disregarding various Inform flim-flam. I decided early that the protagonist simply does not carry things around. Physical things, anyway

Not the only way to leave Zork III’s Royal Puzzle, but undoubtedly my favorite way


I think I originally encountered it as ‘My crappy apartment’ twelve years ago when I started on this forum. I think it’s another usenet or IFMud user thing that had already filtered down over time.

…For a laugh, read the tagline of the game “A Quiet Evening At Home” on IFDB (actually it will appear right below):

I don’t enjoy talking about tropes, so on that note, peace out!



I’m guilty of accusing a game of being a my apartment game. I used it in a post back in 2010, and I think Wade Clark @severedhand might have called me out on it. Fare enough, maybe I was a bit harsh. Reviewers bit harder back in that day. But it was something I had heard earlier somewhere else, so it goes back farther than that.

As for any other tropes: a spaceship crash landing on a deserted planet and then having to make it off that world alive. My first game got beat up for this a bit back in 2007, and I’ve seen a different version of it over the years too. I like sci-fi, so it’s not a problem for me. But I’ve seen others say they’ve seen it too many times.

Funny thing is, A Quiet Evening at Home was the review I called the game out in.


Sounds like I was more censorious back then myself! :roll_eyes:


As far as overarching plots go, there’s a venerable tradition behind both “explore this unfamiliar environment and collect treasures” and “explore this unfamiliar environment and figure out how to escape”. They both lend themselves well to the exploration and map-making aspect and are pretty easy character motivations to grok, which is, I imagine, why so many sci-fi games involve crash-landing on an unfamiliar planet.

I want to say Scott Adams was the first person to really break from that mold and consistently push into “explore this unfamiliar environment and carry out your mission” territory (kill Dracula, disarm the bomb, ensure history functions as expected), but I’m not sure that’s accurate. There was definitely enough of a sea change by the 80s that Zork II and Zork III were rewritten to have more of a mission underlying the treasure hunt (albeit one you don’t find out about until after collecting a bunch of treasures).


I’m also curious now at which point familiar environments started to catch on, i.e. exploration was no longer a key part of the story/gameplay. Practically every Infocom work has “explore an unfamiliar environment” as its core (the only exception I can think of is Nord and Bert); you’re a detective investigating the murder scene, or your teleportation spell failed and dropped you in an unfamiliar land, or you start with a map of the whole game but you now need to interpret it through unfamiliar senses and figure out what and where everything is.

EDIT: Border Zone is also an exception. I forgot about that one. There’s definitely an unfamiliar environment, but the “explore the map” aspect is heavily downplayed.

It’s certainly a style of gameplay that works very well with the format. But in “my apartment” games, presumably the player character knows exactly where they are. I would talk about 9:05 here (a famous example of a “my apartment” game though I suppose it’s a house rather than an apartment) but can’t think of a way to do it without spoiling the twist; go play it if you haven’t, it’s very relevant to this discussion and takes about five minutes to get through.


I’ll bet it roughly coincides with the decline of mapping-is-part-of-the-job in formats like RPGs. The point at which it was more expected to provide engagement-content-per-dollar value through things which did not include having to painstakingly map a world.

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This is one of my main joys in IF. I adore getting out a fresh piece of paper and mapping a world, getting my easts and wests confused or running into the edge of the paper because the game just keeps going north (which means I have to redo it), color-coding unsolved puzzles, locked doors, items… I’m always a little bummed out when the game does it for me. At the end of every game where I made a satisfying map, I love to look at it, go through it, and remember all the cool things I found in all those locations.