What do we talk about when we talk about IF?

In the Spring Thing thread, Doug Orleans linked to Adam Cadre’s blog, where Adam wrote about his disappointment with the response to Endless, Nameless. (I think I overlooked his remarks because 80% of the post is about old comics.)


I was never active on rec.arts.interactive-fiction in its heyday, but I do get the impression that there was a lot more discussion about any given game than we typically see on this forum.

I suppose the natural question is, “why isn’t there as much discussion any more?” But in many ways, the real question is, “why was there so much discussion back then?”

Even on our Choice of Games forum, I’d say that we see fairly little discussion about any particular published game. The vast majority of the discussion is about work-in-progress games; I’ve posted in the past about why WIP threads are rare on this forum. https://intfiction.org/t/centering-text-on-the-status-line/91/1

The closest this forum gets are the “postmortem” threads, which are usually inherently pretty quiet, relative to a WIP thread. Once the game is already done, you can make requests or suggestions for the author’s next game, but there’s just not as much at stake as when your advice might be accepted by the author and so change the game in the next draft.

What did people talk about on the newsgroup? Were they just posting more reviews? Or were they talking about different kinds of stuff that we don’t talk about now? (What is there to say other than posting reviews and giving/receiving hints?) I never feel like I have much to say in response to reviews, except to agree/disagree. Were they arguing about philosophical topics that are now relatively settled?

What do we talk about when we talk about IF?

This is somewhat tangential to your post, but I like the idea of a WIP folder. I think there would be value in a dedicated area to talk about experiments, give updates on them, and raise excitement for upcoming games.

The quote up there by Adam is strange to me. It sounds like he wants to create just for feedback rather than create works of IF just for the joy of creating.

Well, you need to be motivated to keep creating. Cadre’s been around for so long, and came up with so many games, so many of them in very different formats… The joy of creating takes you only so far, and there’s a lot of frustration in the creation process; eventually you start asking yourself why you’re doing it all.

In some level you’re doing it for yourself; but mostly you’re doing it for other people, for the players. That’s what the design process is geared towards. If you find people aren’t talking about your game at all, that must feel like a failure.

Come to think of it, that may be why we don’t see Gentry around… Jack Toresal had a pretty abysmal reception. I mean, personally I have very little to say about the game - it’s competent in many ways, attractive in many others, but it totally failed to make an impression on both times I’ve played it. Unlike Blue Men and, of course, Anchorhead.

I though Endless, Nameless was too entrenched in IF past history (as an oldschool adventure) and in recent community (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve finished the game) to be really attractive for everyone. It’s a wonderful game, but a very specific one, every bit as experimental as Photopia was. Some experimental works find very wide appeal; others get specialised interest.

I would be very sad if we never saw another Cadre game.

I want to know that too. :slight_smile: If the “IF Theory” book is anything to go by, there was a lot more discussion about theory.

Mind, I’ve a feeling the people around back then were not the same people around now. I6 and Tads and Hugo and Alan… heavy programming stuff. Now we have simple Twine, and attractive I7. People of a different mindset are getting into the game, and these may not be necessarily the programmer types who are really passionate about the intricacies of game design and exploration of the medium.

I’m just verbalising some impressions I have, mind. For what it’s worth.

I mean, recently someone started talking about relative movement. And what did I do? I proceeded to link him to the various existing threads on the subject. At the time it seemed sensible. Now, in light of this thread, it’s like I killed a conversation before it started saying “We’ve been through that already”. But the thing is, we have; it’s not productive to keep having the same conversation over and over again, is it?

So much has been said already. Newcomers who are interested in the theory and the heavy discussion have a lot to wade through. The veteran IFers here lived through it; me and tons more others here read about it after the fact. That makes a lot of difference.

EDIT - It could also be that we need a little more drama. :wink: Not the really ugly stuff, not the trolling. But it might be that there’s a balance that keeps a group healthy, and that balance includes a bit of drama, a bit of tension, and usually a bit of wit to disarm that tension.

This is not, however, something that the community in general will share, I know. Still. At least Pudlo talked about games, y’know? It was insulting and rude and pretentious, but it was about games and you could have an (exasperating) argument with the guy… or disarm him with logic. Before I derailed the Brothers thread too much, there was an interesting (and, for some like me, equally exasperating on some levels!) discussion about sexism in games. That’s where I learned where the line was that I could not cross, but hey, we were talking about games, which is great. And I found out that I seem to be in a minority where the really vast majority of the games I play are not sexist, which must have contributed somewhat to a certain naïveté on my part.

I felt the “IF is dead” thread did more damage to this sort of discussions than anything else. Not because of the thread itself, but because of the sudden escalation. If you’re in a place where things can escalate like that and veer off totally into something else entirely, and where that escalation is rationalised and accepted by outstanding members of the community, yeah, you’re going to think five times before posting, and by then you don’t bother.

Thing is, of course, there’s still discussion going on. It hasn’t been killed off. And it’s just as passionate, I daresay. Some recent discussion about game design with “A Long Drink” was very interesting indeed. I just think some headbutting now and again is a good thing. :slight_smile:

EDIT 2 - Some things are also not quite as revelant. I’m not sure “Mimesis” is such a hot topic now as it was back then. Breaking mimesis was, and I get this impression from the IF Theory Book, almost a criminal act, and you can see a few games from that time making fun of that. Nowadays, mimesis is totally optional, depending on what sort of game you’re making, and no one blinks as long as the game is bug-free enough to be enjoyable.

Hey, maybe that’s because back then there were more programmers in the pot, and that might have meant there were less buggy games, and therefore the focus was on something else. Now that we have less programmers, due to the tools we have, we may be going “Yeah, well, mimesis is all well and good, but first you actually have to make the game playable”.

Again, I’m just thinking aloud. My impressions are probably totally off.

I’d be sad too if we never saw another Adam Cadre game, but I totally understand his reaction.

Peter, your comment about “conversations we’ve had before” made me think of a discussion (here? But i can’t remember exactly the details) in which someone mentioned the same thing was true for games (people won’t use a concept if it’s been done before; like, nobody will make a game where you don’t understand the language because The Gostak already exists) It’s kinda sad in a way; I hope it doesn’t mean our community is slowing down because of the weight of history or something like that.

However I disagree with your thoughts on “drama”; I feel it’s not necessary to have a healthy community. Criticism, for sure, but support and encouragement over all!
I recently read all the issues of the " Arcade Review" magazine, and I loved that the articles went really in-depth about the games; the authors of the article explicitly said “I loved this part, and that part, and that part”, and discussed mechanics and themes and how they were used, and what effect they had on the player. And i remember thinking " that must be SO cool for an author to have someone play your game thouroughly and think about how it works and why and how you did it, then write an article about it"; that kind of stuff, i think, is vital especially in the free indie scenes (cf “cultural capital”). And there are a few people over here that do it (emshort’s and maga’s blogs are the ones I read, plus StoryCade and others whenever I happen to read planet-if’s feed), but I could totally read more (send your pitches to SPAG!!) ; I like those way better than small reviews, which are useful to determine if i want to play a game, but are not as good to convince me the game is important (like, " cultural capital", again).
( But then, I like long form critisicm that isn’t afraid of spoilers, and when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail? :slight_smile: )

I’m curious to know if the conversation maybe happens in other, less permanent media? Like, do people discuss games on IFMud, or during meetups? (I don’t really do either, so maybe i miss some discussions?) Or maybe on Twitter or Facebook?

Conversely, one of my favourite IF games, Mulldoon Legacy - and many people will disagree with me, judging from some reactions I’ve seen, but ah well! - was Jon Ingold’s response to “Curses!”. He went, “I can do this!” and he did. Even though it had totally been done before.

I think the problem was, no one is going to try doing something if there’s always a magnum opus (and Curses! had a lot of room for improvement regarding player friendliness, allowing Ingold his Legacy). It’s doubtful we’ll see a game like Earl Gray after Counterfeit Monkey, which did it so awesomely. It’s like, the buck for this particular concept stops here; unless someone is really brilliant, or really creative, this concept has been miled through, and while it may be used in a game, it’s unlikely to be the centerpiece ever again.

I also had some thoughts regarding the amount of effort going into a step-by-step review, and how the world is more about casual gaming, and there are less theorists and more people crating reviews like “Totally try this game, it’s awesome! I really felt like I was there!” (ego-stroking, but uninformative at best)… but I couldn’t see a conclusion to that train of thought. :slight_smile:

EDIT - It’s also relevant to note that mulleholandaise here is the author of an article in the latest SPAG, where he compares IF to Improv and takes a look at a number of design conventions of IF and why they’re so important and why they make IF so exciting. Which is exactly the sort of thing we need right now, and it’s a fresh look from a new perspective, keeping it all alive. That’s not just a step in the right direction, that’s something I was personally starving for. Emily Short and Zarf and the like often have wonderful insights about IF, and are constantly pushing some envelopes, and it’s fascinating to read everything they write, but once in a while it’s good to get off the lofty heights of those giants and come back to a simpler, more immediate level where everything is more accessible and downright inspirational.

(Not to say Short and Zarf aren’t inspiration. They totally are. But in a more intellectual level. It’s good to have another take on it)

…can’t it be both?

I create IF for the joy of creating IF, but if I released a game and heard crickets, I’d be heartbroken. Knowing that people will play and enjoy my creation is the carrot that keeps me moving when things get rough.

No. I’ve decided it cannot be both. :wink:

My recollection is that even Back In The Day – and I think of the golden age of R*IF as about 1997-2001, somewhere in there – there was a lot of discussion about some particularly popular or striking games, and almost no response to some others, especially if they weren’t comp submissions. Reviews were often not forthcoming until a months-later edition of SPAG, if at all. “How do we get more feedback for games released outside of the competition?” was a recurring issue; it led to several attempts at spurring conversation, from paying reviewers (IF-Review) to bookclub-type things (IF Book Club) to things where authors could submit requests for coverage (IF Review Conspiracy). There were certainly authors who wrote something (sometimes something massive), got distressingly little reaction, and either flounced or drifted out of the community in response.

If anything, I’d say the feedback situation for the average game has improved since those days: new games announced on IFDB will often see at least some kind of review response in the ensuing week or two, and there are many more venues actively producing reviews outside a quarterly reviewing cycle. If you’re tapped into these communities, there may also be discussion at live meetups, ClubFloyd playthroughs, and people playing and talking about a game on ifMUD on their own time. (ifMUD had pretty active channels exchanging hints during the early post-release of both Monkey and Hadean Lands, for instance.)

I’d also say that the response I got to Counterfeit Monkey was way beyond anything I could have expected back in the old days (Savoir-Faire was probably the closest comparison point in my early catalog): there was discussion here, and reviews from inside the IF community, but also discussion on indie blogs in various places and even coverage from the fringes of commercial game journalism. It actually kind of blew up on me in a way I didn’t anticipate, in that I posted about it on my blog as a kind of soft launch, with the intention of doing more widespread announcements a few days later once I’d checked for any significant post-release bugs – but by the time I was ready for that, the word was pretty much already out there.

It’s true that the biggest threads here tend to be hint exchanges for games that don’t otherwise provide them, and that I don’t see on intfiction as much of the kind of back-and-forth debate I used to see on R*IF about things that had really captured people’s imagination. Maybe the closest thread I’ve seen here has been the “okay, what really happened at the end of Hadean Lands?” conversation. Those kinds of in-depth discussion are more likely to appear on blog posts now, I think.

We used to talk about a lot of things that have now sort of been settled, often because games have been written that exemplify what we were talking about, and/or critical terminology has entered the vocabulary. A lot of the time the discussions were about picking some genre convention and asking whether it needed to exist and what alternatives there might be.

Major topics I remember: how do you design puzzles with multiple solutions? (There are now a range of examples to work from.) What does it do for a game to have multiple endings? Multiple middles? Is it possible to do an IF game without puzzles? (Obviously yes.) With non-second person protagonists? (Again, obviously yes.) Do we need a compass rose? (Okay, this does still keep coming up, but the fact that it’s been on the table for discussion for twenty years is one reason old hands may not get super excited about the alternatives at this point.) If you have a strongly characterized protagonist instead of an AFGNCAAP, how do you do that, and how do you keep the player’s investment? How much simulation is possible or desirable in a game, and can strong simulation increase player agency and story control? (OMG I was so, SO excited about implementing fire and ropes and water and light levels and cameras and so on. In 1999. I’m over it now. Once I got past the fun of solving some of the technical challenges, I found that those elements weren’t adding much to the story and consequences of the games in question.) How do you do games that challenge the player with genuinely difficult moral decisions? (Still somewhat an issue, but there are many many more examples of ways to approach this than there used to be.)

And then there were those perennial hamster-wheels of inconclusive discussion, copyright and how to sell commercial IF. The latter, as you know, has been solved, at least by some people and for some values of “IF”, while the former… well, it’s not like this is the only place where people still fired up about copyright can discuss it, but I for one have had enough for a lifetime.

This isn’t to say that there are no remaining frontiers – there are. Multiplayer IF is one of them; I think the improv-and-games question is another really interesting one; and as a community we’re also dealing with how to approach highly personal games, how to process and respond to this kind of input. On the technical side, there’s more to discover about accessibility; and Twine has reminded the rest of the IF world that typographical effects can in fact be a vital aspect of storytelling, not just a discardable gimmick.

And, I don’t know, I do have loads of conversations about those topics! Here, on my blog, on ifMUD, on Twitter, at conferences, at live meetups or with friends, at the dinner table. But I’m pretty tapped in to relevant communities, so others’ mileage may vary.

One other thing I think has changed, though. Back in the late 90s, there wasn’t a really wide spread of experience between the people who were hanging around on R*IF. Most of those people had played some commercial IF and then tried their hand with the more recent stuff, and everyone was about on the same page. Now, the community encompasses people who have been playing and writing IF for decades, who work on narrative games for a living, or who have made an intensive academic study of IF, and others who first learned about IF by playing a Twine game last week and are just poking their heads in. That diversity is wonderful and I regard it as a huge overall improvement, but it presents its own challenges. One piece of feedback about the discussion club that I hadn’t anticipated was the number of people who told me that they were intimidated to participate or felt like they didn’t know enough to speak up.

I want to reiterate that. We had a few early years when the conversation about IF was at its peak, and then it began to tail off, for the reasons that Emily describes. (And the IF Theory book, of course, originated in that period.)

I particularly remember the switch from wanting to talk about IF theory to wanting to see it in practice. “Yes, your idea sounds clever, now write a game with it and see if it works.” That was my attitude too, let me be clear.

When I first really got into playing IF, every time I beat a game I’d spend a lot of time lurking on RAIF or digging through old SPAG issues reading these huge, in depth, thought-provoking reviews that often got me looking at a game in a completely different way or replaying it with a new appreciation. Outside of a few blogs those kind of reviews seem rarer now (or possibly it’s just the lack of years worth of archives to sift through…), and while I can understand that because they must take a huge amount of effort, they are definitely something I miss.

As for general game discussion, there’s a site for regular fiction I occasionally post at, and readers who care enough to make the effort will often post these long ‘reviews’ at the end of a story. Which are really just these running commentaries, added to sometimes while still in the midst of reading and going over how certain parts made them feel or what they liked or disliked. It’s gratifying for the author to get that kind of direct feedback on specific points, and there’s never any issue with the entire plot being spelled out step by step because the only people reading the comments are the author and the other readers who have finished it.

I know this obviously wouldn’t work quite the same for discussing IF on a forum or posting comments on IFDB…people looking up a game are often the ones most likely to have never played it, and the community is so heavily against the idea of spoilers for a good reason, but I think that hurts discussion as well. It’s hard to have a real conversation when everyone is trying to be coy and tiptoe around details for the sake of those who haven’t beaten a game yet, or if there are so many black-barred spoilers a thread looks like a CIA document.

That was my take as well. There was a lot of formally interesting stuff going on here; at the same time, the content was speaking most of all to people who knew community history pretty well and had been around it for years, and maybe that just wasn’t a large enough group to be sustaining. Certainly I felt like it was a harder sell to the kinds of people who only watch the IF community for really standout pieces – even though it was in some ways a standout piece.

Hm, I’m not sure about this. I think we have more people in the IF penumbra overall, so while there may be more people who aren’t coders, I don’t think that means we actually have fewer people who are. Romanticize R*IF how you like, it was really hard to find if you didn’t already know about Usenet and know it was there. It was a lot less likely that someone would just stroll into the community back then.

Please no.

Ha, no, not really; there were (and are) all kinds of non-mimetic things about games that were released. It was more that here we had this new question to ask about games, so it got used a lot on all sorts of things; and it was a useful way of looking at why certain puzzles felt out of place in certain stories, or why players got frustrated with particular puzzles when the world model didn’t line up with expectations brought from the real world.

But there was also a certain amount of “this is a trendy thing to talk about” and a certain amount of “we only have so large a critical vocabulary so certain things recur a lot”.

I think to some degree the critical vocabulary has been built up so people shy more from neologism (Well, I don’t, but people with a sense of proportion do).

It’s fair to say that the R*IF in the late 90s was making things up as it went along, but to people looking at it from the perspective of fifteen years later it looks very set in stone. Remember, there are people making games today who were born after Crimes Against Mimesis was written. Presumably when people being born today are making games they’ll be either recapitulating those discussions or overturning them.

It’s also true that an R*IF composed of 50 people might seem more active than a dispersed IF-altgames community that exists across several forums, one MUD, dozens of blogs, and the vastness of Twitter.

This is actually one of the reasons why I enjoy hanging out on the Quest site now…as straight up bad as so many of those games are, a lot of the authors and players are very young and seem to have no idea the rest of the IF community even exists or what any of the ‘standards’ of the genre are. They’re just doing what they feel like (and okay usually what they feel like is just slapping together a disorganized misspelled buggy mess…) but it’s interesting nonetheless to see all these people almost completely new to IF approaching it with a fresh perspective.

The forum community is tiny compared to number of people who just casually use the site, but they take writing and programming a lot more seriously, and even then there seems to be a much heavier lean toward RPG style games there than traditional IF. If anyone could ever get one of their huge projects off the ground and actually released I wonder if we’d start seeing a lot more in that style popping up.

That’s really the heart of what I was trying to get at in my original question. I wasn’t asking, “why aren’t IF games getting more reviews?” But my feeling is that the modern review environment, even for thoroughly reviewed IFComp games, isn’t very much of a discussion.

Look at the “IFComp 2014 Discussion” board. viewforum.php?f=32 There’s a good number of reviews there! I’d say that the majority of games and especially the majority of top-ranked games got a perfectly respectable number of reviews, not least from a few heroes who reviewed a huge number of games.

But those reviewers mostly weren’t having what I would call a conversation with each other about the games. Many of the reviews themselves received no comments at all, or maybe one comment/question/disagreement. PaulS’s thread started some discussion, but only once the thread turned away from reviewing individual games and toward broader themes.

Each reviewer posted their own review, perhaps linking to other reviews, but not really replying to them. It was a collection of monologues, not a dialogue.

And that makes perfect sense to me! When I read a good review, I usually feel like I have very little to say. Even if I disagree strongly, it feels rude/awkward to post a long disagreement in response to someone else’s personal subjective review of a game, especially in comments on someone else’s blog. I should really post my own review instead, if I want people to hear another opinion of a game.

My question is: Why wasn’t it always like this? Usenet wasn’t a collection of N people posting their personal reviews of a game without (much) replying to each other. They weren’t just arguing about IF Theory, either. It seems to me that they were talking with each other about particular games. They were talking with each other about Photopia.

Hunger Daemon got dozens of reviews, but in the postmortem thread, there were just a handful of replies, mostly saying, “Congratulations!” It deserved congratulations, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t talk with each other about Hunger Daemon at all; instead, individuals expressed themselves publicly.

But, besides posting individual personal responses, what is there to say about Endless, Nameless? What would we ask each other? What’s there to argue about? What is there to agree about? If we were to discuss a particular game in detail, if we were to talk about IF, not in general, but a specific work of IF, what would we talk about?

What would we talk about if we talked about 80 Days? What would we talk about if we talked about With Those We Love Alive? What would we talk about if we talked about Coloratura?

My earlier rant aside, since it seems like all of those initiatives are now defunct, I’d be curious to know how they died off/failed. “IF-Review” is especially puzzling; did nobody want Mark’s $20?

I like the idea of the book club if only because the key thing to do at a book club is to bring questions for discussion. It’d be cool for some reviewer in the future not to produce their own review, but a set of questions for others to answer in a group.

Well, on the CoG forum it grew organically. There were so many WIP threads getting so many posts that it was obviously necessary. Not so, here, and I still think there are big structural reasons why.


Mostly true, though I do occasionally comment on someone else’s review or ref what other reviewers have said when I’m writing up my own. But you’re right, it’s not the most common thing.

If it helps, for future reference, you’re welcome to disagree in comments on my blog.

There’s more back-and-forth on ifMUD, too, especially while comps are actually in progress. But still, yes, I take your point.

What our various experiences were, in games with lots of different possible paths. Which puzzles and mechanics resonated with us and which didn’t, and why. The possibilities we saw in the craft and design. Thematic content: what we thought it was, what we thought the author was saying or asking, whether we agree, how we ourselves might respond to the questions asked.

Off the top of my head, and granting it’s been a couple years since I played:

Endless, Nameless raises questions about how communities work: is it better to ignore people who are apparently participating in bad faith, or is it better to fight back against them? How is a fruitful, constructive creative space built? How do we grow artistically without either burying or becoming obsessed with the creative past? Why are we bothering to build art at all? Besides, some of what it describes, it discusses in largely symbolic vocabulary, which would allow for some interpretive debate, if one were so inclined.

There’s so much content here I think one could start with some basic note-comparing. What happened in your favorite playthrough? What was the most effective moment for you, and why?

Did you solve the big mystery storyline? How did you feel about it being in there? (People have mixed reactions, so far as I can tell: I never did solve it, and I was slightly irked by that fact.)

What did you think of the characterization of Passepartout and his relationship with Fogg? Do you feel like Fogg was under-characterized? How did you feel about having limited-to-no power to change some of the bad situations you ran across during your journey?

What about the treatment of colonialism? Did you find it satisfying that an alternate history presentation gave additional power to cultures that, historically, did not have it?

Did it bother you, the fact that you could run out of time in real time if you spent too long looking at schedules? (This really bugged some people.)

How about the formal feature of structuring interactive story around what is effectively a boardgame mechanic? Is this something that only worked for this one game, this once, or is it something that could work again and for others? Would it have to be a journey? Are there other games that do something similar effectively?

Again, this is a piece very much about community, though on the darker side: it’s asking if community is even possible, if shared ethics can be anything but devastating, if the only way to relate to other people openly is on a purely individual basis. Also, perhaps, whether we’re willing to work in service of something possibly-horrible if that allows us to create beauty; and about whether both beauty and the terrible reside together on the far side of conventional normality.

It’s also a game with an intensely personal creative component: a lot of people did share the drawings they did on their arms and legs, but there is more that I could say about that mechanic if I really wanted to share with the whole world the details of where and what I drew and why and what it meant to me. (I don’t; my experience went someplace pretty dark. I emailed Porp privately about it. But some people might be into sharing with a larger group.)

Fear, song, the monstrous. Our different forms of color synesthesia. Comparison of the Twine and the parser versions. Why sometimes it’s so damn hard to communicate even when both entities are seriously trying. How seriously great it was that the game came with those accurate-looking ship-plan feelies.

I mean, it’s the same set of stuff we talk about in individual reviews, really; it’s just that back-and-forth can tease out more depth, sometimes, or alternative ways of looking at things.

In the Interactive Fiction Faction, we started a topic called “Work of the Week Wednesday” with the plan being for everyone in the group to vote on a game to play, play it for a week, then discuss it the following Wednesday. This came from discussion much like the above about getting more of a dialog about IF going.

We put this topic aside as IFography took off, but anyone is welcome to adopt it among their writing groups or what-have-you. Just a thought to throw out there.


Personally, if a game gets to me in such a way that I absolutely want to talk about it, I used to write a review. Now I still do, except that it’s at IntFic, which allows for some conversation. (example: intfic.com/t/praising-the-m … legacy/123). I like this format better. It’s not unlike a blog post, or a review you can comment… but the very fact that it’s in a forum encourages people to talk about the game.

I rarely, these days, have anything much to add - the games that I really like have all been covered already - but when I do I enjoy doing it. Similarly, in the postmortem for Chlorophyll - which dfabulich correctly pointed out as a way in which we DO have discussions about games nowadays - I made sure to explain how immersed I felt in the game world, and how that reflected in my gameplay.