What does your mental idea space look like?

I’ve really enjoyed reading @sophia 's off-topic threads, so I thought I’d start one to delay running through my TALP entry for the millionth time.

I was talking to a writer friend about writing, and she asked me what my mental space for game ideas looked like. She said hers was a closet full of old junk, all stacked on top of each other, and that if you open the door, random old shoes and tennis rackets would fall out.

Mine is a big, old-fashioned wooden filing cabinet, with discolored, splintery wood drawers that stick when you try to open them. There are many drawers, but only four are in use because I’m incapable of organizing the zillion things in those four drawers more efficiently. The tarnished brass label-holders on the front have yellowed paper labels in them with faint, spidery handwriting. One is labeled “MECHANICS”. The second is “STORIES”. The third is “TOO HARD”, and the fourth is “AMORPHOUS.”

Almost all the files in these drawers are very old, some going back to my tween Zork days, which was about a billion years ago.

Sometimes in my sleep, I riffle through the drawers and find a STORY that suddenly can be attached to a MECHANIC, and I pull those files and start working. I look through the TOO HARD drawer sometimes, and then close it because I don’t have the skill set to use the ideas in it. And I spend a lot of time in the AMORPHOUS drawer, trying to turn those vaporous ideas into STORIES or MECHANICS.

What does your space look like?


I don’t even understand this. This is something you see in your head?


Yep. This is my mental image of what my storage space for game ideas looks like.

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I can’t even comprehend the idea of that. I would’ve thought you were making the whole thing up until I learnt about aphantasia.

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Thank you for teaching me the word “aphantasia.” It’s a fantastic word, and it’s going straight into my files.
You have this?

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I don’t really have a concrete metaphor for what it looks like since my imagination’s workings are fairly abstract (apparently there’s a high degree of variation on the mechanics of how this kind of thing works for different folks, which I didn’t fully appreciate until I had some detailed conversations with friends about their experience of creativity, at which point we sort of blinked at each other in mutual incomprehension).

But anyway there are basically three buckets: first there’s a jumble of different one- or two-sentence pitches for games, that have the basic nub of the idea – more or less what would show up in the blurb section of an IFComp entry, though of course much less clear and workshopped!

The second bucket is the most mysterious one, which is where the ideas go once they “click”. Usually the ideas sound better than they are, if that makes sense – I understand the basic subject matter and what the gameplay should feel like, but usually the structure, theme, mechanics, and voice are fuzzy. I’ve got some ability to worry away at these questions directly, or via reading or other research, but honestly most of the time there’s just a switch that goes off in my brain that helps connect some dots between different ideas I’ve had, or hits on a narrative structure that will work, or figure out that there’s some other game or book that I can use for inspiration to flesh the thing out.

At this point the idea feels basically complete in my mind, and it’ll eventually move into bucket three, which is implementation – I might do a little more organizing to build an outline before diving into the IDE, but that’s usually pretty minimal since I’ve got a clear sense of what I’m aiming for. Of course things shift as I get into the guts of things, but usually the problems that come up at this phase are smaller-bore.

To give a sense of how this plays out, I currently have probably half a dozen ideas in bucket one and two in bucket two, with one just about ready to move into bucket three once I have time to actually write again.

EDIT: just saw the conversation about aphantasia play out while I was writing this, which is exactly what I was talking about at the top! I don’t think I have the full-condition but definitely more than a touch of it.


That’s fascinating. Your creativity is so uncluttered. I think there are thousands of files in my filing cabinets, most of them still hanging around from my shrieky drama queen teen years. I try to throw them away, but they won’t go. The idea of having six good ideas waiting in a bucket sounds extremely appealing.


Aw, this is a super fun idea! I’m glad that you’ve also been enjoying my own off topic threads!

I actually have a touch of aphantasia, alongside faceblindness- which for me, mostly means that I can’t really engage in the ‘imagine a safe place’ meditative exercises, or conjure up the image of how my loved ones look. Oh, and that I have to use a lot of references, and am quite prone to same-face syndrome in my art, 'cause I draw more so off muscle memory rather than being able to envision what a final product might look like. My concept sketches are hilarious. My writing is ironically, so imagery heavy and purple-y, because I have to expend a lot more effort than most of the other writers I’ve known in detecting bits and bobs of everyday life, so I’ve built up quite the library of sensory details. Oh! And I don’t ‘see’ when I’m reading, I’m just sitting there digesting the words, so I never really got small fights in fandoms over their dreamcast of a character or what not.

When I meet up with my friend in person for example, she has to be the one to approach me, and even then, she might as well be any other person on the street- up until she speaks. I have quite the knack for people’s voices, and can easily ‘hear’ them speak if I want to think about ‘like, what would Thomas say in this scenario…?’ Thankfully, I can recognize people off of their voices quite readily, as well as how they carry themselves- posture, gait, if they speak with their hands, the tilt of their head- though in my dreams, people never have faces. They’ve their backs turned to me, are cut off above the neck, or are only a soupy splash of blurred colours and swimming shapes: it’s where I get the inspiration for the body horror I wrote Michael with in Sweetpea, haha.

All that being said- as a result, I don’t have a mental idea space! But if I did, I would like to imagine that it would be a cozy study, mostly filled with a blanket fort- I love blanket forts, and off to the side of all of the pillows and council of the plushies to consult for writing advice, would be scores of books- on the Victorian Romance Language of Flowers, on Victorian death registries and a bible to pick through for names, hastily cut out pages and pictures from other media that I’ve consumed, and of course, my own personal book collection, from which I lift ideas and riff off quite often.


I mean I didn’t claim that all six were necessarily good! The idea that’s first in line for implementation is actually almost certainly a very very bad one, though I’m excited for it and kind of looking forward to the incredulity it’ll likely provoke once it’s done :slight_smile:

I think I am reasonably good at letting ideas go, though – I started running tabletop RPGs way before I began writing IF, and part of that process was always pitching like half a dozen ideas of which only one would get chosen to be played for a couple years. So I had to get OK with letting things I was really into not get picked, and let them go to create space for the next thing.

(Despite that, I definitely have a few RPG campaign ideas that have refused to go away and that might eventually get a second lease on life as IF. There’s a picaresque set in the Thirty Years War, a post-9/11 riff on House of Leaves, and a magical take on the Peloponnesian War that are all still rattling around in the 'ol brain).


I have so many questions about aphantasia now. What do sex fantasies (or any fantasies) look like? How do you mentally rehearse for having a hard conversation with someone? Can you endlessly play out how all the variations on a bad encounter might have occurred?


I presume so, given that apparently it’s normal for people to be able to see things in their head. Which just sounds mental. Like you’re all seeing different colours than me. It was actually quite a depressing thing to find out about.

It does make sense of a lot of things people have always said that have confused me in the past, like visualising a journey and placing objects at certain locations in order to help remember long lists. Or saying that a character in a film adaptation of a book didn’t look like they imagined. Or counting sheep to go to sleep… I didn’t realise they could honestly see the sheep jumping over a fence… I just thought that was a reference to how things are pictured in cartoons.


My metaphor isn’t as visually complete as yours, @AmandaB , but it is fleshed out in regards to its functionality. It isn’t entirely mental, as well, as my concrete file storage and organization follows the same pattern. Although, one could argue the physical manifestations are a reflection of your mental constructs, so I’ll include it. Also, this applies more to writing in particular, instead of IF, but they’re mostly congruous and I expect I’ll use the same process as I write more IF.

I have (4) buckets; these are my seed, brainstorming, draft, and review buckets. A project’s movement from one bucket to another is heavily monitored.

  1. For every item that leaves my review bucket in a finished form, 2 items may move from my draft bucket to my review bucket.

  2. For every item that leaves my draft bucket as a completed first draft, 2 items may move from my brainstorming bucket to my draft bucket.

  3. For every item that leaves my brainstorming bucket researched, sourced, and fleshed, 2 items may move from my seed bucket to my brainstorming bucket.

  4. Entry into my seed bucket has no restrictions; although, while it can receive an infinite number of submissions, only a regulated number may leave.

Seed bucket: This bucket is very large. It’s probably more like a silo than a bucket. Every time an idea pops in my head or I see something that could be adapted, it goes in this bucket. I write 2-4 sentences encapsulating the germ of the idea and attach any relevant sources. That’s it. Wrap it up and leave it.

Brainstorming Bucket: This is my favorite bucket. I take something shiny from my seed bucket, and I sit down with it. This is where I research more material, do some reading, write down leads, and write down possible directions I could take this. Big brainstorming session.

Draft Bucket: This bucket is the real work starts. I select a fleshed out idea from the brainstorming bucket. Then I trim away extraneous rabbit holes and just plain bad ideas. I rough out an outline, and then I crash through a rough draft. The quality of the writing is irrelevant here, as the point is to simply create a body of text that can be improved. While more laborious than brainstorming, this is still fun as there are plenty of creative decisions being made.

Review Bucket: This is the least fun bucket. This is the PITA bucket that is soul-crushing and demoralizing. I take a completed draft from my draft bucket and I pull out my red marker of doom, aka Passion Bane, and mercilessly disembowel it. It must be done, and done repeatedly, but it is tiresome and draining. Projects leave this bucket in a finished form.

I suspect that IF may create additional buckets at the tale end of this process, including playtesting and post-release buckets. This gets the idea across though. In essence, I reward my following through on a project by the release of more seeds. I find if I don’t do this, I end up with enormous bloated brainstorming and draft buckets, but few complete projects.

ETA: I wasn’t reading the ongoing responses while I was writing this, so I didn’t see them until I posted. Going over them now, I have to admit that @DeusIrae 's mental space/organization strategy is uncomfortably close to mine. Bizarre. Perhaps bucket is just a tropey catch-all container? How many other people revert to buckets as a generic mental container? Do your buckets have handles? I imagine the stereotypical plastic 5 gallon bucket with attached wire handle often liberated from work sites worldwide. I feel like I need to visualize baskets or empty boots now just to be contrary.


I never know if any ideas are good. I just know if they are ready to be seriously considered. I always wonder if some people KNOW they’re working on a good idea. Like, did Plotkin spend his entire Hadean Lands writing time going, “OMG, this is such a killer idea. It’s going to be a classic”?


I don’t think I have any frame of reference in common to even have that conversation with you. I can do all those type of things. I mentally rehearse all the time… but it’s never visual. And, believe me, it doesn’t limit you stopping worrying and stressing about how things could’ve gone better. :slight_smile:


I love this topic! I don’t think I have a mental space like this though. In my world, everything needs to be written down, otherwise it stays at the forefront of my brain and drives me mad. As such, my equivalent ‘space’ is a lot of disorganised notes on my hard drive.


Hahahaha, I guess it must be pretty wild to hear about for the first time! I felt the same way when I was shocked and envious people could just like, picture what their loved ones looked like, though I was soothed by the fact not as many people can easily conjure their loved ones’ voices up. My knack for voices also makes it quite a lot easier for me to detect how someone’s feeling- there’s a lot a voice gives away, and people usually care more about controlling their facial features or body language.

I imagine it varies among people who have it, and how uh, much, they have it, hahah. But for me, fantasies tend to be more along the lines of a sensation of touch, (which I can also conjure up quite accurately on command) and voices. My daydreaming is mostly just me closing my eyes, and seeing the pitch black (or slightly ‘glowy’ red of light entering through my eyelids, and the little sparkles of colour you get from mushing your eyes shut too hard for too long or rubbing them) while letting myself get carried away on some sensory scraps (a sensation of warmth, like slipping into a bath, is usually a common backdrop) and thinking about either someone’s voice, or like, if I’m fantasizing about eating a delicious treat later, the phantom taste of it- not enough to really satiate, but to whet the appetite and make your mouth water. My other ‘fake senses’ (because you’re not really hearing someone speak, you know it’s just something you’re thinking of) are quite strong, maybe because I can’t visualize stuff well, so it compensates?

I actually use journalling as my main method to outline having a difficult conversation- I find organizing my thoughts in text quite helpful, as often there’s a lot of vague sensations in lieu of clearcut pictures- rather than imagining a lovely beachfront, I could ‘smell’ the salt in the air, ‘feel’ the rasp of sand on my feet, ‘hear’ the crash of waves, but no sight of bright blue marinas anywhere in my head. So writing them out helps. Sometimes, if I’m trying to think of how the other person might respond, I might ‘hear’ it in their voice, which can be quite distressing hahahaha. I am very prone to rumination, (hence the diary) and so yes, I can get caught up on snarled lines of thought.

EDIT to add: I think the thing I am singularly most envious of, is being able to just… imagine what your loved ones look like. It’s a huge part of why I take so many photos at any opportunity, because it’s so comforting to be able to see what someone you cherish looks like- how they smile, the crinkle of their eyes at the corners, a glimpse of teeth. I also write a lot of poetry about the people I love, usually while studying one of those photographs- and try to capture their tiny little details as well as I can, as a way to preserve them, in a sense. The soft dappling of sun-kissed freckles you have to lean in close enough to kiss them to see, the beauty marks stark against her face under a cascade of fluffy curls, the little crinkles at the corner of his eyes that show up most when he’s smiling alongside the start of crowsfeet…

Hands are especially evocative to me- the shape of someone’s nails- if they keep them long and tapered, square and blunted, the veins on the back of their hands, the notch and ridge of knuckles and the soft skin in between, scars and blemishes and callouses, the bump of a writer’s callous- they’re so full of lush details to linger over and write about. I might not be able to see them on command so to speak, but to hold someone’s hand and study it, before cataloging it best you can in a little love poem: that’s a really lovely treat.


Well, now I have a mental vision of an aggressive idea holding you at gunpoint until you make it physical.


Up to now, all my attempts at IF have been merely technical demos; examples (for me) to learn by.

My current project is going to be bigger in scope, and the main challenge I have, since I’m writing in my spare time, is to have a coherent mental model for it so I can pick up where I left off and still capture the same theme, voice, mood etc.

Early on, two or three mechanisms suggested themselves; ways in which things might fit together or interact at a fundamental level (like musical chairs or rock-paper-scissors).

Once I had these in mind, where was the stored energy? Some historical events will have placed the story world in a particular state with respect to these mechanisms of action.

Right now I’m in the middle of writing a ‘hero’s journey’ linear narrative folk tale, which will be about 10,000 words when it’s done. Insofar as IF is software, this will be the ‘happy path’ through the game/story.

There are four or five characters in the story at the moment. Variations and multiple endings are starting to become likely as a result of possible interactions between them.

These interactions appear in my mind as vignettes between characters, and for most of them they are anchored to a location in the world, which makes it easy for me to recall them even after a long day at work.

I have a formal model for coding these interactions as a state machine which I’m calling Fruition. That forms a structure for all the exposition and dialogue which is required in a piece of non-linear interactive fiction.

All of this is unproven untill I am able to release the work, but so far I’ve been able to retain the structure in my mind by working this way. The process seemed to develop itself in response to my need to keep the whole concept coherent.

If there’s one overall metaphor, I see it as an Ocean Liner, whose journey to a foreign port begins with building the scaffolding in the dry dock where it will be made. I can’t wait for it to put to sea!


If it helps, per the other thread of conversation about aphantasia, my buckets lack any superficial characteristics whatsoever – at their most concrete they’re headings on a spreadsheet. It is definitely the case that buckets are a pretty universal image for this sort of thing, though – I work at a nonprofit and from the actual work to organizational stuff, there are buckets, and buckets within buckets, for everything.


While I can visualize, my mental life is hyperverbal and my mental idea space doesn’t look like anything. It sounds like me, though. (Well, it sounds like my internal version of my voice… I never like listening to recordings of myself because it sounds different on the outside.)

I can offer a metaphor for how it functions, though: a series of haphazard piles in a shallow bay with multiple eddies. Any given thing might float to the surface or submerge at pretty much any time. Why, yes, I am team-ADHD.