What is IF today? Some beginner questions.

Having only experienced it somewhat tangentally in the 90’s, and never having played the truly old school games like Zork, I don’t have a lot of experience to draw on and I need your help.

I want to try my hand at making IF, as it seems like a fun fusion of things I enjoy: reading, writing, games, and programming. But at the same time I want to make sure what I’m doing is considered generally within what constitutes IF today. So I have a few questions if you’d be willing to answer them:

  1. Is there such a thing as a “typical” IF, in so far as certain basic elements are concerned? I played around a bit with “Return to Ditch Day”. Would it be generally indicative of what IF is?

  2. Presumably there are different genres of IF just like there are of novels. That said, when talking about gameplay, are there different “types” of IF? And with respect to genre, are there genres that are more or less unique to IF?

  3. Are there clear lines between IF and RPG?

  4. Are most IF pretty much narrative driven? When trying “Return to Ditch Day” it seemed like my ability to move and act was closely tied to the narrative of the story.

  5. How much exposition is typical? I have a character with a backstory, but I don’t necessarily want to give a wall of text at the beginning so you have to read a chapter just to get started. What’s the usual approach for this issue?

  6. I see you can do web-based IF now. How common is that vs an executable?

  7. Any tips for a newbie?


It’s generally indicative of what IF was. :slight_smile: The most recent example of good IF that comes to my mind are Chlorophyll, Hunger Daemon, Lost Pig, Violet, Coloratura. They were all compwinners, so you may want to look at those instead of the old classics if you want to know about IF today.

In this day and age? A resounding YES. Though they don’t HAVE to be; Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder has SOME narrative, but it’s now what the game’s about. Also for Lock And Key, though that one’s an oldie by now and not representative of IF Today.

Again, I’d say start with the recent compwinners. :slight_smile: And there’s all sorts of IF out there, the genre can do all sorts of different things, from Shade to Shrapnel to Photopia to Counterfeit Monkey and who knows what the next thing will be. Play some games. Enjoy some games.

Thanks. Yes that was my struggle, figuring out what information I had about IF was “still current”.

I’ll try some of the competition winners. Does almost everyone use one of the existing tools, like Twine of Inform 7 or TADS? Or do some people actually roll their own?

This post is a bit over a year old, but not yet totally out of date, I think: it’s meant to showcase a range of different types of things that all fall under the modern IF umbrella, including hobbyist and commercial work, things that are made with and without popular IF tools, and so on. (It also focuses somewhat on the UK interactive fiction scene because I made the list for our in-person meetups in London and so wanted to highlight those things.)

There’s a lot out there at the moment.

No. Or, only if you count “a lot of text” as a common element.

Classically (in the '80s and '90s) we said that RPGs were oriented around stats and grinding (repeating templated scenes over and over, e.g., whacking a dozen rats in a dungeon to accumulate copper coins); IF was oriented around puzzles and unique challenges (items that are used once, or a different way each time, with narratively unique results).

I think you can still make this distinction, although there’s a whole branch of choice-based IF built around accumulating stats (from narratively unique situations, rather than grinding). And of course even in the old days, games mixed elements somewhat: CRPGs had some puzzles; adventure games had some boilerplate, e.g. mapping mazes or juggling inventory.

Any game that you expect people to play on a casual basis, particularly short games, should be web-accessible. Ditto any game that you want to show to a broad audience. If you’re releasing something for IF fans, or that people will work on for a long time, a downloadable, portable game file is more important. People will thank you for providing both if possible.

An “executable” (i.e. Windows .exe file) is currently hard to build on the most popular IF platforms, although I wish it were easier. It shouldn’t be your only release form in any case.

Some people do, but mostly for the challenge of the thing. If you want to make a polished, widely-played game, using an existing dev system is much less work.

Second that. There are very many interpreters for very many platforms. If you release the actual game file instead of a machine-specific release, a lot more people will be able to play your game.

Thanks for all the replies. I’m learning a lot from them. Right now I’m leaning towards using the TADS system, what are your opinions there?

If you’re a programmer, you might some of the resources linked in answer to this question relevant.

It’s not as popular as some of the other systems, but TADS 3 has a lot to recommend it. Some of the downsides are:

  • not as friendly to newbie programmers as other systems (C-like syntax, huge daunting libraries)
  • the Workbench IDE is Windows-only
  • no (up to date) mobile interpreters
  • Gargoyle’s TADS interpreter is also out of date, and many people use Gargoyle as their main IF interpreter
  • by default, games using the web UI interface are pretty ugly and can be hard to read (no max-width on the game text, small font) (but you can change that with a bit of effort)
  • most offline interpreters don’t support webUI games yet, so if you want to target both web and download audiences, you need to provide two different builds of the game

If none of those things is a particular problem for you, and you like the general look of it, I’d go ahead and try TADS 3. It’s a nice C-ish language with a lot of power. WebUI in particular opens up a lot of possibilities with regards to visual design/UI and networking that really haven’t been explored yet. (If you have an interest in MUDS, TADS 3’s networking capabilities might appeal to you.) QTADS is a nice up to date interpreter available for Windows, Mac and Linux. The Workbench IDE has a lot of fantastic debugging tools which I really miss when I’m working in Inform 7.

All that said, every IF language has its little quirks and you can’t know which quirk is going to infuriate you until you actually try using a language. I’d suggest just diving into a beginner’s manual for one of the systems and see how you feel about it.

Plus, I believe TADS is a parser-based system that can output to html and standalone executable, which is nice. I’m getting back into IF after a decade-long absence, and TADS is what I knew best.

For parser IF, I’d say the usual practice is a paragraph or three at the beginning expositing the current circumstances and establishing motivation and a goal. Some games start you off in the middle of the action, and what follows is a short linear segment that provides the exposition (Chlorophyll comes to mind as a recent example). This way is meant to give a more “interactive” feel, I think. And of course there are games that provide no exposition at all, and part of the gameplay is in figuring out what’s going on.

As for backstory, I feel the best way to reveal that is not all at the beginning, but throughout the course of the game, so that the player discovers the story themselves. This may be through item descriptions, talking to NPC’s, or the implementation of verbs like REMEMBER or THINK ABOUT.

It might look something like this:

[spoiler]You stand in the wooden hut that has been your home for as long as you can recall. Here, in the kitchen area, the only thing left is the old oaken table. The counters and cupboards are bare, their contents packed away already.

Your mother is in the corner, packing.

A sword leans against the wall.


A great sturdy thing, hand carved by your grandfather years ago. The top of it sports a large burn mark from where you once spilled a pot of scalding soup across it.

Something about the soup tickles at your mind.


You once had dreams of being a cook, providing sustenance to all the villagers in your hamlet. One too many instances of burned hands and dropped pots soon dissuaded you of that notion.


Forged in the valley of Arboreth, the tempered steel blade is said to be sharp enough to cut saplings with a single swing. At least, according to your father. This sword is the last legacy you have of him.


Your father left on an expedition many years ago to the lair of the great dragon, Yarbo’ah. Of the nearly eighty men who left, only twelve came back. They brought your mother back his sword, and it has stood in the corner ever since.

But no longer. For today is the day you embark on your own quest.


You strap the sword to your back.

Your mother looks up from her packing. “Leaving already?” she asks, somewhat sadly. “No, I know. You were never meant to stay here forever.” She gives you a teary smile. “Remember, your first stop should be the town of Tamirah, for supplies. I’m sure you can find out how to get there. Good luck,” she says, and she gives you one last hug before you depart.[/spoiler]
Obviously this is not the best example, haha. For a better one, Savoir-Faire does a great job of integrating backstory along with gameplay.

Sometimes authors will include supplementary material, “feelies”, with their game. This can be maps, mock brochures, or any information that contributes to world building. Though if you include crucial information in the feelies, you should probably let the player know they need to look at them.

I’m giving it a shot with TADS3, thanks