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  • How To Start Writing Interactive Fiction

    [07.13.21]
    - Giannis Georgiou

  • Summon the idea

    Where do ideas come from?

    There is no magical answer to this question; only prompts, some of which you've probably heard already: read the papers, eavesdrop on diner conversations, carry a notebook, keep a journal, dig deep into your own psyche, write what you know, write the game you'd want to play, etc.

    And they are all true. There is no wrong way to get ideas.

    Screenshot from Arcweave, showing part of a murder mustery plot diagram.
    One of the most beloved genres has always been the murder mystery. Since audiences know its conventions inside-out, the challenge is to give it a fresh spin.

    You can also start from the story's genre. Would you like to create a fantasy game like Infocom's Zork, a murder mystery, a family comedy, an action-adventure, or a psychological horror? Get inspired by stories and authors that you are jealous of.

    Sometimes, the audience determines the story's subject. Is it a game for kids or strictly for adults?

    Whatever the subject, there is one thing to consider: keep it short and simple. Since it's your first game, you don't want to get overwhelmed and quit. You want to make something that you will finish and-moreover-something that will inspire you to continue making games!

    Structure the idea

    Try to summarise your story in one sentence, in regard to what the protagonist wants. In essence, this is your story:

    A [protagonist] must [achieve a goal] or [dire consequences will befall upon them].

    There are more, of course, like character psychology and inner growth, but you will get further by starting from the outer motivation.

    Is your protagonist trapped, hunted, or transformed into a frog? Are they after winning someone's heart, attention, or approval? Are they a villain themselves, plotting against some unsuspecting NPC?

    What do they want? What happens if they don't get it? Find that and build your story around that.

    Skip to the end

    The beginning is the right time to think about the ending-or rather the endings, since IF stories often have multiple outcomes.

    Do you think that's a jump, going straight to the end? Absolutely.

    It is also a quick way to test your story: if you can't come up with a meaningful and satisfying climax, then you should rethink your whole idea. You want your story not only to start well, but also to end with a grand finale.

    Moreover, games often have multiple endings the player reaches through choosing different paths. Those also have to be meaningful and satisfying.

    Take your premise and brainstorm all the possible endings it could have. Then pick the best ones.

    And let's not forget all the horrible death/failure endings that will cause you to RESTORE or RESTART.

    Screenshot from 'Anchorhead,' showing one of the death scenes. The description is 'With a sudden shriek, an enormous blast of steam erupts from the pipes above your head, engulfing you in a cloud of superheated vapor well in excess of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The pain is intense but mercifully brief as your skin scalds instantly and peels from your body like cheap wallpaper. You have died.
    One of the innumerable and excruciatingly painful deaths scenes in Michael Gentry's Anchorhead (1998).

    Outline it

    The end doesn't justify the means. After picking your endings, you need to reverse-engineer the middle: what player decisions could push the story towards one ending or another?

    Create a rough sketch with pencil on graph paper. Don't worry about making a mess. At this stage, your brain needs making a mess.

    Photo of a flowchart made with pencil on graph paper.
    Pencil first! Take a break from the screen. Create a mess and clean it up later.

    You can edit and refine your diagrams on any flowchart-creating software. If you use Arcweave...

    Screenshot of a plot flowchart on Arcweave.
    Refining your plot diagram on Arcweave.

    ... you can actually make your outline interactive and run it on its play mode:

    Screenshot from Arcweave's play mode function.
    The "Suspects" element from the example above, as rendered on Arcweave's play mode.

    Puzzles or no puzzles

    Back in the days of Infocom, people paid good money to buy text adventures, so games had to be hard to beat. (Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy cost almost $40 in 1984, the year of its release. That's more than $100, today!) Having tough puzzles and labyrinths was part of the deal.

    Today, interactive fiction doesn't have to be puzzle-heavy. On the contrary, making impossible puzzles can be off-putting for many people. Players enjoy the story more than anything else, asking for well-shaped characters, world consistency, and original points of view.

    Having said that, a few good puzzles never hurt anybody. In a very short game, you hardly need more than a couple of them. Just make sure they fit the narrative.

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