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  • How To Start Writing Interactive Fiction

    [07.13.21]
    - Giannis Georgiou
  • Photo of a wooden door in a stone wall.
    A Zork-ish door by Marco Antonio Reyes from Pixabay (with shadows added by the author, for zorkification effect).

    Interactive fiction (IF)-or text adventures-is a category of computer games that communicate with the player through text. Instead of ultra HD graphics, you get refined descriptions. Instead of using a game controller, you advance by typing commands or clicking on hypertext options.

    Screenshot from Infocom's Enchanter, demonstrating an example of parser interactive fiction, with commands like 'examine oven,' 'light lantern,' 'inventory,' and 'read spell book.'
    Excerpt from Infocom's Enchanter (1983) as played on Lectrote, a modern IF interpreter.

    Screenshot from Andrew Plotkin's Spider and Web.
    An excerpt from the beginning of Andrew Plotkin's Spider and Web (1998).

    Screenshot from Emily Short's Bee.
    The introduction of Emily Short's Bee (2015).

    If you have never played IF, you can visit the Play section of the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction website or pick any title from the Top 50 of All Time list. You will be amazed by the quality of writing and the extents to which this art has developed through the pens-ehm-keyboards of its masters.

    Why IF

    So, why would IF be something you might want to get your teeth into? What is so special about an interactive story?

    For the reader, immersing oneself into a piece of interactive fiction is a special experience that marries reading with playing. IF works are games and their readers are actually players. While a book can stir its reader's empathy for its protagonist, an IF game has its reader become the protagonist.

    It's a unique experience for the writer, as well. There is something mischievous about writing a piece readers will have to actively explore. This joy of hiding clues for someone else to discover is unique to game design. (Any parent who has prepped a treasure hunt knows what I mean.)

    And it can be done by one person, within a reasonable amount of time. While other games require a team juggling multiple departments (script, programming, graphics, animation, sound, and music-and project management for all of the above), interactive fiction relies exclusively on two pillars: storytelling and implementation. Neither of the two are to be underestimated, but they are not overwhelming.

    Today, it's easier than ever to create a piece of interactive fiction. There are various systems you can work with and a passionate community to offer you advice.

    It's up to you to take the leap of faith.

    Write IF

    Choose a system

    Every medium has its particularities and IF is no exception. When writing an interactive story, the system you use heavily influences the form. To mention the most famous, systems like Inform 7QuestTADS, and Adventuron produce parser games (the ones where you type commands like "TAKE APPLE," "EAT IT," etc), while TwineInkleWriterUndum, and Ren'Py produce choice-based games.

    Keep in mind that even systems of the same category produce games with considerably different feel and mechanics. To choose among the systems, study each one's example games and tutorials and go for whatever inspires your creativity.

    Note: scripting skills are another factor; some systems heavily rely on code, while others use visual scripting.

    Screenshot from Arcweave's environment, where player commands like 'ask the witch about' several subjects are represented with tree diagrams.
    Player commands visually represented on Arcweave's diagrams.

    This article's diagrams are made with Arcweave. It is one of the easiest and most writer-friendly apps for visually designing and prototyping games. You can use it to structure your IF story, regardless of the system you will eventually choose to implement it with.

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