Stimulus & Response

Last week I was bewailing the sludgy, trapped-in-goo pacing that seems to be inevitable in interactive fiction. The glacial pace with which events move forward, I theorized, makes IF not terrifically fun for the player when IF is compared to other entertainment media.

Today I’m thinking, let’s accept the slow pacing of IF as a given. Instead of asking, “How can we crank up the pacing?”, let’s ask, “How can we keep players so entertained that they’ll never even notice the slow pacing?”

As much as 75% of what happens in a typical work of IF is, the player reads descriptions of things. Another big chunk of game output is an assortment of “You try that, but it doesn’t change anything or produce any useful results” messages. Arguably, one important way to make IF more fun for the player is simply to make sure that all of that text output is crisp and fun to read.

It’s rumored that players don’t like long room descriptions. They want to get on with the action, or so we’re told. But … what action? If a room description is boring, then sure, trim it to the bare bones. But why are you writing boring room descriptions in the first place, Geraldine? Why not make sure every single room is a fascinating place for the player to spend time?

When the author forgets to include a description of an object, the game’s standard response (in Inform, at least) is, “You see nothing special about [the noun].” This telegraphs the message, “This game is filled with dull, boring, ordinary things.” Bad idea — incredibly bad idea. At the very least, the parser’s default response when the author has forgotten to include a description should be, “[The noun] is utterly unique and fascinating, though you’re a little hazy about why.”

This catch-all should never appear, however. Every object in the model world should have a vivid description. And the objects themselves should be worthy of vivid descriptions. Can we just get rid of “It’s an ordinary couch”? That shows the author’s want of imagination. It’s a tipoff that the rest of the game is going to be just as dull.

William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” It was a description of how he tried to write poetry, but it applies with great force to IF. Most of what the player will be dealing with will be things — inanimate objects. If the objects are fun to read about and fun to experiment with, the player will enjoy the game a whole lot more, even if nothing is happening in the story.

I may add to this essay later. I’m sure there’s much more that can be, and should be, said.

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