I’ve been contemplating the fact that I enjoy writing interactive fiction more than I enjoy playing it. Designing my own model world, and then working through the challenges of implementing it, is fun. All too often, the games I play turn out to be less fun than I’d like. Quite often I quit halfway through a game and never get back to it.
So what is it that makes playing IF less enjoyable than reading a novel?
To be fair, I sometimes put down novels without finishing them too. I read about 2/3 of Tristram Shandy, and about half of Vanity Fair. But those are exceptions. Generally, when I start a novel, I’m enjoying it enough that I’ll read the whole thing.
I’ve tried a number of games that had good story premises, solid code, and very reasonable prose. I didn’t finish them either. So the quality of the game is not the problem.
Part of the problem is that I’m not very good at solving puzzles. For instance, I stopped playing “Broken Legs” halfway through. The premise was fresh and amusing, and the writing was certainly strong enough to put the premise across. But the puzzles were very hard indeed, to the point where I felt they were borderline unfair. I would never have gotten anywhere without the aid of the built-in walkthrough. If a game doesn’t have a complete and accurate hint system, fuhgeddaboudit. I don’t want to read a book where the pages are glued together. It’s just not fun.
But even with the aid of the walkthrough, I didn’t finish playing “Broken Legs.” I meant to, I just haven’t gotten around to it.
I’m starting to think that the use of second person may be at the root of my boredom. When I read a novel, the protagonist is a separate person. It’s not me. I can care about this other person, and because I care, I want to find out what happens to him or her. Even when the ending of the story is quite predictable (as it usually is in genre mysteries, which I read a lot of), I still finish reading, and I sail on to the very last page with no stress because I perceive the protagonist as other than myself. I have compassion.
When the protagonist of a game is “you,” as it generally is, that factor drops out of the equation. You can’t have compassion for yourself! So, almost paradoxically, your involvement in the game is attenuated when the game is about “you.”
The same thing may be true, to a lesser extent, of past tense vs. present tense. Present tense is sort of a 20th century literary phenomenon. I’m not sure it was used much in earlier times. Again, while seeming on the surface to increase the reader’s involvement in the narrative, present tense may actually reduce involvement by making the narrative seem more improvisatory or ad hoc, and thereby make it less compelling.
I’m just proposing this as a theory. I may be wrong, and even if I’m right about my own reactions, others may not share them.
I have an opening sketch for a game in first person, past tense. When I finish the project I’m working on now, maybe I’ll tackle that one. Other people’s reactions to it might give some data points with which we can evaluate this idea.