All too often, video games are completely boiled down to glitzy graphics and body counts. If you look at many of the best-selling games of today, you can condense their story lines into one quick sentence, if they have a story at all. That's what makes Interactive Fiction so interesting.
Recently, Gamasutra sat down and spoke with Interactive Fiction writer and game designer Emily Short about pacing, design and what comes next for game writing.
GS: One of the things I immediately liked about Savoir-Faire was that the goal was laid out plainly as "an interactive search for loot." This proves to be slightly misleading since as the story progresses the history of the characters becomes more and more prominent, but I admired how it ramped up to this. A lot of games seem to expect you to want to figure out what you're supposed to do, so I liked the initial straightforward goal. How did this structure come about?
Emily Short: Savoir-Faire sets out to emulate games by Infocom and early amateur IF authors. It's a little subversive in a few places, and it applies more recent standards of fairness, parser flexibility, and internal consistency. But it's not a parody; it's a good-faith attempt to make a game that's fun in the same way that many of the old classics were fun.
Many of those games are essentially just big treasure hunts in a deserted area, so I made that the nominal goal of S-F as well; then I wrote in a plot arc that would explain how the player got these unusual abilities and why he's in this fix in the first place.
GS: What do you think about "pacing" interactive fiction?
ES: The game should stay fun for as long as it takes to play; no aspect should take more of the player's attention than it deserves.
What that means in practical terms will vary a lot from one work to the next. In Savoir-Faire I mostly thought in terms of puzzles and their rewards.
The first issue was providing enough fun. Every puzzle should have some reward, and a complicated or multi-stage puzzle should provide some minor rewards for partial solutions. So once I had the puzzle structure in mind (more about that later), I could see which puzzles were going to open a lot of new game-play and which were only going to bring the player up against another puzzle -- the structural equivalent of getting through one locked door to find that there's another beyond it. Everywhere there was a puzzle without much game-play reward, I added plot material for the player to discover instead -- ideally, a hint that raised more questions than it answered, something that would both reward him for getting part-way through the puzzle sequence and keep him interested in what would turn up next.
The other point had to do with managing player attention. The more time a player spends in the presence of an unsolvable puzzle (say, a door he can see from the first room but that stays locked until half-way through the game), the more importance he tends to attach to that problem. It's a huge let-down to walk through that door and find that it leads to a broom closet with one cheap treasure in it. So the big puzzles, the puzzles the player has been taught to care about, should pay off in multiple ways at once: both major new game-play and major plot information.
This is standard game design stuff, but not all IF works the same way. A narrative piece might be structured around scenes rather than puzzles, and it might be easy enough that the player never really gets stuck. In that case, you have more conventional-fiction concerns instead: making it clear what the important conflicts are, foreshadowing major scenes, letting the player spend enough time around characters to care about them, and so on.
Then you spend more time asking questions like "What is the minimum number of turns the player could spend on this scene? What's the maximum? If the shortest play-through is too short to be emotionally effective, what other interaction can we add to the scene to keep it lively? If it's possible to play a scene so slowly that it loses its punch, how do we hurry the player up? And what about the overall structure? If the total buildup to a crisis scene is too short, where do we add material (or whole scenes) to prepare the player better for what's coming?" And so on.
GS: The writing is gorgeous and historically grounded but not at all stiff -- it flies in fantastical loops right out of the gate.