Games with lessons for aspiring IF authors

Recommendations by Pinstripe (Chicago, Illinois)

These are the games that, in my opinion, have the most to offer prospective authors of interactive fiction. As an experienced player but rookie author myself, I'll be relying on my own highly subjective criteria.

Elements of IF these games variously illustrate:

Room Descriptions: terse but evocative; how to write descriptions that convey essential information to the player while still maintaining the illusion of a living world.

Puzzle Design: simple but creative; how to devise puzzles that are uncomplicated and intuitive without resorting to cliches.

Prose & POV: how to add color and perspective to the manner in which the world is communicated to the player.

Game Structure: how to structure the game in such a way that as to avoid both overwhelming and railroading the player.

Most of these games will be on the simpler side, at least with regards to their respective categories. There are certain games that are excel in certain categories - Violet, for example, in Prose & POV, or Varicella in room descriptions - that aren't mentioned here because they are rather intimidating examples to follow.

I'll be updating this list periodically. Please let me know if you have any suggestions to offer.

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1. Bronze
by Emily Short
(2006)
Average member rating: (251 ratings)

Pinstripe says:

Categories: Room Descriptions, Prose & POV

Bronze is perhaps the perfect medium in terms of painting a picture of a vibrant (or, in this case, decrepit) setting while still communicating little more than essential information to the player. The Map Room and the Painting Room stand out in particular.

2. Degeneracy
by Leonard Richardson
(2001)
Average member rating: (16 ratings)

Pinstripe says:

Categories: Room Descriptions, Prose & POV

Another excellent example of room descriptions that create a strong sense of place without overloading the player with red herrings.

The POV borders on gimmicky, but still offers an effective lesson in providing the player with the PC's perspective on the events and environment surrounding him.

3. Savoir-Faire
by Emily Short
(2002)
Average member rating: (114 ratings)

Pinstripe says:

Categories: Room Descriptions, Prose & POV, Game Structure

A subtler effect than Degeneracy, the perspective in Savoir-Faire overall sticks very close to objective description; it is the slight touches of nostalgia, regret and foppishness that add sublimity to what would otherwise be another empty mansion overstocked with puzzles. Regardless of the player character's opinion, the rooms themselves are laid out perfectly, with enough extraneous detail to be interesting without distracting the player from puzzle-relevant objects.

The structure is noteworthy for the excellent use of roadblocking early on in the game, in the outdoor/kitchen section. There's a number of smaller puzzles the player can solve before she ever opens the main door to the lobby, and they cumulatively offer the player a sense of confidence and familiarity with the game's magic system before she encounters the truly difficult puzzles.

4. Best Gopher Ever
by Arthur DiBianca
(2018)
Average member rating: (21 ratings)

Pinstripe says:

Categories: Prose & POV

This might be Arthur DiBianca's slightest game, but it's also a great primer in how to establish tone and mood without relying on overly explanatory prose. DiBianca successfully evokes the genial feeling of weekday afternoon cartoons (as distinct from Saturday morning cartoons) without suffocating the player in whimsy.

5. A Bear's Night Out
by David Dyte
(1997)
Average member rating: (63 ratings)

Pinstripe says:

Categories: Puzzle Design, Prose & POV

A Bear's Night Out is the ur-example of successfully wedding PC perspective to the game's overall tone. The teddy bear's narration manages to be incredibly sweet while avoiding twee banality; this is accomplished with the strategic use of more sardonic humor in the room descriptions, contrasting delightfully with the bear's naivete.

The puzzles in ABNO are all fairly simple, but not one of them feels like a cliche. The tape recorder/phone order in particular is an effective example of a puzzle that grants the player a semi-complicated mechanic but prevents them from getting too distracted from the solution.

The cat, also, offers a lot to learn in how to build a puzzle around a vibrant NPC. The few puzzles with multiple solutions are good learning material as well.

6. Gun Mute
by C.E.J. Pacian
(2008)
Average member rating: (130 ratings)

Pinstripe says:

Categories: Room Descriptions

Gun Mute offers a somewhat more complicated lesson in descriptive writing: how to offer the player a wealth of extraneous (but interesting!) detail while keeping the puzzle-relevant material in the forefront. The mortuary and saloon in particular achieve this: the curious player is likely to spend three times as long in these rooms on a second playthrough.


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