IF: 'Are you sure you want to quit? Y/N?'
August 27, 2012 12:56 AM   Subscribe

I like the idea of playing interactive fiction, but my (limited) experience so far has almost convinced me I'm too obtuse for it! How do I learn to play well, or are some minds just not IF-inclined?

For background, I've tried several 'beginner' style games - Dreamhold, Emily Short's Bronze and Glass, and a few more a while ago I can't recall. I get frustrated, because I just don't feel like I know what to do. And y'know, when I started playing a friend of mine got interested, and has been burning his way through games since.
posted by undue influence to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I highly doubt that you're too obtuse to play IF. Preventing the player from thinking "what do I have to do next?" while still providing a challenge is a problem that pretty much all designers of adventure and IF games - even the very best - seem to struggle with. The fact that you seem to be a complete newbie to IF can't be making things any easier either...

Probably the best thing to do is just keep playing - you'll hopefully figure it out eventually. Some random tips (apologies if you know any of these already)...

- Learn the standard set of commands that most IF games use. For example "north", "south", "examine", "take", "inventory" are all commands that will be useful in 99% of IF games.

- Similarly, figure out the standard keyboard shortcuts that most games recognise. For example you can usually just type "n" instead of "north", "u" instead of "up" and "x" instead of "examine". This can make interacting with the gameworld faster and more intuitive.

- If a command you enter isn't recognised, try entering it again in a slightly different form. A game might not recognise the command "twist", but will recognise the commands "turn" or "rotate". Good IF authors will try to keep these kinds of situations from happening, but they do still crop up.

- Most IF games have a certain type of flow. Start by exploring as much of the gameworld as is open to you using the movement commands (N,S,E,W,U,D). "Examine" anything that seems interesting/unusual and "take" any item that isn't nailed down. When you seem to have run out of things to do, think about what it is that is stopping you from progressing further. Is there a locked door, or an item that you can't reach, or a weird mechanism that seems to serve some purpose?

You should focus your attention on this obstacle and the area around it - closely "examine" it and its individual parts, try manipulating it with different commands ("pull", "push" etc) and think about whether the items you have picked up can be used to help you proceed (remember that many items in IF can be combined with each other or parts of the environment). Once you have removed that obstacle, move on to the next area. Take time to enjoy the story as well, of course!

- If an action seems intuitive to you try typing it in - the author will likely have thought of it first.

You might try playing through a game with a walkthrough open in another window (it looks like Bronze and Glass has a walkthrough available on the game website, for example). If you do this a few times it could help form a clearer picture of how IF games "work". A lot of games also have built-in hint systems (usually accessed by typing "hint" or "help") that can give you some direction.

Also, you might like to try playing some story-based games that are less focused on solving puzzles. For example, Photopia by Adam Cadre (which is, incidentally, an incredibly good piece of IF) is more focused on letting you experience a linear story, and only has a couple of very easy puzzles. There are also some works of IF - like those produced with Twine - that are more along the lines of choose your own adventure books, which might be worth checking out if you want something more structured than traditional text input-based IF.

Good luck!
posted by fearthehat at 3:04 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would also recommend playing some games where most actions eventually result in an end state, even if that state isn't a "win". Bronze,Glass (which fearthehat already mentioned) and Damnatio Memoriae are all by Emily Short, and all have multiple endings. Plus, if you are interested in the mechanics of how IF games are written, the source code is on the page I linked as well.

Emily Short also wrote Metamorphoses which is fun because most of the puzzles have multiple solutions, and they all depend pretty reasonably on a simplified physics system in the game.

The Dreamhold is Andrew Plotkin's tutorial game. The in-game help is helpful without being very spoilerful. It's also one of my favorite games, so I recommend it anyway.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:57 AM on August 27, 2012

One problem in IF is that the games most recommended by its connoisseurs are those which assume you know the medium, and then experiment with the form. I've seen people recommend Photophia for beginners, but that work absolutely requires you to come in with the usual player's expectations, because it succeeds by tricking them. "Emily Short"'s games toss out the standard structures of adventure games, transforming those elements into other forms; for instance, Galatea has no objects in it at all, but it's still a "hidden-state" object manipulation puzzle in which conversation does the work. So I think the right place to start is with a small, traditional, well-written adventure game that relies on manipulation of objects. One of my favorites in this area is John's Fire Witch. Become a solid text adventurer first, before venturing out onto the strange seas of Andrew Plotkin and Rybread Celsius.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:46 AM on August 27, 2012

It does take some time before you "get" how to solve puzzles in IF, and you may just never click with the style of the puzzles in certain games. Spider and Web is one of my favorite computer games of all time, but I think I resorted to hints or the walkthrough for about 75% of the puzzles in that game. There's no shame in needing a hint when you get stuck -- that's why so many games have well-implemented and carefully designed hint systems.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:34 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you don't mind reading a full transcript, as people play it, you could try reading some of the ones All Things Jacq hosts. They have a group that uses a mud client to play IF games collaboratively and chat together.

Obviously they'll spoil the game, so this may be a barrier if you are adamantly anti-spoiler. That said, a game like 'Lost Pig' has a pretty well-defined ending. If you read through that transcript, you'll see people trying some ridiculous things. That's kind of how beta-testers approach it, but in IF you're free to have your character attempt to interact with things in ridiculous ways.

Another good transcript is the one for 'Snack Time' (where you play a dog - and obviously, you don't really have an inventory, just one thing you can carry.) Many actions are implemented in the code of the game, but you're limited to actions a dog can do. You see even these experienced players, who have not played this particular game before, do not achieve the 'win' state on their first play-through.

Once they do, then they play around with the 'amusing' commands that were also put into place. One of the 'amusing' commands actually gives a result that works; in other cases, those type of commands can help you in other games because it helps you think outside the normal play style. Maybe I should smell everything? Combine things.

This beginner's choice list seems pretty good to me. As much as it pains me to say it, if you can stand twee or Wes Anderson style movies, 'Violet' is a good beginner's game because it's not weird. It's got some very 'IF style' puzzles, but it's a familiar setting for most people and that may help in attempts to explore it. It may also hinder you, so if you find you're not experimenting as much because you feel like things would be 'improper' or 'too weird' to do, try a fantasy or a non-human NPC game.

Finally, there is no shame in ChoiceScript. Some IF people have very strong feelings about it. It's different than interactive fiction proper in that there are choices, and in many cases stats for your character. But they can give you an idea of the multiple paths of actions people may take in interacting with a text-based game. I think Choice of Zombies is the most puzzle-solving one, but that was just on quick review of what's available for free.

If you have any more specific questions, feel free to MeMail me. I just got done playing IntroComp for this year but I haven't posted my reviews yet.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:17 AM on August 27, 2012

(Whoops, I just did a complete read-through of the 'Lost Pig' transcript and they do not actually finish the game and have some technical problems running it through the mud. That said, it should give you an idea of how people attempt to interact with it.)
posted by cobaltnine at 9:33 AM on August 27, 2012

You're not too obtuse. It's just that IF is a genre that requires a lot of literacy in its own conventions. I have two tips, which are especially valuable for playing the "classics":

(1) look under. Look under everything. This will turn up stuff that a regular examine wouldn't find.

(2) Draw maps. I know it seems like a hassle, but it really is helpful. Having a visual representation of the game's geography in front of you helps you remember where you've been, and to suggest places you might be able to go ("there's a blank spot in the grid right here... I wonder if there's a hidden door somewhere!"). You can mark down locations of the map ("red door") so that you can more easily remember and find them later ("now where would this red key be helpful?").

Additionally, I like drawing maps because it gives me feedback on how far I've progressed in the game. It's satisfying to be able to sit down for a session of text adventuring and after a few hours see just how much I've discovered.
posted by aparrish at 10:02 AM on August 27, 2012

aparrish: "Draw maps. I know it seems like a hassle, but it really is helpful."

That is a really great bit of advice, and I'd extend to to "Draw diagrams". There are lots of puzzles (especially machinery with multiple levers and buttons, or collections of small items, etc) that can be really simplified by just sketching even the most simplistic of diagrams, so that you can visually comprehend what is going on.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:47 AM on August 27, 2012

These are all helpful answers, so I can't pick one; I'd have to '>take all'.

That said, I finished Lost Pig! Okay, so I shamelessly read clues and used 'undo', but it was helpful to find out that this is okay. So thank you, guys. Yay.
posted by undue influence at 7:30 AM on August 31, 2012

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