There are many game development styles out there. Some people prefer building game worlds, some focus on rules and systems, and others prefer starting out with player/verb frameworks. These categories are nebulous at best, and even attempting to define them warrants an article of its own, but most people agree on the existence of at least one: the narrative.
Narrative game devs are writers at heart. They like telling stories, they like other games with strong stories, and when it comes to making their own … well, the story comes first. Unfortunately for fans of this style, good narrative surfaces only occasionally in the mainstream game business. A lot of contemporary games have stories “tacked on”, but the demand for action-oriented gameplay and open-world sandboxes makes it difficult to deliver a title held up by its story.
Consider, for example, the critical acclaim (yet poor commercial success) of Planescape: Torment, a game whose dialogue alone could (literally) fill a sizeable novel. Add to this the fact that “interactive movies” and their kin are difficult and risky to make, and you find more AAA titles deciding to play it safe while leaving good storytelling by the roadside.
Fortunately, indie development absolutely thrives on the limitations of the mainstream, and this is how the genre of interactive fiction (IF) has become so popular.
Technical definitions of IF equate it to the likes of text adventures: you receive a wordy description of your character and environment, type in a verb-noun response (“LOOK AT CHAIR”) and alter the environment in ways that depend on your behaviour. In common use, IF refers to the modern revival of text adventures, the community that surrounds it, and the fact that there’s far more emphasis on simply enjoying the tale rather than going out of your way to do puzzle-solving (some IF work, such as Adam Cadre’s Photopia, is entirely linear). In other words, it’s the narrative dev’s dream: a story that’s only surrounded by the faintest dash of gameplay.
The medium of choice for writing and reading IF is something known as Z-code, an old system used by Infocom back in the day for classic text adventures such as Zork. Tools like Inform can compile to Z-code, allowing the game to be “read” by a virtual Z-machine and played by just about anyone.
IF isn’t for everyone, but it does enjoy a considerable following. As a matter of fact, new fans can look up the annual IF competition for inspiration and even check out the currently-running Jay Is Games casual competition if they want to try something wordy themselves.
Better still, head on over to The Interactive Fiction Archive for links, helpful reviews, and a gigantic list of IF games from both past and present. Then, once your interest is piqued, be sure to look up some of the more well-known IF authors like Emily Short. For more articles related to game narrative in general, you can also check out Quinton Bronkhorst’s series on narrative in Dev.Mag.
Have fun unleashing your inner writer!