8 Tips to Write Compelling Interactive Fiction
Postmortem of a short interactive fiction game and the lessons learned for writing engaging choices.
I recently graduated from a game writing masterclass taught by Susan O’Connor (BioShock, Far Cry, Tomb Raider), and one of the assignments was to adapt a myth into a level with branching gameplay moments. I chose “Loki’s Monstrous Children”. Unlike “The Labors of Hercules” or “Jason and the Argonauts,” there wasn’t an obvious gameplay system to guide the tragic tale of Loki’s offspring. The following is my postmortem and the lessons learned. You can play the final game here, or come back to it after reading.
The assignment was to create a flowchart of the gameplay branches. But first, I needed a protagonist. While Jormungandr and Fenrir are perhaps the more well known of Loki’s children, the enigmatic Hel caught my eye. Stories surrounding her were a lot more ambiguous owing to an encroaching Christian influence. Was she actually one of the pagan gods, or was she a later addition to reinforce the Christian concept of eternal damnation? She occupied a nebulous history, and that made her perfect as a character that could be molded by the player. Below was my first flowchart:
It’s very simple, but it captured the most important branches that I felt made sense for the narrative. I wanted to stay true to the myth, so the ending doesn’t change — but it’s about the journey, not the destination.
The next step was to implement it in Twine to see how it flowed with some proper text.
I had two goals with my first draft. The first was that it read like a dream, capturing the essence of these archaic myths through poetic prose, where you don’t fully understand what’s going on at first glance, but each choice word oozes with subtext.
The second was to make it feel more organic than your standard visual novel. I wanted player decisions throughout the game to affect descriptions, dialogue, and choices further down the line, not just obvious branch moments. Many of these are micro-decisions — choices that don’t create a new branch but change an element of the story. These are incredibly important both for scope and to let players know they’re affecting the game.
Simple examples of this include adding titles to characters, changing how you describe their gait if they’re injured, etc. Depending on player choices, the first draft was a 10–15 min read.
My gracious writing group read it and offered invaluable feedback. While the prose and tone was good, they were lost on who, what, and why they were there. In my desire to create a dream-like tone, I had neglected some key elements. I also had to acknowledge that I’m not known for a particular style that would warrant an average reader to lose themselves in my prose and analyze each line as though I was Homer. Maybe one day. But ultimately this was still supposed to be a portfolio piece, and that meant clarity took precedent.
While I knew adding a choice early was important, adding too many choices all the time also meant some of them didn’t have clear motivations or stakes attached to them. Choices don’t feel meaningful unless they’re backed by context and consequence. The consequences don’t have to be immediate, but letting players know there is weight to the decisions they’re making is paramount. This is a tenet for all game design. Obvious in hindsight, but not while I was free-writing.
In this game, micro-decisions have a cascading effect that unlock new branches if you make the right combination of choices. The challenge I encountered was in letting players know this was possible without them replaying the game in different ways. In my desire to keep the experience more organic, I wanted to avoid too many gamey elements like color coding choices — which also introduces a selection bias. Additionally, if there aren’t enough options to buffer the hidden decisions, it can feel like players are being funneled down a path — which was my biggest concern.
What I ultimately did was two-fold. When a “wrong” decision is made, flavor text appears that says “if you had this” or “if there was that, you could do this.” This acts as a narrative hook in the player’s mind by introducing a “puzzle”. “If you had a container, you could harvest the drop of eitr.”
Secondly, I show locked branch choices in gray when they appear. This lets the player know their choices were reduced through their actions, NOT for a lack of choices coded in.
When these two designs work in harmony, it creates an a-ha moment where players think back on the “hook” and realize where they could have made a different choice to open the locked path. And if the game is good enough, they’ll be delighted to replay it and try again.
My final draft involved stripping away many of the vestigial choices that didn’t make sense where they were, and moving them or building up to them in a different way. I made the “why” you were there clear in the very beginning, though the “who” I wanted to remain a mystery. Relationships were more explicitly stated and built in through narration and dialogue so that consequence moments would feel more powerful — because the real stakes of this story are the relationships you have with your brothers.
- Introducing choices early creates immediate engagement and sets up the precedent that the game is listening. It’s better to pay this off sooner rather than later, or you betray that trust with the player.
- Make sure there is context for choices. Without context, there are no stakes or emotional investment.
- Be clever about where you branch a story and keep it minimal. Don’t branch early, because you will have a monster on your hands.
- Use micro-decisions where you can to create a sense of player ownership without having to branch. Micro-decisions don’t create new branches but DO create new text.
- 1 choice is no choice at all, but might be thematically appropriate or necessary to progress. 2 choices can create dramatic tension. 3 is the ideal median. 4 let’s you lock choices off. 5+ is excessive but can be fun and makes for good micro-decisions.
- It’s better for the player to be aware that their decisions lock branches off, than not knowing and assuming the game is linear. This is why Telltale has prompts like “X remembered that.”
- The inverse of that is labeling/highlighting unique choices based on how players have played or built their character. Eg. Baldur’s Gate: “[Bard] You came from the same school and recognize the tune.” This creates a selection bias — people think it’s the better choice because it’s “unique”.
- Leverage cumulative player micro-decisions to a climactic branch for the most organic and memorable experience. If you do it well, players will be surprised that the game took all their micro-decisions into account and paid it off in a dramatic way.
If you haven’t played the game yet, try it out here, and if you enjoy it, please give it a rating! https://keikube.itch.io/house-of-loki
For anyone wanting to challenge themselves, can you create a compelling narrative game that can be played in 5 minutes? 2 minutes? Tag me @keikube on twitter if you do!
In 2010 I left Japan to pursue a degree in game design at the University of Southern California. 8 years later I released Death's Gambit, the first commercial game under my studio White Rabbit. Throughout my career, I experienced the incredible highs and lows of indie development, developer passes to expo events, the craziness of networking, and Phil Fish DJing with my professor. I want to take what I've learned and give back in a format that is digestible and actionable for aspiring and current game developers. For more, you can visit my portfolio site.