My Foray Into Interactive Fiction

Reflecting on my experience creating my first interactive fiction game

This reflection contains spoilers for the game. Please play before reading! https://gracexdong.itch.io/what-makes-you-human

I used to be really into creative writing when I was younger. I wrote folders and folders of poems and short stories in high school (and even published some), but I dropped this hobby when I got to Stanford as I found new hobbies.

Project 2 in CS377g was a welcome homage to my creative writing background. With P2, we were to create an interactive fiction game in Twine that explored the theme of dystopia. My junior year at Stanford has been dominated by design and human-computer interaction projects that relied on needfinding, playtesting, and iteration, and this game was certainly no different — the main divergence was that this project had all the frustrations that come with iteration in addition to the frustrations that come with creative writing and worldbuilding.

I began my dystopia extremely focused on worldbuilding — worldbuilding has always been my favorite part about writing fiction. I thought about what a world in which humans have gone extinct would look like, feel like, smell like, and wrote a few basic passages that explore that. This is where the first half of my game was born. The first half, building up to the climax, has the main character moving through the world at an even, slow pace. This makes the game feel calm and curious, with minimal stress, in order to contrast with the latter half of the game when the climax begins to kick in.

The latter half of the game I am referring to is everything after the earthquake and timer begins. From here on out, the player feels the time pressure and stress and must move quicker in order to complete the game. Here, worldbuilding details are less important and the crux of the plot becomes the priority. And here, is where I had the most difficult and frustrating time with this project.

My first prototype didn’t quite have an ending. My second prototype didn’t quite have an ending — but my second round of playtesting led to the brainstorming session of a lifetime. With this project, I found so, so much value in lengthy discussions with my playtesters, and I am so grateful that my playtesters were invested enough in the game to want to discuss possible endings and changes to that extent with me. At the point of my second round of playtesting, I was incredibly demoralized-it was like writer’s block, except with a complex game built on a technical platform. I felt despair because I was so far into building this world, playing with Twine features, and adding branches, but I was losing faith in my storyline and ending. The feedback I received from a couple key playtesters helped me look at my project with fresh eyes, enabling me to completely rewrite the ending(s) with new vigor. In my previous experiences with creative writing, I had felt similar senses of Eureka! in the editing process, as just one pair of fresh eyes can make all the difference in breathing new life into a story. P2 showed me that the exact same cycles of frustration and inspiration can happen with game design and more technical and untraditional methods of storytelling.

After rewriting the ending(s), I launched myself into three days of intense iteration and playtesting. While it was an exhausting weekend, it was also incredibly rewarding as I found myself staying up late just to add sound to increase immersion, doing extra playtests just to refine the experience a bit more, and investing additional time into my process slide deck* to document the project I was so proud I had created. This project was definitely one of the most frustrating I have ever had the pleasure to sweat over, but it was also one of the most fun. I hope players feel similar cycles of fun and frustration while playing it. :)

*Process document: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1LFE9P9WLznagqLtjV_mqwy79dviObMSNoXLlFjiey68/edit?usp=sharing

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