Anyone old enough in the 1980s will probably remember the computer game Zork and the Fighting Fantasy books by Steve Jackson. They’re examples of “choose your own adventure” stories where players make choices, and how the story ends depends on their decisions.
Text-based games dropped out of fashion as computer graphics improved. But now they’re back, thanks to free design tools like Twine that allow non-programmers to create interactive fiction. And the sky’s the limit, with Twine stories ranging from five-minute puzzles like The Tiniest Room to Morning Rituals, a game about a demonic coffee machine.
There’s no right way to use Twine, but interactive storytelling has an element of game design. And that means using psychological tricks that keep players addicted to best-selling mobile games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds.
Which brings me onto my Top 5 things you SHOULDN’T do in a Twine game:
# 5 You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike
#5 You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike
You are in a maze of… F*** that, I’m off to watch the football…
Don’t include a maze. Especially don’t include a maze without a usable map. Most players are frustrated by going around in circles, especially circling through identical chambers.
Yes, I know mazes are easy to program and add storytelling time without needing to create additional content. But that’s the whole problem. They’re boring. They’re irritating and no one’s will hack their way through when they’ve the rest of the Internet to play with.
If you’re going to include a maze order the rooms so the player can puzzle their way to the exit. Provide entertaining clues. Include interesting backstory when the player takes a wrong turn. Most of all, make it FUN.
I still have nightmares about the twisty little passages in Zork. This may be why I never finished Zork…
#4 It is pitch dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue
Otherwise known as ‘arbitrary death’…
Most people, playing a Twine game, don’t like dying for random reasons. People feel happier when they have a strong sense of control over their lives. And you (usually) want players to be happy, right?
There are great games that rely on arbitrary death. In Dungeonquest, a recently-reprinted classic board game, you can die on turn one. But it’s a party game. The whole point is onlookers laughing at your swinging blade insta-death.
If you’re going to kill a player, make them think their fate is under their control. They made a mistake. They didn’t level up their character enough. They threatened the drooling old lady to steal her jewels…. They didn’t solve the puzzle properly. Not ‘they went west’.
No one should ever die for going west…
Or fumbling their favourite colour.
#3 You walk… You walk… You walk…
Probably the single biggest way to kill player interest is ‘fill screens’ – pages of:
- ‘You walk through a haunted glade. Dappled sunlight ripples across the ground in front of you. Look up.‘
- ‘Clouds of glittering fairies flock beneath the canopy. Look left.‘
- ‘A small pool lies ahead of you, sparkling in the sunlight. Carry on going.‘
- ‘There are three sheep and a goat in the field ahead. Walk ahead‘.’
Put simply, you’re not ‘rewarding’ the player.
Addictive casual games like Puzzle Craft have players repeating simple actions to gain ‘prizes’. In Puzzle Craft, this might be mining or growing crops to buy better equipment to do more mining. The play-reward-play-reward cycle gives the player a sense of achievement that keeps them coming back.
Good Twine games also create a play-reward cycle. The Tiniest Room gives players prizes for looking around (a claw, a key). This encourages them to follow the puzzle through to its conclusion.
The only thing the player gains from physical description is… physical description. You can create beautiful writing but – unless the player interacts with it – you could have written ‘you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike’.
#2 The third Sudoku in the Laundromat
One number puzzle is a puzzle. Two is an excess. Three consecutive number puzzles is death for your game. The same goes for ‘Fred sends you on a quest to fetch item X. And then Hiyam sends you on a quest to fetch item Y. And then…’
There is a reason why Groundhog Day is not a utopia. Players don’t like repeating the same repetitive sequences over-and-over. If you can avoid giving them the twentieth variant of the same puzzle, that helps keep things fresh.
#1 Unlock the red door with the banana
‘Use the red key to unlock the red door’ get boring after the tenth iteration.
‘Unlock the door by stealing a cat, sellotaping toast onto its back, and lowering it out of a window, distracting a mad physicist so you can steal his sousaphone and blackmail him’ is a recipe for hair-ripping frustration.