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Making Interactive Fiction: Going beyond “test your stuff.”
The most-often given advice to new IF writers, and writers in general, is “get feedback.”
Okay, so you’ve taken your story from a concept to a draft. You’re ready to show it to folks; maybe you’re even pretty proud of what you’ve put together. You take it to beta readers… and then they give you feedback.
Ah. Yeah. You signed up for this. What do you do with it?
Receiving feedback, and making use of it, is a hurdle for a lot of first-time writers. And it’s tough when you’re writing fiction that you feel is personal, or deeply subjective. Getting good feedback means finding people who can be good testers, which is challenging in itself.
A good test reader is someone who shares your aesthetic goals, someone who you can trust to be honest with you, but ideally not someone who is like you in every respect. Cultivating a circle of peers that I can exchange feedback with has been really useful to me, though I honestly couldn’t tell you how to make that happen.
You’ve probably been told to swallow your pride already, but really that’s just the start. Yes, feedback is going to be useless to you if you can’t stay objective about it, but it’s not enough to be objective. You need to know how to contextualize what you’re getting back from testers.
Some of the feedback you receive is going to be straightforward, of course: having more eyes on a project will help you find obvious bugs and errors. Having people with a diversity of viewpoints read your work before you publish it will often catch blind spots.
But what most new writers really struggle with is the frustration-guilt seesaw of getting feedback you think is bad, but you can’t be sure you’re not just giving in to your own biases. And yeah, sometimes you are being biased; I can’t really give you a way of knowing for sure. It gets easier with experience… I hope.
But for me, the key has been realizing that not all feedback is good, but all feedback is useful. Ultimately, even if someone’s perspective isn’t representative of who you’re trying to reach, they’re going to have a reaction that you can get something out of. The trick is to temper those reactions with other feedback, and keep circling back to the original vision for the project. Look at feedback not as answering the question what you should do but what are you doing now, and from there you derive what to change to get to what you want to be doing.
Most of all, don’t take early feedback looking for small tweaks. Early versions of your story are probably going to need some substantial surgery; embrace that. It’s often worth thinking through big structural changes in early revisions. IF writing is inevitably very iterative; it’s difficult to know how something will land ahead of time. And often, seemingly small problems are just the tip of the iceberg of a deeper weakness; getting to a story that hangs together well often means finding big solutions rather than spackling over the little cracks.
So: Writing is hard, not everyone shares your goals and aesthetics, but everyone has something you can glean information from. The worst possible feedback will tell you the boundaries of the audience you’re going to reach, or the ways you can expect to be misunderstood, but don’t expect (or settle) for the worst. Seeking out good feedback can be hugely rewarding, and over time, it’ll make you a better writer. Nothing has helped me improve more than editors, and while a lot of IF writing doesn’t have the luxury of a full-on editor, the basic principle still holds: Putting more eyes on a project will make it stronger.
Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere.