Making Interactive Fiction: Scope

2018-02-13 · by Bruno Dias
tagged Columns

Hi. Welcome to the first of these. Sub-Q magazine has made the frightful editorial decision to give me a monthly column. This posed a problem.

The mandate for writing this column – 600 words about any subject I like, related to IF – is too broad. I had to pare it down, come up with a more focused mission statement of sorts.

Fortunately, this is a problem I see a lot. Let’s talk about cutting scope, about the practice of finding things that were planned to be in your game and taking them out.

Most games and most pieces of fiction eventually find a point where scope has to be cut. The ambitions set out at the start of the project turn out to be unfeasible in practice. Or ideas that have been hanging around since the beginning turn out to be dead weight and have to be shoved out an airlock.

Sometimes it’s a matter of resources, of only having so much space, time, money, patience. That’s always difficult, because it’s externally imposed; we can imagine the world where we halt everything and spend the rest of our lives working on this one thing, and we can maybe just barely see the edge of what the final product of that looks like. Of course, we don’t live in that world.

Sometimes it’s a matter of focus, of trying to cohere disparate ideas together.  Of making sure you’re producing something that can be taken in as a unit, and not as a collection of stuff. Most murals don’t need to wrap around the building they’re painted on. This is hard in a different way, because often the hardest thing to see is the valuable core of something. We arrive at it obliquely too often, still carrying a lingering attachment to an original idea that might not be what matters. A lot of novels start as plot-driven and end up character-driven. In the process of making something, we clarify what that thing needs to be.

So: When cutting scope, one focuses on what’s important, on what’s unique about a project. What’s unique about this column is that it’s an open-ended column about IF, in the very particular space that is Sub-Q. So, writing reviews, impressions pieces, that’s out; I can do that elsewhere. I’m also not going to use this for broad Takes about video games. What can I write here that I can’t get published anywhere else?

Craft advice about writing interactive fiction; more theoretical discussion of issues in that field. Something that exercises my thinking as a working writer, rather than my thinking as a critic.

There are always going to be casualties. 6000-word essay about why Super Mario RPG is the most important game on the SNES catalogue: Gone. Long digression about the colonialist overtones of the Knack franchise: Deleted. In-depth review of Ad Verbum 17 years after its release: Not to be seen in this space.

Instead: How do you create a sense of place in IF? How do you deploy randomness? How did the parser canon of the 1990s influence Twine games in the 2010s? We clear space for things that couldn’t exist anywhere else.

Opening up that space is the trite argument for parsimony. There’s a longer-view point to it, a more significant reason for cutting back: By narrowing down what you set out to make, you might actually manage to finish things.

And whatever you want to accomplish as a writer, finishing something will get you far closer to it than poring over a seventeenth draft will.

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