Game Jams’ Influence on Interactive Fiction

An Interview with manonamora

15 mins read

Sophia: Hi, Manon! For those of us who aren’t already familiar, could you introduce yourself?

Manon: Hi Sophia! Gladly. 🙂

My name is Manon, a French netizen, also going as manonamora on the internet (it is a combination of my name and a French mustard brand Amora — 8 year-old me thought it was the perfect username). I’ve been doing creative things since forever, but only discovered the Interactive Fiction scene in mid-2021. Since then, I’ve been making IF games for fun in my spare time.

I am also one of the organisers of Neo-Interactives, along with Autumn Chen, Jinx/Lapin Lunaire, and you, a collective that organises monthly game jams with fun restrictions to help foster creativity and experimentation, as well as bringing together all shapes of IF.

S: Something I’ve found really charming about interactive fiction is how varied the ways we find it are. How did you find IF, and what made you stick around?

M: I found the IF scene kinda by chance, actually!

I’ve always had a preference for narrative-based and puzzle games. So, I played IF games (and IF-adjacent games) without ever knowing they were IF, like Disco Elysium, Fallen London, the Telltale titles, old LucasArts (and inspired) point-n-click like Sam & Max or Grim Fandango, or a bunch of Visual Novels. I even used to have educational CYOA books when I was a small kiddo, where you’d have to solve problems to complete the story.

But I didn’t get acquainted with the IF scene until a few years ago, when a close friend sent me the link to an IF game (A Tale of Crowns) they thought I’d enjoy because it was text-based and I just… love reading!

After going through the creator’s blog, I wondered if I could try my hands at the medium as well (my friend also dared me to try), even if I had absolutely no coding knowledge nor had I written anything creatively for about a decade at that point. It seemed like a nice challenge, where I could learn a thing or two in the process.

So I created a blog on Tumblr, followed a bunch of other IF creators on that platform and made my first game (Meeting the Parents). Through teaching myself to code and playing more IF games, I found my way into other IF circles, participated in game jams and competitions…

The community helped reignite my love for writing and creating, and I never really left.

S: Game jams. You’ve certainly organised a melange of them. Can you tell me more about the process of how you got started doing so, and why?

M: There was a thread on the IntFiction Forum, in late 2021, spitballing about a fun gimmick for a competition — that would become the SeedComp! — which I thought was neat. Participating in the discussion, I volunteered to be one of the organisers and helped it become an actual event 14 days after the thread was created. It was exhilarating making it all happen, having all kinds of exchanges to set down the rules and trying to figure out how to ensure the event would work smoothly, in such a short time.

Until then I’d been looking for more things to do to give back to the community who’d helped me so much already. Creating bonds between people through collaboration, making people excited to create and play new games, adding maybe new perspectives to ideas and themes or what IF can look like… it just felt right, you know?

With the SeedComp! being a fairly successful event, I thought it would be fun to organise more of those throughout the year, especially a more relaxed, more approachable type. There were already quite a few IF events throughout the year, with SpringThing, IFComp, EctoComp, and the different Parser-specific comps, but little in the unranked department. Very few of them where you would not get that heavy pressure of judgement and ranking. And so a bunch of jams happened!

S: You’ve run game jams with a number of people from the community — though, I think it’s fair to say that most of them have been with the Neo-Interactives. How has consolidating a team influenced the experience of hosting game jams? What was the rationale behind forming the group?

M: Indeed, most recent game jams have been organised under the Neo-Interactives (or with some of the N-I organisers). I am grateful we have each other to rely on and bounce ideas off each other, whether it is working on the important details or the silly elements of the jams. It is less stressful to do it as a group rather than alone, especially when it comes to bringing back older game jams (and wanting to stay true to that original aim) or including all types of IF in the set restrictions. Different minds bring different perspectives. We help each other with tasks, spreading the work with one another, taking each other’s parts when needed.

Consolidating the team under one name also helped with ensuring our message and ethos with the game jams stay consistent, since the group has a shared rationale: wanting to see more experimentation in IF, bringing new blood and new perspectives to the medium, building bridges between the different IF communities and IF forms. We wanted a space where people could comfortably share their work without the pressure of ranking or competition, where they could test the water with themes, formats, or mechanics.

The whole do word/coding crimes vibes! 😂

S: Speaking of your assortment — I’d love to hear more about some of the highlights — the inspiration behind some of your game jams, how they panned out, and anything special you took away from hosting them.

M: And I’d love to tell you more about them!

S: The Neo-Twiny jam was one dear to my heart, as I have a special fondness for Porpentine’s body of work. I’m really interested in why you chose to revive that particular jam. Many of the game jams you’ve run play with mechanical restrictions, rather than thematic inspiration, and I’m curious on how you felt the strict word limit influenced the IF made. Why did you increase it from the original jam’s limitation of 300?

M: This one actually started after seeing a post shared by Autumn Chen on Tumblr about the original Twiny Jam that ran in 2015, where she toyed with the idea of rebooting the jam. I had forgotten about it until I participated in the Partim500, the French version of the Twiny Jam, organised yearly by Adrien Saurat since 2017. However, because French is a verbose language compared to English, the word count limit was raised to 500 words. And 500 words is still very little…

That jam had been such a fun experience for me, that it brought Autumn’s post to mind. I hit her up with the idea of bringing back Porpentine’s jam for the international IF scene and we got to work.

Honestly, we are both now unsure why the limit was raised — though it would probably be a safe bet that the Partim500 had something to do with it. I think having a little more wiggle room, with those extra 200 words, was welcomed by the participants, with many of them voicing how they struggled keeping under the limit.

With much of the IF scene orbiting towards large word counts in games, with tens of thousands of words being the “norm” for a basic project, having such a limited number can feel almost impossible. How can you tell a full story with so few words? How can it feel complete and rounded? How can you convey your message successfully and impactfully?

Creativity thrives on restrictions. The 124 unique submissions clearly showed that.

S. The Anti-Romance jam was hosted by our mutual, lovely friend Jinx. You and I are both fond of the romance genre, as you explore in works like your own Crimson Rose & White Lily (in progress) and it seems a rather curious choice for you to have helped run a jam so antithetical to it! So, why did you?

M: I could be asking you the same thing, Sophia! You helped too!

There wasn’t much thinking going into the why. 😂
When Jinx introduced the concept of organising what would become the Anti-Romance jam, I offered to help in a heartbeat. Just diving head first, without a second thought on what it would entail. Because, you know, friends help friends.

While I enjoy a good Romance or two, I am still fonder of exploring themes — any themes! I’m more the kind of person who tries a bunch of different things and experiments with them rather than sticking with one thing. So being part of this event wasn’t too much out of the ordinary for me…

S: The Anti-Romance jam held a fairly fluid view on what anti-romance looked like – what is it to you? Did any of the works from the jam surprise you in its interpretation of the theme?

M: To me, Anti-Romance was simply the lack of Romance. No romantic gestures, no lovey-dovey words… Not that there isn’t love to share or relationships, but just not the romantic relationship kind. The way I went at it when I participated was to create a premise where you stop people from being romantically involved.

After reviewing all the entries when the jam ended, what I took from the event was how diverse the interpretation of the theme ended up being between the submissions. Although the starting point was the same, some stories focused on requited love, others on the end of romance, or the doomed relationship trope. I don’t think my definition of Anti-Romance changed much after that, but it gave me a lot to think about. It was so interesting how each participant thought of such different stories, or used different mediums to convey their reading of the theme, adding depth to what might seem a silly game jam premise.

S: The Single Choice jam. You’ve dabbled rather extensively in both choice, parser, and the radically experimental area bridging both camps of IF. Were there any challenges in adapting the jam, which limits the player to only one choice, to accommodate both choice and parser games? The latter seems like it’d be particularly tricky to address, given the large vocabulary players develop — X, N/S/E/W, take all, and so on.

M: Extensively is being generous, Sophia! I’ve only just scratched the surface for parsers, I’m sure. But dabbling with both has helped me think about the similarities and differences in how IF games are created. Though thinking hadn’t gone that far when we were setting up the Single Choice Jam

That jam was probably the one that challenged us the most when trying to accommodate both choice and parser games within the game jam’s constraints, especially since we [the organisers] come from a more choice-based mindset. Unlike the Neo Twiny Jam, the restriction focused on the mechanical side of programming rather than a numerical limitation. Participants could only give the player one choice, and only one passage could have more than one option for action.

There are fundamental differences between parsers and non-parser games, especially in the way they are built and the logic behind the code. A passage is not really synonymous to a room. Available actions in parsers are not neatly printed on the screen. Different players will use different inputs for one command (e.g. X, EXAMINE, LOOK AT). There are common commands that may not be considered an action (like examining something). The many details we probably didn’t consider as extensively as we should have when we thought of this event.

When we were setting up the jam, we didn’t realise the constraint would not translate that well for parser entries, not in the way we first defined it. Though it did result in some interesting discussions on the IntFiction Forum when the jam was announced, with users trying to feel where the line was/should be drawn. We had to make many decisions on the fly in those first few days, defining what was acceptable and what would be going against the spirit of the jam. Thankfully, we did manage to get some lovely parser entries at the end!

We hope that for the next iteration of the jam, it will be clearer for all from the start! 😅

S: The Orifice jam was another homage to Porpentine’s influence, embracing the lascivious lushness that I, and many others, have come to associate with her body of work. Some of the entries were, then, unsurprisingly and explicitly NSFW. That’s a little unique among most of the jams you’ve run, I’d say! What was that experience like?

M: As an organiser, the experience was pretty similar to other theme-focused jams, in the way that you set up a page, agree on some rules, announce it, and hope for the best. The exception maybe being that we definitely expected most submissions to be mainly NSFW compared to other IF jams.

When running the Neo-Twiny Jam, another jam paying homage to Porpentine, we’d seen that influence through some of the more explicit entries. I do think the way we formatted the game page of the Orifice Jam, with your amazing header, did set the tone for the jam from the start. Make it weird, make it gross, make it hole-y. And the submissions delivered!

As a participant, however, I felt a bit out of my wheelhouse with the jam. While I enjoy NSFW content, writing more (borderline) explicit content was very alien to me. Even when embracing Porpentine’s work, trying to bring out that lushness you mentioned, or that focus on the body, was pretty strange. It made for an interesting experience, maybe pushing some out of their comfort zone.

S: The Bring Out Your Ghosts jam was a lovely nod to festivals of the dead, where old, unfinished WIPs were the focus. You’ve also organised SeedComp!, a venue where people throw out their ideas for IF games to be sprouted by others into fully fledged pieces. Has this emphasis on killing your darlings resonated with you or your work, personally?

M: We should all be killing our darlings on the regular. A sort of spring cleaning of our mind, idea file, or project folder. Creativity is sometimes a double-edged sword: you can get tons of great ideas… but you also get tons of ideas you want to work on, now. So, it’s very freeing to let go of things that probably won’t end up being realised, to focus on the ones that are possible or already in process.

While I didn’t share anything in Bring Out Your Ghost last year, both jams have definitely had an impact on how I view ideas and projects, for sure. Aside from helping me letting go of ideas I know I won’t ever have the time/energy/capabilities for making, or barely formed ones, which I have a drawer full of, it has helped me realise what could be feasible and what wouldn’t, whether a project would be short or long, and when to end a story, even if it didn’t include all I wanted to do. It’s a lot of reclaimed headspace!

Though I might actually not be that good of an example: I still have a bunch of Works In Progress on my desk (wish-fulfilment, then?). But Pinkunz, one of the SeedComp! organiser, might be, having submitted almost 40 ideas for games that never came to be during the last edition. Ideas that ended up resonating with other creators, as we saw a couple of games based on a few of those seeds.

S: The Bare-Bones jam seems to be the perfect counterpart to your usual wonderful stylization: the factory defaults on whatever program you used to make IF! With your experience in IF communities outside of the IntFiction forum (such as Tumblr, and interact-if), what has been your experience of differing presentation expectations? Did your work in extensively modifying Twine (especially with your Sugarcube templates and hybrid choice-parser works) inspire the jam?

M: That jam was actually inspired by the Naked Twine Jam that ran on Tumblr in 2014, which we reappropriated as a Halloween jam and opened to all programs, not just Twine — though we did expect to see many entries to stick with Twine. The original jam had been organised as a reaction to the worry of Twine games being expected to be in a more “polished” state (due to the increased availability of tools to customise a project, mechanically and through audiovisuals), and releasing the pressure on new game makers to make… well, something. A sort of levelling of the playing field by removing any custom elements, by bringing it back to its bare bones (hehe).

The ethos of the original jam did fuel what we wanted to achieve with the Bare-Bones Jam, in that we wanted a space for people to focus fully on their story, or their puzzle, or their mechanic, without having to worry about how their game would look at the end — spending maybe too much time on the interface they later wished they’d used on the writing or coding.

With so many gorgeous looking games and well-constructed custom UI out there, it is not uncommon to see messages from creators feeling that pressure of having a polished project. Visuals are another way of conveying elements to the player, and an aesthetically pleasing interface can help enhance the player’s experience. Yet, even with there being more resources available now than in 2014 to extensively modify Twine projects (with templates, macros, etc…), I’ve seen in discussions, especially with new creators on the scene on Tumblr, that people can feel like they are drowning with having to learn so much to reach that level of polish — at best, coding and customising feels like a chore. Many would just prefer to spend that time writing and focusing on the story.

Aside from trying to alleviate pressure from the game-making side, we wanted the jam to be especially accessible to newcomers, as competition can be nerve-wracking. By providing a safe space for people to get comfortable with a new program, or even to try a different one, we tried to ensure people could experiment without any expectation.

And I think it worked! We saw new users participating in the jams making their first game, a few who tried to explore a different kind of IF-flavour (parser instead of choice, or vice-versa), some who tested out new programs (from non-IF ones to more traditional CYOA formats), and other who turned to more aesthetically pleasing formats.

S: While IF has its own Speed-IF tradition, the compressed timelines of game jams are a bit of a shakeup compared to the larger, long standing competitions like SpringThing or the IFComp. What do you think game jams bring to the table of IF as a whole?

M: Alike to competitions, game jams are very interesting events for IF. They provide a structure for participants to create a game of some sort, in a limited amount of time, with a set determined deadline. Game jams are often much shorter than competitions, so they create this sense of urgency: you have a limited amount of time to come up with an idea or a concept that would fit the rules and implement it — this is a great motivator to do things.

Sometimes, game jams will even create this sense of uncertainty: the jam could be a one-off and never happen again, or it could come back but with completely different rules. You may end up with some sort of FOMO (fear of missing out) if you don’t participate right then and there with the idea you’ve just cooked up. If not now, when?

Another important thing I feel about game jams, especially the unranked type, is that they help welcome newcomers to the scene, as I said before, without having the pressure to perform well or worrying about a ranking. They are relaxed events that bring in new blood and diverse perspectives to the IF landscape. I believe those elements are important for the community, especially if we want to continue to grow and reach more people – or at least keep the flame alight.

These unranked jams also provide a special space for experiments, especially for the ones that may not find their place in larger competitions, or for testing formats before committing to them. This way, you can see what works and what doesn’t for you, where you may need some guidance or help, or the path you might want to pursue further (narratively or in terms of programming).

With the addition of restrictions or themes, game jams can help kickstart creativity: they can help with finding ideas for a story, or an angle to take on the restriction(s) — sometimes even force participants to think outside of the box! I mean, what can you do with 500 words? How will you tell a story if you can format it only a certain way? How can you make things interesting if the player only has one choice?

As a whole, those short, focused bursts of collaborative creativity, powered through these game jams, end up shaping what gets written and how they get written.

S: Any game jam plans for the future?

M: Oh, so many! And we are just getting started!

Our aim is to have unranked game jams happening year round, each with its specific flavour in themes, mechanic, or customisation. If a certain theme or constraint is overwhelmingly welcomed by the community, like the Neo-Twiny Jam or the Single Choice Jam, our goal is to bring it back the following year. If not, we would be exploring a different concept, maybe bringing back another historical IF jam. We have plenty of jam ideas stored in our ideas drawer!

After the ShuffleComp was wrapped up, a competition which hadn’t happened since 2015, we worked on ironing out details for the 2024 schedule of the Neo-Interactives, bringing new jams monthly (or so), and are already getting ready to announce the next ones!

[Note: since the interview, the Recipe Jam, Smoochie Jam and Revival Jam have been conducted and you can check out our latest event, the Dialogue Jam, which will run from March 31st through April 29th! And as a solo event project: the Interactive Fiction Showcase!]

Sophia de Augustine

Sophia de Augustine is a Canadian interactive fiction writer from Toronto. Their creative focus is LGBT gothic romance and horror. Their body of work includes Vespertine, Origin of Love, and Sweetpea — for which they won the 2022 IFDB award for Outstanding Horror. They are a founding member of the Neo-Interactives, a creative collective for choice-based and parser interactive fiction creation. They are also prominently known for persistent community-building and an enduring love for felines (meows) of all types.