Wednesday, 29 January 2014

First impressions last

by BBBen

First impressions are a major factor in whether an AIF game is a success with the audience. When a player first starts up a game they are extremely easy to put off. It will be rare that a player sits down with any dedication at all to really stick with a free porn game and see it through to the end. They'll almost always be thinking, "I'll give this a try for a minute and see if it interests me." Therefore you need to get them interested in that first minute or two and not push them away. This might be the most under-appreciated element of good AIF game design.

Show some leg

You don't need to do a full sex scene right away, but you want to signal to the audience that this is a sexy game. That's what they're there for. Even if you feel the main appeal of your game will ultimately be the story and characters, you need to accept that initially your audience primarily wants some sex. You can draw them in to your writing gradually as you go, and you don't have to make an out-and-out sex romp, you just need to get the player's engine running.

This early 'showing some leg' doesn't actually have to take any particularly specific form. Maybe you've got a shortish game and all you do is show an attractive character and maybe hint at what kind of sex might be coming up (like if you feature a dominatrix in some capacity at the beginning, you are probably going to have an S&M scene later). Judge based on how you want to pace the sexual content throughout your game - how much do you think you would want early in the game if you still haven't made up your mind to keep playing?

It's probably also best not to have the early sexual content be completely satisfying. If the player is... erm... "satisfied" then they will probably stop playing, at least for a while. Oh, and it's better to have no sex at the beginning rather than boring sex - if you don't have anything good to include then don't include it, because like I say, this is your first impression.

Establish the look of your characters

This is strongly connected to the above principal of 'show some leg' and is probably generally good writing practice anyway, but it is particularly important for AIF.

A surprising number of authors fail to strongly establish the physical descriptions of their characters early in the game. This is always one of the first things I look for - do the characters interest me physically? Not to put to fine a point on it, is this girl hot? This is offset somewhat if you are using graphics, because I might be able to just look and see for myself, but in that case you must a) make sure the pictures do a good job of establishing the look of the character, and b) still make sure you describe them clearly anyway.

When painting a picture for the reader throughout the game you want them to automatically have a sense of what your characters look like. Personality is a more subtle thing and can be built over time. It's worth mentioning here that you should consistently reinforce the description of the character throughout the game as well, don't just describe them once and forget about it. There's more about this in the discussion below in the comments section.

Don't overload your intro with exposition, back-story or just too much text

Try to get into the flow of the game as quickly as possible. You have time to flesh out your setting and characters - the player doesn't assume they know everything when they first start typing commands. You'll find opportunities to introduce stuff - exposition and back-story will most likely come out organically as you write. You don't need to tell the player right away that the PC was a star high school baseball pitcher if they're going to be throwing a baseball a short way into the game. You can just tell them when it comes up.

It can even be a good way to give your audience a nice early surprise; let them think your game is doing one thing, then after a little while reveal what's really happening - but only when you have to. Say the game starts in the middle of a dinner party, everyone is being polite and you have an attractive date that you would like to impress. The player doesn't need to know right away that you're also having an affair with a married person at the same party - they can find that out when the two characters briefly get some time alone and the married person suddenly jumps them.

You don't want to leave the exposition until really late, either. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the only case I can think of where a major, out of the blue plot change is revealed at the end and it still works (What? The Ark really does have magic powers?) If you can, try to move early exposition into small early scenes instead.

Give your player some freedom or control early

Further to the last point: the player doesn't want to be reading a lot of text the moment they get into the game. They want to be in control - they want to be playing the game as soon as possible. Not reading the game. This means a bit of interactivity. Some of this interactivity can, (and probably should) be introductions to game mechanics (explored more below), but you also should give your players some meaningful interaction. Some kind of puzzle or some kind of choice early on is a very good thing.

Maybe the choice is "do you want to be respectful of this nice girl, or be smooth to the easy girl?" Or maybe it's "do you want a bit of money or a chance to see a naughty picture?" Or perhaps it's an interesting little puzzle where you can get a cool bonus if you complete it quickly. Just give your player some agency and the chance to do something other than just 'push the story button' to watch your story play out. If this means introducing some small extra bonus content on top of your story to have some kind of reward to dole out, then you might have to do that.

Teach the player the basics of how your game plays

It's important that your players understand roughly what is expected of them. You don't have to start at the absolute basics for most AIF games, although if you think you might be attracting first time AIF players then it's actually not a terrible idea to let them know about movement commands and 'x' for examine, etc. What's important for most AIF games are certain things like what conversation system you're using ("ask", "greet", "talk to"?) and how important it is. Are you using any unusual game mechanics? That kind of thing.

And try to demonstrate their use by actually having the player use it in some simple situation. I'm sure you've seen this kind of thing done in game design before - big professional games do it all the time these days. "Here's a log in your path - press space bar to jump over it." It's in some ways a tedious trope but AIF is a niche form of game design that many players will not know very well, and thus you need to do a little bit of hand-holding.

Broader acceptance of this kind of stuff might actually help the community as a whole by making the genre a bit more widely accessible.

Give your players a goal

It might be obvious enough to you what the player should do next, but it may not be obvious to them. Sticking players in a room and assuming they'll go out and explore may have worked fairly well in many good games before, but that does not make it good practice. If you want your game to be well received give your player a reasonably clear goal at the start. It doesn't have to be the player's end goal. In fact if it is then you've probably just had to unload a wall of text on them to explain the entire plot at the start. Instead, give them a simple goal explained by the circumstances.

I much prefer it if not very much is expected of me at this point. That is, I don't have to efficiently discover some item hidden in my bedroom within the first four turns of the game or miss out on later content. What makes a good opener is an early setup that fulfills several of the tasks described here at once: say in a superhero game, if you start out in a very easy battle you could give the player a goal (defeat your enemy) introduce some basic gameplay mechanics, give your player some limited control (maybe they could choose whether to save a bystander or arrest the bad guy at the end of the fight?) and explain quite a bit of the story concept just by implication, without having to write a long passage about the fact that you have superpowers, blah, blah.

Have unanswered questions

This is a well established writing principle. You want the early part of your story to be simple and leave the audience with the impression that they'd like to work out what's going on. This isn't rocket science: a man walks into a room, where his workmate is working away at his desks. He asks a few boring questions about how his work is going, how his wife is, etc. Then he pulls out a gun and shoots his workmate dead. Why did he do that? Read on to find out...

It's best if you don't answer those questions right away, either. This gives a story a "page turner" quality. It really doesn't have to be that intense, either. If you've played Pervert Action: Future (sorry to cite my own games, it's all I can think of right now) then you'll know I start off with a bit of a prologue about Kenji being recruited for a mysterious "unit program", and then the opening scene has he and his friend Ami setting off on a shuttle ride to the space station. I was trying to set up a bunch of little hooks here: why has Kenji been recruited and why is he so special? What is this "unit program"? What is this space station going to be like? Can Kenji get anywhere with this cold but sexy military woman? And so on.

In some respects this principle is actually slightly less important in writing AIF than in writing, say, a novel. The reason is that as I stated above, the player is initially mostly there for the sex. So long as the game looks like it's going to have some hot action the player may well be fine getting through a relatively slow start to a story (Crossworlds, I'm looking at you). But it nonetheless still helps, and it's worth respecting this basic element of writing craft.


I think there are quite a number of AIF games out there that have not been accorded their due because they don't grab players from the start. I've also been frustrated before by games that I wanted to enjoy, but which made me struggle through them at the beginning. While good games in AIF have consistently bent or broken these guidelines I don't think that means they are unimportant - just that we don't have much of an 'industry standard' and players interested in AIF will endure a slow opening for the chance to enjoy an AIF game.

To emphasise the point, here's another article by ExLibris on the topic of the importance of how your game opens. He explores some other stuff like spelling errors in the opening (that is important), the title and what the player will do when first starting a game, so it's worth a read.

Is a first impression as important as I think it is? Did I leave anything out? Can you suggest good examples of games that demonstrate the principles listed above?


  1. All great points. Very helpful stuff, indeed.

    The only rule here that I view as being bendable is the introductory exposition. If memory serves, a few of Goblinboy's biggest hits have quite a lot of text up front and it doesn't detract from the experience. Of course, this might not work for a first time author in the same way. The average player is probably going to be more willing to slog through an extended intro if a game has been written by an established name. Still, I like to think that a little extra "flavor" to set up the vibe might be acceptable as long as it's written well enough to maintain the player's interest.

    1. Yeah, I think GoblinBoy benefitted from being a known quantity in that regard.

      The big thing for me as a player is having an immediate goal.If the author just expects me to wander around until I work out what I'm supposed to be doing then I tend to get bored. I had that experience the first time I played British Fox and the Nationalist Conspiracy (with the added factor of the game ending unexpectedly), leading to me quitting and never going back.

      I like the opening of Meteor because it sets up a mystery, and introduces the two main characters. The faux transcript format also gives new players some idea of how things are supposed to work as well.

      Outside of traditional AIF, I'm quite fond of the opening of Getting to Know Christine because it does a good job of explaining why both the player and the PC should be interested in Christine (having her undress in front of her window helps).

      On the minus side, I had a lot of trouble getting into The Midnight Room because not enough information was provided to me about who the characters were. It may be inelegant, but sometimes some straight exposition is necessary if the information is going to be relevant straight away.

      My vote for worst opening would have to go to Xtracurricular Activities by Cugel though. Wall of text. Made to look even bigger by the way that RAGS displays text.

    2. To the first issue: I think all these guidelines are bendable to some extent. Probably almost every good AIF game has done one or more of these things poorly. They get away with it because what I've described is an ideal, not the community standard. Goblinboy's games would generally get more patience from audiences than a new author, but also if the opening text is showing some leg and presenting some unanswered questions then players will also be more patient with it. I also think different formatting can help by breaking up the text and presenting it in readable chunks... but if you've played PAC or PAF you'll know I prefer that.

      To the second issue: presenting the player with a goal is a really good point and I think I'll add an actual paragraph into the article as an update on that. I'll also link to your article in the body of the text.

    3. Hilariously, I think my long-held distaste for "School Dreams 3," which is apparently the best thing since strawberry-shortcake ice cream, stems almost entirely from its terrible opening, which manages to combine a terrible info-dump of an opening with an extremely unflattering portrait of its characters, particularly the protagonist. Never even finished my first playthrough.

      I agree, in hindsight, that "showing some leg" is probably a good thing, but I think that it's possible to go too far, to go from "showing a little leg" to "flashing someone in a trenchcoat."

      For instance, the opening scenes of PAF were a little *too* over-sexual for me. I was a bit miffed that I *had* to have sex with Minami, no questions asked, even though I wasn't too sure that it was a good idea. It was understandable, at least, because Kenji was more of his own character and less of an audience surrogate in that scene, but it still caused a kind of disconnect.

    4. It's hard for me to gauge how well the PAF opening worked for most people. My thinking with the Minami scene was not just that I wanted to show leg, but also that the format of the game means it's quite long and it's a while before a player is likely to get to a sex scene. I felt that structurally the game needed a relatively early interactive sex scene, and preferably one that was not fully satisfying.

      Kenji is, as you say, his own character and not a player surrogate there, and the plot was rather contingent on that scene playing out as it did. It would have been hard to make an 'opt-out' option work. I could have toned down the level of sex in the scene, made it more teasing and foreplay, but that might have also made complications elsewhere, so I don't know if I would have preferred that idea.

      As a rule I don't really think that it's a great idea to open straight into a full-on sex scene. Without a bit of character development the scene is likely not to be terribly arousing, and the purpose of early sexual content is to build tension more than to be satisfying in of itself. (That is, ultimately, what I was trying to do there, by the way.)

    5. The PC as an established character complete with his/her own motivations versus a totally blank slate is another interesting topic worthy of discussion.


      Basically, I think that they each suit different types of story. Where who the PC is relevant to the story, they should probably be a specific character. Otherwise, an anonymous PC is fine (although that anonymity is frequently an illusion)..

  2. Some great advice here. What I'd add is that, especially in porn, a character's physicality has to be constantly reinforced throughout the text, not just in descriptions. For example, instead of saying,

    "I really like hot dogs," says Jane.

    It is much more interesting to say,

    "I really like hot dogs." Jane twists her blonde hair in a ditzy manner.

    I think in the least interesting AIF I never get a sense of what characters looked like, except maybe in a throwaway paragraph at the beginning or when you examine a character. It's not enough! It's not enough! :)

    1. I agree, and it should come up in the sex, as well. Whatever is physically appealing about the character should be referred to in sexual interactions, preferably with a little bit of actual detail. If Jane has huge boobs you shouldn't just write "You rub Jane's boobs." Nor for that matter should you be writing "You rub Jane's huge boobs." The response should have the player wondering at the sight of them, lifting them from below and making the squishy flesh spill over, etc, etc. A big part of the point of determining in detail what the character looks like is that you can use it in the sex scene to make your responses more interesting.

  3. That game, magician's assistant not only had an unusual premise that i would imagine does not normally enter most peoples fantasy, it also did not check many of the boxes on your list and was quite buggy. But people over at the aif archive seemed to lap it up anyway.

    I think first impressions are less important than they were, the main reason for that is the lack of aif games coming out each year, people are more willing to give something a go than they might of been when there were lots of games competing for the same audience.

    1. To be fair, Magician's Nephew was specifically presented as a beta version, which made the bugginess a little more excusable (although I typically don't play beta versions for precisely that reason).

      I actually liked the originality of the premise though. It was enough to keep me playing the game even though it wasn't immediately obvious where the sex was going to come from.