Ambiguity and player interpretation

Today I was reading Mind the Gap by Ian Thomas, the author of Pendragon Rising, about leaving space for the audience imagination, and though a lot of it is about LARP design (as a former LARP writer, I agree with his points thoroughly in that context!) thought it would be an interesting discussion point here for IF. When you’re playing, how much do you like to be explained and how much veiled?

How much ambiguity do you enjoy in worldbuilding, do you prefer explanations or implications? Have there been games where you’ve enjoyed either approach? How about with plot - do you like it to be laid out or do you like the to be more room for interpretation?

It also occurred to me that a reason why I don’t really enjoy stating a PC’s hair colour, eye colour etc, is that I find it harder to visualise the whole person if there’s emphasis on the composite parts, so I prefer choices like deciding how scruffily you’re dressed or how formally you like to be addressed, that sort of thing. But I know that a lot of people find appearance customisation more important for visualising their characters - where do you stand on the spectrum?


To me it’s rather essential to good world building to provide enough info that the audience can fill in the gaps.
Likewise if something happens in the sorta real world, trust in your audience to get the implication and if not to not be left stranded.

Two examples.

From Spiderverse

Gwen is apparently the only one to arrive a week before the movie’s events. So it’s possible that main verse peter began investigatinf because of that, leading into a stable, fatal timeloop

From Good Omens:

There is a throw away line early on about how one character is so bad with technology that he never managed to built anything correctly if he tried. Including a joke circuit from a magazine not meant to work. He tried to build it, abd he ended up receiving russian radio. Then there’s a note how the magazine went out of print shortly after. Good Omens was written and takes place in during the Cold War

I don’t have one preference over another for any of those choices - at least none that I can recall off the top of my head right now. Personally, execution matters more than whether or not something is ambiguous or not. It also depends on what type content is being ambiguous or not and how the author conveys their tone in their writing about it that also matters to me.

I an emotionally high strung and driven person so an MC who doesn’t feel anything, never has an opinion or is rather mild (to better accompany many interpretations) leaves me very, very cold - it is unfortunately also one of the most common type of protagonist.

If the inner emotional life of the protagonist is empty or mild, I automatically fills it in as it not being there. In other words I don’t do well with blank slate protagonist, they bore me and I latch onto the NPCs instead off. It is a very common problem in RPGs, but also a lot of books and movies do it too. (Though, I am rarely into movies.)

Likewise I need some kind of acknowlegdement of the background of the MC or is it just not there. It is why skyrim does nothing for me and the warden is my least favourite dragon age protagonist.

Visually, though, I don’t really care. I tend to forget stuff like eye color and just insert my own imagination anyway.

As for world building and plot, it depends. I am pretty flexible there. As long as I can follow the story I am fine.


do you know who get mad at sci-fi movies? especially those in spaces?

Peoples who know too much :sweat_smile:

Personally , the writer doesn’t need to go all nerdy in the story . Sure , I’ve read some story (fanfic lol) where the author went in great details to descripe stuff that were way over my head (scientific stuff , medecine stuff…etc) . Make them seem super smart !

But only if you get what they are saying , its pretty much just static if you don’t lol .

I think accuracy if thats the real topic (and not hair color :sweat_smile:) is important with characters and decisions . But not world shattering if it isn’t . Sometimes it is good to go with the flow…

Seeing as half of what my MCs go through are headcanons, I quite enjoy implications and subtext.

For example, in Fallen Hero I’m playing a guy who’s convinced there’s a creature residing inside of him; the text was ambiguous enough to allow that interpretation.

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A reallygood writer could make anything work. However if a IF THAT IS A INTERACTIVE experience. Not a book. Is so fixed that You are constrained in a tiny tiny tiny agency coffin. What is the damn point of interactive if absolutely EVERYTHING is in test.
Being Brutal sincere. I could know the quality as game designer of an author of less 1,000 words. Far less. It is clear in few first game choices

When game is not about what you want to do and what you see as a new person in this universe as player and is all about LONG explanation that tells What do you want what who you are your goals and if your favourite spice is garlic with zarzaparrilla.

Where is the point of keep going? You have say something i don’t know shit and not show anything that makes me care. So well i close the game forever.

If you want write a Novel do that. If you want make INTERACTIVE fiction you have left room to agency and Player self immersion.

I think the writer should leave some ambiguity about the player but not too much about the world or the story. Usually you have a certain vision of your player. A writer can of course not have an option for every specific thing someone thinks of, which is why it’s better to keep the answers a bit broad so that the player can fill in the gaps by themselves and create a character that fits with their vision but also within the story. If the writer is too specific about for example appearances of the player this could clash with the vision of the player.
Other than that I think the story and world should be more specific, otherwise it could ruin the quality of the experience in my opinion. Maybe other characters or RO’s should be less specific but the world should not be.

I like bare minimum worldbuilding going into a story, then as much as physically possible once I’m in. I prefer character-plots to world-plots, so I don’t tend to care about worldbuildy details until I care about the characters who’ve been shaped by this world. I’ve poured through fanwikis and the asks pages and such for games, but it’s always in the context of “How would X affect my character’s viewpoint?”

If there is room for ambiguity, I want it to be with my character’s reactions and interpretations, moreso than the rest of the world at large.

I like specific, intricate details only if they pay off in the end. I don’t need to input descriptions to visualize my character–mostly, I’m hoping the game acknowledges something of it. I’d rather have a three question setup and some callbacks than a long, very customized stats page and nothing else. But if you pull something like ZE:SH (long but optional customization, and several points where what I look like/am wearing impacts the story in some way), I’m fine with it.

The only things I straight up don’t want are “What do you look like?” and then text input because I know that, even if it’s the most detailed way you can 100% guarantee your character is right, it’s going to matter functionally zero to the story (and if it doesn’t, that the grammar is going to be so borked).

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I think this subject provides an interesting opportunity for IF authors.

Generally, I prefer authors to control their ambiguity. I don’t mind not being privy to everything but of detail in a setting, but I at least like to feel that the author has a concrete grasp of what is happening in their world.

If ambiguity comes into play, I like it when the author is intentionally obscuring something to build a sense of intrigue, either in the form of something ominous or awe-inspiring.

Related to this, I also enjoy it when the author makes use of the unreliable narrator — giving the audience a worldview through an imperfect lens. It adds character depth, and it can be interesting trying to parse if what we’re seeing as readers is actually how things are objectively or just what the character perceives or believes.

I think in IF, ambiguity is best implemented through these means as well. The author controls what information is given to the player, which allows the player to infer things about the world based on their character’s perspective, regardless of how things might be objectively. Then, the burden is to continue doing this and giving room for the player to be the (un)reliable narrator based on those interpretations.

I think the important part here is that all other characters in the work have their own subjective judgments as well while the author doles out or withholds the objective truth as they see fit, rather than implementing general ambiguity.


When it comes to worldbuilding and plot, I’ve enjoyed those that are straight forward and those with room for interpretation. How well it suits the story depends on what sort of story is being told. Although I think both have their drawbacks – if there’s too much room for interpretation, the worldbuilding and plot can become too empty. If there’s too much explanation, what’s truly important about the world and plot gets lost.

As for PC customization… I don’t mind it never describing my MC’s appearance to having many choices about it, since even when a character is fully described composite parts like hair or eye color are often emphasized anyway. :thinking:

Honestly, I’m not great at following breadcrumbs. If something isn’t explicitly stated about the setting or at the very least strongly hinted at, I’ll miss it. Given that, I truthfully like the world to be built for me.

However, character development is where I think I shine. If given the options, I can craft anything I want out of a PC. That being said, I have no problem with a set PC as long as you can influence their thoughts and decisions.

I believe that world building is the most important part of books, both IF and novels. As such, I think direct explanation of history, geography, politics is good, but ambiguity can be good if you are describing characters.