The large concepts behind a work of IF may come partly from ideas you have going in, but (if your experience is anything like mine) they will also to a large extent develop from questions you ask yourself afterwards.
Most of the games I've written -- most of the short stories, as well, and the novel, too, for that matter (don't ask) -- have evolved in this way. I have my two or three strong, strange ideas. They don't seem as though they entirely go together, but they're not entirely at war, either. They seem as though they might work.
Then I ask myself questions.
In Pytho's Mask, for instance, I had a couple of notions. I wanted to do a game that could actually be a natural extension of, or conclusion from, the competition announcement for SmoochieComp, in which a strange masked man gives you an invitation on a white card. So I had that element: you're a woman at some sort of party, you're attracted to the masked man, but you don't know who he is. The romance element was a requirement anyway, but this gave it a little bit more shape. If you're going to have a masked man, though, you need some kind of mystery about his identity -- so I made up a couple of characters who could each potentially be he.
Then there was the business about the moon. The first location I wrote is the one that is still the first room of the game: the terrace, made of moon stone. I was trying to dodge the cliché of having a moonlit terrace, and it occurred to me instead to have a terrace that was glowing of its own accord, instead. That rapidly gave rise to a couple of questions: what kind of world was it in which you could casually travel to the moon and bring back rock from the quarries there? Especially given the other starting idea I had (that the game should be set in a 17th-18th century Western-style society), the answer couldn't have anything to do with space ships in the ordinary sense. Likewise, if the moon was truly glowing of itself, the cosmology had to be different from our own.
This in turn suggested an easy congress between earth and the moon by ship -- so that the moon would be like a colony of an early modern European empire. Correspondingly, it needed to play into the political system: hence, the Moon Minister.
From there the idea of having a more direct connection between cosmology and court suggested itself. The Sun King was an obvious trope to play with, perfectly right in all its implications for the fancy court society I wanted, and then the Earth Minister seemed a good balance for the Moon. Drawing on some of the chthonic vs. celestial power ideas gave me further conceptual material to go on here: the Earth Minister would be female to balance the male Moon Minister, and she would have sort of general agricultural powers, and she would be (or seem) very kindly and practical.
So far, so good; but the picture still seemed a little static. I needed some more players at the court, or the positions would be a little too tritely symmetrical.
I'd had playing in the back of my mind an entirely unrelated idea for a sort of science fiction story: what if humanity developed a form of immortality treatment, but it left you sterile? Or what if you could only have the treatment if you agreed to be sterilized (as a form of population control)? People would be forced to choose between having long life and having children. It wasn't a really well-developed idea, because I didn't have anywhere to go with it. But somehow or other it popped through into this universe: instead of a treatment, there was just this genetic quality of long life, but it was associated with androgynous persons who were incapable of bearing children. These would be relatively rare -- this isn't exactly a sensible way for evolution to work, and androgyny would run in the noble houses but only manifest itself some of the time (since obviously there had to be some people still reproducing and passing the dormant gene along). But there would also be considerable honor that accrued to the position, since the very long-lived would be an important resource to a society.
Too important, though, perhaps. From a game standpoint, having a perfectly reliable oracle would make things boring; having an ultra-wise villain would also be kind of unfun. And the androgyny suggested someone whose position in society -- and in the cosmology I was building -- would be a little peculiar. A force of ambiguity and disruption, paired with that celestial body most often associated with disastrous omen in ancient times: the comet.
Much of the finer-grained detail developed as I worked on the conversation system. What might one want to ask about? The player would have to have some way of coming to understand this bizarre cosmological system, so unlike our own, and so I created some mythology for it. What stories would people tell themselves about the relations of earth and moon? What boundaries could there be on the King's power? Did his Empire extend forever? Had it always? How was it founded? If there were any foreigners, how were they regarded, and how treated? (I put a few into the game for good measure.)
And then the physical environment. What did it look like? How did it symbolize and embody various aspects of the cosmology in question? (Since obviously this was going to be a symbolism-rich sort of world.) What was the history of the various rooms, and who had been there before, and what memories were associated with them?
The basic moral of the story is this: you can gather questions around just about any interesting idea you have. Why is this here? Who made it? When did it get here? What is it for? What does it mean? The more you prod at this sort of thing, the more fully the background will develop. It's possible to spend a great deal of time developing background that will never be relevant to the game, but I have discovered two things.
1) Often stuff I think is going to be irrelevant I can find a way to fit in anyway, if it seems like a nifty idea;
2) As an author, one fairly quickly gets a sense of which background issues deserve to be worked on and which don't.
This article copyright © 2001, Emily Short