Why many works of IF fail is because the narrator is keeping a secret from the player. That is, the game is set up either by ignorance, or by design, even if design has been relegated to convention, to omit key information that would be presented to the player were the game a work of static fiction. For instance, it came as a complete surprise to me that the batteries died in the original Adventure. The narrator never felt that it was important to tell me that the batteries usually don’t last one cave trip (when in the reality that the game is based on, this never happens). This is a result of imperfect modeling of reality, or perhaps a purposefully flawed modeling of reality in order to introduce obstacles into the game. I have never been a fan of such artifices, because they do not truly grow out of the reality that is being modeled; they are just artificial challenges, and as a result, unreal, and thus, break the player’s suspension of disbelief. Worse of all, they punish the player for not having the same knowledge of the modeled system as the authors. Does every short story have an O Henry twist? No, and neither should IF omit vital information in order to make a game more challenging.
Thus, convention IF design favors players who are willing to accept unrealistic worlds (unrealistic meaning simply that non-organic, artificial puzzles are placed in the game); this makes the player more of an academic (and in some cases, mathematical) problem-solver, instead of a player in a fictional work that must solve problems. For instance, take Tookie’s Song. The player is confronted with advanced mathematical problems and a riddle that the PC should have some hope of solving; however, all the effort rests upon the player. If the player is unable to figure it out, then the PC is stymied probably forever. Yet, what kind of book is written like this? Does the book require you to pass some test before you pass page 40? IF punishes the player instead of the PC; if the player is not smart enough, then the game cannot continue. Yet, isn’t the whole goal of the IF to tell a story, and therefore, to have the story completed? These games punish the player and prevent the story from being told.
I think games should be kinder to players, because players want to play games, and yet IF is both game and story. You can understand the game nature of say, a typical side-scrolling shooter, because there is no real story in the sense of your actions counting for much to alter it. You shoot, get power-ups, and the story is merely grafted on for effect. All you have to do is make it, alive, from one section to the next. So if your figure or ship gets killed, it doesn’t matter very much as far as the story goes, because the story is not important. All that matters here, in the game, is relieving boredom, or obtaining the evanescent sense of victory in beating a game, or a part of it.
I suggest that IF should fall more on the side of story, rather than game; to say that you have beaten a game necessarily implies defeating, or outsmarting, or cheating, or in some way getting past the various obstacles thrown in your way, again, as though player effort were more important than story. Some IF works will be more game than story, and that, as always is more up to the individual author, but because IF is like linear fiction, in that it can deposit things into our hearts and souls, I think that the frustration factor should be dialed back and the emphasis of fiction should be placed front-and-center. The world has enough frustrating games; the world can never have enough enduring stories.