You probably can find better players than me if you look hard enough. Despite playing a few dozen titles, now, I am still not a master of the field. I mostly play what I like, when I like to, and have not gotten involved in much of the theory side of the hobby. Just letting you know.
I'll keep these short and sweet and just talk about what I do to get to the end and have a fun time doing it.
Most newschool games actually assume no maps and many old school ones only require maps for certain portions of the game, but I like mapping. At least a little. It relaxes me. And, in some games, it helps me to see what is going on, how things are related. In other words, you can play a lot of IF without touch a map, but what would be the fun in that? Heh.
Use a pencil, make notes, and be prepared to have to flip over to the back of the page.
As a brief aside, keep in mind that a lot of older games (and some newer ones) regularly change the direction "in transit" between rooms. If you exit the south side, you might end up in the east or north east or even the south west side of the next room. I suggest testing this as you go.
Not all IF, sure, but a good amount of it becomes so much easier if you have a note pad with some descriptions and ideas and brainstorms and whatnot played out.
I remember playing the first Final Fantasy. I remember how some townspeople would simply mention some other town, and that was all the clues you were going to get about where to go next. This is not really a clue, in that it only exists a clue because a lack of other information. I call this a quasi-clue. IF, especially older IF, loves them.
Some items might be described as "rainbow" in their initial description. Some rooms might mention how boring the north wall is to make you check out the south one. Some events might might include a bad pun in their description that turns out to be a clue. Keep an eye out for these. Take Zork 1, briefly. Early on, in the first couple of scenes, it mentions hearing a bird. This is actually a clue for something later on in the game.
Pretty much self-explanatory
Syntax trap is my phrase for a part of a game, and almost all have them, where you get stuck unless you can guess the exact way of phrasing something. These are Guess-the-Verb and Guess-the-Noun puzzles. If you are stuck. If a puzzle just doesn't seem to work. If you are almost entirely positive that what you are doing is right but it just isn't work, then try rephrasing it. Try doing it in a different order. Try doing something else first. Try doing it in a different place. It can be frustrating, but they can all be worked through.
Some games have non-sequitors built in. These occur when an action unlocks or locks an event that has nothing inherently to do with the initial action. In this way, it can damned frustrating to be trying to find clues to solve a murder and find out that "smell the flower" exposes "while smelling flower, you see footprints on the ground". In this regard, I have found that a fair number of games do this, or flirt with it, anyhow, but in nearly every case they work on bringing out some pointer to let you know.
These games are built with the notion that you are going to try out stuff. Not necessarily obvious stuff. If it was obvious, you would solve it without blinking. The fact that the mask has writing on the inside that you might not notice is part of the playing of the game. Even if you solve the puzzle, try out other stuff. Game designers like to make jokes. Find the jokes. Laugh.
When in doubt, try waiting a few turns and see if things change. In some games, there are timed or repeated events that come around. You might simply have to wait until it is time to do something. Luckily, most games strongly suggest when it is a good time to wait through their wording ("Any many now..." or "from time to time..." or "you hear a sound like something building up steam in the distance...").
Keep an eye on your score. It can let you know if what you are doing is good, bad, or neutral in character.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".
"The hidden is greater than the seen."