Whizzard's Guide to Text Adventure Authorship Supplement 1
By G. Kevin Wilson
Garnishing Your Games
After you've drawn your maps, plotted your plots, characterized your characters, and puzzled over your puzzles, it's time to garnish your game. You've written all this lovely text into your game, but your betatesters are constantly complaining that they can't stand reading "The x isn't important in this game." every time they turn around. Once upon a time, this was acceptable to the game playing community. It's not any longer. When a player walks into a room and reads
East of House
The air is musky with the scent of pollen. Everywhere you look there are plants. Bougainvillaeas line the side of the house, while dark green ivy scales its ancient, white walls. The trees decorating the yard nearby appear to be magnolias. There is a path leading to the west.
he expects to be able to look at some of these objects. Even if only the magnolia trees are important to your game, it still helps the feeling of realism if you give meaningful responses when the player looks at any of the following: bougainvillaeas, ivy, walls, magnolia trees, yard, path.
Some of these are pretty optional (walls, yard, path) included only for completeness. The rest are important, if not to the story, then to the setting. Leaving descriptions of these things out will poke holes in the player's visualization of your game world.
In addition to describing the decorations, it can be fun to let the player do a few useless things with them. The player will likely try to climb the magnolia trees and the ivy, and maybe pick a bougainvillaea or two. Maybe climbing the magnolia trees is important, but climbing the ivy isn't. Well, fine. Have climbing the ivy give a response like
The scraggly ivy looks far too thin to support your weight.
Of course, an overwrought player might decide that there must be some way to make the ivy grow thicker and begin hunting for such an object. Most won't. Just try not to create false leads when describing your scenery and most players will get lots of enjoyment out of looking around. If the descriptions are funny or poetic, so much the better.
There are a number of other things you can do to garnish your game. Adding meaningful responses to silly commands can be a great source of amusement. I try to have every NPC react to being kissed and attacked, at the very least. In _The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy_, there were a number of fun little things you could do. Typing 'panic' or 'don't panic' would get a response. You could 'appreciate' items. There were even funny footnotes to read.
A really good idea is to work in ways of giving the player more information about the setting while at the same time adding garnish. While I feel that a 'smell <object>' command is too much work to be worthwhile, I'm amenable to a plain old 'smell' command that only applies to what room the player is in. It's not that much work, and it's an enjoyable feature. You can do the same thing with 'listen'.
Quotations are good too. Slipping a familiar (or not so familiar) quote into your game can add a bit of spice. In Inform, the box command is a really handy way to do this.
Sudden Interactive Fiction
Very short (1-2 pages) stories are sometimes called Sudden Fiction. So, I will use that same name to refer to text adventures from 1-2 hours in length. Magnus Olssen recently had some very useful words to say about Sudden IF. If I can find the post, I'll reproduce the relevant bits here, with his permission. Otherwise you're stuck with just what I can think of to add.
The first thing to remember is that you don't have any time to waste. Just as in a story limited to 2 pages of text, you are limited to a small number of descriptions. Every single one must count. Everything.
If a single room in the game has no purposes, then you've screwed up.
If a single object in the game is useless, then you've screwed up.
If a single word in the game sours the mood, then you've screwed up.
That's the problem with shorter works of fiction. One little mistake is actually pretty huge. You must edit and re-edit every little word until you are positive that everything is precisely the way you want it, nothing less, and especially nothing more.
In a work this short, every puzzle has to count as well. There can be no 'throwaway' puzzles. Unlocking a door, as Magnus has said, just has no place in Sudden IF.
If you really want to impress the judges. I suggest a very short game that packs a lot into just a small amount of space. I suggest that you have no more than 2 NPCs, 10 rooms, 8 manipulable objects, and 6 puzzles. That's 20 minutes a puzzle, assuming the player rushes through looking only at the puzzles and nothing else. It would be nice if you could use each NPC and manipulable item in more than 1 puzzle, adding a bit more continuity to the game. Remember, you have very little time to establish the personality of the NPCs, develop plot, and get the player's interest. Use every second wisely.
Even More on the Art of the NPC
This article is mostly adapted from things I've read in _Writer's Digest_ magazine. It is sometimes a very helpful magazine. Often useless, but sometimes very helpful. The following checklist was swiped from an article titled "Avoid the Tin Man Syndrome" by Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, and modified to fit IF. The discussion of each point is mine.
- Conceive of your characters as (fill in race here), not as types.
This point needed only a small change to include all the orcs, elves, trolls, and dragons that appear in IF. If you're using human characters, life is easy. You don't have to do this next step. If you're not, then you'd best think about just what it is that makes that race different from humans. Why is an orc an orc? Just having piggish features doesn't cut the mustard. If you think like that, you'll either end up with a human with piggish features, or another old hackneyed slavering, stupid orc. Do your orcs have a tribal community? OK then, you'd better learn exactly what goes into a tribal community. Take a sociology class if you must. At the very least, read a book on the subject. A decent sized game will take you a long time to write anyways, why not invest a little time to improve it tenfold?
Think about faeries (I certainly have lately.) Why are they different from humans? In folklore, they have varying forms, never age, and possess magic. Obviously, this is going to affect their personality just a wee bit. If a faerie can't die, (as it has been suggested) then they aren't going to have a fear response. If they don't really have to eat, then they aren't going to have a fight response. If there's no fight or flight, then something else has to motivate them to do things. Well, they live forever, so the obvious motivation is boredom. They've been everywhere, done everything. Just what is left for them? Well, that's going to be up to the individual's personality. Some might eternally seek out food for novelty's sake, in which case the fight response returns. Others might make up games and stories to amuse themselves with. After long centuries, the games and stories are going to be rather complex, if they have the brains for it. The dumber faeries might not be smart enough to be bored. Some faeries might take delight in tormenting passersby, while still others might look upon the poor human as a likely pet. Any race that doesn't possess some sort of hive mind is going to vary from individual to individual, even as the human race does, which brings me back to my original point.
Each character you create is an individual, and deserves to be treated as such. Big orcs are different from little orcs, and blondes are different from brunettes. Hell, blondes are different from blondes. If you think in stereotypes, your characters aren't going to be much to look at, or interact with. On the other hand, if you think more along the lines of: "Ok, this orc is named Hokay Dwarfchewer. He has a fondness for dwarves, but elves give him gas. He has written a book titled "4 wayz to cooke an dwarfe." Usually he's a very mellow orc, sleeping in his favorite tree or kicking his favorite cat, but every so often something sets him off (generally a book critic) and he runs to get his meat cleaver (which he likes to call "Meat Cleaver") in order to dice the offending party." then you'll probably have more interesting NPCs.
- Create a fictional biography that emphasizes your character's emotional dimension, especially as it applies to his goal.
Maybe not so much a biography as a rough sketch of the character's various moods, dislikes, likes, and so forth. It is easier to respond to the player's actions if you know what your NPC is likely to do.
Hokay Dwarfchewer: Age:
Age: 4 (actually 36, but he can't count past 4.)
Hobbies: Cooking, eating, sleeping.
Likes: Dwarves (especially the thighs), "Meat Cleaver", his tree.
Dislikes: His cat, book critics.
Children: 4 (8)
Years Married: 4 (27)
IQ: 4 (4)
- Construct a rough outline of your story that shows increasing emotional intensity.
Now admittedly, Hokay is a pretty silly example. I don't mean to trivialize the process, just to keep you awake until the end. Hal and Charlie (the authors of 'Tin Man Syndrome') recommend a slow build up of increasing emotional involvement for the character. It's not a bad idea, slowly drawing the character deeper and deeper into the plot. If you can pull it off, that is. In _The Horror of Rylvania_, the player is drawn in by first being dumped in Rylvania, and then watching his girlfriend have her throat torn out by wolves. Surely not one of their better vacations. After awhile, the player himself is given an even more compelling reason to continue his quest. This is a good example of how to do things. For example: The player is offered $10,000 to spend the night in a haunted house. After a murder attempt by a poltergeist, a lovely female ghost asks for the player's help to break an ancient curse. A while later, after uncovering an old book and losing it to the poltergeist, the player learns that his failure to steal back the book will mean the end of the world.
So, gradually upping the ante on the character can certainly make things more interesting. At first the player is driven by greed, but after an attempt on his life, something more powerful is needed, so you add a supernatural love interest. Gradually despair sets in, so you throw in some fear, and, if you like, revenge (by having the poltergeist destroy the pretty ghost.)
- Provide your main character with a variety of emotional relationships to other characters in the story.
Nobody has just one defining, all-consuming trait. People aren't just records playing the same track over and over. Just because an NPC helps out the player in one spot doesn't mean the NPC always has to help out. Maybe the NPC only helps the first time because he mistakes the player for somebody else, or expects a fee in return. Even if he is doing it out of the goodness of his heart, that doesn't mean he has to go around doing good deeds all over the place. Not all good guys suffer from the Superman syndrome.
Maybe he likes the player, but really dislikes another NPC in the game that the player needs to help him out. Maybe he would kill this NPC on sight, or just the first time left alone with him instead.
- Allow your character (and player) time to reflect.
Don't pack highly emotional scenes too closely together. You have to give the player time to come to terms with things before shoving another tear-jerking puzzle at him, otherwise he'll get used to it. Balance action and reflection.
- Give your main character some moments of normalcy with which the player can identify.
It can help your players to identify with your main characters if you depict them doing some normal day-to-day activities, like washing the dishes, or vacuuming the rug. Don't overdo it, just enough to provide a sense of realism for the character.
- Design scenes in which your character reveals some intimate details him or herself to another character.
I really find this point to be optional, myself. The authors of the original article state that nothing makes a reader feel closer to a character than a confession of deeply hidden feelings. I can see this, to a point. 5 If you aren't careful, you'll end up with the old _Batman_ "Here's where I tell Batman my master plan" scene, only with a confession better suited to Oprah than IF. Be careful here, and plan carefully, and everything will turn out for the best.
Afterword and closing comments
This concludes yet another series of articles that I hope will help to encourage you to write text adventures. I've decided that, since I've written all those others, to cut things down to a bare minimum and just post the occasional update to the Authorship Guide, like this one. It'll be an irregular thing, but hey, I reckon it's better than nothing. I hope that you guys find this stuff useful. I figured that I'd write something on short IF for the IF Tournament, and the other two have just been sort of stewing around in my head for awhile. Questions, comments, requests? I'm still at the same old e-mail address as always. (Or at least it forwards itself to me.)
Thank you for helping to keep text adventures alive!