Whizzard's Guide to Text Adventure Authorship Supplement 2

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Supplement 2

By G. Kevin Wilson

June 25th, 1995


 
Room Descriptions, Friend or Foe?

"You are on the edge of a breath-taking view. Far below you is an active volcano, from which great gouts of molten lava come surging out, cascading back down into the depths. The glowing rock fills the farthest reaches of the cavern with a blood-red glare, giving everything an eerie, macabre appearance. The air is filled with flickering sparks of ash and a heavy smell of brimstone. The walls are hot to the touch, and the thundering of the volcano drowns out all other sounds. Embedded in the jagged roof far overhead are myriad twisted formations composed of pure white alabaster, which scatter the murky light into sinister apparitions upon the walls. To one side is a deep gorge, filled with a bizarre chaos of tortured rock which seems to have been crafted by the devil himself. An immense river of fire crashes out from the depths of the volcano, burns its way through the gorge, and plummets into a bottomless pit far off to your left. To the right, an immense geyser of blistering steam erupts continuously from a barren island in the center of a sulfurous lake, which bubbles ominously. The far right wall is aflame with an incandescence of its own, which lends an additional infernal splendor to the already hellish scene. A dark, foreboding passage exits to the south."

Adventure, by Crowther and Woods

As a game author, it is vital for you to remember that only part of your writing is going to be seen by most players unless you take them by the hand and lead them through your game. You have a limited number of areas in which to show the player that you can write well. The first and foremost of these are the room descriptions in your game. A player might never type "examine bagpipe" and see your eight page thesis on ancient music, but the player is bound to see most, if not all, of your room descriptions.

Take the volcano room above, from Adventure. It's busy, very busy. Not only is it busy, it's well written, if a trifle melodramatic. Let me briefly point out to you exactly WHY it's so effective.

  1. Effective use of the five senses
  2. A unified atmosphere
  3. Lots of action
  4. Visually stimulating
  5. Temporally realistic.

So, we have words, powerful words like 'cascading', 'thundering', 'brimstone', and 'devil'. These are emotionally and contextually charged to evoke a sense not only of hell, but an enormous waterfall of fire. You can almost picture a flaming barrel riding down into Dante's depths. You'll find no namby-pamby words in this room. This is a room description that John Wayne could read aloud to an audience.

We are told not only what to see, but also what to hear and smell as well. Personally, once I know what I'm smelling, I can imagine a taste in my mouth to go along with it, anything from my mouth watering to the grit of ash. The smells and sounds are logical, and, more importantly, common ones. Most folks have an inkling of what a thundering, rumbling volcano sounds like, or at least have some analogous sound to compare it to. Who among you hasn't burned their fingers on something, or at least felt something hot to the touch. Telling a player that he can smell a faint whiff of Chanel 5 in the air isn't likely to evoke the desired olfactory memory, as most folks have never smelled it before. Specific, uncommon sounds and smells should be avoided. They have no emotional power over us. Stick to the basics. The smell of baking bread, lemon, oranges, cinnamon, cotton candy, pizza, sweat, urine, and other, less savory scents might be employed. Perhaps it would be good to stick to general categories of smell even, like spicy, sweet, and musty. As for sounds, don't be afraid of words like 'thud', 'crack', 'boom', and others that describe their own sound (I know what these are called, honest, but bugger me if I can spell it. Starts with an 'o'.) Again, simpler is better.

Now, I've talked a lot about atmosphere in the past, and I'm sure you're up to the task. Just read up on your chosen genre, and be sure to reread everything you write several times looking for inappropriate words and phrases. But not only that. You've got to watch out for inappropriate objects as well. In our minds, we build up generic ideals of people and places that cognitive scientists call schema, and the rest of us call stereotypes. If you decide to go against these schema, then you should have a good reason. A kitchen usually has a sink, a stove, a refrigerator, and some cupboards. At least a modern kitchen does. Add to that a microwave in recent years, and usually a dishwasher as well. But we can use the schema to good purpose and leave out the nonessential objects. The player will just imagine them into place anyways. However, there should be a good reason for an ancient Aztec idol to be sitting on the kitchen counter. A damn good reason. It's jarring to the schema we have established, and breaks down the newly formed mental image.

A good room is visually stimulating, and, if appropriate, full of motion and sound. Often a game will seem to be set in a ghost town simply because there are no windy areas, no babbling brooks, no motion. Motion can even be used to give the appearance of emptiness, but the lack of motion will surely give that appearance. Twelve rooms filled with nothing but drab office furnishings does not, in general, appeal to players. If a location is uninteresting, then why is the player visiting it? If there's nothing to do there, is it at least establishing atmosphere or physical continuity? Can the player interact with the background where appropriate? Is there interesting stuff for the player to examine? These things are important to me, both as a player, and as a writer. A player shouldn't be allowed to get bored too quickly, and a good remedy is to work in various useless, but amusing areas and objects to play with, like the mood ring in "The Legend Lives!" that changes color whenever you look at it.

Lastly, there is a tiny thing that many would call nitpicking. When you walk into a room, do you first notice the flashing disco globe hanging from the ceiling or the tiled floor? It can make a description flow easier if you are realistic in the order in which you present your various details. There's a certain amount of leeway involved in doing this, but as a general rule, mention any motion first, then the larger, more obvious details, and after that, the smaller things. Always end with a list of exits from the area.

Now for a few minor 'do not's to consider.

  1. Don't mention a player's actions in a description
  2. Don't mention moveable objects in a description
  3. Don't exceed one screenful of text in a description

Mentioning actions like "Grimacing in pain as you step on a tack" or "wiping the sweat from your forehead" is not a good idea in room descriptions. First of all, the player is going to be doing that thing every time he walks into that room. Secondly, the player might not be in the proper shape to do that action. It's pretty silly for the player to wipe away sweat when changed into a wolf, or grimacing when riding in a hot air balloon rising rapidly through an extinct volcano. In this same vein is the mentioning of moveable objects without taking care to alter the description to match the state of the room. An open window must either stay open, or have the room description change to say that it is closed.

The last is simply aesthetics and consideration for your players. It is irritating to have to page back through a description looking for clues as to what to do next. If you need more than one page to describe a room, then split the room in two. Your players will thank you.

That's a pretty good beginning as to what to do and what not to do when describing the locations in your game. Again, remember that these are important screens of text, being almost the only text in your game that will be seen by everyone who plays the game. So, remember this and take the appropriate time and care on your rooms.

 

Getting it Done, A Writer's Guide

IF authors, myself included, have a long history of procrastination, missed deadlines, and unfinished games. This is how I've learned to get things done. It doesn't work for everyone, but a few of you who have the time to write, but aren't taking advantage of it might get some use out of it.

First and foremost, decide how important your game is to you. If it rates anywhere lower than watching paint dry, take up a new hobby. It is vital to keep your eye on your goal, that of finishing your game, and if you aren't really interested in the first place, then you'll feel like you're pushing a boulder uphill. Once you've committed yourself to this idea of yours, then move on to the next step.

Plan way ahead of yourself. Several months, at the least. You will want several subgoals to reach on your path to finishing your game, or you'll run out of juice before you get there. I suggest starting with a game outline, like this:

Sinking Atlantis

  1. Goal Synopsis.
    1. Get to Atlantis
      1. A. Rent boat.
      2. B. etc.
    2. Sink Atlantis.
      1. A. Pull out central plug.
        1. a. Get crowbar
        2. b. brain guard with crowbar
        3. c. etc.
      2. B. etc.
    3. Escape from the sinking island.
      1. A. Get a boat.
        1. a. etc.
      2. B. etc.

        [You can follow this with a brief description of your characters, like what I have below. If you want to get more complicated, you can do up physical descriptions, behavior quirks, speech mannerisms, etc.]
  2. Characters.
    1. 1. Jimmy Stew
      1. A. Jimmy is an inquisitive reporter investigating rumors that Atlantis has risen above the waves once more. Think of Jimmy from the old Superman TV show.
    2. 2. King Inbred
      1. A. Lord of Atlantis, King Inbred is what happens when a royal family only 15 strong is cut off from the world for 2,000 years and forbidden to breed with the peasantry. Besides being a hemophiliac, he's also an epileptic, a dwarf, and foul-tempered to boot. He once had his teddy bear executed for being a spy.

        [Another thing I like to do is a page or two of plot summarization. Nothing like the Goal Summary, just some background on what's happening and why.]
  3. Plot Summarization:

Atlantis, after 2,000 years, has finally amassed enough helium to float their island back to the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Originally, Atlantis was a penal colony for a spacefaring race, our ancient ancestors. The prisoners were given a choice, they could go free and roam the planet, without any of their advanced technology, or they could stay on Atlantis, imprisoned but comfortable and safe. Most chose to leave. Those who stayed set about turning Atlantis into a huge military base and eventually, a spaceship. Unfortunately, as they were pretty much the bottom of the galactic barrel, they wound up sinking the island when a rather dull inmate left a mining laser on while he went to get his lunch. Acting fast, 15 courageous inmates managed to seal things up enough to hold oxygen. They were given royal status for their bravery by common acclaim. As their first act, they plugged the hole with the rather dull inmate who had sunk the island. This too, met with public acclaim.

Fast forwarding 2,000 years to the present, Jimmy Stew is an underemployed Nuclear Physicist currently working as a reporter for the National Expiration. His boss sends him out to investigate rumors that Atlantis has risen from the sea once more. Turns out that the rumor is true, and King Inbred has his diseased little heart set on conquering the world. He's going to drive Atlantis up onto California and take Timothy Leary hostage unless Jimmy stops him.

After these things, you should be getting a clear picture of your game in your mind. It's time to draw a map. A plain old box and line map is probably your best bet. Map out the whole game.

Next, make a list of all the manipulable objects in your game. Look at how they relate to one another, and make note of possible interactions. OK, your planning stages are pretty much over. All you need now is to decide what scenery to put where.

Once you'll done all that, you're almost halfway home. Now all you need is some determination and spare time. Set aside at least 5 hours a week to program on your game. You want to make enough progress to prevent yourself from getting despaired. Write down a schedule, and stick to it. If you don't think you have enough time to write, I suggest that you check and see how many hours a week of television you watch before you complain. It's pretty easy to shave a bit here and there, and writing's more fun anyway.

Don't set any subgoal deadlines until you see how long it takes you to finish the first subarea in your game. Once you have a rough estimate of how long it takes, you should be able to set realistic goals that will not be too hard to meet. Just tack two weeks onto whatever estimate you come up with, because you will almost always overestimate your own abilities.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, here's my system of programming. It's just a list of what order I do things in, but it can help you decide where to start.

  1. Pick a subarea to begin in.
  2. Program in all rooms in that area, including exits, descriptions, and special flavor messages.
  3. Compile your game and play around in the empty area, checking that all your exits are correct and logical.
  4. Go back in and add any 'obstacle' puzzles that you have planned, such as locked doors, etc. Be sure to include the methods to solve the puzzles.
  5. Recompile and test the puzzles, making sure that you can pass each of them.
  6. Add any NPCs, testing as you go along. Make sure they react to a wide variety of player actions and questions.
  7. Add other puzzles. Test them to be sure they do what you want them to.
  8. Add all decorations and background objects that have nothing to do with any puzzles. Recompile and go through the game once more, looking at all objects, solving all puzzles, and asking NPCs about everything they know.
  9. If you are using TADS, run textout on your .t files, and run the output through a spell checker.
  10. Give the finished area to your betatesters to play with. Be sure to give them enough info to let them know what it is they're supposed to be doing in the game.
  11. Repeat steps 1-10 ad nauseum.

Some of the steps are pretty interchangeable. This is just how _I_ personally like to do things. Packaging should be prepared well in advance of the release date, and you should be sure to let the various IF magazines know about your upcoming release. (Email to xyzzynews@aol.com and whizzard@uclink.berkeley.edu with info.)

Anyways, it's as good a method as any I've heard of.

 

My Take on IF Morality

There's been a long thread on all the immoral stuff we do in text adventures. We steal, we murder trolls, we vandalize public property, we drug security guards and dogs, and worst of all, we litter.

As a game writer, you don't have to worry about this too much unless your game makes an issue of it. Ultima 4 was a great RPG simply because it made an issue of it. Ultima 8 was a piece of crap because not only did it make an issue of morality, but it forced you to violate your character's morals in order to win, rather extravagantly, I might add (See the end of this article for a spoiler explanation.)

Players take for granted that they can just walk off with any object laying around, thanks to over a decade of games in which you do just that. While being somewhat unrealistic, I find this approach to be acceptable if your other option is to have the player rationalize ways to get the objects, like having NPCs give him permission to 'take what he needs.' As far as I'm concerned, unless there's a very good reason that a player can't just walk off with an object, then he can just walk off with it. It's a harsh world, maybe next time the NPCs will buy a master lock and hide the key a bit better.

I don't encourage random violence in my games. Generally, I have the player outmatched by his opponents physically. The brute strength approach is usually suicide, with a few notable exceptions. If a player wants to play hack n' slash, there's always DOOM, hundreds of MUDs, and all sorts of other sources for that sort of thing.

But, as always, these sorts of decisions are up to you. If you want the player to murder, pillage, and rape his way through your world, well, that's your decision. If the player has to stop every ten turns to confess to a priest, well, that's a different decision. I find that a nice balance of morality lies somewhere between the everyday joe schmoe and Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holiday in _Tombstone_, but hey, that's just me.

[SPOILERS FOR ULTIMA 8: You, as the paragon of virtue, first go around killing things, stealing from impoverished people, and generally being a real nuisance. Later, you move up to nastier crimes as you turn loose two vengeful gods on an innocent populace. After that, you take on and destroy four gods (the two you freed, one other, and a god that was friendly, and helped the populace of the world you find yourself on.) The volcano on this world's only land mass is erupting, cracks are opening in the earth, and the rain and thunder never cease. You, having the combined power of these four gods, naturally leave the innocent populace to the fate you have called down on them. What a guy. Try as you may, to win Ultima 8, you WILL do all these things. There are no choices where you can avoid doing evil.]

 

Afterword and closing comments

This concludes another update to the IF Guide. Thanks for your continued support and such. Look for Avalon at the end of August, 1995. I'm having a nice quiet summer, and I expect to get it done at long last.

whizzard@uclink.berkeley.edu

Thank you for helping to keep text adventures alive!

 

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