Mapping the Tale: Scene Description in IF
by J. Robinson Wheeler
Intrinsic to interactive fiction at its inception was the simulation of location, of giving the player the ability to move from place to place. This illusion is achieved, simply and efficiently, by strings of text, location names and scene descriptions; and by a map of connections between the objects that print these strings. When the player surrenders his sense of place to the game's map, he responds to a new bit of text by imagining he has walked (or crawled, or slid, or climbed) somewhere he hasn't been before, and is taking in all of the details. If he recognizes a bit of text, he knows he has re-entered familiar territory.
The basic requirements of scene descriptions go no farther than this. If you let the player know where he is, and where the exits are, your job is done. This article, however, will provide many examples of scene descriptions that first meet and then, in some way, exceed these requirements. If your IF game has a story, your scene descriptions should serve the story. If you want to give your game atmosphere, broaden your use of sense details within your scene descriptions to include sounds, smells, and even textures, instead of just sights. If you want your game to have a strong narrative voice, scene descriptions are a good place to establish it. If you are using a well-defined PC, the scene descriptions can be used to reinforce your protagonist's point of view of each location. If your game has a complicated back-story, scene descriptions can provide expositional as well as locational detail. If the pace of the game quickens, scene descriptions should keep pace, becoming briefer, more active, even changing from turn to turn to sustain the player's feeling of urgency.
In the beginning, Will Crowther's original "Advent" (1972), the basic map-and-scene-description system we still use today was invented and put to use in a simulated exploration of Bedquilt Cave. The scene descriptions were evocations of actual locations, and the location names were encapsulations of these evocations. Some of them were fictional, serving to create the ambience of adventure rather than the pure simulation of caving, as in the following example:
From a sense of nostalgia, or an interest in re-exploring well-trod IF territory for one's own creative satisfaction, many modern authors continue to use caves as a setting, even knowing full well that any cave descriptions are going to be compared to what's already been done (and done many times, as IF in its first decade was dedicated almost exclusively to Advent dervatives). The evocative potential of cave descriptions seems not to have run dry, but new authors should proceed with care; an IF trope, even if intended as homage, may be perceived as an IF cliché instead.
The above example is from Andrew Plotkin's "Hunter, in Darkness" (1999), in which he revisits not just "Advent" but an equally early game, "Hunt the Wumpus" (Gregory Yob, 1972), which is usually considered an IF precedent but not IF. "Wumpus" does feature a small map of locations and the ability to walk or shoot crooked arrows through the connecting passages. Here, in a scene late in the game, Plotkin follows the conventions of scene descriptions, but reaches for a bit more atmosphere. After the matter-of-fact location name, the description itself starts with "You are in...", a tradition that is still perfectly acceptable. Note, though, that it does not read, "You are in the base of a canyon," nor is the location name "Alcove." The disjoint adds to the sense of size and space, of the player taking in the proportions of the canyon as he steps into it. Before this location, the game has squeezed us through a succession of claustrophobic rooms and tunnels; here, there is space, vaulting up around us as we peer out of the alcove. The next sentence is a blunt declaration, "The walls spread upward around you." This simple sentence serves two functions: repetition for impact ("vaulting canyon" carries the same information), and the directing of the player's eyes upward, following the canyon walls up. The next sentence starts with "And," which is a stylistic choice that will bother grammar pedants, but it works in this context. The player's eyes then switch abruptly from the lofty beauty of the ceiling to the crevice in the floor, the mention of which segues into the convention of listing the available exits from the room. Here, Plotkin avoids having to mention compass directions, but still points the player at appropriate exit actions: either going back or going ahead, across the crevice. There is a certain momentum built into the scene description, backed up by the momentum of the plot that has accrued by the time the player reaches this location, that points across the crevice and to whatever lies beyond. The player has reached the climax of the game, and the scene description is crafted not merely to describe where he's standing, but to keep the tension building.
This example, from the beginning of Emily Short's "Metamorphoses" (2000), is highly economical and strongly styled. The location name itself conjures the broad picture, and then the description text ticks off details to flesh it out and build the atmosphere. Missing is "You are on...", leaving a chiseled sentence fragment as the starting point. This is a stylistic trait of this particular author, but it works especially well here. Scenes before this one have already established an identity for the player character and a tightly focused narrative point of view, hers. Omitting "You are on..." preserves the game's voice and introduces a note of tension that is never resolved.
Know the territory, so that you can go somewhere new. To paraphrase Andrew Plotkin, if you want to write a cave, go visit a cave. In addition, play some IF with cave descriptions, and study them, before you try writing your own.
Here is an example of a weaker scene description. It has the right elements, but does not hold up to the same level of scrutiny:
This example appears in "Being Andrew Plotkin" (Wheeler, 2000), and is an agglomeration of shorter descriptions written by Andrew Plotkin himself, taken from various pages of Plotkin's personal website (which uses cave exploration as an elaborate metaphor for site navigation). These descriptions predate "Hunter," but the stylistic similarities are recognizable. What comes out of this scene description is a sense of contour and shape: the declivities which pool with water, the flowing of the travertine down a wall, chambers and pockets, flat darkness pierced by rounded stone.
The pieced-together nature of the description is evident, unfortunately; the ceiling is described as being lost in mist, fading into darkness, and hiding phosphorescent fungi all at once. The attention to where the player's eyes are looking, evident in the example from "Hunter," is missing here; instead of a progression from eye-level to ceiling to floor, we look up, then we see pools of water, then we listen, then we look at the wall, then we notice a light source whose location we aren't even sure of, then a collection of exits. The words are Plotkin's, but the organization obviously is not. A characteristic precision is missing; authors should endeavor to follow the better example.
Let us leave Bedquilt Cave behind and visit an equivalently nostalgic setting from IF history. This, one of the most well-remembered and often-quoted scene descriptions in IF, the starting location of "Zork" (Blank, Lebling and Anderson, 1979) is bafflingly minimal and inert:
What is memorable about this? Perhaps that it is iconic, starkly so; "a white house with a boarded front door" is easily and quickly drawn in the mind, drawn and then stored. Trying further to explain its appeal would be pointless and grasping. There simply isn't much there, which becomes clear as we walk all the way around the house, and view equally slim scene descriptions:
With dark wit and a bit of daring, Adam Cadre's "Shrapnel" (2000) riffs on our expectations of this familiar location:
Starting from the scene descriptions found in "Zork," Cadre has embroidered them with just enough extra detail to evoke an actual setting, a sense of time, place, and character that are missing from the original. Choose your details carefully, because they can tell a whole story.
Minimalist scene descriptions like those above are no longer common to any games but those of the speed-IF variety and the occasional large-scale IF, where they are the fatigued work of an author trying to bully through to the end of a long project. From "First Things First" (Wheeler, 2001):
If you find yourself writing a scene description like this one, drink some strong coffee and try again.
Secondary sense descriptions
Sight is the natural sense that we cater to in a scene description, answering the player's question "What can I see here?", but secondary sense details can be useful tools for IF authors.
This scene description from "So Far" (Plotkin, 1996) completely dispenses with sight, replacing it with sound. Note how many different kinds of sounds are evoked, and that the final sentence, "The chord is getting louder," is used to create suspense.
In the earlier example from "Being Andrew Plotkin," the player is told what it sounds like to be standing there, which adds a little bit of atmosphere, but it is not deployed with enough aim to have much effect. Sound description doesn't matter to the scene; the appropriate time to use it is when it does.
In my own defense, here is a better-crafted scene description from the same game:
Here, sight is given less attention than the sense of touch; it's not what the place looks like that makes it weird, it's how it feels on your bare palms. The direction of the room's exit, down, appears at the top of the scene description instead of at the tail, but the fact that there is only one way to go is underscored by what does come at the end, the sharkskin feel of the floor. The description gives the player the unsettling impression that he is sliding down a gullet rather than doing some casual spelunking. "This is no cave," as Han Solo once put it.
Smells, too, can be the right detail to add in certain locations, as in this example from "The Tale of the Kissing Bandit" (Wheeler, 2001):
Active scene descriptions
Scene descriptions can move even farther away from being passive scenery, instead serving as active instruments of narration. They describe this present moment of the story, what is happening instead of what is visible. Here is an example from "First Things First":
Aiding the author in the transition to this more active style of scene description is the use of linking text. In the typical case, IF games move the player from room to room directly, eliding the short journey in between. Transitional text is used for special cases, where how you got there matters, and it makes sense to think of them as part of the scene descriptions that follow them. Two examples, once again from "Hunter, In Darkness" and "Being Andrew Plotkin," respectively, illustrate this technique:
Authors should be aware that certain effects work only once, and that a scene description written to take advantage of a strong but one-time lead-in may look awkward all other times the player reads it. The above example from "Hunter" is somewhat guilty of this, but Plotkin does replace the supplementary text; the one-time only moment of your fingers splashing into water changes, on repeated looks, to:
In the following example from "Christminster" (Gareth Rees, 1995), the player is ascribed an overly-generous respectfulness, in that she bows her head in memory of the honored dead every time she passes through:
This is passable, and perhaps forgiveable if one takes into account that "Brief" was still the default mode for IF games at the time, and the author may have assumed that most players would only see it the one time.
More notorious is an example from "First Things First," in which a location (to which the player repeatedly returns) sports a scene description that is only appropriate once:
Ignoring this scene description's other faults, we see that the same basic problem is on view in "The Mulldoon Legacy" (Jon Ingold, 1999):
Note also the parenthetical transition text, which appears on every trip to this location even though it is not important. The main problem with this scene description is the author's intrusiveness, a problem often expressed as telling instead of showing.
The same author continues to write scene descriptions in a similar vein, but has learned better how to get away with it, by quickening the pace of his stories, so that a one-use scene description is likely not to be accessed more than once. Here, in "All Roads" (Ingold, 2001), his scene descriptions are clearly functioning as narrative:
In the first example, Ingold never even provides a description of the city square itself, or the scaffold, but the PC's predicament is explanation enough for the omission. It is hardly the time and place to be taking in the sights. In the second, the moment is effectively caught of walking against your will through unfamiliar back-streets. In both cases, the player will be engaged in trying to escape from the situations at hand, and typing "Look" repeatedly is probably not going to be his first priority.
Mutable scene descriptions
Sometimes in IF, room descriptions provide game scenery but do not remain static; when we return to a location later on, there will be differences. In "A Change in the Weather" (Plotkin, 1995), the mutability of the scene descriptions makes them memorable. This is one of the key experiments of the game, and its theme, change. The sky grows dark, the sun sets, and the rains come; the map is technically the same, but the descriptions morph dynamically.
The question, "How would my PC view this location?" is a useful one for authors to keep in mind when writing scene descriptions. In "Being Andrew Plotkin," which featured multiple player characters, a particular room description repeatedly changed to reflect the point of view of each PC the player inhabited during the course of the game.
A different kind of mutable description is used in "Varicella" (Adam Cadre, 1999). Here, in a spin on the effects of the meta-command "Brief," scene descriptions are elaborate on the first visit to the room and succinct thereafter (though the game is still considered to be in "Verbose" mode by default). Cadre stocks these initial scene descriptions carefully, carefully choosing details that allow him to fill out the game's back-story and to flesh out his large cast of characters. Although the narration is in the traditional second-person, Cadre filters everything through the PC's particular view of the world, always exploring his main character's attitudes and memories.
Note how much information about the game's world is contained in the description of just one room, and also that the size of the room is implied by these side details rather than spelled out. This is a game world with a full history, and the sense of the kingdom's grander past as opposed to its seedy present is also brought out.
The shorter description of this same location is succinct and functional, but still carries a memory of the original:
Conclusion: Getting the job done
It is not often said, in praising works of IF, "Great scene descriptions!" Even at their best, scene descriptions provide scenery and atmosphere, and are not interactive in and of themselves. They are there to be read, but are usually not the parts of the game that players find most remarkable or memorable.
In practice, authors mainly have to concentrate on getting the job done. A scene description, once written, tends to remain static, because an IF author's to-do list is always full, from the beginning of a project to its release and even after, and never leaves room for rewriting a scene description that gets the job done. Keeping the game from exploding with error messages is much more important. So, to close, here are some examples of authors just getting the job done, with the reminder that it did not stop any of them from winning acclaim for their work.
"Spider and Web":
"Pytho's Mask" (Short, 2001):
Everyone writes their fair share of workmanlike scene descriptions, and the above examples should remind authors not be deterred from releasing work because their scene descriptions are functional but not spectacular. As I said at the beginning: Let the player know where he is, and where the exits are, and your job is done.